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The Perils of Freedom

(by Jens Soering)

When I saw Joe again, my first thought was: I want to kill him! Slowly if possible, though quickly would do in a pinch. Just so long as I could tell him why he had to die before he breathed his last.

Joe had come back to prison, and to old-timers like me that was the worst crime imaginable. Back in the mid-1990’s, we had done time together in a high security prison in western Virginia. Then, in 1999, Joe finished his sentence and went home.

Freedom! Oh, how we all envied him! I had not breathed free air since 1986, and many of our fellow convicts had been down even longer than I. But we were happy for Joe and wished him well as he stepped through the door to the real world, the free world.

And now he was back: a recidivist, a repeat-offender. He was the reason the rest of us could not get out. Who could blame the parole board for denying our release, if guys like Joe delivered the proof that we could not be trusted to behave ourselves?

Joe must have noticed that I was “gritting” on him, as we say in the penitentiary, for he came over to me with a cautious look on his face. “Yo,” he said in greeting, and when I did not respond, he explained his reappearance behind bars: “Technical. Dirty urine.”

In other words, he had returned to prison not for a new crime but for a so-called “technical violation” of post-release rules. Ex-inmates are required to take frequent urinalysis tests, and Joe had failed one of those. As I knew from conversations with other “violators,” even failure to attend weekly meetings with the probation and parole officer could lead to an encore engagement in the penitentiary. Sometimes the parole officers seemed to be looking for any excuse to send one of their charges back to prison.

Well, at least Joe had not committed some headline-grabbing mass murder that would give politicians and prosecutors another opportunity to grandstand about welding the doors of all jails shut. So I uttered a noncommittal grunt to let him know he was forgiven--sort of.

That was when Joe’s face crumpled. “I was just so damn lonely out there,” he said with a sigh. “I had a good job, I was doing fine. But there was no one to talk to. Dude, all I know is prison; I didn’t know what to say to those people out there. So I started hanging out with the old crowd, you know. At least they could understand where I was coming from. And then one thing led to another...”

“Dirty urine,” I completed the story.

“Yeah. Dirty urine.”

I have seen a good deal of despair in my years in the pen, but the look in Joe’s eyes at that moment will stay with me for a while. I lack the words to describe it.

In the following weeks Joe bucked up a bit, mostly because his girlfriend started to visit him. Not the prettiest of women, nor the youngest either--but loyal. Three months ago, after serving two years of reimposed suspended time for the failed urinalysis, Joe went home again. And his chances of staying out this time are no better than last time.

More than 625,000 former prisoners will return to society this year alone. That amounts to 1,700 Joes arriving in neighborhoods near yours each day. And according to the U.S. government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67.5 percent of them will be rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of their release.

On the face of it, that figure is so grim that one is tempted to give up all hope of reintegrating ex-inmates into the community. Making peace between Palestinians and Israelis seems easy by comparison. But in fact there are simple, cost-effective, commonsense, proven ways to help those 625,000 former inmates become law-abiding taxpayers. Given the enormous strains on government budgets and the not-insignificant cost of housing recidivists in prison, perhaps policymakers should take a closer look at measures that would be more cost-effective and more humane.

To begin with, it helps to understand the precise nature of the problem. While 67.5 percent of released convicts are indeed rearrested within three years, only 46.9 percent are actually convicted of a new crime, and just 25.4 percent are then sent back to the penitentiary for a new crime. Another 26.4 percent return to jail simply for technical violations like Joe’s, and the rest are released without charge. Take a moment to reflect upon those figures: more than half of all probation and parole violators are doing time for infractions like “failure to follow required instructions,” not for breaking the law.

Thanks to this policy, technical violators now constitute 17 percent of California’s 160,000 inmates, at a cost of $26,000 per convict per year. Yet there are far cheaper ways of intensifying the management of noncompliant but essentially nonfelonious ex-inmates. North Carolina’s Probation and Parole Office, for instance, has a multilevel system that costs between $668 per person per year for regular supervision and $4,187 for stricter enforcement, compared to annual incarceration costs of $23,800. According to the conservative criminologist John J. Dilulio Jr., community-based correctional services of this type are greatly underutilized and underfunded, even though they could be an important tool in crime reduction.

But sending ex-inmates back to jail for technical violations is only one of several obvious ways to reduce recidivism rates. Equally important is the attempt to address before their release those problems that put criminals behind bars in the first place. Here there is such enormous room for improvement that almost any effort is bound to have a significant positive impact.

At the time they committed their crimes, 33 percent of prisoners were under the influence of drugs and 37 percent under the influence of alcohol. In fact, between 57.9 percent and 62.6 percent of all inmates are currently incarcerated for drug offenses. Yet only 18 percent of inmates who used drugs at the time of their offense participate in drug therapy programs while behind bars, and just 14 percent of prisoners who used alcohol when they committed their crimes later receive treatment for alcoholism during their incarceration. I know for a fact that my acquaintance, Joe, took no course or class to overcome his narcotics dependency when we first served time together in the mid-1990’s--with the predictable result that he indulged his addiction while under post-release supervision.

At least Joe could read and write fairly well when he left the penitentiary, which is more than can be said for most convicts. A full 59 percent of state prisoners are either functionally or completely illiterate, but only 23.4 percent participate in General Equivalency Diploma/high school programs--and this despite the fact that earning a G.E.D. while incarcerated reduces ex-offenders’ chances of returning to jail by 25.9 percent, compared with inmates who leave prison without a high school equivalency diploma. To those former convicts who are unable to fill out a job application properly, robbing another convenience store or selling more drugs may seem like the only remaining option.

Certainly former inmates cannot expect any help from the government. Thanks to President Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, ex-felons with a drug conviction on their records--in other words, the majority of all released inmates--are now barred from food stamps, family welfare benefits and access to federally subsidized housing. Two years later the Higher Education Act of 1998 went on to exclude former drug offenders from student loans as well, leading to 9,000 denied applications in one year alone.

“All the things they need to get their life started back [are] off limits, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They wind up homeless, back on the streets,” according to Amy Hirsch, an author and attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. With no place left to turn, many ex-convicts suffer an ironic fate: an astonishing 43 percent of the homicide victims in Washington, D.C., in 2003 had been released from the D.C. jail or a federal prison within the last two years.

Yet “many of [these former prisoners], if given an opportunity and given a job, would not fall prey to this,” said the D.C. police chief, Charles H. Ramsey, in an interview with The Washington Post. The question is, where can they find these opportunities and jobs? Some, like Joe, have an old girlfriend to fall back on, or perhaps a family member. But the vast majority of inmates have no social ties at all in the communities to which they return.

A small number of secular and faith-based initiatives offer grounds for hope. The POPS program of the George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, for instance, has worked individually with older long-term inmates in five states since 1989 without a single act of recidivism on the part of those released. In Detroit, Prison Fellowship Ministries’ TOP Program provides after-care specifically to high-risk ex-convicts by having a church “adopt” them, with only 1 percent of the participants returning to jail because of a new crime. And the federal Bureau of Prisons’ supervisory chaplain, Susan Van Balen, a Dominican sister, has initiated an 18-month pilot prerelease program called Life Connections at the Federal Correctional Complex in Petersburg, Va., that focuses on one-on-one mentoring by volunteer visitors from the community.

What all of these approaches share is a commitment to building personal relationships with prisoners before they are released, so that ex-felons have positive, caring social networks already in place to support them after they leave jail. It is the personal aspect that makes these programs so successful; in a study of paroled convicts, those who had received three or more visits during their last year of incarceration were six times less likely to return to the penitentiary than parolees who received no visits at all in their last year behind bars. This reflects the experience of my fellow prisoner Joe; he felt so lonely after his release into the free world that he sought the company of drug users, the only people he believed would understand him. If Joe had had even one real friend, he might not have come back to the penitentiary because of that dirty urine, at a cost of several tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

The success of small programs like TOP and Life Connections could be replicated easily throughout the country in a decentralized and entirely unbureaucratic way--and with potentially enormous impact. In 2001, the 134 mainline Christian denominations in the United States had 317,580 houses of worship. If each congregation “adopted” just two of the 625,000 inmates released from prison, there might only be 6,250 recidivists (at TOP’s failure rate of 1 percent) instead of 421,875 real and technical violators (at the current national rate of 67.5 percent). That would be a miracle indeed.

Nor would a church’s commitment to reintegrate two ex-convicts be open-ended. Of those former prisoners who reoffend, 66 percent do so within the first year and 88 percent within the second year; those who make it to their third year of freedom are very likely to succeed on their own from then on. Moreover, many of the skills needed to assist released inmates in their transition are already available in those congregations that work with refugees from third world countries. Helping strangers make the adjustment from life in Somalia to life in U.S. suburbia is really no different from helping ex-felons move from “the big house” to a civilian apartment house.

In the early centuries of our faith, many Christians kept an open room in their homes: the Christ room, reserved for our Savior whenever he appeared in the form of a traveling stranger. “Do not forget to entertain strangers,” Scripture tells us, “for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2). I do not wish to press the issue by suggesting that the former prisoner to whom you are renting that spare room above your garage, or to whom you gave a job in your business, may really be an angel in disguise. But the very next verse after the one quoted above is instructive: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb 13:3). There is no suggestion here that our compassion should be restricted only to those incarcerated for preaching the faith. Instead, readers and listeners are simply asked to imagine themselves behind bars and in pain.

And then perhaps one might imagine leaving prison after many long years--knowing no one, feeling scared. What a gift it would be at a time like that to see a friendly face and find a place to call home! It would almost be like the kingdom of heaven, right here on earth.

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