Category Archives: prison reform

Reentry updates: prison reform, women ex-offenders and the perils of Facebook

There’s a lot going on in the justice/reentry arena these days.  Here’s a quick update of what I’ve been following:

 Justice reform: will we or won’t we?

Last month, I wrote about Senator Jim Webb’s newly updated prison reform bill.  Alas, soon after, Webb announced he wouldn’t be running for a second term.  Which leaves me wondering: will a combination of  the Senator’s lame duck status and Congress’ need to focus on more pressing issues (wars, spending cuts, etc.) , push national justice reform again to the back burner?

Or will the action, as some – like the folks at Right on Crime – suggest, come more at the state level?  That’s certainly been the trend lately.    Last week, Georgia approved a bill that would set up a similar commission that will recommend reforms to that state’s prison system.   Meanwhile, the House in Oklahoma passed what’s being called the “most significant prison reform package in decades.”  Among other measures, the bill would make terms run concurrently and enhance the ability for sentences to be served within the community.

In addition, Ray Hill’s  the Prison Show  in Houston will be putting some artistic emphasis behind the need for change in our justice system when he hosts the Prison Reform Film Festival next month.

Women’s issues

I’ve worked almost exclusively with female offenders over the past couple of years.  So  I know their experiences in the justice system are very different than those of men, who make up the majority of offenders.   So I was happy to see NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show devote a segment recently to the unique challenges women face in terms of serving sentences and reentrying society.  There was also an interesting piece on Russian prison reforms are helping women. 

Facebook Follies

In my employment skills classes I caution students to be careful about the personal information they share on sites  like Facebook or Myspace. It’s standard procedure for many employers to turn to social networking pages or places like  Twitter  to find out more about a job candidate or who they’re  hanging out with.   Everyone’s heard stories about how ill-advised boasts or drunken photos have cost people jobs .

Nor are  employers or job recruiters the only people who might be looking at what you post.   As a recent article suggests supervision officers may soon find it easy to track someone’s post-release behavior online, including whether he or she is still associating with criminals.   This particular article even goes so far as to suggest how probation and parole officers might document what they find  in order to have evidence in a revocation hearing.

Another reason it might be worth keeping an eye on your site, and what you and others post there.

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Filed under background checks, employment ex-offenders, job search ex-offenders, prison reform, reentry, starting over, women ex-offenders

More on justice reform: which ex-offenders need the most help?

As expected, Senator James Webb (D-Va), reintroduced his bill on criminal justice reform on Tuesday. The National Criminal Justice Commission Act,  first drafted two years ago, would set up a bipartisan group  to conduct an 18-month review of the U.S. criminal justice system and offer concrete recommendations on what needs to be done to fix it.

The bill was passed by the House last year, but held up in the Senate  over concerns about how it would be financed. In an interview last week, Webb’s spokesman Will Jenkins said the Senator ” never wavered in his commitment to reform and was determined to press on this year.”  The fact that Webb  has several Republican co-sponsors, Jenkins added, “has opened the door for compromise.”

Will he get it?  Conservatives have recently embraced justice reform, most notably through Right on Crime, an organization pushing for fiscally responsible change  at the local and state levels. Their goal is to recalibrate an incarceration-heavy system that has led to diminishing returns in terms of safety and effectiveness.  Mark Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a signatory for Right on Crime, said there are good things about Webb’s bill and that he believes the commission could be financed  using current corrections funding.  ” I’d hate to see the proposal held up over costs,” he added.

Beware, the pressure for quick fixes

Still, its passage will likely come down to whether legislators have the patience for a detailed review or feel the need to  press for more immediate reforms.  To that end,  a newly released report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, provides a preview of where they might start.  The report, which grew out of a 2009 request by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va) to hold a summit on proven ways to both serve justice and reduce crime and recidivism, offers a useful summary of what works and what doesn’t.

The report takes on a state system that costs more than $50 billion annually.   Apparently, only Medicaid increased faster as a proportion of total state budgets.  Meanwhile correction spending grew at nearly three times the rate of spending on higher education. At the same time, the authors caution that pushing fiscal auterity alone will lead to ill-advised policy decisions. Already they note:

Although many states and localities have made successful strides in prisoner reentry, elected officials in a growing number of jurisdictions are finding budget pressures and other conditions make it practically impossible to finance, on a large scale, strategies necessary to make someone’s transition from prison to the community safe and successful.  

Scary.  Especially considering how cursory so many reentry efforts are right now.

Where should the funding go?

So how to make avoid making ill-advised funding decisions while paring costs?  The report suggests four areas where funds and energies should be targeted (read “justice reinvestment”) to get the most bang for the buck.

  1.  Focus should be on people most likely to reoffend.
  2. Programs should be based on scientific evidence and have measurable outcomes.
  3. Efforts should be made to improve community supervision.
  4. Place-based strategies should be emphasized.

Yes,  such a reallocation of resources will result in some people falling through the cracks.  Ex-offenders with lesser crimes, for example, may lose out on some access to programs and services to aid in their reentry.  But the authors also provides evidence that directing efforts to those individuals most likely to commit a new crime will be more beneficial in terms of reducing the crime rate and improving public safety.

At any rate, the report provides a  useful summary of current thinking and programs, so  it’s  well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

Some other highlights:

  • Drug treatment in the community is  more effective than while in  prison.
  • Prison education programs work, (yeah!), but  community based programs have more an impact on recidivism rates than those based in prison.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy that is action-oriented is the more successful in changing behavior and reducing recidivism than fear tactics and emotional appeals, talk therapy or other client-centered approaches.
  • Focusing services, resources and attention to certain high crime areas will have a bigger payoff in terms of reducing crime and recidivism.  Probation and other reentry service offices located in where the individuals live have been found to be more effective.

Readers, what are your feelings on reform?  What do you expect to happen?

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under addiction and recovery, alternatives to incarceration, prison reform, reentry

Hope for ex-offenders: increased focus on justice reform puts spotlight on reentry

It’s unlikely that it made any of  the 2011 trend lists.  But it should have:

What’s Out : Being tough on crime by throwing people in prison.                                             

What’s In:   Being smart about crime by putting serious offenders behind bars and finding alternative and more cost effective punishments for nonviolent offenders.

It’s true.  For the first time in more than thirty years, we’ve got both the left and the right calling for a more sensible way to deal with crime in the U.S.   Two years after Senator James Webb,D-VA  became the lone wolf decrying the nonsense of the U.S. imprisoning people at a rate five times the world’s average, even conservatives have embraced the need to do something to repair a costly and ineffective system that doesn’t make us any safer.

I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I first started reading about  Right on Crime, the conservative organization backed by such Republican luminaries as Newt Gingrich, William Bennett and Grover Norquist.   After reading their proposals, however, I’m encouraged that a platform being advanced by the folks who usually campaign to lock up lawbreakers no matter the cost, may actually lead to some real change.   For one, they make no bones about laying out what the problem is and how we got to our current state of diminishing returns:

Under the incarceration-focused solution, societies were safer to the extent that dangerous people were incapacitated, but when offenders emerged from prison – with no job prospects, unresolved drug and mental health problems, and diminished connections to their families and communities – they were prone to return to crime.

All of this, is of course, true, and something that most people can agree on regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.  Obviously, the reason we’re looking at it now is primarily budgetary.  It’s just too expensive to put so many people in prison.  But if that can spur reform, I’ll take it.

One of the provisions I’m most intrigued about is the conservatives desire to deal with the whole issue of negligent hiring suits, which make so many employers reluctant to hire parolees.   Reducing the potential risk of such lawsuits could  go a long way towards bringing down recidivism, since people with jobs are less likely to commit new crimes.   The challenge is to see whether this will change how employers behave in a labor market with double-digit unemployment.  

In two recent New York Times opinion pieces, author Tina Rosenberg also emphasized that” prisoner re-entry has become a hot topic in the field of corrections, largely because of the increasing number of people being released (many as states cut back on budgets).  She also did a great job of describing the challenges faced by returnees and describing the patchwork nature of reentry programs — highlighting a few like the renowned Delancey Street residence in San Francisco and Fortune Society’s Fortune Academy (known as “The Castle”), which work.  There’s also a piece here citing programs in states like Michigan, that have been successful in helping ex-inmates find jobs. 

What do you think is going to happen in terms of criminal justice reform?   Earlier this month, Senator Webb and The Prison Fellowship sponsored a symposium at George Mason on “Undoing the Effects of Mass Incarceration.”  The State of Louisiana recently announced it’s going to take the plunge to reform it’s prison system.  Will this all be a lot of talk or will/can the country follow suit?

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Filed under alternatives to incarceration, companies hiring ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, prison reform, probation and parole, reentry, Uncategorized

Convictions: Who feels the pain and for how long?

Once again, a shout out  to one of my favorite bloggers, Matt Kelley, who writes for the Criminal Justice blog at Change.org.  Matt recently highlighted some new research that provides data on the lasting costs of incarceration, highlighting who’s most affected and why this increases the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The study,  Incarceration and Social Inequality ,  conducted by sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington, appears in the MIT journal Daedalus.  In their research the authors found that the social inequality produced by mass incarceration was so enduring for 3 reasons: 

  1.  It’s invisible in that prisoners aren’t typically included in employment and other statistics, 
  2.  It’s cumulative in its impact,  and
  3. It affects not only adults but their children, spanning generations. 
Among their findings:
  •  Of men aged 20 to 34 — the largest chunk of the prison population incarceration rates have grown the most for the least educated populations.  In 1980, 10 percent of African Americans in this age range who hadn’t completed high school were incarcerated, today that rate is 37%.  Similarly, in 1980 less than 1 in 50 White dropouts were incarcerated, by 2008, that rate was had climbed to 1 in 8.
  •  The incarceration rate for black men born between 1975 to 1979  nearly quadrupled from the rate for those born twenty years earlier.  
  •  People who have been incarcerated and fall into the lowest income group, have the least mobility of anyone.
  •  The impact of conviction goes beyond the person sentenced to a prison term  to adversely affect their children.  How many kids  have a parent who is incarcerated?  Nearly 2 percent of white children, 3.5 % of Latino children and 11 % of African  children.  

This  dovetails with what legal scholar  Michelle Alexander talks about in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness.  Alexander’s argument, well- supported by research, is that the unprecedented rise in people being sent to prison since the 1970s is creating a permanent underclass.  Individuals end up being punished in perpetuity, she says,  as their records are often to deny them employment, housing and other opportunities that might help them rebuild their lives.

 

You can read the full report here.    

 

 

 

 

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Filed under class issues, criminal records, discrimination, employment ex-offenders, justice reform, prison reform, reentry, research, second chances

More inspiration…blogathon style

I’m having a hard time believing that Wordcount Blogathon 2010 ends tomorrow.  I’ve  blogged for 30 straight days, something I wasn’t sure I could do when I agreed to take part in this crazy thing.  Looking back now, it feels like the time just flew by.

It’s amazing what 100 writers urging each other on can accomplish in just a month.  As odd as it seems, I may actually miss it.  The blogathon generated it’s own kind of energy, as well as, a camaraderie often missing in the solitary life of a writer.  I got  ideas from my fellow bloggers and was  encouraged to stretch in ways I might not have otherwise. (Haiku, anyone?)  And while I found new readers,  it also led me to some fascinating work that others are doing.

On weekends during the blogathon, I’ve been posting poems or inspirational stories that might be of interest to ex-offenders and those who help them.  Today, I’d like to single out some newly discovered sites that really inspired me.

1.  First, a  shout out to Prison Photography for leading me to this great graphic on the number of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. by state.  It was created by the Pew Center for the States.   It’s designed so that you can click on the state and automatically find out how many are people are in prison or jail there.   It’s also color coded so you can automatically see where the high concentrations of inmates fall.   Blog author Pete Brook is a Brit who lives in Seattle and describes himself as an amateur photographer.  His blog features fascinating prison photos from photographers around the world.  His ultimate goal, he says is to “prick people’s curiosity about the prison systems that exist within their societies.”  How much do you know about yours?

2.    Correctional Nurse.net Lorry Schoenly is a registered nurse who works in corrections.  She’s also a writer and educator.   I just discovered her site this week and haven’t been able to scratch the surface in terms of all the information she has there.  Some of her recent posts include advice on dealing with the fallout from pepper spray, how to help prevent suicides in prison and jail and how correctional staff can identify and deal with alcohol withdrawal.  I can tell this is a blog I’ll be coming back to again and again.

3.  Ed Pilolla Ed is a fellow-blogathoner and journalist who used his 30 days to continue composing love letters he plans to  publish in a book soon.  Each daily post brought a new letter and another lesson for me in evocative and exquisite writing.  In his free time, Ed also was  kind enough to stop by this blog to offer comments and encouragement.

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Filed under ex-offender psychology, inspiration, life in prison, offender health, prison reform

What I learned in prison: an interview with author and ex-offender Piper Kerman

If you follow this space you know  I was initially skeptical of Piper Kerman and her recently released memoir, Orange is the New Black.  The book  chronicles the 13 months that Kerman, a blue-eyed blond with an East Coast pedigree, spent  in federal prison for money-laundering.   Ironically,  she’d committed the crime years earlier,  when bored and just out of college she fell in love with a drug dealer and agreed to transport a suitcase of dirty money to Belgium.  Authorities caught up with her in 1998 after the ex- lover ratted her out, at a time when Kerman had a promising career, a doting boyfriend and was by all accounts  living an exemplary life.

The author in Marie Claire Magazine

My fear was the whole  fish-out-of- water aspect of her story was going to, a) obscure the fact that privileged background or not,  she had committed a crime, and b)  lead to a self-absorbed confessional that wouldn’t shed any light on the challenges faced by most women in prison.

Okay, so call me jaded…

Fortunately, I was also wrong.   In her book, Kerman is quick to take responsibility for past mistakes.  She’s also well aware of the benefits her background afforded, even in prison.  “I am lucky in more ways than I can count,”  she says.  The fact that  her fiance visited regularly, and a friend created a job for her post-release, seems to have made her more sympathetic to the difficulties fellow prisoners faced.  While revelations about power-tripping guards, sub par accommodations and the bonds women form behind bars may not surprise many people,  Kerman does a good job of highlighting the myriad reasons why prison often doesn’t work.  Since her release, in fact, she has continued to advocate  reform and also mentor women in the system.  Recently, we had a chance to chat about her experiences, what she learned and what she hoped to accomplish in writing the book.

You make it clear that in some ways prison was different from what you expected.  What surprised you the most?

It’s shocking to me how wasteful the system is.  Not that I thought prison would be effective and efficient. But when I saw the people I was locked up with, the idea of incapacitating them at public expense was ludicrous.  These people were not violent.  The idea that this was the best use of taxpayer dollars, the best remedy to low-level crime, just doesn’t make sense.

I mean yes, there are folks who will use violence to get what they want.  But overall, I think the depiction of prisoners and prisons as solely, unjustifiably violent is inaccurate.  That’s why I wrote the book.  I don’t think people are aware of who’s in there.  I don’t think they’re aware of the waste in terms of locking these people up in the first place.

At the same time, I’ve known women, and men, for whom it seemed prison was the only answer – the only means to stop them from breaking the law or hurting themselves or others…

Yes, I’ve seen that too.  I met women who said, “If I hadn’t been locked up, I’d be dead now.”  Still, prisons aren’t much of a remedy for crimes of poverty. If you look at the way the system works right now, you’re more likely to be locked up for a crime that comes out of poverty – drug addiction, abuse, crimes of economic necessity. Mental illness is also a big factor if you can’t afford and access care.  Prison cells are not a remedy for any of those things.  They don’t solve those problems.

Did a lot of women struggle with these issues while you were incarcerated?

There was not a lot of drug use at Danbury (the federal prison in Connecticut). But there was a lot of talking openly about it.  That’s why I think there needs to be a shift in resources to focus on demand and not supply – to deal with the addiction piece.  And right now there isn’t.  The Danbury addiction program was only offered to an incredibly limited number of prisoners.  You could only gain access to it if your judge included it in your sentencing.  That’s where the quality of your attorney is so important.

One woman in my dorm was dying to get back on drugs and was very straightforward about it.  She would say, “You don’t understand.”  She was right.  Seeing people struggling like that was really something that changed my attitude.  In my 20s, drugs and addiction were an abstraction.  At Danbury, I saw how drugs affected people I cared about, and I feared for their health and safety.  It was difficult to look around the dorm and see people whose lives had been destroyed by drugs.

In the book, you also alluded to your own struggle.  How one “had to resolve not to believe what the prison system – the staff, the rules, even some of the other prisoners – wanted you to think about yourself, which was the worst.” You described how visits and letters from your friends helped stave off doubt and shame.   Yet,  some of your fellow inmates who lacked that support, were the ones who taught you the secret was “to focus on what you have to give, as opposed to what you want.”  Can you talk a little about that?

That was one of the things inspiring to me about the other women.  I don’t consider myself a particularly religious person.  The people in there with me, some were religious, some less so.  There was this woman who gave pedicures to me.  She was a hardworking person and a cheerful person, not a proselytizer-type.  It really jumped out at me when she said, “I have a lot to give.”  Her belief was tied to her faith and her God.  Other people I talked to expressed their faith as love, the idea that they felt worthy of love. Self worth is such a big issue to people in prison – either in confronting their offense, or because of other compounding factors on their shoulders. I think when folks bump up against authority that can be a really huge stumbling block in terms of staying focused on the positive. That recognition that you have something to offer is SO important.

Particularly considering reentry is so difficult?

Reentry is tough.  Even for a short sentence.  I think one of the things that’s hard for people who have never done time to understand is how completely the institution takes over your head —  the degree to which the real world recedes and how quickly it recedes.  It’s considerable.  Rather than envision the future, you’re just struggling to get through the day.

This is the madness of really long sentences especially for nonviolent offenders.  There’s a mental or emotional consideration. I became close friends with a woman who had done 13 years.  She was going home and was really scared. Women face so many issues, reuniting with children, finding work, and dealing with relationships. It’s tough.

And it’s not that offenders’ families don’t love them.  Families are incredibly stretched, so they can’t always visit.  Also, many factors that go into security of the system impact the inmate’s ability to return to their real lives – like making it difficult for people to visit or making it hard to make phone calls.  So those ties to the outside world just get weaker and weaker.

Most prison systems offer some sort of reentry services for just this reason, but apparently you weren’t too impressed with Danbury’s.  You write about an employment class where the instructor just advised everyone to research jobs on the computer — that is, until a fellow inmate told him you had no access to computers.

It was so obvious that the facility had boxes to check off.  There were eight required classes – housing, health services, employment and some others.   The only useful one was on probation.  Folks from a local halfway house came and talked about the requirements.  Literally every other class was taught by someone who worked at the prison.  One was taught by the former warden’s secretary.

My impression is that it’s really variable.  I know people who have come from prison who were helped a lot.

In the book you talk about writing resumes for some of your cellmates…

Yes.  When women were ready to go home, it would be, “I have to have a resume.”   I remember one woman had worked in the prison carpentry shop.  She had an idea that she could get into the union and be a carpenter.  But when I asked what job experience she had she said, “I sold drugs for 11 years.”   It’s really tough with the low skill sets, but when you have someone who doesn’t graduate from high school what do we think will happen? It’s massive piece employment, not just on a practical level, but on an emotional one.  I got an interesting query from a gentleman who contracts prison labor for phone companies.   Maybe the jobs pay so little they wouldn’t be worth it.  I don’t know whether those types of jobs create a pathway.  But something needs to be done.

Do you keep in touch with any of the women you met?  Do you know how they’re doing?

In recent years, since I’ve been off probation, I have been in touch with some of them.  Many folks in the book have been in touch in the last few weeks.  A lot of the women I knew are doing alright.  But most of them had resources.  Some are working in advocacy.

And the others?

A few that I’m not in touch with have disappeared.  Many of them were young.  The whole issue around juveniles and young adults is so depressing.  I had not spent much time around teenagers. A lot of the 18 and 19 year olds I saw at Danbury were very angry, but they were also looking for guidance.  It’s an incredible missed opportunity to help them make better choices.  They’re warehoused essentially.  These young girls come in completely out of control.  They have trouble getting along with inmates, getting along with the guards.  Then they’re back on the street and many of them end up returning to prison.

What was the most difficult part of your own sentence?

I came close to losing my mind when I was moved to federal prison in Chicago while waiting to testify.  The conditions of incarceration make a huge difference.  I was definitely in shock that first week.

That was also when you came face to face with the former girlfriend who turned you in?

Yes.  But in the end, I’m grateful we crossed paths. It gave me a chance to see I’d been putting all this energy into assigning blame -when it was completely me.

Given that Orange is a book about prison life, I have to say I was surprised I laughed so much while reading it.  Did you do this intentionally?

Humor is a huge survival tool.  I know I used it a lot while I was in prison.  And to write about it, God knows, it’s a depressing subject. That’s one of the biggest barriers to folks wanting to learn more about the system.  I wanted to make the book accessible — not only to give advice to help the reader, but to do this as a true reflection of what the time was like.   I couldn’t do that without humor.

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Filed under employment ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, life in prison, prison reform, reentry resources, resumes, Uncategorized

On second chances…

I’ll admit I had a very visceral reaction when I first read an excerpt in The New York Times from Ivy-league educated Piper Kerman’s upcoming book on her year in federal prison.  It wasn’t helped when an essay by her husband Larry Smith ran in another section of the Times the very next week.  In fact, I immediately registered my displeasure by firing off a letter to the newspaper, which was published yesterday.   I took the Times to task for, among other things, perpetuating the idea that some offenders are more equal than others, and that Kerman’s elevated status somehow made her special, when most ex-offenders would never even get their voices heard let alone a book deal.

Then, it being Easter week and all, I went on to write an essay about whether ex-offenders can redeem themselves.

Seeing the disconnect yet?  It took me awhile too.  But then I was reminded of an earlier post in this very blog where I talked about Michael Vick.  There was a lot of furor when the football star finished his sentence for illegal dog fighting and immediately got a  $10 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.  My take at the time: get over it.

I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of former felons who are equally if not more deserving than Vick. It’s just that a superstar jock is going to get the better deal, criminal record or no. That’s our society. It stinks. It’s unfair. Then again, so is the fact that teachers are poorly paid, while the bankers who helped ruin our economy still appear to rule the world — but don’t get me started. Perhaps some day all these things will change. Right now you need to focus on your situation and how to bring about the best things for yourself going forward.

That in turn got me to thinking.  This blog is about starting over and helping ex-offenders.  If you believe – as I profess to – that once offenders have served their time and paid their debt to society they deserve a second chance, then that should be true whether the person has had every advantage or none at all.   Her background aside, Kerman’s experience locked up has no doubt given her insights that might be beneficial to readers of this blog.  She also might be able to reach people who would normally tune out. So early last week I reached out to her to see if she would agree to an interview.

Hopefully, I’m not drinking the publicity kool aid.  But keep an eye on this space and we’ll see.  And let me know your thoughts.  Are privileged offenders less deserving of second chances?  Is their debt to society different?

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Filed under discrimination, prison reform, second chances, starting over