As the revolving doors of America's overcrowded prisons spin ever faster, sending more ex-offenders back into society, reentry has become a major focus nationwide, including Nebraska.
America has 2.2 million individuals incarcerated in prison, compared with approximately 1.6 million inmates in the Communist China, a nation with an overall population four times that of the United States.
That number is expected to rise, with the cost of housing inmates already straining stretched resources. As community corrections, early parole releases and probation sentences expand to cope with the increase, there's new emphasis on preparing offenders for release and supporting their transition.
Not surprisingly, corrections is better at confining folks than "fixing" them, which helps explain why prisons see so many repeat offenders. A 2011 Pew Center on the States study found that more than four in ten offenders return to state prison within three years of release. Nebraska does better than the national average, at about three in ten, but there's concern that too many end up back in the system or struggle on the outside, becoming a drain or risk.
For veteran reentry worker Teela Mickles, the problem is crystal clear. "Even individuals who've been in prison will say, 'If you don't get us before we get out, it's a waste of time.' This cold turkey stuff won't work," says Mickles, who works with inmates and parolees through her nonprofit Compassion in Action.
Federal mandate and community advocacy are making reentry a priority in today's more enlightened, research-based corrections field. It's a multi-billion dollar industry that involves law enforcement professionals, judges, lawyers, corrections officials, probation and parole officers, caseworkers and community-based service providers, both professional and volunteer. In order to ease state and local incarceration budgets, federal programs have combined with research and community collaborations to target reduced recidivism rates.
Two ex-offenders now working with returning citizens confirm that reentry into society is an inside game that must start early on.
"Turning your life is very hard, take it from me," says Ray Kyles, adding it was "only when I finally took an inventory of myself and seen what I was worth that I started transforming." That change only came during his third and last stint in prison. "I've come to the conclusion that in order for a man or woman to be successful once they come out of prison they must start working within the moment they hit the prison system. It's a learning process."
"Transition starts on the inside," says Garry Kern, who was incarcerated for 13 years and now works for Goodwill Partnerships. "It's a mindset. That's where change comes."
Layne Gissler, programs administrator for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services says success virtually presupposes preparation.
"By helping an inmate get a high school diploma or GED, helping them address their substance abuse and mental health issues and by helping them become a better parent or learn a vocation,” Gissler says, “we are giving them a better chance to return to the community as a successful citizen."
“Throw Away the Key” to “Save the Money”
Credit the once politically popular “War on Drugs” with the skyrocketing prison population. Nebraska's projected prison population for 2011 is 4,713, which is near where it's hovered for several years. From 1995 to 2009, the overall incarceration rate per 100,000 adults increased from 185 to 245.
Nebraska's total corrections spending skyrocketed from $72 million in 1995 to $181 million in 2010. Nationally, state corrections expenditures cost an estimated $50 billion per year. Those costs don't include what communities spend to house, train, educate, counsel, treat, employ and otherwise transition ex-offenders. When a parent goes to prison, there are "hidden" costs that include welfare, foster care, legal services and family court.
“Throw away the key” eventually gave way to “save the money.”
In response to the unsustainability of mass incarceration and high recidivism rates, public-private coalitions have pushed for more proactive reentry efforts both behind the wall and outside it.
The 2003 federal Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) and the 2008 Second Chance Act provided hundreds of millions of dollars to reentry providers. Second Chance also established the National Reentry Resource Center, which offers education, training and technical assistance to providers, large and small.
These measures brought new players onto the scene of a varied reentry landscape. Nebraska providers range in size, approach, scope and service area. Most are human-social service organizations or faith-based groups. The largest is Christian Heritage, a Lincoln nonprofit that's new to reentry yet has secured major Second Chance grants to fund programs that target reconnecting fathers with children and restoring families.
The issues further came into focus through a 2008 evaluation of Nebraska's Serious and Violent Reentry Program by UNO's School of Criminal Justice; the Douglas County Reentry Task Force, now reformed as the Reentry Initiatives Council; and the monthly Reentry Table Talk series at Metropolitan Community College.
Gissler said the federal reentry initiative and the UNO study "helped educate, sharpen the focus and provide the necessary foundation for reentry in Nebraska," adding, "There was a significant increase in the department's long range commitment to reentry and the subsequent shift in emphasis based on risk."
Increasingly, corrections works collaboratively with the community. The shared goal is reducing recidivism and improving quality of life outcomes. NDCS had fairly robust programs before but is doing more with partners like UNO and Christian Heritage now that more dollars are available from Second Chance and other sources.
"The passing of the Second Chance Act has made some impact on our reentry efforts," says Gissler. For example, he says the parenting program for incarcerated fathers administered by Christian Heritage "has been very beneficial. “Outside of that,” he says, “our approach to reentry has remained the same. We utilize a multi-faceted approach that includes mental health and substance abuse programming, educational, vocational, parenting, life skills and other programs to address deficits. With the exception of the parenting program in our male facilities, these programs were in our facilities prior to passage of the Second Chance Act."
Empower, Not Enable
Still, waiting lists for the voluntary prerelease programs are not uncommon.
UNO’s Transformation Project uses The Autobiography of Malcolm X and motivational interviewing as talking points. Inmates are urged to develop life plans. Largely funded by UNO grad John Morgan, the project centers on six stability factors: housing, employment, education, substance abuse, mental health and social networks.
"We picked those six areas because the research tells us for every one one of those areas you can help stabilize somebody in, you see a reduction in recidivism," says project manager Nicole Kennedy, who wrote the curriculum.
“What we're trying to do is get them to think a little more deeply about how do all these factors relate to what plan you're going to have when you return to the community,” she says. “We're asking these guys to take a critical look at some personal and sensitive topics.
“I think a lot of prison programming is very narrowly skill based. What we're trying to do is much more broad-based. You can’t really think about your substance abuse in isolation of your employment or your housing or your social networks. All of these factors, while they have their own unique components, will be impacted by the others.”
Kennedy credits corrections officials for their support.
"Corrections gives these guys a lot of tools and resources but this is kind of the mortar that holds those bricks together," she says. "We're really trying to get you to take all this information and apply it to yourself and your own unique circumstances."
The Transformation Project refers its graduates to Kyles and his You Are Not Alone program. Kyles believes accountability must take root behind bars if an offender is to succeed outside.
On the outside, ex-offenders encounter many hurdles piecing a life together in a fast-moving world that doesn't cater to them. Jim Erwin of Christian Heritage advises inmates, their loved ones, sponsors and caseworkers to work months in advance of release to line up leads on things like housing and employment. He and others working in the field say a safety plan and a support network is vital, The more on the margin someone lives, the greater the risk for recidivism. Substance abuse, family disputes or just being around negative influences can derail things.
“Folks can become very discouraged quickly if there's not preparation," says Mickles.
A big hurdle for ex-offenders in Nebraska is accessing vital records. There's no central office to get a social security card, birth certificate, driver's license or work permit. It takes days to obtain IDs from far-flung agencies. Support for a one-stop-shop is a hot topic and a focus of the Douglas County Reentry Initiatives Council.
County Commissioner Chris Rodgers, who sits on the Council's board, says Heartland Workforce Solutions in Omaha offers the framework for a one-stop-shop, and the county is seeking funds to help consolidate services for ex-offenders under the Heartland umbrella.
"There's a need," says Rodgers, who oversees the UNO Transformation Project. He says the Council looks at reentry in broad-based terms as well. “Our job is to identify issues and gaps and solve them within the system instead of reinventing the wheel." If he's learned anything, it's that successful reentry is up to the individual.
"It's not magic, it's hard work," he says. "We're not going to give you this yellow brick road outline to get there. What we do is lay you out a path with opportunity, but you have to put the work in."
Kyles says, "Just like everything else, what you put in is what you get out. You become institutionalized the moment you get locked up by the police because from there on everything is given to you. Once you're released from prison you still expect people to keep giving you. But what have you given yourself or what are you willing to give back to society? I'm not going to hold your hand, it just doesn't work that way. I have a list of services gentlemen can go to for assistance. I get a hot jobs list every Monday."
Christian Heritage’s Jim Erwin says, "remember to empower, not enable" ex-offenders.
To that end, Metro produces a reentry resources book it distributes to correctional facilities and community service providers to give inmates, ex-offenders, caseworkers and sponsors contacts for statewide programs and services.
Providers who establish bonds behind the walls are better placed to help offenders once they're on the outside, say reentry veterans. Consistently being there builds trust. "People need to understand the more they make themselves visible and empower the individuals inside in preparation to come out," says Mickles, "the more effective their reentry programs on the outside will be." Neither her program nor any others work in isolation. None has the capacity to address every need.
Plenty of Pain to Go Around
Mickles does Compassion in Action by herself. She acts as a clearinghouse by referring ex-offenders to needed services she doesn't provide. Kyles works much the same way.
Regardless of size or resources, reentry providers work collaboratively.
"We all need each other, there's plenty of pain to go around, and we all have our areas of expertise, and the better we work together the better the population will be served," says Mickles, who is hopeful about the momentum surrounding reentry. "In doing reentry here for 30 years, this is the first time Omaha is really on task as far as working together and helping each other do what we do best."
Since 2009, Metro liaison Tommie Wilson has organized the Reentry Table Talk the third Wednesday of every month. Wilson says some sessions can get rather heated. It's all in the name of continued dialogue.
"We started out with four people talking about what we needed to do," says Wilson, who has a grandson in prison, "and now the meetings average 45-50. I gather people here to talk about what's going on with reentry, to bridge that connection to find out where resources are, to learn who's doing what, to collaborate. I also bring to the table ex-offenders. If they're having difficulties finding things, they can connect with people and get into programs."
At the May 18 forum 48 attendees represented some two dozen organizations, including Eastern Nebraska Action Community Partnership (ENCAP). Some state corrections officials were there. Mickles was present. Christian Heritage's Jim Erwin was the featured speaker.
Erwin says he attends to build relationships with other providers. Diane Good-Collins is a ex-felon. She and husband Steve operate ReLeasT transition home for women in Nebraska City. Entrepreneur Rodney Prince is another former offender, although his role is more advocate and watchdog. His was among the few critical voices at the event, as he challenged those present "to be coordinated and streamlined . . . We need you to be on the same page." Activist Eliga Ali and Black Men United president Willie Hamilton expressed concerns about the effects that mass incarceration of black males has on families and communities.
It’s understood that change is "not a one-size-fits-all" proposition.
"The term for each individual to experience success is quite different,” Mickles says. “Also, the definition for success is quite different. It may not be no recidivism. The person may need to reoffend in order to be successful. I've learned to redefine certain things."
She says a woman she worked with reoffended several times before going straight, "and she’s now giving back to the community in a major way" as a reentry provider.
Good-Collins tells a similar story of a chronic reoffender who's finally turned her life around. After hundreds of lock ups, then being homeless, Good-Collins says the client is now in a stable home environment and working. "She got her first paycheck in over 30 years. She's doing awesome."
"With that individual acceptance and lack of preconceived anything," Mickles says, "individuals tend to find themselves. But society needs to know there is a cost."