Breaking out of the fog

The masthead image above was chosen to make a vital point about incarceration and release. The figures on the left, wandering aimlessly or lost in the fog, remind me of a great many of the men and women we encounter in our work in the local jail. They are without direction, lost in pain and addiction, and isolated from a community of support. Even after release, for far too many of them, the fog remains.

Those on the right of the image have clarity and direction because they can now see. They undoubtedly still face challenges and difficulties, but they can see clearly the outcome of their choices. Most importantly, they can see the light and walk toward it.

My colleagues and I in this ministry recently took a big step. To the work we have long been doing inside the jail, we have now added a post-release component. We have been thinking and praying about this for many months. Every sign pointed to the necessity of doing it. (Actually, the signs demanded it.) We are tired of watching the revolving door of the jail, through which a distressingly high number depart, only to return due to parole violations, usually involving drug and alcohol relapse.

Enough! So we developed a plan, talked about it incessantly when we were doing our programs with the inmates, and sold the idea to the wardens and treatment counselors. They even put our information sheet as page one of the release packets given to every county inmate!

We offered — what else to call it? — a bribe. “Call us when you get out of jail and we’ll take your to dinner to celebrate your release.” In the first month, three men called us. We’ve taken one out to dinner and are setting up a time with another one. We offer them something few probation officers will do. We tell them we are there to accompany them as caring and supportive friends as they navigate their way back into life on the outside. In other words, we want to help them find their way out of the fog and into the light.

We will offer more in due time, especially if a grant proposal we made to a foundation comes through for us. In the meantime, let us be a reliable friend. You can call us anytime.

One did. To be exact, it was at 2:20 A.M. — the middle of the night between Friday and Saturday. I was on-call and answered the phone beside my bed. The man (I’ll refer to him as James) had just polished off a bottle of whiskey and 12 cans of beer. He’d been out of jail less than two days and his anxiety level was in the danger zone. The alcohol had not helped, he admitted. (I am still amazed he was able to form a coherent sentence.)

“Honestly,” he said, “I am ready to call my dealer, but I thought I’d at least try to reach you guys first.” He went on, “I really didn’t think anyone would answer. I expected to hear a recording telling me to leave a message.”

Remembering a line from Young Frankenstein, I replied, “Come by anytime; we’re always open.” We both laughed. Then the conversation turned deadly serious.

James, I knew from our time together at the jail, had a serious addiction to opioids. He got it legitimately (if such a thing is possible) when hospitalized for surgery on more than one occasion. When he said he was “this close” to calling his dealer, I knew he was neither kidding nor trying to be dramatic.

I asked if we could unpack what was going on. He was eager to get it out. For the next hour we talked about his anxiety and fear and how hard he found it to control either. He gave examples of things that were bothering him. Chief among them was his fear that he would use again and that his family would disown him for good after several repeated relapses in the past.

In my past, I have always hated phone calls or face-to-face encounters where the person was out of control or in danger of doing something they would regret. My fear was that I would never know what to say. Or that I would offer to help in a way that was not realistic. A couple of times during the call with James I was wondering why I agreed to sign up for this.

Somehow, though, with God’s help, I did know what to say. I walked him through a simple cognitive process that seemed to help him realize that he could think rationally and make the right choice. I was rather amazed at how helpful he found this. When we finally ended the call, he was profuse in his gratitude that I’d taken the call and helped him “off the ledge,” so to speak.

The next day, my colleague Gean visited James at his workplace. He found him badly hung over, but much less anxious and feeling more in control. I’ve seen him twice since then and he seems stronger each time.

Is James out of the fog yet? Undoubtedly, there is still a ways to go, but he’s walking toward the light. And we are accompanying him to make sure, as best we can, that he gets there.

It’s an encouraging start for our post-release work. We’ve found some really good people in the county who share our concern and have come alongside us to help give shape to this new effort. We would appreciate your prayers as well.


Former federal inmate returns to prison

In 1987 Michael Santos was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for a crack cocaine conviction. He earned his release after 26 years of good behavior, while also earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. He now returns to prisons to speak to inmates about his story and how their story can change. What does it take? In Santos’ own words, it takes a “100 percent commitment to rejecting the criminal lifestyle…100 percent commitment to preparing for success upon release.”

You can watch the story here.

An eye-opening trip to Germany and the Netherlands

In February 2013, delegations from Colorado, Georgia and Pennsylvania traveled to Germany and the Netherlands to tour prison facilities, speak with corrections officials and interact with inmates. The delegations consisted of “criminal justice stakeholders” from each state — men and women involved in various areas of the criminal justice systems of their respective states. The trip was funded by the Prison Law Office and organized by the Vera Institute of Justice.

And boy was it eye-opening!

The differences in the goals and practices of criminal justice between western Europe and the United States are startling, as the members of the three delegations quickly discovered. “The German and Dutch systems are both organized around the central tenants of resocialization and rehabilitation,” according to Vera’s report on the trip, “Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States.” As the Vera report notes, “This is in contrast to the corrections system in the U.S., where incapacitation and retribution are central and where rehabilitative aims remain secondary (at least in practice if not in policy).”

So how are the differing goals and practices working out? With its emphasis on mass incarceration, the state prison population in the U.S. grew by 705 percent in the past 40 years, from 175,000 state inmates in 1972 to 1.4 million in 2012. When the prison populations of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and local city and county jails are added, the total rises to 2.2 million. This has led to an incarceration rate in the U.S. of 716 per 100,000 residents (one of every 104 American adults) and to state corrections expenditures of $53.5 billion in fiscal year 2012. And these figures do not include the federal prison system or city and county jails.

By contrast, the incarceration rate in Germany is only 79 per 100,000 residents. In the Netherlands it is 82 per 100,000 residents.

What accounts for these extreme differences? In the U.S. 70 percent of convicted offenders receive an active prison sentence. The average sentence is three years. In the Netherlands, only 10 percent of convicted criminals receive an active prison sentence; in Germany, the rate is even lower — six percent.

So what are the Dutch and the Germans doing that the U.S. is not doing? Both European countries have a menu of options that are far more likely to be invoked than an active prison sentence. In Germany and the Netherlands prosecutors “have broad power to divert offenders away from prosecution” toward penalties such as “fines, community service, compensation, driving restrictions, mediation, forfeiture, or confiscation of assets obtained by or used in the conduct in question.” This kind of “diversion” on the part of prosecutors, agreed to by the accused, avoids a criminal prosecution even for crimes that, in the U.S., would be considered felonies.

In Germany and the Netherlands, fines often “serve as a stand-alone — and often preferred — sanction.” In the U.S. fines are more commonly “used as an accessory penalty in combination with other sanctions,” most likely a prison sentence. Germany uses a unique approach, assessing what is called a “day fine.” These are fines that are “imposed in daily units (representing one day incarcerated) and are based on an offender’s personal income.”

Also, in both Germany and the Netherlands, when custodial sentences are given, “a relatively large percentage of these…are suspended.” In the U.S. this would be called “probation.” In both European countries, custodial sentences up to two years are routinely suspended.

The U.S. delegations also found the conditions of those incarcerated in Germany and the Netherlands to be very different from most prisoners in the U.S. From the Vera report: “Participants spoke about how struck they were by the degree to which the conditions of confinement are informed by the emphasis on resocialization and reentry, noting in particular the personal agency with which prisoners were invested in their daily life, the positive interactions between staff and offenders, and the focus on vocational training and education.”

Here are some examples of what the delegations observed: prisoners “wear their own clothes, decorate their own cells and keep their own personal belongings.” Moreover, prisoners “have freedom of movement within the unit or facility, access to self-catering facilities [prepare their own meals], and assist in organizing daily life in the prison.” And most astonishingly, “guards knock before entering cells, and prisoners have keys to their own cells and separate, walled toilets.”

Solitary confinement, a normal practice in state and federal prisons in the U.S., is rarely invoked in Germany or the Netherlands. When used in Europe, it is used only for a brief period of time. In Germany the law forbids solitary confinement for more than four weeks in any year; in the Netherlands, the statute limits it to two weeks in a given year.

It is well-known that drug offenders are the largest single population in prisons in the U.S. — a result of the decades-long “war on drugs.” In Germany and the Netherlands, incarceration for drug offenses is practiced mostly for drug traffickers. Other drug offenders are diverted to programs more suited to helping overcome habitual use. [Drug courts are being created in more and more states in the U.S. as an alternative to prosecution and incarceration. I see this regularly in my work at a residential substance abuse rehabilitation center].

When the trip ended, the U.S. delegations came home and discussed what they saw in Europe. In the section of its report on the “Implications for the United States,” Vera said this: “U.S. Policymakers seeking less crime, fewer victims, and greater safety in their states and counties cannot ignore the growing body of proof that many of the European practices — socialization, cognitive-behavioral interventions, education, life skills, and treatment of mental illness — are far more successful.” Vera identified five strategies U.S. criminal justice stakeholders should consider:

  1. Expand prosecutorial discretion to divert offenders. “Policymakers in the United States wishing to safely lower incarceration rates and the number of people exposed to the negative consequences of criminal justice contact should consider extending diversion options to higher-risk individuals and those with more serious offenses.”
  2. Reduce reliance on incarceration as a first response and expand the use of community-based sanctions. “Policymakers interested in effective corrections should ask whether they are making the best use of the options available to them and explore whether these options — as well as the pool of eligible offenders — can safely expanded to support a shift in emphasis away from institutional to community corrections.”
  3. Adapt the disciplinary structure and expand the menu of sanctions. “While many states provide incentives for program completion and good behavior, these are usually in the future (i.e, reduced incarceration time); corrections systems need more short-term positive reinforcement or incentives to encourage more constructive interactions between the institution, staff and offenders.” [Note: my experience ministering to inmates in the Federal Bureau of Prisons would support this strategy 10o percent. In the BOP there are zero short-term incentives for program completion and good behavior].
  4. Treat young offenders as a special population. “If US. jurisdictions want to salvage the potential of these young adults — as contributing members of communities — then attention must be paid to responding appropriately to their developmental needs, with an emphasis on treatment, education, and social or vocational training.”
  5. Normalize the conditions within prison. “The rationale of normalization is to mitigate the negative effects of incarceration on prisoners and increase chances for successful offender rehabilitation and reintegration.”

The Vera report is copiously footnoted, quite current (October 2013), and only 19 pages in length. The link above will take the reader directly to the online PDF.

For many reasons, the U.S. will not want or be able to do criminal justice and incarceration as they are done in Europe. But a growing chorus of influential voices in the U.S. is beginning to sing the same song: mass incarceration is a failure and our prisons are not preparing inmates for successful reentry to the community. Things need to change. Criminal justice needs to be re-envisoned. Do lawmakers, prosecutors, judges and prison officials have the courage to do this? More importantly, do the citizens have the courage to demand it?

Reducing recidivism: at least a three-front war

Early in the planning stage for the ministry that would become House of Bread, a thoughtful friend challenged me to consider prison ministry using a cost-benefit approach. In brief, he asked me to calculate the financial benefit of every dollar invested in my work. I pondered this for quite a while before realizing that the successful re-entry of released prisoners was the answer. In other words, my work had to be geared specifically to equipping prisoners for fruitful lives on the outside. Or, to put it differently, my success with any particular inmate would be at least in part determined by his success in avoiding crime and not returning to prison.

Along with security, reducing recidivism is the foremost concern of all prison work these days. With the state and federal governments under pressure to contain or even reduce spending, helping prisoners succeed once they are released is a high priority. All prison administrators are looking for programs and people who can help inmates develop the character and life-skills to become productive members of society. With prison spending at over $50 billion per year in the United States — and public resources growing ever tighter — reducing recidivism is an obvious answer.

But it is a three-front war.

First there is the important work being done inside the prisons with those who have already failed, some repeatedly, to develop and practice what it takes to live legal and productive lives. For some, crime has been just about the only life they have known. Almost everyone to whom I have ministered in the penitentiary has had some involvement in drug trafficking. Many have worked in legitimate enterprises but not successfully. Bad attitudes and habits, along with rebellion against authority figures, usually ended their involvement in legal work. Crime was their fallback income-producing activity.

Major negative psycho-spiritual factors enabled so many to embrace a criminal lifestyle. At the risk of stating it simply, deconstructing those dynamics and rebuilding healthier ones is largely the task we undertake in prison ministry. And when we say goodbye to an inmate being released, as I did this past Thursday to a repeat offender who most recently served a sentence for bank robbery, we fervently hope and pray that he is right in his determination never to come back to prison (except as a volunteer).

The second front of the war involves the very real challenges a re-entering ex-con faces when he steps off the bus in the town or city to which he has been released. A convicted felon, in our society, is a marked man.

Felons are routinely denied employment of all kinds despite the fact that they may have the skills necessary to do the job. While it is illegal for an employer to practice blanket denial of employment to felons, many do. Felons can be denied public housing. Many can benefit from drug treatment follow-up, yet such programs are underfunded and sometimes not readily available to those who need them. Some inmates have mental illness. Others have so badly alienated their families that there is little help from that traditional support-system. It is a long list.

In my work at Canaan, I soon recognized that while I might be very effective in helping an inmate toward a transformed life, he will still face daunting obstacles to successful re-entry once he was released. I seriously doubt that anyone can do this alone. More charitable and non-profit resources are needed, but so too are public ones.

The whole area of criminal justice is the third front of the war. To put it bluntly, we are locking up far too many people in our country and in many cases for far too long. I know this is a sensitive and complex area.

No one, including me, wants to see people who have already shown themselves to be a danger to others to be free to continue to do so. Moreover, I also work in a women’s substance abuse rehabilitation center and I see firsthand the victims of drug traffickers. We invest significant resources, sometimes for as much as two years, in helping these women overcome their addictions and regain the character and life-skills necessary to live successfully.

Still…the severity of the sentencing (much of it mandated by law and beyond a judge’s discretion) has prompted many a prosecutor and judge to question the fairness and effectiveness of our country’s practice of retributive justice.

Moreover, the presence in our prisons of blacks and Hispanics in numbers wildly disproportionate to their numbers outside prison has long been a cause of concern. Michelle Alexander probably exaggerates the reality when she says calls the “mass incarceration” of blacks “the new Jim Crow” of a racist society that is ever determined to keep blacks in their place.

I believe we can and should do a better job of criminal justice. We do well at punishing criminals but not nearly well enough at restoring them to productive lives.

I expect there are other fronts in this war. Children who are raised in dysfunctional or abusive environments are surely more prone to involvement in gangs and criminal activity. Intervening in such a way as to improve the likelihood that such a child will cope well and live productively is surely a challenging task.

These thoughts were prompted by a column in today’s New York Times, which you can read here.


Ending hiring discrimination against ex-offenders

On June 20 the New York Times reported that the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission is stepping up efforts to go after employers who use criminal background checks to illegally discriminate against job applicants with criminal histories.

The long and short of it is that it is illegal for an employer to have a blanket ban on the hiring of anyone with a criminal history. Since the vast majority of employers use background checks as part of their hiring decisions, the E.E.O.C. wants to insure that an employer’s decision not to hire someone with a criminal history does not violate the applicant’s civil rights.

The issue turns on two questions: first, whether a hiring decision involves disparate treatment and, second, whether it involves disparate impact.

Disparate treatment, reports the Times, is fairly clear. It is illegal, for example, “to refuse to hire an African-American with a criminal conviction but hire a similarly situated white person with a comparable conviction.”

“Disparate impact,” says the Times, “is more complicated.” If an employer’s routine hiring practice disproportionately harms a legally protected racial or ethnic group, the practice is illegal even if there is no intention to racially discriminate.

An employer whose hiring policy is to deny employment to all applicants with a criminal history could well run afoul of the law. Why? Because the policy will have a disparately negative impact on blacks and Hispanics. Why? Because minorities are more likely than whites to be arrested and convicted. According to the Department of Justice, a Hispanic man is nearly three times as likely as a white man to be incarcerated, and an African-American man is nearly six times as likely.

This is not because minorities violate drug laws, for example, at a rate higher than whites. In fact, they do not. As the E.E.O.C. put it in 2008: “African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely than whites to be arrested, convicted or sentenced for drug offenses even though their rate of drug use is similar to the rate of drug use for whites.”

As I have written before, Michelle Alexander, in her recent book The New Jim Crow, strongly affirms that predominantly black neighborhoods are specifically targeted by police for stop and frisk tactics, as well as traffic stops that would simply not be tolerated by the residents of a white neighborhood. The result is the incarceration of large numbers of African-Americans for relatively minor drug offenses.

When they are released and seek employment, many are routinely denied employment because of their criminal conviction. The E.E.O.C. is concerned that at least some of that is a violation of civil rights laws.

According to the Times, employers are concerned about the E.E.O.C.’s stepped-up efforts to enforce the civil rights laws when it comes to the hiring of people with a criminal history. But a lawyer quoted in the article suggests that employers need to have a dialogue with such applicants about the nature of the crime, the time elapsed since the crime and the nature of the job before determining that the applicant should not be hired.

The difficulty ex-cons experience in finding employment is one of the factors contributing to the high rates of recidivism. Employers have a right to be careful in their hiring procedures. Blanket bans on the hiring of people with a criminal history exceeds reasonable care. We need to see less of it.

The steep challenge of re-entry

Last week a group of inmates were sharing their goals for life after incarceration. One inmate is due for release in a matter of weeks; others anywhere from one to three years.

One of the men shared his vision of starting a tow-truck business. Another inmate was less specific, speaking generally about reunion with his daughter and girl friend and his intention of finding a job. Still another spoke about a goal to reorient his life away from the relationships that had not served him well. The fourth man to speak indicated that he had already submitted a proposal to a cabinet-level government official. Smiling, he acknowledged it was a long shot.

As I listened to each of them I wondered if they knew the challenges they would be facing when they get out of prison.

In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes about the various forms of discrimination encountered by convicted felons as they re-enter the community after their incarceration. In employment, housing, voting, jury service, education and food assistance; felons can experience temporary and/or lifetime discrimination. For those who have worn out their welcome with family and find themselves completely on their own, needing a place to stay and a job fairly quickly, the denial of public assistance because of a felony conviction makes successful re-entry a tall order indeed.

This is one factor (undoubtedly among others) in the startling high rate of recidivism, which can be as high as 75% depending on such variables as the age of the prisoner, the crime(s) for which he was sentenced and what programs he participated in while in prison. All prisoners need help when they are released even if their time in prison was genuinely rehabilitative.  But far too many receive little more than pocket money and a bus ticket when they leave prison to face life in a community that is not inclined to ever allow them to be anything other than a criminal.

When I told the men in my group the statistics on recidivism they were stunned, and I wondered if I should have refrained from sharing  those grim numbers. Most of them are serving a sentence in a federal prison for the first time in their lives, and their crimes range from drug offenses to white collar crime. They may be at low risk for recidivism. Still, re-entry is hardly a cakewalk even for the most well-prepared prisoner.

My job is to contribute to the well-preparedness, especially in the areas of the heart and mind. However, knowing what I know about what many prisoners will face upon release, I continually ask myself if I am doing the right things to help them.

Reentry ought not be a roll of the dice

Everyone has heard the numbers…and they will take your breath away:

  • Federal, state and county correction facilities held 2.3 million prisoners at the beginning of 2008–almost equivalent to the entire population of the city of Chicago in 2010.
  • States spend an average of about $25,000 per year to incarcerate one prisoner; the figure is slightly higher for the federal prison system.The total spent nationwide is about $55 billion per year.
  • About two-thirds of all prisoners released will be rearrested within three years with most of them returned to prison to serve another sentence.

It is that last statistic that has long troubled people in the criminal justice system. It is one of the reasons cited for lengthy prison sentences; the longer an inmate is kept in prison and the older he is when released, the less likely he is to recidivate. For example, a sentence for selling crack cocaine could be as much as eight times longer than a sentence for selling powdered cocaine, though new sentencing guidelines have narrowed the difference.

One of the questions that has bedeviled everyone who wants to see prison populations reduced is what can prison officials do to promote successful inmate reentry to society? Finding answers to this question has become the cutting edge for federal and state prison bureaucrats as well as for those involved in a wide array of prison ministries and volunteer programs.

The reasons for this are obvious: state and federal budgets are contracting, not expanding. And, except for healthcare, spending on corrections has increased faster than any other item in state budgets. In addition, the high rate of recidivism has got to be brought down.

In 2008 the Second Chance Act passed the U.S. Congress with remarkable bipartisan support, as well as the support of leaders at the state and local levels. The bill authorized $165 million in grants to state and local government agencies and community organizations to provide employment and housing assistance, substance  abuse treatment, family programming, mentoring, victim support and other services that help people returning from prison and jail avoid criminal activity and succeed in their communities.

In fiscal year 2009, only $25 million was approved by Congress. In 2010 the figure went up to $100 million, but in 2011 was decreased to $83 million. For fiscal year 2012 the U.S. Senate approved nothing and the House approved $70 million. What might finally be allocated is unknown.

In an era of fiscal belt-tightening the decrease or elimination of funding for effective inmate reentry programs might well have the support of many people. But consider these facts:

  • The incidence of serious mental illnesses is two to four times higher among prisoners than it is among the general population.
  • Three-fourths of those returning from prison have a history of substance use disorders. Over 70 percent of prisoners with serious mental illnesses also have a substance use disorder.
  • More than 10 percent of people entering prisons and jails are homeless in the month prior to their incarceration. For those with mental illnesses, the rates are higher — around 20 percent.
  • Two out of every five prisoners and jail inmates lack a high school diploma or its equivalent.
  • Approximately 2 million children in the U.S. have parents who are currently incarcerated, and more than 10 million minor children have parents who have come under some form of criminal justice  supervision at some point in their children’s lives.

It is easy to see why a successful reentry for a released prisoner is akin to a roll of the dice. Or, to use another gambling metaphor, the deck is stacked against them.

When I began to minister in the federal prison at Canaan, I had little grasp on what would eventually become my reason for being there. But I have come to see it clearly: defy the odds and help pre-release prisoners have a fighting chance at successful reentry.

It would be a shame if Congress decides not to allocate any funding in 2012 to those organizations who also have that mission and are operating on a larger scale than am I. Still, this is not first and foremost about federal funding; it is about the gospel, which ever offers a second chance, indefinitely renewed, to those who did it all wrong, have paid the price and stand at the threshold ready to try again.

“Recidivism is predictable”

Last year, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The law was an attempt to address the disparity in sentencing for drug offenses involving crack cocaine and other forms of cocaine. Someone convicted of trafficking in crack received a much longer sentence than if he sold an equal weight of powdered cocaine.

I knew this from my interviews with inmates at USP Canaan, some of whom are serving life sentences for selling crack.

An article in today’s New York Times reported that in June the United States Sentencing Commission voted to make the sentencing guidelines retroactive, with an effective date of October 31, 2011. The result? As many as 1,800 inmates are due for immediate release from prison. Over time, as many as 12,000 inmates could have their sentences reduced by an average of three years as a result of the new guidelines.

Not everyone is happy about this, according to the Times:

“William Otis, a former federal prosecutor and special White House counsel under the first President George Bush, said that since recidivism is predictable, the releases would inevitably lead to more crime. ‘Why, when we hear in such specifics about the alleged benefits of the forthcoming releases, we do not also and simultaneously hear about the additional crime to which they will lead?’ he said.”

Mr. Otis is right about how predictable recidivism is. Depending on whose statistics are being cited, as many as two-thirds of released prisoners commit crimes for which they are returned to prison within three years.

The high rate of recidivism, however, does not justify draconian sentences. What it should do is incentivize governments to invest more in the kinds of programs and interventions that will change inmates’ minds and hearts while they are still in prison. This is, I readily admit, a monumental task. But the good news is that we know which programs and interventions are the most effective at reducing recidivism. Most of them are faith-based. (I’ll write more about this in the future when I post a review of Byron Johnson’s book, More God, Less Crime).

Investing in inmates in a manner that gives them a chance to change their minds and hearts is the reason I minister in a federal penitentiary. And I do not believe I am wasting my time.