Prison Reform: "Re-entering Society"
For many prisoners at the Limestone Correctional Facility, the heavy bang of a steel gate is the first thing they hear when they enter the Alabama prison system. It’s also the last thing when they come out.
“They give you a bus ticket and a check for ten dollars and they say “Have a nice life.”
That’s Brenda Lee Kennedy. She was incarcerated in the Montgomery Work Release Center for nearly five and half years before being released in November of last year.
“They put you out of the gate, they take you to the bus station and you’re free, you are thrust back into society with absolutely nothing.”
That’s a common complaint among ex-convicts. After what could be decades behind bars, inmates are dumped back into society, essentially on their own. Critics call it the second sentence…
“You typically lose your driver’s license when you go to prison, when you come out, you have to report to your probation officer.”
Joyce White Vance is the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
“You may need mental health or medical care; you’re certainly going to be looking for a new job. It’s very difficult to accomplish those three goals without being able to drive. At some point you’re going to get behind the wheel without a driver’s license, you’re probably going to get pulled over, you’re probably going to get rearrested. That is a reentry fail.”
Why should Alabama care? Vance says if ex-cons aren’t working a job, they’re likely to be doing something else.
“Everyone understands there is a cycle of recidivist crime, people come out of prison, they commit new crimes and go back to prison. The goal is for people to come out of prison and not commit more crimes, for people to go back and become hard working, tax paying members of the community who are engaged with their family. The question is why doesn’t that happen.”
Again, why should Alabama care? Vance says because a lot of Alabamians have done jail time…
“The numbers that come out of the Alabama Department of Corrections say that one in four adults in Alabama has had either a felony or misdemeanor conviction.”
That’s a lot of job application forms with the little check box that asks if you’ve been convicted. Many businesses shy away from hiring people who check that box with a yes…
Joyce Vance’s office is unusual because it’s the first in the nation to hire an attorney specifically to get inmates back into the work force when they get out of prison. The private sector is trying to help too. This is where the Dannon Project comes in.
“What my husband’s family and I wanted to do was to start an agency that provided a prescription if you will, to provide support to people when they come home.”
Kerri Pruitt founded the Birmingham based group to help former prisoners find jobs. A personal tragedy got her going. Pruitt’s brother in law, Dannon, was killed by a newly released ex-con. She and her husband started the Dannon Project to systemically prepare inmates to re-enter society.
“Your case managers stay in contact with you weekly or bi-weekly. We have retention specialists who stay engaged, we have mentors who stay engaged. Now we’re trying to add in a component of our seniors, using our senior community to also make sure they follow up to tell someone “happy birthday” or “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” whatever.”
That work also includes things getting a proper ID and a social security card.
“I wasn’t a resident of Jefferson County or Birmingham, I came here at a halfway house and I had nothing, no car no nothing, no family here no nothing.”
That’s Fletcher Strong, he went through the program at the Dannon Project and is still seeing the benefits.
“I’m still on that same job and now I’m a supervisor. Now I’m at Lawson State, through here, through the Dannon Project. I’m in school, taking college courses, see I made it to the 7th grade, got my GED, now I’m in college.”
Kerri Pruitt says Dannon doesn’t just wait for people to come to them. The group goes into the prisons as well to work alongside the reentry efforts of the state.
These are the reentry courses going on at Limestone Correctional Facility. The inmates here are within six months of their E-O-S or end of sentence. Mary Weston is the Pre-Release Program Supervisor at Limestone. She says there are a number of courses the inmates are required to take as part of their re-entry process…
“So its family reintegration, anger management, substance abuse, along those lines; everything that is a criminogenic behaviors and needs is what we focus on in the core curriculum.”
There are also elective courses to help prepare them as well…
“It’s G-E-D, RTW which is a ready to work certificate, they can take art therapy, we also have a book club and probably twenty different alternative classes they can take in the afternoon.”
The Limestone facility has room for three hundred inmates who are “E-O-S-ing” and the re-entry program here often takes on prisoners from other sites across the state. She says some of the ones that have the hardest time transitioning are the people who have been locked up for a long time…
“If you have an inmate who has been in a long time, you know the world has moved on, things have changed, so it tries to help from a cognitive behavior standpoint where they can help process information better, make better decision, make better choices. The goal here is to reduce recidivism rates, to help them stay out and be productive members of society and to reintegrate back with their families.”
Weston says it is ultimately up to the person whether or not they succeed upon release. Daryl Atkinson is taking up that challenge. He was sentenced to ten years for a nonviolent first offense drug crime. He served just over three years before he was released. He says he had an advantage that many others do not…
“Fortunate enough for me I had a loving family to provide me food, clothing, shelter, help fund my college education, and I went back to school and got my associates degree, my bachelors degree, my law degree, I’m licensed to practice law in Minnesota and North Carolina.”
That could be taken as bragging, but Atkinson says it’s not…
“I highlight those particular ticks on the resume not to illustrate any exceptional attributes that I have, I’m pretty average. I left a hundred brilliant men behind the wall. The only thing that separates me from them is that support system.”
Despite all the effort, Alabama still has a recidivism rate of almost thirty percent. So, for just about every Daryl Atkinson, there’s another person who has done time breaking the law again, costing the state more tax dollars as they’re arrested, tried, convicted, and sent to prison.