A NEW WAY OF LIFE: HELPING WOMEN ON THE OUTSIDE
in a story for Cosmopolitan, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky takes a look at how critical reentry programs are to combatting the nation’s sky-high recidivism rates, with a particular focus on women.
If they are lucky, when women are released from prison (and jail), they will be connected with services and programs to help them successfully reenter their communities. And while reentry and rehabilitation offerings are growing, the majority of women leaving prison still don’t receive the help they need to make it on the outside. More than half of women return to prison within five years.
In South LA, one sober-living transitional housing program,a New Way of Life (ANWOL), has an 80% success rate, and has helped more than 750 women reintegrate, go back to school, find jobs, stay sober, and navigate the piles of treatments and classes and meetings with their probation and parole officers.
ANWOL’s founder, Susan Burton, has a personal knowledge of prison’s revolving door, having cycled in and out of lock-up herself for 15 years.
Here are some clips from Friedman-Rudovsky’s story:
Tiffany Johnson felt excited, scared, and a little incredulous on the day she was released from Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the world. She’d done 16 years of her life sentence, which she got for killing her mother’s boyfriend — the man she says raped her every day from age 5 to age 10. As Tiffany exited the prison gates, two thoughts ran through her mind: “I can’t believe this is happening” and “It’s a trick.”
A few hours later, the mixed emotions distilled into fear. “I tried to take a shower,” recalled Tiffany of that April 2010 night. She turned on the water, but it came out from the tub faucet below and she couldn’t figure out how to get it to flow from above. “I cried and cried,” she said. “I felt like if this is a problem, just turning on a shower, what else am I going to run into? What other struggles am I going to have?”
The list began with the mundane, like learning to use a cell phone and getting used to closing a door herself to be alone in a room. Then there were real challenges. As a felon, she was banned from most low-income housing, and finding a job seemed near impossible. In prison she had become an expert electrician, supervising and training the other women in her penitentiary’s electrical sector. Yet every time she applied for a job, she had to check a box admitting her criminal history and never even got interviews. She finally contacted the electronic company her prison subcontractor supplied, figuring they’d give her a chance. “They didn’t,” Tiffany, now 46, said, rolling her eyes. “I served my time and I was out. But it didn’t matter. It’s like I was still serving a life sentence.”
“Effective reentry programs are the exception to the rule in terms of women’s transitions back into society,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based criminal justice research and advocacy organization. Hundreds of these programs have sprouted up over the years, but the supply is not nearly enough to deal with the demand, and few prison systems have adequate prerelease programs that inform women about their options. Though prisoners’ rights advocates hold prerelease seminars when they can, often inmates are left to find out about these services through word of mouth or chance. Tiffany learned about ANWOL from an offhand comment by a member of her parole board.
Though no one keeps track of the exact number of people released into reentry programs in the U.S., experts say the vast majority of newly released people land on their own and on the street. Women face all the challenges men do, plus added pitfalls, including limited job options, specialized housing needs, and social stigma. “Compared to 20 years ago, we have a greater understanding and concern about the situation for women,” Mauer said. But, he added, there’s a long way to go.
Most parole and probation arrangements demand regular compliance checks, drug tests, limited contact with possible co-conspirators, restrictions on travel, group meetings, and frequent in-person reporting, on top of finding a job and place to live. “Who knows where she slept last night and you’re asking her to do all this?” said Evelyn Ayala, ANWOL’s case manager supervisor. “Disaster waiting to happen.”
Release practices are just part of the problem, Mauer of the Sentencing Project said. “Almost all our correctional systems say they are committed to reentry,” he said, “but the scale of what they do in practice is often pretty modest.” The trouble, he explained, is twofold: not enough programming to prepare women (or men) before they are released and the availability of services once they get out.
“When you get listed on parole, they are supposed to tell you everything that is available to you,” Tiffany said. “They don’t tell you all that. They just inform you that you have the right to get assistance from the parole agent.”
OBAMA BACKS SMARTER SENTENCING ACT TO CUT MANDATORY MINIMUM DRUG SENTENCES
President Barack Obama says he wants the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act to pass. (If you’re unfamiliar, the proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, would cut certain mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses in half.)
Obama expressed his support of the bill at a meeting with members of Congress to discuss ways to fix the nation’s broken criminal justice system.
USA Today’s Gregory Korte has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:
White House spokesman Frank Benenati said Wednesday that the White House is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but that “it certainly appears” that the Labrador proposal meshes with the president’s aims to “make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of enforcement resources.”
Obama has signaled his support for sentencing changes as recently as Monday, when he praised governors who had signed similar bills at a White House dinner.
“Last year was the first time in 40 years that the federal incarceration rate and the crime rate went down at the same time,” Obama said. “Let’s keep that progress going, and reform our criminal justice system in ways that protect our citizens and serves us all.”
Labrador said that’s an important point for Obama to make. “The main obstacle is the perception that sentencing reform will lead to more crime. And I think the opposite is true,” he said. “The concern is that we want to continue to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime.”
“There’s a profound zeitgeist. There’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come,” Booker said. “Well, this idea is coming and that power I think is gonna push something good through Congress.”
ONLY 4.7% OF CA’S FREED THIRD-STRIKERS RETURNED TO PRISON…10 TIMES HIGHER SUCCESS RATE THAN THE REST OF CA PRISONERS
Since the 2012 passage of Prop 36 (the Three Strikes Reform Act), more than 2000 inmates serving life-sentences for low-level “third-strike” offenses have been resentenced and released in California.
An average of 18 months after being freed, only 4.7% of former third-strikers are locked up again for new crimes, compared with the rest of California’s prison population, which has a recidivism rate of about 45% a year and a half after release. And when third-strikers return to lock-up, it is most often for a drug or burglary offenses.
Erik Eckholm, in today’s front-page NY Times story has more on the former lifers and why they are triumphing over the statistics. Here’s how it opens:
William Taylor III, once a lifer in state prison for two robbery convictions and the intent to sell a small packet of heroin, was savoring a moment he had scarcely dared to imagine: his first day alone, in a place of his own.
“I love the apartment,” he said of the subsidized downtown studio, which could barely contain the double bed he insisted on having. “And I love that I’m free after 18 years of being controlled.”
“My window has blinds, and I can open and close them!” he exclaimed to visitors the other day, reveling in an unaccustomed, and sometimes scary, sense of autonomy.
Mr. Taylor, 58, is one of more than 2,000 former inmates who were serving life terms under California’s three-strikes law, but who were freed early after voters scaled it back in 2012. Under the original law, repeat offenders received life sentences, with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years, even if the third felony was as minor as shoplifting.
Formerly branded career criminals, those released over the last two years have returned to crime at a remarkably low rate — partly because they aged in prison, experts say, and participation in crime declines steadily after age 25, but also because of the intense practical aid and counseling many have received. And California’s experience with the release of these inmates provides one way forward as the country considers how to reduce incarceration without increasing crime.
“I hope the enduring lesson is that all of these people are not hopeless recidivists,” said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, which provides legal aid to prisoners and training to public defenders.
FREE MINDS INSPIRES TEENS BEHIND BARS, AND HELPS THEM ACHIEVE THEIR DREAMS ONCE RELEASED
In Washington DC, a non-profit jail book club, Free Minds, uses poetry as an emotional and creative outlet for teens behind bars, and provides them with a support system of reentry services and fellow alumni to keep each other on track and motivated (and to eat pancakes and share poetry with) once they are released. We’ve covered the healing power of poetry before: here, and here.)
The Washington Post’s Robert Samuels has more on the program, and the teens and young men who benefit from it. Here’s a clip:
…they stick together. The support system that strengthened them then is the one they are counting on to help them now that they’re out. The unlikely community has become an unlikely lifeline, as they try to defy the patterns that send ex-offenders back to jail.
They fall into a high-risk category: Juveniles tried as adults are 34 percent more likely than youth tried as juveniles to return to prison, according to a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The alumni of the book club have no interest in becoming part of this statistic. So they work together to create goals. They applaud when someone meets his goal, such as when Barksdale got a job working full time as a city maintenance worker. They share job leads and work out together and meet up for pancakes.
They particularly like to lead writing workshops, which is why they are at this English class on a January day.
Barksdale recites a poem he wrote in his sixth year of prison, at 22:
“The things we took up are guns, knives and bats, yeah, we be armed and strong
But how do you know it’s not right if you’re being taught wrong?”
BOOSTS TO ARTS EDUCATION IN LA, INCLUDING PARTNERSHIPS WITH COMMUNITY ARTS PROGRAMS
The Los Angeles Unified School district is seeking to re-establish community arts education partnerships (once spurned) to bring art back into classrooms. The school district is also developing a formula to allocate arts funds more appropriately to schools and that need it most.
KPCC’s Mary Plummer has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:
Pullens lauded the district’s recent announcement clearing the way for arts funding for low-income students, and pointed to new allocations this year that helped some of the district’s schools purchase items like art supplies.
He also said the district is working on a school survey to create an arts equity index that will change the way the district allocates arts funds. The index would measure how well schools are providing arts instruction and arts access to students. Originally planned for release last year, the index is now expected next month.
But Pullens also painted a grim picture of the district’s current arts offerings. He said about a third of the district’s middle schools currently offer little or no exposure to the arts. Some of the district’s students can go through both elementary and middle school without taking a single arts class, he said. Because of gaps in arts instruction, students who start learning an instrument in elementary school, for example, might not have classes to continue music study in their middle or high schools.