Why Released Felons Fail

stacked_odds2by Sarah Scarbrough

Society chastises criminals, felons, addicts and others getting out of jail. The average citizen today thinks this population consists of bad guys. Why should people care about repeat offenders? They deserve to be locked up and the key thrown away. But in the next breath, people decry generational cycles of criminality and the high rates of recidivism.

Have you ever thought the two might go hand in hand?

It isn’t easy to escape the cycle. Let me present three situations that will make you think in a different vein – and, if not, at least give you food for thought. The stories below are true; some names have been changed to protect their identity.

Meet Scott. He’s a 39-year-old African American male. Scott met a girl that he really fell for. He was over 18; she was just shy of 18 years old. The girl’s mom didn’t like Scott, not one bit. She threatened him if they didn’t break up. Scott cared too much for the girl to leave her, so the mom filed charges against him for having sex with her underage daughter. At this point, in 1998, Scott was put behind bars. Criminality began with narcotics and related charges over the next 18 years.

Scott just finished serving 24 months for a hit and run. While he was locked up this time he did everything he could to rehabilitate himself. He worked extremely hard, and seven days a week. Many people recognized his work and he received constant commendations. As Scott neared release, however, he had nowhere to go. He literally was going to be homeless after release. He did not have one single person to call for help, not even someone to pick him up after he was released. He had four t-shirts and three boxers to his name – that is it. No socks, shoes, or pants. No money either, not a penny.

Scott seemed destined to live on the street corner somewhere, maybe under a bridge if it was raining. Fortunately, he was such a hard worker and had reached out for help to so many jail staff while incarcerated that donations came in like crazy. (The picture above shows the donations.) He received two bus tickets as well. But he was had nowhere to live. Not only did he not have money to fund a place, but he was a sex offender, making it close to impossible to find his own place. Because he was going to be on state supervision, he was set up to stay in a local hotel. Between the donations, including some non-perishable food items, and the hotel, we thought he would do OK. Little did we know the continued obstacles he would face.

Scott had no refrigerator or microwave in his hotel room, thus preparing food was tough. He did not have any money – literally not a dime. How was he supposed to eat? Open a a can of green beans and eat straight out of the can. Or eat protein bars for all three meals? He could not eat the mac ‘n cheese because he couldn’t heat the noodles. There were roaches covering his hotel room – on the first morning at the hotel he killed over 50 roaches (not an exaggeration). He needed to get a state ID to get food stamps. Well, the ID costs $15. He then needed a document from the Virginia State Police to get the ID. That cost $30. With no money, how could he get these items? Without these items he couldn’t get food stamps. Without the food stamps, he could not to eat. Without an ID he couldn’t get a job either. Wow, talk about setting someone up for failure. No wonder some many people have trouble breaking the cycle.

Fortunately, someone he networked with while in jail took Scott under his wing. His friend paid for the ID and the state police document, bought him McDonalds for lunch on the day of release, and bought him Wendy’s for lunch the next day. Wow, thank goodness he found this person. But not everyone in Scott’s position finds someone to help. If he hadn’t had this person helping him, it would have been next to impossible to escape the cycle. Sadly, the person who took Scott under his wing stated to me via text, “He seems depressed. He’s been institutionalized. He’s on his own, with nobody and he’s lonely. To top it off, HE KNOWS HE HAD IT BETTER IN JAIL.”

Wow, he had it better in jail. But it makes sense. Three meals, heat, and a roof over his head with no roaches, all of his basic needs were taken care of. Despite these obstacles, Scott began working on his forklift certificate after release, got a job interview in two days seven days after release, and landed another job interview later in the week. This is awesome. But how hard will it be for Scott to succeed considering everything is working against him?

Next, meet Aziz (his real name), a 54-year-old man. His father died when he was 13 and he felt like it was his responsibility to support his mom and siblings. Living in the projects in the Bronx, he turned to the streets. He found fatherhood in the streets, something he longed for because it was not present at home. He sold drugs so he could help his mother pay the bills. He then became his best customer. Then he became hooked on crack and heroin. He ended up in Richmond because of the large drug market in the city.

When not incarcerated, Aziz was homeless for eight years. He frequented Monroe Park and smiddies (abandoned buildings). He frequented homeless shelters when it was cold. About a year and a half ago, I met Aziz while he was locked up. He was one of the angriest people I had ever met. The hate vibrated in his voice if he said something as simple as hi.

Aziz became a part of a program-housing unit while in jail. Slowly, he came around. He ended up becoming a top performer in his rehabilitative and behavioral modification program. Because of his tremendous progress, Aziz was one of the two people followed and spotlighted by Lisa Ling when she came to Richmond to record for her CNN Show, This Life with Lisa Ling, in the jail. (Air date: October 21 at 9 p.m. on CNN). As exciting as this was, when he was released in August, he went back to his house with his wife and kids, his house in the middle of the projects. The house was not in the best condition when he arrived. He did a major cleaning, throwing away big bags of trash. Mattresses were trashed too because of bed bugs. (Family members sleep on the floor).

Because of the Lisa Ling show and the great impact he had on her, some amazing things occurred, including an appearance on the Steve Harvey show (more on this later in the month). Someone has offered to help him financially move out of the projects. That sounds great in theory, but how do you expect someone who has been homeless and living in the projects his whole life to find a place outside that environment? It seems so simple to many, but for Aziz and his family, it is a struggle. They are so anxious to move out of the projects, but have no clue on how to. And, he must find a place that he can afford when this funding source runs out. The location must be on the bus line as well, as he does not have a license.

The final story is about is Lewis. Lewis did well and worked hard while incarcerated. He, too, will be homeless upon release if someone doesn’t help. But he is a sex offender and has no money. There is potential funding available which could help him with housing until he gets a job (much like with Scott being put up in a hotel). However, we have been told because he continually has been locked up for absconding, he will be referred to the homeless shelter upon release and until he proves he wants to do something different. So, how is anything going to change for Lewis? He is being sent to the homeless shelter where people are strung out on drugs and drunk. At the shelter he will be surrounded by the people he was hanging with before getting locked up.

Placing someone in the same circumstances surrounded by the same people does not sound like a formula for success. Lewis doesn’t have the “angel” that Scott has, so he will be left on his own to navigate. Without a cent to his name, how will he even begin the process?

These stories only reflect those getting out of jail – they don’t even touch on folks getting out of prison. That is another post for another week. But, the bottom line is 95% of people locked up will be released into our community. They will shop at the same stores we do, their kids/grandkids will go to our kids’ school, they will go to our churches, and more. Yet, everything is stacked against them. The likelihood of failure is high. Nothing is impossible, but what is the likelihood of breaking the cycle when this is the reality?

Sarah Scarbrough is internal program director for the Richmond City Justice Center. This essay was originally published on her blog.

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9 responses to “Why Released Felons Fail

  1. lost some empathy on the the hit and run part…

  2. This is like a lot of society’s ills that make me shake my head appalled at the inadequacy and sometime stupidity of our response. Yes, Sarah, you make a good case for not sweeping these societal problems away in prison and forgetting about what the people involved face on re-entry into the world.

    But what to do about it? Are these problems that government can and should be addressing, and if so, how? Most of us lived through the Johnson ‘war on poverty’ years without a feeling of satisfaction about those programs. Most of us reading this blog, I suspect, tend to believe the ‘school of hard knocks’ is at the bottom for a reason, because that’s where you have to go to realize that life could be better if you chose to live differently. LarryG catches this thought: some of the crimes committed caused inexcusable harm and have diminished or erased any desire the public might have had to reach out. Others were not so heinous, but criminal justice is how we deal with crime; we can’t constantly revisit every result.

    Your implied answer seems to be, grit one’s teeth and reach out to released criminals anyway because it’s counterproductive not to, because recidivism is expensive as well as inhumane. That’s a broad-brush message. What do you need people like us to do?

  3. well.. we have more people in prison than any other country in the world including the despotic regimes.

    we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the prisoners.

    Acbar acts like govt is being asked to do something as if govt did not have a hand in creating the problem to start with.

    Our schools are set up to teach to the easy-to-teach kids headed for college. We don’t do near as good a job with kids of economically disadvantaged circumstances.

    In fact, we do so badly that many of them “graduate” functionally illiterate and unable to get a job – and once you hit that point – the chances of you getting involved in things that will get you drawn into the criminal justice system are very high.

    And once you are drawn into that system – you are, for all intent and purposes, “done”.

    You likely won’t be hired and if you are – the employer, more likely than not, will treat you like you have no other options for employment…not dissimilar to illegals status that renders them akin to slave labor.

    Jim likes to talk about how govt taxes divert money from the economy and he’s right. That money “creates” jobs for prisons instead – the biggest employer in Va and we end up spending MORE to warehouse non-violent “criminals” than if we gave them welfare and a make-work job.

    and our answer to this is what?

    the answer is we ask others what we are supposed to do – different than what we are doing now…. that we’re doing all we know how to do.

    So when we talk about the things that hinder our country – it comes down to ” we have no choice but to imprison people and pay taxes out the wazoo to keep them imprisoned”.

    have to say.. if that’s our answer, I don’t have much confidence in us solving the other big problems of the day – either.

    we seem incapable of doing anything but clinging to the status quo – and making heartfelt apologies..

    ouch ouch ouch!

  4. We need to create a modern program like the CCC for non-violent folks who have been caught up in our criminal justice system.

    Funding it would not be any more expensive than what we are doing now – we’d just be spending money for a more effective purpose.

    We have tremendous needs from rebuilding bridges and roads, rehabilitating our National Parks – and community-serving things like food banks, caring for the elderly and even child care.

    Such a program would serve two critical needs:

    1. – it would intercept any newly-released parole who have no real job prospects.

    2. -it will allow them to build a work history that then could be used to compete for a non-govt job in the marketplace.

    3 – it will be actually helping our real needs

    4. – most important – it will engender a since of value and pride in doing a good job that is actually a needed job – that can do wonders for anyone – as we all need to feel we are doing useful work that benefits others.

    5. it will also present a real choice to folks as to where they want to go with the rest of their lives. Some will choose wrong and get drawn back into bad outcomes. Others – will escape a pre-ordained dead end to life.

    Is this a proper thing for govt and taxpayers to be doing?

    and I go back and ask – as opposed to what we are doing right now?

    give me a better alternative..

    we’re pretty good at tearing things apart these days. We’d not so good at building things up. This is building something.

  5. I have another suggestion also. You DO NOT house non-violent prisoners in the same prison with violent offenders.

    Don’t talk to me about cost. It’s just plain dumb to put non-violent folks with short-term sentences in the same prison with hardened, violent folks who will never be released.

    Next – non-violent folks should be able to attend vocational ed, community college or work-release – as long as they don’t re-offend.

    Our current ” do we care about folks in prison and even if we did – what should we do” mindset when at the same time we are hot to trot about taxes, entitlements and just butt ugly politics really illustrates how misguided we have become in our society itself.

    We “care” about taxation and govt waste and bureaucracy but we don’t care near as much about consigning non-violent folks (and their kids) to a lifetime of an unproductive life – and we pick up the costs….

    No, I’m not expecting nirvana and I do not think govt should spend endlessly for “feel good “free stuff” but our current approach to education of the economically disadvantaged who then become unemployable convicts for life and who then bring a next generation of doomed kids into that same world – is fiscally dumb – irresponsibly so yet we seem incapable of doing anything about it.

  6. Perhaps, we need some type of transitional corrections for non-violent offenders who are nearing the end of their sentences. This might include living in a lower security prison; working for higher wages for contractors (a business that agrees to hire non-violent offenders in transition; being required to pay at least some of their upkeep; and the like. The transition from prison to the streets or even a half-way house may be too extreme to navigate.

  7. I think we need to RE-THINK the whole concept of imprisoning non-violent folks.

    If you can teach a person a real skill that they can make a living off of – they actually have to choose to not do that . Those that choose to leave the legitimate job – probably are not going to get fixed easily.

    but how many – if they had a real job – would stay? How many who have a real job right now – throw it away and go to illegal behaviors?

    Forget morality or feeling sorry for anyone. Look at this in the prism of the hard reality of costs…. do we want a cost-effective approach to criminal behavior or do we want to continue to imprison as many as we can and pay whatever costs associated with it – and wring our hands about how incapable we are of doing anything about it?

    I LIKE the CCC approach because it guarantees a job – no matter what employers do or not. Those than can get a job with a conventional employer – fine – do it. But those that cannot – if we abandon them – we’re basically agreeing for them to re-offend and go back to prison.

    we assuage our own role in this by saying it’s the fault of the convicted but we all know the truth – which is, if you are a convicted felon – you’re probably not going to get a job and you’re likely to end up back in prison – and we’re paying for all of this…

    we have more employees in the state of Va for prisons than anything else.

    we PAY MORE to keep someone in prison than if they were out and we’d be paying them entitlements!

    we own these costs and we own the reasons why we own these costs.

    • Larry, I think you are ignoring the great harm that non-violent crime can cause to victims when the crime involves theft or fraud. I agree that a first-time offender who commits a non-violent crime is a good candidate for a sentence that does not involve substantial incarceration. But multiple offenders and those who regularly commit acts of theft or fraud need time behind bars.

  8. @TMT – some folks are no damn good… that’s true.

    but too many got born into bad circumstances and never escaped it – either.

    I STILL would like to see most all of the non-violent put to work.

    keep them away from the violent and lifetime convicts…

    give them work – give them the opportunity to learn something they can make a living at – and give them the opportunity to stop stealing from others…

    but yes.. some folks just are not going to do what’s right -and that includes some who never go to jail but have learned how to take from others in ways they don’t get caught.

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