By JB Clark
Almost all of Mississippi’s 25,000 prisoners will be released from prison at some point and many of them will end up staying in prison longer than needed or returning to prison after release because they have no real path back into society.
A criminal justice task force whose recommendations are making their way through the Legislature believes investing in re-entry programs for prisoners is a sure way to save money and enhance lives over the long haul.
Each year approximately 10,000 inmates are released from Mississippi prisons, 60 percent between the ages of 20 and 40 and having served between three and 10 years in prison.
The vast majority are nonviolent offenders. Almost one in every three of returns to jail within three years, representing a huge human and financial cost to the state.
One of those prisoners, who will be referred to as John since he requested his name not be used while in Mississippi Department of Corrections custody, is a 49-year-old resident of the Lee County Jail where he is awaiting a bed in a restitution center – even though he was released on probation in 2011.
He was allowed to work and live in Alabama, where his family lives, but an assault charge brought him back to Mississippi. Though he was never convicted and the charge was dropped, the charge was a technical violation of parole and required him to stay in the state. Since he has no permanent address in Mississippi, he must serve out his sentence in a restitution center.
John’s problem isn’t unique. When a prisoner is released in any early release program, his community supervision officer generally requires him to maintain a steady job, maintain a steady residence and pay some sort of monthly assessment.
John, who served five years in prison for larceny, said his employment prospects when released were “none,” despite being an experienced carpenter.
“Getting out and having fines without access to a job is real hard and probably took me about six months before I could get situated,” he said. “It’s difficult because a lot of companies won’t hire a felon.”
While more than 60 percent of people in MDOC custody are out of prison in a community supervision program, only 7 percent of the department’s budget is allocated for those programs.
Two Jackson-based nonprofit organizations work with MDOC to provide beds, counseling and job support to these ex-convicts but they are the only two comprehensive organizations in the state and each can only house between 50 and 70 prisoners at a time, leaving a great need for re-entry and workforce programming for newly freed prisoners.
The biggest problem facing recently released inmates is access to their legal documentation (driver’s license, Social Security card, birth certificate) and the unwillingness of employers to hire someone with a felony record.
Larry Perry, CEO of New Way Mississippi in Jackson, said he often talks to employers who claim willingness to support or hire former inmates in transition, “but when the rubber meets the road, the ex-offender can have more work experience and a better education level than another mediocre applicant but the mediocre guy is going to get the job.”
To remedy the problem of finding employment for the men in his program, Perry started a thrift store in McComb and a general contracting company.
He uses the contracting company, Labor Resource Management, to give the men in his program employment and work experience/history while giving the companies who hire them the peace of mind knowing the contract work is insured through a liability policy.
The men in his program stay from four months to a year and can stay as long as they are following the rules and searching for or maintaining employment.
Similarly, Mississippi Prison Industries Corporation houses former inmates and provides counseling and job support programming while the residents search for a job.
Charles Pickering, program manager for MPIC, said its biggest focus when a person is released from prison is gathering all of the documentation, like a birth certificate, so the person can begin the process of applying for a job.
The average stay at MPIC is six months, but a resident in a temporary position working toward a permanent job can stay longer.
Pickering said they have had many employers in the Jackson area to employ their residents and help the men get back on their feet. But over time, he said, many of the employers have been discouraged when one receives his first paycheck, gets a hotel room and doesn’t show up for work or leaves Jackson to return to his family.
He said they also have many men succeed, like one he spoke with Thursday.
“A guy from Lauderdale County came to us with a restitution amount of $3,000 (owed),” Pickering said. “He got a job working for MDOT and was able to pay off his fine. He still has that job today and was able to transition back to his family in Meridian.”
The Mississippi Department of Corrections also provides a re-entry program to inmates in the year before their release, giving them remedial education courses and social and job skills. The program graduates 30 inmates per month on average.
Pickering said they have found a recently released inmate’s chances of re-offending greatly increase if they have not found some form of employment within 45 days.
“Most of these guys aren’t going to be employed by conventional employers and when a guy doesn’t have an opportunity for employment, that’s a recipe for recidivism,” Perry said. “If you don’t have a job, you’re going to get money somehow and nine in ten times that’s through illegal activities.”
MDOC provides money to the two programs at a rate of about $20 per resident per day compared to the $42 daily cost of housing an inmate in a state prison.
The Mississippi Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force recommendations currently before the Mississippi Legislature suggest money saved by implementing sentencing and corrections reforms be reinvested into re-entry programs.
The task force recommended mandatory re-entry planning for all offenders, including a pre-release assessment to identify the inmate’s ability to meet their basic needs and a written discharge plan. The plan also emphasized the importance of increasing the capacity of residential re-entry services.
Mississippi’s only full scale re-entry centers operate out of Jackson, limiting access and effectiveness on the centers for anyone needing to transition into other parts of the state. With about 100 beds focused on men coming out of early release programs, there is also a significant lack of access to re-entry programs for the thousands of other inmates released each year, causing many to be thrown into society after spending years behind bars.
To aid in reentry and prevent the cycle of re-offending, the Criminal Justice Task Force recommended inmates like John, who violate a small technical term of their release, be sent to short-term revocation centers where the probationer or parolee can receive training and treatment while serving a short amount of time for his violation.
The task force also recommended all inmates be required to complete a pre-release assessment when admitted to prison and be required to complete all of the recommended programming, like job training or educational courses, before becoming eligible for early release programs like probation and parole.
Finally, the task force recommended all inmates be put in contact with a support organization within 24 hours of release.
A new Re-entry Council has also been developed in Mississippi, headed by U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., U.S. Attorney Greg Davis and Attorney General Jim Hood. The council will work to develop practices for evaluating prisoners, providing appropriate rehabilitation resources in prison and connecting released inmates with re-entry programs after prison.
Perry said these efforts to expand re-entry centers should help lower recidivism and suggested expanding the state’s reentry centers, like his, into other regions of the state.