Out of prison -- now what? Reentry programs help those returning to community life

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By Elia Powers

St. Louis Beacon

When Clark Porter, a job and family specialist with the U.S. Probation Office, looks across his desk at a client who's just been released from prison, he recognizes the skeptical stare that's often directed at him.

Nearly a decade ago, that was Porter sitting in the other chair, just out of confinement and wondering what kind of invasive monitoring he could expect from the government official assigned to his case. But when the initial conversation with his probation officer had nothing to do with rules, he was taken by surprise.

"What do you want for you?" Porter remembers the officer asking.

"I figured this person was going to be my enemy, but I thought to myself, 'OK, he wants to talk about me,'" Porter recalls thinking.

"What do you want for you?" Porter repeated. It was a daunting question. He paused for a few seconds and then told the officer about his goals: finding a permanent place to live, going back to school and eventually getting a steady job.

Porter has found that stability, and he credits the U.S. Probation Office with helping him stay on course. He's now the one asking recently released prisoners what they want for themselves. Their responses are often familiar. So too, in some instances, are their faces.

"One guy [a client of Porter's] had been in with me," he said. "We literally walked the same prison together, hung out together and trash talked together. He sees me now and says, 'I can't believe it.' I say that I'm just trying to help him get himself together."

Such is the purpose of programs that seek to help ex-convicts make the transition from prison to their lives on the outside. It's a complex process that often involves a mix of career and personal counseling, as well as coordination with landlords, employers and mental-health officials.

Determining how government agencies, advocacy groups and faith-based organizations can collaborate to help recently released prisoners was the focus of a seminar Tuesday at St. Louis Community College's Florissant Valley campus. The first-ever gathering, called the St. Louis Alliance For Reentry Launch Summit, attracted nearly 300 people with experience helping ex-prisoners return to society.

Those involved in the conference said that reentry programs are both a social service and a long-term financial investment -- when ex-offenders re-offend, it adds to the growing cost of running prisons. (The Missouri Department of Corrections reports that it costs $16,458 to keep a person incarcerated for a year.)

Porter in many ways represents a typical beneficiary of prisoner reentry programs. He's a black male who dropped out of high school and received little support from his parents. These are common attributes among the prisoner population, said Douglas W. Burris, chief probation officer for the U.S. Probation Office's Eastern District of Missouri.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, roughly one in three black males, one in six Hispanic males and one in 17 white males will go to prison during their lifetime if current incarceration rates remain unchanged.

"Blacks are so much more likely than whites to be incarcerated and the reasons for that and the consequences of that for neighborhoods and for returning prisoners are important to consider," said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "The whole issue of prisoner reentry, leaving prison and reentering the community, is a very hot topic and a very important one,"

BARRIERS TO EARNING AN INCOME

Beth Huebner, an associate professor and director of graduate programs at UMSL's department of criminology and criminal justice, has spent years studying what happens to ex-offenders released back into society.

Huebner said it's important first to consider the experience many minorities have in the criminal justice system. She points to research showing that even after controlling for factors in personal history that correlate with criminal activity, minorities are still more likely to go to prison for a longer time.

"That's huge in terms of relationships and employment, being away from the community for longer," Huebner said.

The relationship between race and parole outcomes is murkier. Some research has found that minorities are less likely to be paroled than whites, while other studies have failed to identify such a link. In a study she co-authored on sex offenders,  Huebner wrote that "parole board members consider race and ethnicity when making decisions, but assessments of community protection, particularly as it relates to institutional misconduct and victim age, appear to supersede race-ethnicity."

It is clear that minorities are more likely than others to return to prison after being released, Huebner said.

Whether a person finds a job upon release is often a good predictor of recidivism. The Missouri Department of Corrections reports that 54 percent of people without full-time work return to prison, while only 14 percent with a full-time job do so. Similarly, U.S. Probation Office data from 2002-6 show that people who were employed shortly after being released from prison and who stayed employed were far less likely to go back.

But employers are less likely to hire people with criminal records, according to Huebner. Looking at data from a longitudinal survey that began when participants were teenagers or in their 20s in the late 1970s, she found that prior incarceration reduced the odds of full-time employment by 21 percent and marriage by 8 percent.

And if a person is a minority, "the challenge of finding a job becomes even greater," Huebner said.

In a study of race and the low-wage job market in New York City, Princeton University sociologist Devah Pager instructed a young white male to reveal a fictional felony conviction during a series of job interviews. A young black counterpart with similar qualifications applied to the same jobs but revealed no criminal record. The outcome: The white applicant fared "just as well, if not better than" his black counterpart with no criminal record.

"These results suggest that employers view minority job applicants as essentially equivalent to whites just out of prison," Pager writes. It is hardly surprising, then, that it is particularly hard for young black men to find work after they have been incarcerated.

Huebner's decade-long look into employment statistics in Michigan and Missouri shows that minorities also earn lower wages than other ex-convicts.

These trends are only amplified in the current economy, in which applicants with criminal records are likely to find themselves at the bottom of an increasingly thick resume pile.

"Offenders usually come to prison with few work skills, which is a huge disadvantage in this economy," Huebner said. "The service jobs that most people out of prison are doing are harder to get now because of the tough job market."

Sara McCoy is finding that to be true. Convicted on felony drug charges, she served more than three years in prison and was released in 2005. Now she said she's having a hard time finding work in food service.

McCoy took part in a program run through St. Louis Community College that trains ex-offenders in the culinary arts and helps them with job placement. Right now, she is focused on finding volunteer work that can help lead to a paid position.

"The barrier for me is the felony; you don't find too many workplaces that will look past that," McCoy said.

Added Julie Kempker, director of prisoner reentry for the Missouri Department of Corrections: "There's a risk in hiring people who have made poor decisions. We tell them to be honest about your past conviction and promote what you can bring to the table."

WORKING THEIR WAY BACK

George A. Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, downplays the importance of race when it comes to ex-offenders' employment prospects. "The ex-offender status is the great equalizer," he said. "Anyone with that tag has a tough time getting a job."

Burris said he hasn't noticed that minority job applicants supervised by his office have a tougher time finding a job or that they earn less when they are hired.

Added Porter: Minority ex-prisoners "might have a hard time finding work, and we're not discounting that, but it's also about attitude. What I push is that in spite of being African-American, in spite of having a criminal record, you have to put yourself in a position to be prepared for a job opportunity."

The U.S. Probation Office's Eastern District of Missouri was the first district to start a prisoner reentry program specifically for finding jobs for recently released prisoners, Burris said. For the past decade, officers like Porter have worked with the ex-convicts on interviewing and other job readiness skills, as well as applying to jobs that fit their interest.

And it's not just about finding any position. "We have found that people who get the minimum-wage fast food jobs fail because they look for ways to supplement their income and often it turns to something illegal," Burris said.

The probation office has developed relationships with area employers, among them a plumbing company, a local hospital and government agencies, that regularly hire people who go through its program.

"Some hire quite a few of our people but have made it clear they don't want to be the poster child for hiring ex-criminals, but others proudly tell people these are some of our best employees," Burris said.

Employers are eligible to receive up to $2,400 in federal tax credits for hiring an ex-offender, Burris said. There's also a bond program in which the federal government guarantees reimbursement to employers if an ex-convict employee steals from them.

Even before a released prisoner enters the reentry program, Burris and Porter said they can often predict who will be able to find a stable job. They are the ones who took advantage of the vocational training and other classes available in prison. Burris said more than half of people go into prison without the equivalent of a high school diploma, but the majority of them end up earning a GED while incarcerated. Those who don't get that credential will likely earn minimum wage, bounce from job to job and have a higher likelihood of returning to prison, Burris said.

Ex-prisoners who don't find a job often enroll in an apprenticeship or training program, many of which require a GED. Funds from the federal Workforce Investment Act go toward helping recently released prisoners pay for these training programs.

Burris said the economic downturn has made it more difficult for some of the office's clients to find work. However, while the unemployment rate has recently doubled to 5.6 percent for the people his office supervises, that's still well below the regional unemployment rate.

'I'M NOT HIRING YOU TO BE AN EX-OFFENDER'

One of Burris' priorities when he became chief probation officer was to hire more minority employees. He said there was one black staff member when he arrived; now about one-third of the 108 employees in the district are black.

Burris said he hired Porter because of his academic credentials and his experience working with people in high-risk populations.

"I immediately saw that he would have credibility with the people we supervise," Burris said. "I sat him down and said, 'Clark, I'm hiring you to be a professional. I'm not hiring you to be an ex-offender."

Porter said he has taken that message to heart. It's easy for him to empathize with the ex-prisoners he helps supervise, but he tries not to rely on personal anecdotes.

"I never try to say, 'Look at me, look at how I did this or when I was in your position I handled it this way,'" Porter said. "I'm just trying to help them get started with the rest of their lives. They all have unique cases, so what good is it to say, 'When I was in your shoes?'"

Given the strikes against Porter, it would be hard to predict that he'd end up in this position.

Porter was one of seven children, and he spent the majority of his youth living in foster care. He said he "got tired of that system and ran away," and soon thereafter began committing juvenile offenses that landed him in custody.

Almost 25 years ago, when Porter was 17, he and an accomplice were caught robbing a downtown post office. He served 15 years of a 35-year sentence - including time in super-maximum prison after multiple disciplinary violations -- and was released in 2001.

After being released, Porter found a place to live on his own, went to regular therapy sessions and found a job within weeks working at a restaurant.

Porter, who had earned his GED while incarcerated (he dropped out of school in ninth grade), began taking classes at St. Louis Community College's Forest Park campus and earned as associate degree in human services. He graduated from Washington University with a degree in general psychology in 2006, and later received his master's in social work from UMSL.

Porter got hired to work at the U.S. Probation Office right out of graduate school.

"He was sworn in by the chief judge in the district courtroom, which means he stood there twice -- once was to get a 35-year sentence; the other time to accept a job," Burris said.

SETTING UP A SUPPORT SYSTEM

The Missouri Department of Corrections has also hired an ex-offender to work as a reentry coordinator.

Since 2002, the department has worked with several state agencies, among them the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Workforce Development, on developing a model to help ex-offenders while they are in prison and once they are released.

The effort, called the Missouri Reentry Process, has garnered national attention and has prompted other states to follow the holistic model, which includes job skills training and placement, mental-health referrals and housing programs.

Among the recent efforts is a pre- and post-release mentoring program that focuses on 18- to 35-year-old nonviolent offenders. A two-year U.S. Department of Justice grant, awarded to the group Area Resources for Community and Human Services, allows for life-skills and job-preparation training to take place inside two area prisons.

Wendell E. Kimbrough, the chief executive of ARCHS, said the program is an example of the collaboration that he hopes to see with the launch of the St. Louis Alliance For Reentry, which will meet regularly to discuss reentry initiatives. (ARCHS provides management oversight for the alliance's steering committee.)

"Many organizations have conducted reentry programs in a vacuum, and we're hopeful that these efforts will now be executed in a coordinated manner," Kimbrough said.

Among those at the summit was Carleen Reck, director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul St. Louis Council criminal justice ministry. She oversees a 30-year-old reentry program that sends volunteers into correctional facilities to listen to inmates, some of whom have no other visitors.

The ministry also coordinates with parole officers about ex-prisoners' needs, and gives recently released offenders a package of supplies including a toothbrush, deodorant and T-shirts.

As part of the program, men who have no family or friends to assist them are eligible to get three months free rent to live in a St. Louis apartment. The ministry gradually reduces its monthly rent check to the ex-prisoners with the expectation that after a year they will pay the entire bill.

Reck said that 154 men have gone through the "Release to Rent" program, and after three years, those who have kept in the program have less than a 5 percent recidivism rate.

Huebner, the UMSL professor, said it's critical for ex-prisoners to find housing and a support system shortly after being released.

Added Rosenfeld, Huebner's colleague at the university: "The whole area of aftercare - that is the availability of needed treatment and services for people with various needs, substance abuse addiction, housing, is very important and has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans coming out of prison, who tend to be poor, have even more limited prospects than many of the whites coming out, and in many ways face more obstacles."

But many ex-prisoners report that landlords are unwilling to consider them as tenants, said Kempker of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

McCoy has no stable place to live and is staying on a cousin's couch. McCoy said because she doesn't have a dependent child, she's had a difficult time getting into a transitional shelter. Besides being a convicted felon, McCoy said another strike against her is that she defaulted on a previous loan.

Burris of the U.S. Probation Office said financial literacy is a critical part of its reentry program. Called "Project Home," the emphasis is on teaching ex-prisoners understand their credit report, clean up bad credit and help take the first steps toward buying a house. Bank officials also give tutorials on budgeting and setting up a bank account.

Kempker agrees that financial literacy is important, but that helping recently released prisoners find work is the first step. "When they don't have a dime when they get out, money management doesn't do them any good," she said.

Then there's the issue of substance abuse. The Missouri Department of Corrections reports that 40 percent of all prison admissions are for drug and alcohol offenses. The vast majority of people returning to prison require substance abuse treatment as well, the department reports. Burris said a typical case his office handles involves a drug offender.

Kempker said a major problem is that while prisoners have access to rehabilitation programs and mental health services while incarcerated, they are often left to fend for themselves once they are released. That can mean going without medication or counseling. State budget cutbacks have also decreased the services available, Kempker said.

Prisoner reentry programs also put an emphasis on patching up personal relationships. Along with owning a home and having a job, getting married is another factor that tends to lower an ex-prisoner's likelihood of returning to prison, research shows.

The emphasis should be on more than just love life, Kimbrough said. "Besides not having a job, the inability to reengage with family is the biggest problem. The person has paid their debt to society but not necessarily to their relatives."