Imagine

Imagine arriving in a new place, with nothing but a few dollars and the clothes on your back. You don’t have a roadmap or any reliable means of transportation. You aren’t sure where to go or where you’ll stay tonight. You haven’t eaten for hours and aren’t sure where your next meal will come from. You don’t know anyone – at least not anyone who could really help you. You have no identification papers and aren’t sure how to go about obtaining them. You feel unsure of yourself, doubting your ability to make decisions, solve problems or find your way in the days and weeks to come. You don’t know who you can trust, who to ask for help or where it might be safe for you to go. As you stand on a street corner, confused and alone, dozens, even hundreds of people pass you by. Many of them don’t notice you at all. Those who do notice you give you angry or disgusted or frightened looks and quickly walk away.

Close your eyes and really let yourself imagine it. What is it like – there in the pit of your stomach? What would you do if this happened to you? Who would you turn to? Where would you go? How would you cope?

For many of the estimated 650,000 people released from US prisons and the additional hundreds of thousands released from jails across the US every year, this is what they face.

Add to these challenges:
• lack of a high school diploma (2/3rds of released prisoners),
• physical or mental disability (1/3rd of released prisoners),
• history of substance abuse (3/4ths of released prisoners) or
• earnings of less than $600 per month prior to incarceration and a now-hindered ability to find a job, due to a criminal record (1/2 of released prisoners),
and the barriers to survival, let alone success, become nearly insurmountable.(1)

Factor in strained or non-existent relationships with family members, and isolation or outright ostracism from the community, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Is it any wonder an estimated two out of every three people released from prison wind up back in prison within three years? (1)

In Minnesota, the state Department of Corrections has partnered with a “Transition Coalition” of hundreds of social service agencies and others across the state to help make sure people being released from their prisons and jails have a much greater chance of success on the outside.

“It just makes good sense, financially and otherwise,” explained Mark Groves, Facilities ReEntry Coordinator for the MN DOC. I had the opportunity to meet with Mark and learn about Minnesota’s Comprehensive Offender Reentry Plan (MCORP), a long-term collaborative reentry strategy involving the DOC, state and county agencies, faith groups, community organizations and private citizens. Mark described the MCORP strategy as a “wise investment in public safety.”

Their approach is multi-pronged and based on proven best practices in preparing people to return to the community after prison, thereby reducing recidivism, keeping communities safer and reducing costs associated with incarceration. The MN DOC offers transition fairs in each prison where dozens of social service agencies can come into the prison and share information with inmates about the services they offer. Each prison also has a re-entry information & resource center, and every incarcerated man and woman attends a mandatory pre-release class and receives re-entry counseling from their caseworker starting months prior to their scheduled release date.

Before a person leaves a MN DOC prison or jail, they have a comprehensive plan in place for obtaining the various services and supports they’ll need on the outside. The MN DOC’s partners in the Transition Coalition – social service agencies, faith communities and others – supply many of those services, including housing, transportation, mental health and substance abuse counseling and treatment, mentoring and other supports.

The DOC also offers an intensive employment readiness and job skills training program, and they help inmates obtain the necessary ID documents to allow them to get jobs upon release. The DOC also partners with employers across the state who are willing to hire people with criminal records, and their job retention specialists follow up regularly with people after their release from prison to offer ongoing help with getting and keeping a job.

In addition to their forward-thinking and successful re-entry programming, Minnesota was the first state in the US to have a full-time restorative justice planner within the state Department of Corrections and they’re serious about implementing restorative justice practices throughout their facilities and in much of their rehabilitative programming.

So, what does all of this cost Minnesota’s taxpayers? Interestingly, Minnesota has the 2nd lowest rate of corrections spending in the country, spending only 2.7% of its general fund (state budget) dollars on corrections. (the national average is 6.8% of general funds being spent on corrections) Minnesota also has the lowest ratio of corrections spending to higher education spending in the US. For every dollar spent on higher education in Minnesota, only 17 cents are spent on corrections. Contrast this with the national average of 60 cents spent on corrections for every dollar spent on higher education. (Five states – Michigan, Vermont, Oregon, Connecticut, Delaware – spent as much or more money on corrections than they spent on higher education in 2007.) (2)

Maybe it’s a matter of priorities: spend more of our tax dollars on effective re-entry services, and we won’t have to spend as much building more and more prisons to warehouse more and more people for longer and longer periods of time.

“Ensuring successful re-entry means both safer communities and the improved use of tax dollars,” says “The Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council.”

Safer communities. Better use of taxpayers’ dollars. And for people who have been incarcerated, a roadmap to a successful journey back into their community and hope for a better future.

Imagine . . .

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NOTES:

(1) these statistics are from “The Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council”. The Re-Entry Policy Council is a public/private partnership funded in part by the US Department of Justice, US Department of Labor, and US Department of Health and Human Services.

(2) these statistics are from “1 in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008”, from the Pew Center on the States.

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: restorative justice grace goes to prison book tour criminal justice

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