On the Outside
Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition writes the book on succeeding after prison
by Pamela White
For those of us who’ve never spent time in prison, it’s hard to grasp just how difficult it can be to transition from living in a cell to living in the “real” world. We perhaps envision the gates opening and releasing inmates into the arms of waiting family and friends, who help them put their lives back together now that their debt to society has been paid.
For most, the reality is much grimmer.
Many inmates have long had no contact with family. Others are legally prohibited from seeing family members, even spouses or parents, because their relatives have criminal records themselves. Many find themselves standing on Smith Road, where the Colorado Department of Corrections drops off newly paroled inmates, with nothing but their belongings from prison and a $100 debit card — no job, no place to sleep, no support, no family and no reliable information about how to begin rebuilding their lives.
Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC), a nonprofit that got its start in Boulder, is trying to fill in the gaps and help people on parole succeed on the outside. On Nov. 7, CCJRC released its second book, Getting On After Getting Out: A ReEntry Guide for Colorado, aimed at helping parolees overcome the many hurdles associated with the oftentimes overwhelming return to society.
“We do a lot of public education, and we have a lot of members who are in prison,” says Christie Donner, executive director of CCJRC. “We field probably 1,000 calls or letters a year from people in prison or their families. They have a million questions, and so that’s what inspired the book.”
The book, which took more than two years to write, includes information on everything from handling certain legal issues from within prison to planning for release on parole to how to manage stress when on the outside. One of only a handful of re-entry guides published in the United States, Getting On is unique in that it offers in-depth “how to” information.
“It’s not just a list of community resources,” Donner says. “It goes into depth in terms of understanding parole, understanding community corrections, trying to address every issue we’ve heard about over the years.”
And that’s a lot of issues. Like how to have your child-support payments stopped or reduced while you’re behind bars. Like how to find a job when no one wants to hire felons. Like how to get an ID card when you’ve been locked up since you were a teenager and have no driver’s license, no social security card, not even a copy of your own birth certificate.
“A lot of folks are coming out completely on their own, and they’re starting completely over,” Donner says. “They don’t have much time to get it all together, because when you’re on parole, there’s a lot of conditions on you. So you’ve got to build that life really quickly, in terms of getting a job, getting a place to stay, and paying for all of the expenses associated with parole.”
Parole can be extremely expensive. Some parolees are required to have routine drug and alcohol testing. Some are supposed to have anger-management classes. Others face the costs of restitution. But most don’t have jobs and don’t have the income to pay for room and board, let alone court-ordered medication and counseling.
“Everyone’s coming out broke — no money,” Donner says. “We found that one of the No. 1 stresses was that people couldn’t afford to be on parole.”
People released on parole for the first time are given a debit card with a balance of $100 intended to help them get on their feet, an amount that was set back in 1973 and hasn’t been increased since. Unless a person has immediate access to free housing, food and transportation, that money is gone in a matter of days. And preparing for these things from behind bars is almost impossible, as inmates face strict limits on whom they call and must pay for the calls themselves. As a result, 40 percent of people who were released from prison last year were released homeless.
“The Department of Corrections is not liable for helping you line up an apartment ahead of time or to find job leads,” Donner says. “DOC drops them off outside the [county] jail on Smith Road with a debit card. So literally you’ll have people shuffling down the road with their box of crap. And that’s what we call re-entry.”
The results are sadly predictable — and alarming. Last year, 10,087 people were released on parole from state prison. Sixty-five percent will have their parole revoked and will have returned to prison within three years. Of those sent back to prison, a staggering 73 percent were sent back for technical parole violations, like failing to find a job or a place to live, failing to meet child-support payments or failing to pay for court-ordered treatment. Only 27 percent were incarcerated for committing new crimes, and the vast majority of those were drug-related offenses.
“Different parole officers act really, really differently around this,” Donner says. “Some of them are like, ‘I understand, it’s tough. As long as you’re trying, we’re cool,’ and others say, ‘If you don’t have a job in 30 days, I’m going to revoke you.’”
When someone’s parole gets revoked, society pays a high cost. Due in part to laws that mandate parole for all inmates, the state’s prison budget for 2007 is $703 million, up from $70 million in 1985.
Originally, CCJRC planned on spending six months to produce a 50-page booklet. But once the process was underway, it became clear that the issues were much more complex than they had imagined. Carol Peeples, whom Donner credits with most of the writing and interviewing, worked more or less on a volunteer basis, contacting more than 200 people, trying to pull together a complete picture for parolees. In the end, CCJRC had a 250-page book that had taken almost three years to produce.
It’s the second book produced by CCJRC. The first, Parenting from Prison, was published in 2002. That publication, available for free download off CCJRC’s website, broke new ground and was later incorporated into the curriculum of parenting classes for inmates across the nation. Like Getting On, it grew from inmate inquiries.
“CCJRC fields all these calls and letters, and we were starting to see themes,” Donner says. “It’s much more effective for us to put together a guide than for us to be taking all of these calls. We have a staff of two, and there aren’t a lot of places for people to turn for help.”
CCJRC has printed 40,000 copies of the guide, and half of those are being distributed free of charge to people in prison and on parole. The rest are available for $10 at the CCJRC office or on its website.
“Carol has done such a good job, because there’s so much misinformation [in prison],” Donner says. “I never understood how difficult it is to get accurate information that’s consistent. It’s just unbelievable. The barriers to writing this book were so enormous. Carol did a truly heroic job. Just getting the information, getting people to return her phone calls. We had trouble getting accurate information, and if we had trouble, just imagine how difficult it is for people in prison.”
For more information about Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, go to www.ccjrc.org.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
On the Outside