Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fresh Out Of Jail -- FL

His head lowered, Mike Sipes shuffled across the lawn and stopped at the door. Home. Or the closest he had to one.

Hours earlier, the 23-year-old had walked out of the Pinellas County Jail, penniless but free, after a month behind bars.

No one came to pick him up. And so, like most people fresh out of jail, Sipes made his way back to his old neighborhood, the place where he got in trouble in the first place.

Here, at least, he had family who might help him. But by returning he would also have to face his father, an old jailbird with a long rap sheet, and look hard at his options: continue in his father's footsteps or find a new path, one that didn't lead back to jail.

Sipes knocked on the door and waited a moment before pushing it open, hopeful that given a chance, he could start over and become a man, not just his father's son.

* * *

Every year, 50,000 inmates are released from the Pinellas County Jail. Most leave with the same drug, alcohol or mental health problems they had when they arrived.

Once outside, their issues go untreated, and they quickly end up in handcuffs again, a cycle that drives much of the jail's crowding problems. Sheriff Jim Coats has called his facility a "dumping ground for society's social ills."

Sipes, a high school dropout, was well aware of the traps and temptations awaiting him as he left the jail on July 10.

For the first time in years, he would have no ankle monitor, no probation officer, no one looking over his shoulder. Except, of course, a reporter and a photographer with the St. Petersburg Times whom he allowed to follow him through his first day of freedom.

That day began at 4:23 a.m.

The sky was still black, and as Sipes stepped outside, he kept his eyes locked on the sidewalk leading away from the jail.

"I won't look back," he said. "Whenever you look back, you end up coming back."

* * *

As he walked to 49th Street, Sipes squeezed the free bus token he got from jail. He found a bus stop and sat on a bench. It advertised Help Bail Bonds, with the slogan "Freedom at last."

Sipes, a St. Petersburg native, has collar-length black hair, a pierced eyebrow and forearms tattooed with the words "Liberate" and "Maddness." He spent the month in jail on charges of violating probation related to marijuana possession and forging checks -- small-time, knucklehead stuff.

His plan: go to his ex-girlfriend's house, borrow $20, buy cigarettes and work his way home to the south side.

Suddenly out of the darkness, from the direction of the jail, came two running figures, also just released. They scavenged ashtrays for unfinished cigarettes and disappeared down the road.

Sipes wanted to smoke, but he wasn't about to dig through trash.

A third man came down the street wearing shorts and bright-white "indigent" socks, the type the jail gives to poor inmates. Sipes had worn a pair himself and now said "indigent" aloud, like a kid awkwardly muttering a curse word.

"I smell food," Sipes said, sniffing the air.

A pickup pulled into the parking lot next to Sipes' bus bench, a woman headed to work at a Frito Lays distribution center.

Sipes approached gingerly, not wanting to scare her in the dark.

"You don't happen to have a cigarette?"

The woman turned to ignore him, then reconsidered. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it for him.

In jail, Sipes had somewhere to sleep and three meals a day, but on the outside, at least he could smoke. He took a long, hard drag, then contentedly blew a cloud up toward the sky.

The No. 52 bus pulled up at 6:18 a.m., nearly two hours after Sipes walked out of jail. He plugged his only token in the slot and took a seat in the last row, against the window.

Finally, forward progress.

Tampa Bay

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