Issue #139, January/February 2005
Life After Lockup
When prisoners are released, they often return to their old communities and their old way of life. But some community groups are providing an alternative by offering shelter, life skills and job training in a new and stable environment.
By Violet Law
One Sunday night the men at Patrick Allison House in Baltimore cheered a field goal scored by their hometown team, the Ravens, drowning out the grunting of a washing machine in the laundry room. TV and chores typically fill their Sundays. And for these men, nearly all former drug offenders, this is newfound normalcy of a life they never knew could be possible. Outside, a passing police cruiser on the tranquil tree-lined block is a jarring sight to residents of the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood, significantly different from where these men used to live. When the clock struck seven, the men hurried out the door for the Narcotics Anonymous/Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Every year nearly 650,000 former inmates are coming home, often to drug-drenched neighborhoods and with nowhere to go. They are ostracized from public housing and even from their own families. CDCs and service providers nationwide are recognizing that supportive housing is the third leg of a program stool that makes for successful reentry, in addition to job training and substance abuse treatment.
Successful prisoner reentry is more than supplying beds, which is all a homeless shelter is equipped to do. It takes more than keeping a watchful eye and exhorting ex-prisoners to find a job the strategy of most halfway houses. It is about remolding a crime-battered life through supportive housing. Patrick Allison “is a safe place,” says executive director Sue Wetsel. “It is a still place for them to do their unsung hero kind of work: You come home, you cook dinner, you save money.”
Sundays at Patrick Allison offer a respite from the strict weekday routine residents must live by. They don’t have to leave for work or drug treatment by 8:30 a.m., and curfew is relaxed for the day. The highlight is the communal meal they fix, served with a good dose of camaraderie. Between greasing the baking pan and charring hot sausage, program manager Howard Wicker pauses to give a firm hand grip or a pat on the shoulder to visiting “alumni” those who have successfully completed the program within the maximum 12-month stay.
With a touch of shyness, a lanky Roy Harrison poked his braided head into the kitchen. Before he came to Patrick Allison in August 2001, Harrison, 36, had no doubt he would one day die of an overdose. His heroin and cocaine habit had kept him out of a job for eight years. “I thought there was no way out,” said Harrison. Since moving out in January 2002, Harrison has been holding down two jobs. He drives a van and does HIV testing for the Maryland Department of Health. Although many in his East Baltimore neighborhood, including his sister, are using drugs, Harrison says that during his time at Patrick Allison he learned to adopt an alternative: a clean, working lifestyle.
Housing up to eight men at a time, Patrick Allison creates the feel of home not just for current residents but also for alumni like Harrison. It is an environment conducive to trust building and intensive counseling.
Hemzah Abdul Eldridge is in his first week at Patrick Allison. His youthful round face belies a long rap sheet. Eldridge, 29, who was first caught selling heroin as a 9-year-old, says, “I wanted to do something different enough is enough.” In his early teens, Eldridge became addicted to the drugs he sold. The 10th grade dropout had served short jail terms for lesser possession charges before receiving a six-year sentence in a federal facility after being swept up in a West Baltimore drug bust.
After his release last April, Eldridge decided going home to his girlfriend and three children would not be the best way for him to change the course of his life once and for all. “I’ve got to get me straight because now I can’t be of no help to them. I want them to see me as a responsible father, not as someone who sleeps in my mother’s house in the backroom,” he says. “I came here to build a foundation. So when I leave, I’ll have a job and a support network.”
Having grown up as an only child and in an environment where drugs overruled discipline, Eldridge now has to catch up on learning the basic skills that he needs to live as an independent, responsible person. He is learning to cook, observe curfews and separate whites from colors when doing laundry. “For them, they can manage a bad situation, they can survive,” says Wicker. But “they haven’t learned how to thrive. I call Patrick Allison House a life-skill program.”
Each weekday, Eldridge walks a few blocks from Patrick Allison to attend job-training classes. This daily trip is a metaphor of his new life. “I know what I have to do: Stay on a straight path.”
Nationally, two out of three inmates re-offend within three years of their release. Wetsel says that, after they implemented a month-long drug treatment program as a prerequisite for admission, the success rate of Patrick Allison’s graduates rose to 65 percent. Once they’re in, residents receive counseling, GED classes and job training. They have 45 days to find a job and are required to save at least 50 percent of their paychecks during their rent-free stay.
Patrick Allison is contracted by the Maryland Reentry Partnership Initiative, one of the earliest state-coordinated efforts in the country to help former inmates reintegrate into their communities. The Enterprise Foundation and the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services launched the five-year pilot program in 2001 after corrections officials observed that the majority of inmates return to their old neighborhoods, and that many of them keep re-offending and returning to prison. But even before they make the U-turn back to prison, nearly half of them have no safe place to go when released.
The Corporation for Supportive Housing estimates that 10 to 12 percent of former inmates are homeless. Other studies put the count at between 15 and 27 percent. According to a July 2004 CSH report, only nine states and the District of Columbia have supportive housing programs for former inmates.
The Reentry Policy Council, established by the Council of State Governments to assist state government officials grappling with the rising tide of released inmates, called the “dearth of transitional and supportive housing” one of the challenges in reintegrating former offenders.
“If they don’t have a safe place to lay their heads, how successful can they be?” asks Rada Moss of the Enterprise Foundation, who is also the director of the Maryland Reentry Partnership Initiative. “The odds of maintaining your job, dealing with your family, successfully treating your addiction will be very small.” The most effective way to help stem recidivism, Moss advises, is to bring housing, job training, substance abuse treatment and case management all under one roof.
“I think that is a promising approach. We found there are many challenges to prisoners’ reentry. If you address one or two of them, you might not have any impact,” says Nancy G. La Vigne, a researcher with the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute. La Vigne has been studying reentry experiences of former inmates in Maryland, Illinois and other states across the country. The Justice Policy Center researches social problems and policy issues related to crime and justice and also studies the effect of incarceration on families and neighborhoods. Though the center hasn’t examined supportive housing programs, its researchers have found that housing is a particular challenge for successful reentry.
To make its impact felt by communities, the Maryland initiative targets five zip codes in Baltimore where as many as 70 percent of the returning inmates call home. The tight-knit drug-infested neighborhoods of the city hold special challenges and promise for the program that has helped roughly 300 inmates who have been released from Maryland prisons.
The transitional housing, functioning as a form of social quarantine, should be in a location that shields the recovering offenders from their old, crime-ridden communities. “If someone wants to change their lives after prison, they will have to change how they live, whom they live with and where they live,” says Moss. But once these ex-offenders return home to begin a clean lease on life, they are not only persuasive testaments to their addict acquaintances, but also assets for the programs. Moss says all but two of her 11 case managers are ex-offenders. These case managers reach “behind the fence” to engage inmates three to four months before their release.
Another Baltimore program, run by the Druid Heights CDC, received community support by using a different approach. Prompted by concerns for those who lingered at the street corners in the neighborhood, the CDC created a job-training and self-employment program, and eight years ago added a transitional housing program for former inmates. The housing program, which will become part of the Maryland initiative later this year, accepts only those who lived in the neighborhood’s zip code before their incarceration. “The community has embraced the concept because many of these residents are members of the community,” says Jackie Cornish, the CDC’s executive director.
The Maryland programs, like most in the country, serve only men. Meanwhile, a swelling rank of female ex-offenders is finding few options after release. Like the men, female inmates also tend to be steeped in drug addiction but short on education and work history. Jobless and tugged by the desire to reunite with their children, women often return to a troubled environment and fall back into recidivism.
Bertha Wright, 42, of Chicago, had been in and out of jail for the petty crimes she committed to pay for her cocaine addiction. But when her husband broke her ribs in a fight, she burned down the house in a rage and served four years in an Illinois prison. After Wright was released last spring, she remained adrift. “There was no stability in my life. I didn’t know what it looked like and felt like.” That was before she entered Grace House, a transitional housing program for women run by St. Leonard’s Ministries, an Episcopal church in Chicago.
In addition to job training and substance abuse treatment, the women at Grace House also get counseling and psychotherapy to prepare them for a normal life on the outside. “What prison does to you mentally affects how you deal with the outside world,” says Grace House’s Reverend Annie Rodriguez. “The longer you’re incarcerated, the less likely you’re able to make decisions for yourself. There is always a fear, ‘If I’m left alone, will I use again?’”
As a housing counselor, Rodriguez refers the women who have completed their one-year stay to SROs, but they still receive some case management. As much as the prison construction boom in the 1990s was derided as the nation’s housing solution, “stable, affordable and safe housing is key for [my clients’] continued recovery and success,” Rodriguez says.
Despite the success of some supportive housing programs, securing funding remains the biggest hurdle. Heading into the Maryland initiative’s final year, Moss says her top priority is to sustain the program that each year serves 100 of the estimated 14,000 Marylanders being released annually. The pilot was funded by a patchwork of foundation grants, government support and in-kind donations from community organizations. Half of the $2 million state grant from the Justice Department’s Serious and Violent Offender Federal Reentry Initiative has been used to support its housing programs. Patrick Allison House receives support from a local private foundation and a neighborhood church, which rents out the three-story brownstone in the gentrifying Mount Vernon neighborhood for $1.
In the 109th session, Congress is expected to reconsider the Second Chance Act of 2004, H.R. 4676, which provides funds to state and local governments, as well as community-based organizations, to support structured housing programs that ease reentry.
Solely relying on government funding can be risky, as one Providence, Rhode Island service provider recently learned. Last year, Amos House, which has served former inmates for 28 years, and the upstart Rhode Island Family Life Center received a $240,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to provide supportive housing in the South Providence neighborhood, where one in four males between ages 18 to 65 are former inmates. But the money was granted on the condition that the program serve only those between 18 and 35, despite the fact that mostly older ex-offenders tend to be mature enough to change. Six months after opening, the residence remained two-thirds unfilled. And to make matters worse, the job-training grant promised by the Labor Department was slashed, laments Eileen Hayes, the Amos House executive director.
“The truth is, all those who are incarcerated are going to come out,” says Moss. “If we don’t prepare for them, what is it going to do to our community?”