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When Indiana kids return from prison

When Indiana kids return from prison

40 days to go — Chris

You have to give Chris credit. He doesn’t pretend it is going to be easy. Sitting in the plexiglass-walled room at the Pendleton Juvenile Correction Facility, with less than six weeks to go before he regains his freedom, Chris stares at the ground and admits that there will be a lot of pull from his old life. It was a life that had him selling crack cocaine as a 13-year-old boy on the Eastside of Indianapolis, getting arrested and re-arrested for possession, resisting arrest and battery.

AIM mentor and IUPUI student Stephanie Hileman meets with an incarcerated juvenile.

There is a lot of reason for Chris to have hope. He is 17 now, and he knows his next arrest will almost certainly put him in the adult system. When he is released, he has plans to live with his grandmother rather than his drug-addicted mother. As he awaits the results of his GED exam, Chris dreams of being the first in his family to attend college.

“I’m going to tell people that I’ve changed, that I’m not going back to the way I was,” he says. “I want to make my family proud of me and not look down on me and say I’m not going to amount to nothing.”

But Chris will have some difficult choices to make. “I’m going to try my best not to hang around with certain people, but it will be hard because they are so close to my family. There will be pressure to do drugs again or sell drugs again or not to go to school.”

There are plenty of Indiana kids sharing Chris’ challenge, many of them from the Indianapolis area. At the end of March, 1,428 juveniles were housed in the Indiana Department of Correction, over a third of them from Marion County. I

UPUI professor Roger Jarjoura, who teaches in the school’s SPEA department, says these kids face the daunting task of trying to reinvent themselves in the same laboratory that produced their former criminal selves. “For offenders, the people they hang around with and get high with are their comfort zone,” Jarjoura says. “They are released from prison and their friends throw them a party. The offender is going to say, ‘These are the people who really care about me.’”

Counteracting the pull toward a return to criminal behavior is an enormous task, made more difficult by the fact that U.S. prison systems, Indiana’s included, are simply struggling to keep up with the record number of inmates sent to them by the nation’s courts. The U.S. Department of Justice announced in April that the nation’s adult prison population has exceeded 2 million for the first time. (See sidebar, “The Adults Are Coming Back, Too”) Although violent crime has fallen to its lowest level since 1974, the U.S. prison population is a full seven times larger than it was 30 years ago. One out of every eight African-American men between the ages of 20 and 39 are in prison or jail.

A staggering amount of public funds is devoted to this incarceration. The Indiana Department of Correction says it costs $54,000 per year to incarcerate an Indiana juvenile, far more expensive than annual room, board and tuition at Harvard. The total cost for incarcerating juveniles sent to the DOC from Marion County is $32 million per year for state and county taxpayers, with the county now $35 million behind in unpaid juvenile incarceration costs owed to the state. (“Marion County Leads State in Incarcerating Juveniles,” NUVO, Jan. 2, 2003)

But, except for a very few who are serving life sentences or awaiting the death penalty, all of the prisoners, both adults and juveniles, will be coming back to society. And the money spent locking them up is not matched by a comparative commitment to keep them from committing new crimes.

“There is no historical analogy to what we are facing,” Jarjoura says. “We have never in the history of prisons incarcerated people at this level.” Jarjoura notes that 600,000 prisoners will return to U.S. society this year alone. “We are not prepared for that,” he says, shaking his head. “I mean, we are really not prepared for that.”

One month out — Kevin

So far, Kevin is everything that Chris is hoping to be. Less than a month after being released from the Pendleton juvenile facility, Kevin just learned that he passed the GED exam. He is back living with his parents. He received his learner’s permit last Friday, and he plans to start taking college courses.

A lanky 6-foot-4 and wearing a Jermaine O’Neal jersey, Kevin says he wants to be a coach or an athletic trainer. Cheerful and polite — “yes, sir” and “no, sir” to every question — he seems far removed from the days when he was expelled from Broad Ripple High School and convicted of drug-related burglary and theft charges.

Kevin gives much of the credit for his turn-around to Diane Mount. Mount started meeting with Kevin three months before his release from Pendleton. She tutored him for the GED exam and walked him through an informal driver’s ed course. They talked about Kevin’s conflicts with others on his unit at Pendleton.

Since his release, Mount has talked with Kevin about the temptations to return to his old crowd, and she has helped Kevin in his job search. Tomorrow, she will be introducing Kevin to some IUPUI professors, so he can get a feel for the college before he applies.

Mount came into Kevin’s life as a mentor through the AIM (Aftercare for Indiana through Mentoring) program, founded eight years ago by IUPUI’s Jarjoura. AIM recruits, trains and manages volunteers to serve as mentors to youth who are incarcerated at Indiana DOC facilities. The program sprang from Jarjoura’s frustration when he was tutoring at the Indiana Boys’ School in the mid-1990s. “I was seeing kids leave with no plans for their lives after incarceration, and then I would see them come back, oftentimes after having committed very serious crimes,” he says.

Jarjoura acknowledges the macro-level barriers imposed by ex-offenders’ need to find jobs and housing, but he says their biggest challenges are usually posed from within. “If a person who is returning from incarceration needs a job or to get in school, I can do that in 20 minutes,” he says. “But the problem is what happens when they get in those settings and what they do the first time the boss chews them out. What is needed is to really help offenders connect the choices they are making to the consequences, and to be responsible for their behavior.”

Focusing on the theme of learning to make good choices, Jarjoura began mentoring some of the kids about to be released from the Boys’ School, and convinced a few of his IUPUI students to do the same. Soon enough, he realized he was on to something. “If we catch these kids at the right moment, they really want to be something different,” he says. “The more we did this, the more we realized we had to do more.”

So AIM has done a lot more. Since 1996, some 550 mentors have been linked to over 1,400 youths leaving custody. A 2001 study of Indiana juveniles released from the DOC four years earlier established AIM’s success. The study showed that AIM-mentored juveniles were reincarcerated at a significantly lower rate than a control group of juveniles who were not mentored. After four years, 28 percent of the juveniles who participated fully in AIM had been reincarcerated, compared to 62 percent of the juvenile offenders who did not go through the AIM program.

Convinced, the Department of Correction entered into a contract to pay AIM $200,000 a year to provide mentoring services. “I believe that a mentor can have more of an impact on a child than any amount of time spent in a juvenile facility,” says DOC Commissioner Evelyn Ridley-Turner. “It is unquestionable that AIM fills a need for the juvenile population.”

Mount says there is no secret to her and other mentors’ success with juvenile offenders like Kevin. “They’re just kids and they’ve had difficult home situations,” Mount says. “But sometimes the kids feel like they have always been grouped together as juvenile delinquents. They respond when you treat them like the individuals they are.”

Jarjoura insists that the program — and the recidivism problem it is designed to address — not be evaluated solely from the perspective of the juveniles involved. AIM calculates that it saves Indiana taxpayers over a half-million dollars a year in re-incarceration costs, not to mention the significant value of living in a community with less repeat criminal behavior. J.T. Ferguson, executive director of PACE/OAR, which works with adult ex-offenders, praises AIM for intervening with juveniles at a critical stage of their development. “Roger’s program is the exact opportunity that population needs to make sure they don’t become my population,” Ferguson says.

Two years out — Marcita

Marcita makes herself a cup of instant coffee and pulls up a chair next to the stainless steel counter in the kitchen of AIM’s downtown support center. Between sips, she calmly describes her roller coaster ride in the two years since she was released from juvenile prison. A theft arrest, a DUI, an apartment that ended up being a drug- and alcohol-soaked flop house. A son out of wedlock that was taken away by Child Protective Services. Marcita seems a lot older than 20.

Marcita is living confirmation of Chris’ concern that life after incarceration will be tough. “It was hard,” she says. “I let myself fall down and go back to the same people for a while.” When juvenile ex-offenders fall down like that, the impact can break apart their world. Probation gets revoked and they are sent back to jail. They get fired from jobs, evicted from housing, cut off from family. But they don’t have to lose their mentor. AIM, for all its focus on personal responsibility, does not abandon the youths when they make the wrong choices.

AIM is helping Marcita get into supervised housing, is encouraging her to join Alcoholics Anonymous and is hooking her up to education and a job. “They’ve kept open arms with me through all this,” Marcita says. Dana Rose, Marcita’s mentor, enters the kitchen and sits across the counter. There is a lot of history between the two, but today is a good day. They laugh and finish each others’ sentences. They talk about Marcita’s goal of getting into veterinary nursing, and about the struggle to remain sober.

“We know we are working with at-risk youth,” Rose says. “We don’t expect them to be in a structured life where they never make mistakes. We just say, let’s learn from your mistakes and move on.”

Rose looks at the younger woman. “She has to work on Marcita now. She has to get herself together before she can get her son back.” Rose points at Marcita, but she could just as easily be pointing at Kevin or Chris. “You have some choices to make,” she says.

In Indiana, more money for prisons, but more for alternatives, too
Indiana’s fiscal crisis, including the $800 million state deficit, has been exacerbated by the enormous cost of the state’s prison system. The Indiana Department of Correction population has increased from 16,946 in 1997 to over 21,000 in mid-2002, and the taxpayer bill for incarceration has kept pace. Prison costs were over $1 billion for the most recent Indiana budget cycle of 2002-2003.
The budget passed last month by the Indiana General Assembly didn’t reverse the growth trend, but it does indicate legislators may be unwilling to keep pouring ever-larger amounts of cash into the prison system. Almost $1.2 billion was approved for the Department of Correction for the next biennial budget period, a slight increase. However, legislators rejected Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s request for $25.9 million to pay for 1,576 new prison beds.
In response, O’Bannon vetoed a bill to increase penalties for battery of a physically or mentally vulnerable adult, citing the inability to pay for more prisoners the new law would have created. The legislators did continue funding dedicated to Indiana’s community corrections program, funded a new court diversion program for mentally ill or addicted non-violent arrestees and passed a provision allowing the Department of Correction to use faith-based programs to supervise some non-violent offenders.
The Adults Are Coming Back, Too
Each month, about 325 people who have finished their sentences at the Department of Correction or the Marion County Jail are released to the streets of Indianapolis. PACE/OAR Executive Director J.T. Ferguson admits his organization, which provides services including counseling and transportation to ex-offenders, is struggling to keep up. “We haven’t had to turn anyone away yet, but we are sort of bursting at the seams now,” Ferguson says. “And there is every reason to believe the numbers are going to increase.”
Indeed, in April the U.S. Department of Justice reported that the number of adult inmates in U.S. prisons and jails topped 2 million for the first time. This year, over a half million jailed Americans will return to society. Pre-release programs have been shown to reduce recidivism. But, compared to building new prisons, those programs have not received much attention from Congress nor state legislatures.
According to The Sentencing Project, fewer than one in three prisoners will receive substance abuse or mental health treatment before release. Less than half of them will have participated in either education or job training programs. Predictably, those ex-offenders struggle to adjust to society. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that almost two-thirds of all ex-prisoners are re-arrested within three years of their release.
“Housing and employment continue to be the No. 1 and No. 2 problems,” Ferguson says. He cites the growing number of mentally ill persons incarcerated in the U.S. “If you have committed a felony, a lot of housing property owners won’t take you anyway. Add a mental illness to that, and it is really a struggle to find a place to stay.”
Along with services to recently released ex-offenders, PACE/OAR (the long name of the recently merged agency is Public Action in Correction Effort/Offender Aid and Restoration) provides substance abuse and HIV/AIDS education to inmates in the Marion County Jail. PACE/OAR served over 8,000 people last year and recently opened satellite offices at the homeless service provider Horizon House and in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood. PACE/OAR works with property owners to find placements for ex-offenders, and is part of a new effort to establish assisted housing devoted to recently released prisoners with mental illnesses.
“These disabled folks are difficult to place in housing, and they struggle to make ends meet,” Ferguson says. “Part-time work at menial labor may be all they are able to handle.” If the most immediate needs are to find ex-offenders a job and a place to stay (“Checking ‘Yes’ on the Felony Box,” NUVO, Dec. 4, 2002), the broader challenge is to persuade the community to welcome their return.
With record numbers of Americans jailed for drug and other nonviolent offenses, Ferguson hopes that landlords and employers will give the returnees a chance. “Once a felon, always a felon is not always the case,” Ferguson says. “We need people to critically analyze each person before they say they won’t hire or house an ex-felon.”
For more information about PACE/OAR, call 612-6800.

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