Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Institutionalization in prison thwarts reentry

The SA Express News over the weekend reported on the case of Randall Church, who says he committed arson soon after being released from TDCJ because he couldn't handle life in the free world and wanted to go back to prison. Wrote reporter Jazmine Ulloa:
Inside his small, gray cell within the Texas prison system, Church forgot the world and it forgot him.
Stepping out to freedom, “I didn't know how to use computers or cell phones or the Internet,” Church said. “The weirdest thing was walking into a store, like Walmart, and have parents hide their children from me, like I was supposed to jump at them.”

Fed up on July 10, 96 days after his release, he poured gasoline through a window of the empty house on the Southeast Side, then threw in flaming rags and paper towels, setting the place on fire.

Days later, he told police he did it because he wanted to go back to his job at his former prison unit.
If true, this was a pitiful and desperate act. That said, I'm personally a little skeptical of the "send me back to prison" motive attributed to the arson. (He didn't turn himself in immediately, and at the end of the story, Church told Ulloa that setting the fire excited him, declaring “It was my Fourth of July.”) But I don't doubt for a second that somebody who went to prison during the Reagan Administration would find it difficult to cope in the modern world without work skills, family or a support network. After a certain point, it's hard to shed an institutionalized mindset to embrace a world so different from the one left behind in their youth (which is something Texas exonerees who've served extraordinarily long sentences have confided to me in the past).

More compelling (to me) than the man-bites-dog story of an offender wanting to go back to prison was the accompanying meditation by Ulloa on the perils of reentry facing those returning to society after long prison sentences:
While Church was behind bars, the federal and state prison population more than quadrupled.

The numbers of inmates in the United States grew from 319,598 in 1980 to 1.5 million in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Corrections costs skyrocketed. States today collectively spend more than $50 billion a year by some estimates.

Studies indicate the United States has the highest proportion of its population locked up, its offenders tending to serve some of the lengthiest sentences in the world.

But more striking are the reports that show recidivism rates, the number of people who, like Church, return to correctional facilities after their release, lawmakers and prison reform activists said. A report published just this year by the Pew Center on the States found that on average more than 40 percent of those released from penitentiaries are reincarcerated within three years, for committing a new crime or for violating the terms of their release.

In the past decade, the debate among criminal justice circles has shifted to focus on programs and resources that can help prisoners re-enter society.

President George W. Bush included prisoner re-entry in his 2004 State of the Union address, marking an end to the country’s “period of punitiveness” and paving the way for the Second Chance Act and other legislation to help prisoners adjust to life after incarceration, [Ann] Jacobs [of the Prisoner ReentryInstitute] said.

“We are at a time in our culture when the prison budgets are depleting budgets for higher education in most states, when there are more African American men in prison then there are in college. We can’t allow that as a society. It will pull us all down,” Jacobs said.

Today, almost every state has re-entry programs and resources to assist the 700,000 people on average who are released from correctional facilities annually, but almost every state is under budget pressures.

Texas is known for its toughness on crime and is the country's leader in rate of imprisonment but undertook wide-ranging prison reforms in 2007 that have significantly reduced the state's recidivism rate.

Only 24.3 percent of Texas inmates released that year returned to prison within three years, according to the Texas Legislative Budget Board.

But looming budget cuts could hinder this progress in giving inmates “the tools to live responsibly,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

“While people are in prison, they need to be given vocational programs and counseling and cognitive thinking programming, so that when they get out, they can support their families,” she said.

For inmates like Church, such resources could make a difference in the transition back to the outside world.
Whatever the truth behind Church's motives when he set that fire, such issues are real and faced by more than 70,000 prisoners released from TDCJ facilities every year. Most of those folks, by any measure, don't want to return to prison, but too many will return to a life of crime if they aren't afforded other, realistic options.


Prison Doc said...

My inclination is to believe that the story is embellished a bit, but even if it is the facts are still there. Avoidance of recidivism hinges on the the dual importance of social support and jobs. Social support (of all types) is lacking, and jobs are hard to find even without the pervasive, dreaded criminal background check. Hopefully we will see more faith-based and secular organizations seek to help those re-entering society.

Anonymous said...

I will never understand why rehabilitation is stressed but when an inmate has served over 23 years of his sentence, established a clean disciplinary record, taken just about every course offered, he is consistently denied parole for "nature of the crime". That cannot be changed, but no credence seems to be given to the proven efforts toward reform and support upon release. Who are we kidding? It's punishment pure and simple and when these inmates are too old to become useful to society what do they do...burn down a house?

BarkGrowlBite said...

I am highly skeptical of that 24.3 percent recidivism report. From the late 40s to the present time, the recidivism rate throughout the country has ranged from 40-50 percent, regardless of what kind of reentry programs were made available to inmates.

Institutionalization has always been a problem. When inmates are told when to shit, shower and shave, when to get up and when to lie down, when to talk and when to shut up, and when all their food, clothing and lodging is provided to them, it is hard to handle life on your own once you hit the bricks of the free world. Add to that the reluctance of employers to hire ex-cons and, voila, you have a prescription for recidivism.

doran said...

Such things do happen.

In 2010 in Elgin, a convicted felon, recently released from prison on parole or because he had served his sentence, walked into a local bank where he had a checking account and was well known to the ladies working the counter. He wrote a note on a deposit slip, demanding money and threatening to use a gun if he did not get money. He never displayed a weapon.

The lady working the counter attempted to dissuade him, but was not successful and gave him some cash.

The "bank robber" then walked a few blocks to his home. When the local police went to get him, he was sitting on the porch of his mother's home, next door to or across the street from his own home, getting his hair cut by his mother.

The local newspaper reported that he told police he wanted to go back into prison.

sunray's wench said...

PrisonDoc ~ it doesn't have to be left to faith-based and secular organisations (strangers) to provide re-entry help. Contrary to popular belief, there are many families and friends of inmates who would do so much more to help in legitimate ways if only TDCJ would open its eyes and see through the "security risks" they like to place in the way.

I know Texas doesn't care what happens in other states, but that mentality is busily digging a huge hole at the moment. Many other states manage longer visitation periods, during the week and at weekends, for inmates and their visitors. Many have better equipped visitation rooms and areas where children can play with toys on the floor alongside their parents, rather than being made to sit at a table for 2 hours with nothing to occupy them. Many allow inmates to go to a vending machine and choose what to purchase during visitation - making decisions is one of the fundamental abilities needed to stay out of trouble, yet TDCJ have stripped even simple decision making from the inmates. Most other states and federal facilities allow inmates to call friends and family overseas - TDCJ does not and I have yet to be given a reason why, despite asking a lot of people who apparently make such decisions. If you can tell me why my husband is not allowed to call me despite meeting all the other criteria required, I'd be really interested to know.

Improving those things would go a long way to increasing family support, and cannot be such a big a threat to security as TDCJ insists it is, if other states manage those things without escapes or a rise in contraband.

What is TDCJ scared of?

rodsmith said...

that's easy sunny. Too many new people start coming in and out and someone might wise up to what a bunch of hatefilled little crooks they are and might make sure they are locked up in thier own prisons!

can't have that!

Sheldon tyc#47333 said...

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your Gd is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:20)
The sages ask, why does the Bible double the word justice?
A man who was a great civic leader in my hometown taught me that the first justice is to prosecute a suspected perpetrator based on truth and fairness. The second justice was to help the convict to re-establish themselves back in the free world after they did their time. During this man’s lifetime he was instrumental in starting crime stoppers and equally instrumental in helping former convicts re-establish themselves. He sat on Grand Jury’s and it was said that the BPP had him on speed dial.
Sunray’s Wench you ask, What is TDCJ scared of? I would have to say, each other.
I once read that you can judge the morals of a society by who and how they treat those that they incarcerate. If this is true our cops, judges, persecutors, and corrections people are some morally depraved sob’s. But in all fairness the images of our justice system in Texas, where innocent citizens with no resources are railroaded to correctional facilities where they are dehumanized by soulless correction personal can’t be the norm! Or is it?
Society on a whole seems very naive about how our criminal justice system operates on the citizens. Our criminal justice people like it that way. The answer I gave Sunray’s Wench about TDCJ could be expanded to apply to our Judges, Prosecutors and LEO’s. They are afraid of each other as much as they are afraid of us. And their paranoia is costing us a fortune.

…that you may thrive in the land…
Criminal justice is a dirty business that was not to be hidden from the citizens. The eye witness’s(plural) should push the plunger. Perhaps hiding this necessary but dirty business from the public has allowed opportunity’s for unscrupulous people to corrupt our criminal justice system. Our rights to know what our government is doing are being legislated away every session. Just because a convict is proven innocent beyond a shadow of doubt doesn’t mean they will be immediately remedied. Some go to great lengths to obstruct remedy. In some counties there are those that remain guilty even if proven innocent.
We may not be able to heal all the injustices in Texas at once, but if we pursue a life based on the foundation of justice, treating others ever more fairly and honestly, then we bring ourselves, and the world in which we live much closer to this ideal.

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Anonymous said...

Sunray's Wench - As a former TDCJ correctional officer and currently serving officer for a southeast Texas sheriff's department, my experience has been that some offenders certainly have solid home and family connections to assist them after they are paroled. Many, however, return to the streets with little hope for a job and no way to make an honest living. They quickly revert, from necessity or choice, to the behaviors that put them in jail or prison to start with.