The Long Road Home

Why so many parolees go back to prison, and how a new approach could help turn them around.

"The scariest thing was realizing that could be a permanent way of life," Utech says. "You don't make enough money to get ahead."

The trip reshaped Utech's approach to his work as a community-reintegration instructor at the Buena Vista prison complex. In classes that stretch over ninety days, up to six hours a day, he stresses the need for inmates headed for release to brush up on their street smarts and money management, to be prepared to deal with alien technology such as computers and voice mail, to develop a plan of action focused on specific job skills.

"If it's done right, reintegration starts when they start in the prison system," he says. "Unfortunately, the general mindset is very short-term. They're not worried about what happens two years from now. They want to know what's for dinner."

Ray Maestes builds relationships with "felon-friendly" 
employers, continuing the work of John Inmann, who's 
remembered in a plaque at the center named after 
John Johnston
Ray Maestes builds relationships with "felon-friendly" employers, continuing the work of John Inmann, who's remembered in a plaque at the center named after him.

Many of Utech's students are afraid to come out. Afraid of the stigma they'll face -- "These guys all think their DOC number is tattooed on their forehead," he says -- and, perhaps, afraid of what they might find out about themselves and the strength of their addictions. But Utech tells them it's possible to conquer their fears. His own program is proof of that; the recidivism rate among his groups over the past few years is running at around 20 percent, half the average for prisoners statewide.

"When somebody revokes and goes back to prison, he tells everybody that parole's a setup and it's impossible to make it out there," Utech notes. "I tell them, 'The people you hear this from got revoked. You're hearing from the losers. You never hear from the ones who made it.'"

Utech also tells them to be patient and set their goals higher than day labor. "It turns out there's a magic number," he says. "When you can earn ten, eleven dollars an hour, your comeback rate just drops off the table. If you make enough money, you don't come back."

Utech's program is part of an increasing push within the DOC for more comprehensive and effective reintegration efforts. The shift is often credited to former director John Suthers, who'd begun to champion re-entry programs shortly before he left the department two years ago to become a United States attorney. At present, only about half of the state's parolees go through the voluntary pre-release programs -- there are more people coming out than there are slots available -- but the department hopes to boost those numbers in coming years.

Yet even a full menu of vocational training, treatment programs and transitional services such as the Inmann Center can only take the process so far. It's up to the parolee to make it work. Steven Chorak, the manager of the DOC's community-reintegration program, argues that a great deal also depends on the community: the potential employers, landlords and neighbors who can either help or hinder ex-cons in their long journey back.

"Ultimately, the community has to accept some responsibility for people coming back," he says. "And 95 percent of them are coming back, sooner or later. I see some beginnings in that direction, but I also see some resistance."

Like the population it serves, the John Inmann Work and Family Center is at a critical crossroads. A four-year federal grant that has funded several of its staff positions runs out in June of next year. With so many other programs on the chopping block, its funding through the DOC and other state sources is also on shaky ground. Salinas says the center's leadership is "looking at a lot of options" to ensure its sustainability.

For years, lawmakers have responded to public anxiety about crime by passing stiffer sentences and building more prisons, while slashing treatment and rehabilitation programs as "soft on crime." Local media fearmongers have been unindicted accomplices in this game, airing hysteria-pumping, sweeps-week reports on the felons among us without ever making distinctions between truly dangerous, chronic offenders and those who are trying to leave their life (or moment) of crime behind them.

Such simplemindedness makes no sense to Michael Lindsey, who heads the Inmann Center's pilot program dealing with serious and violent offenders. "Felons are a very diverse population," he says. "We need to stop lumping everyone together and do better risk management. We need to stop demonizing people and look at this problem in a more logical fashion."

Lindsey is no bleeding heart. Two decades ago, he was one of the founders of AMEND, a pioneering, confrontational approach to dealing with male batterers and stalkers. Long before it was fashionable, he was an outspoken advocate of intensive supervision of violent offenders -- as opposed to, say, sentencing them to a few weeks of anger-management classes. ("Teaching a predatory felon how to take a time-out is likely to make him a better predator," he says.) His pilot program at the center involves taking a small group of violent, parole-eligible offenders through careful screening, close monitoring and a graduated series of steps back to society, a process that can take years.

"This is not about providing social services for felons," he says of the program. "This is about providing community safety."

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