On the outside

On the outside

By Jodie Briggs

Panel addresses prisoners' reentry to the free world

This year, about 600,000 offenders will be released from prison, but the places and conditions they usually return to are the same ones that groomed them to become criminals in the first place. Thrust back into drug-ridden neighborhoods or impoverished areas, without jobs and often housing (ex-felons aren't allowed to live in federally funded projects) their chances to successfully reenter a community are slim.

Yet there are programs to help ex-offenders find employment and stable living situations and reduce the rates of recidivism.

Local PBS affiliate KLRN recently co-sponsored a panel discussion with UTSA's College of Public Policy about prisoner reentry.

KLRN screened segments from two upcoming documentaries about reentry programs. Manhood and Violence: Fatal Peril, which KLRN plans to broadcast on September 2, showcases a San Francisco program that encourages prisoners to change their behavior by exploring the underlying causes of violence. One scene shows a group of inmates seated in a circle discussing their feelings; yet, a prison administrator rejected the idea that these types of rehabilitation programs baby inmates. "To me, coddling prisoners is letting them sleep all day, lift weights and watch television," she said, adding that such environments are "monster factories."

Outside the Walls: A National Snapshot of Community-based Prisoner-Reentry Programs, highlights several programs around the country that help former offenders transition back into their home communities. The film features two San Antonio programs: Project Rio and Woman at the Well House Ministries.

Project Rio works with the Texas Workforce Commission to help ex-offenders find a job before they leave prison or shortly after their release. The project also relies on funding that provides tax breaks to employers who hire former inmates. According to one program administrator, Project Rio increases an inmate's chances to get a job by "making the interview process easier." Project Rio also provides bus vouchers, legal aid, and clothing to those who need it.

Woman at the Well House Ministries is a faith-based program that houses female ex-offenders and gives them a support system to ease their way back into society. "Most of them had burned their bridges," explained Director Priscilla Murguia. In addition to food and clothing, they also teach ex-offenders money-management skills and encourage them to enroll in job training.

Both programs, as well as countless more in communities around the country, aim to reduce the number of paroled offenders who are returned to prison - a rate that continues to grow nationally. According to panelist Mike Lozito, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Parole Office Region IV, 50 percent of paroled offenders return to prison within three years.

Advocates of reentry programs say that they prevent some ex-offenders from returning to their former behavior. In a study commissioned by the Texas Legislature, Project Rio showed a 15 percent lower recidivism rate for employed ex-offenders.

Panelists agreed that offenders' failure to succeed when they leave prison is a result of poor planning for their return. "We don't have adequate systems set up when they're released," said Lozito. One official with Project Rio sees criminal behavior as a logical result of this lack of support. "No job, no house, the community doesn't want them, so they return to crime," she said.

Anthony Barber, who advocates for the civil rights of ex-offenders, said that imprisonment without rehabilitation inevitably leads to more crime. "You're thrown back into the same situation that got you into jail."

Panelists questioned the effectiveness of the current judicial system, which relies heavily on punishment with little attention to rehabilitation. "If punishment worked, we should have the lowest crime rate in the world," said Dr. Mike Gilbert, chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at UTSA. "We can't punish our way out of the problem, the roots are in communities and families."

To address the root of the problems, the city needs more community rehabilitation programs, an increase that is not always politically feasible. "Political resistance and zoning laws prohibit halfway houses where we need them," said Gilbert.

"Fear of the unknown," according to Murguia, makes politicians and community leaders apprehensive about the programs.

Reentry programs can not only reduce crime rates and lower costs of imprisonment, but also can help to heal the communities where ex-offenders return. With Texas leading the nation in both incarceration and supervision of ex-offenders, successful programs may be the key to breaking the cycle. •

By Jodie Briggs


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