Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Out of prison, but not out of trouble
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Minnesota's prison population, one of the smallest in the nation at just over 8,300, is increasing rapidly. (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
Minnesota's prison inmate population is rising, and so is the number being released. The larger number of inmates being released reflects a three-decade-old trend. Society has imposed harsher penalties for more crimes. More inmates have served their time and are getting out. However, many lack the education or skills needed to find a job. Some are still addicted to drugs. Too many return to a life of crime.

St. Paul, Minn. — Almost every day, Ferome Brown sees a discouraging pattern. Men just out of prison who can't get a job return to the behavior that got them in trouble.

"(They say) 'Well look, I know I can pick up this dope sack because I know how to do this, and I know how to do it well.' And what makes it so bad is if they would take time to see that you can get a $20 or $15 an hour job by going to school or by going to some trades or some college readiness, then these kids can get out there and do this," Brown says. "But until we start teaching them, they're going to fall back into the same thing -- selling drugs, or pimping or whatever they were doing before going to prison."

Ferome Brown works for Family and Children's Services, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization. He reunites ex-cons with their families in an attempt to help the men stabilize their lives and stay out of prison.

Minnesota's prison population of 8,300 inmates is growing fast. So is the number of inmates released every year. More than 6,000 offenders were released last year.

Prison changes some inmates for the better. They renounce attitudes and behavior that got them in trouble, and use the time behind bars to better themselves.

However many leave prison no better off than when they entered. They still lack skills, and a discouraging number are still addicted to drugs.

State officials say 90 percent of the people who enter Minnesota's prisons abuse drugs or alcohol. Minnesota Department of Corrections psychologist Patricia Orud says every inmate is evaluated for drug use. Last year 1,400 were treated for chemical dependency.

Orud says even more need help.

"We know a lot of people leaving prison return to the same neighborhood and the same lifestyle, and the same using patterns that they had before they came to us," Orud says.

It costs $28,000 a year, just over $77 a day, to keep each of the state's 8,300 inmates in prison.

Tom Johnson says not enough money goes toward education, training or chemical dependency treatment. Johnson, a former Hennepin County prosecutor, directs the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime and Justice. The private, nonprofit organization runs education and release programs for people in and out of prison.

He says preparing prisoners to lead a law-abiding life once they're released is a public safety issue. But he says many taxpayers aren't interested.

"What we (taxpayers) focus on is, 'Well, how can we be spending money on people in prison to get them a high school education?' Well, if you don't have a high school education, you get out of prison (and) you're on the streets. The chances of your being back in prison because you've committed another crime is two in three, and that is just unacceptable. Unacceptable." Johnson says.

One of the taxpayer-funded efforts to help inmates get started on the right foot is called Project Soar. On a recent weekday evening, Project Soar's Marvin Clark meets with 20 men at Stillwater prison.

Once a week for three months, the inmates, all African-American, will cover a range of issues from black culture to preparing a resume for a job interview.

Clark is an ex-con whose prison time included Stillwater.

The two-hour session has elements of a religious revival and a personal growth seminar.

"Yes, you've got an X on your back, you ex-offender, yeah, so what? You're a man of color, you're just as smart and as able as any other person on this earth," Clark says to the men.

Most of the men in Clark's class will be released in six months. Their crimes include burglary, robbery, murder and rape.

Many lack a high school diploma or any work experience outside of prison. Some have been in juvenile and adult corrections systems most of their lives. A few don't have a driver's license or a birth certificate.

As the meeting progresses, the men grow more comfortable with Clark. They speak up about their fear of what will happen to them on the outside. One inmate worries his old enemies will be waiting for him.

"We're just thrown out to the wolves, and now we've got to fend for ourselves, and we've got to go back to grabbing pistols," he says.

"No you don't. No you don't," Clark interrupts, and tells the men to stay away from guns.

Another inmate worries the police will be laying for him when he gets out.

Clark knows the inmate's worries are well-founded. He says some cops will harass ex-cons, as he says he was harassed when he was released from prison. He tells the inmates to not let their tempers flare.

"After a while, they are going to leave you alone. You know why they are going to leave you alone? Because they are going to see that you have changed," says Clark. "But if they come and push your button and you react, they are going to continue to push that button. But if they come and they push that button and you don't react, they are going to leave you alone."

Clark does not sugar-coat the future. But he tolerates no excuses. He tells the Stillwater inmates the challenges before them are formidable, but he says they have the power to change their lives.

"We do this (prison) to ourselves because we control our destiny by the kind of choices we make. It's time to make some new choices. It's time to try some things we haven't tried or were afraid to try," he says.

As the class ends, several inmates embrace Clark. There are handshakes all around.

Once released, inmates can find help at a number of Minnesota social service agencies.

Cedric, behind bars for eight years for aggravated robbery, has been out of prison for three months. He found help at Amicus, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that finds jobs and housing for ex-cons.

Cedric asks that his last name not be used. He says he decided to change his life when he became aware of the message his imprisonment was sending to his children.

"I felt that I was teaching them that prison was OK, even though I was saying that it wasn't OK. Being there was letting them know, especially my youngest son, 'Well maybe prison is OK. Dad's a great guy and dad's there'" he says.

Cedric says he relies on Amicus training coordinator Reginald Sweet for advice. For nine years, Sweet has been a law-abiding citizen, free of the drug addiction which led to his incarceration.

He says he understands those who have no patience for ex-cons who return to their old neighborhoods and resume their illegal activities. On the other hand, Sweet says, it's in society's self interest to help them get back on their feet.

"There is zero tolerance. And we're not going to stand for you to come back and just go back to the same old way of life. And you need to make your mind up that you're ready to do something different. But also what would help is to have more businesses and more neighborhood places where guys could go and find the help that they need," Sweet says.

Reginald Sweet helped Cedric get started on a new life when he came out of prison. Cedric's situation is not typical. He has a high school diploma, family support and a job -- elements that many inmates lack when they get out.

His advice to people in prison? Make a plan for what you want to do when released, and above all, change your attitude.

"Whatever any guys are doing in there, when you're doing positive things, positive things happen to you, and you bring that same commitment out the door. If you don't bring it out the door and it's just wind and you go back to the old things, the same things are going to happen," he says.

How should society react to ex-cons who say they want to live a law-abiding life? Ferome Brown of Family and Children's Services says they need an opportunity to show they can.

"They try to come out and they try to get jobs -- the ones I've talked to. But they have the felony, and they're thinking that people aren't going to give them a chance because of the felony, so I think they're falling back into that trap," Brown says.

The trap is the return to a life of crime, and possibly, to prison.

Minnesota's prison population, one of the lowest in the country, is also one of the fastest growing. A sizable portion of those entering have been in prison before.

There's an array of agencies and services available to help them. However advocates for ex-cons say Minnesota has fallen behind some other states, which do a better job of preparing inmates for life on the outside and preparing society for their return.

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