Why do certain people seem destined to return to prison? MSW, (Masters of Social Work) professionals, parole and probation officers and VA counselors wring their hands and roll their collective eyes skyward when asked about that. From someone who is still in that situation, I can say it boils down to three things; you need to have a program of recovery, a support group, and gainful employment. It is nowhere near as easy as the average person would think. As long as it is much easier to go back into prison than stay out, that industry wins. It is ironic that the country, which calls itself the land of the free, has made locking its subjects up, a VERY profitable growth industry. Recidivism is a word bandied about to keep the failure part firmly in the ex-offenders side of the court (pun intended). The odds are against us but you, my friend, and I will beat those odds. I have walked off 5 years of state paper and you can too. For this author, it was a combination of the VA, the catholic church, and true friends that helped me buck the odds thus far. Having been assigned three exceptionally skilled parole and probation officers in a row was indeed a real blessing. Two of seven years probation is left for me and life may get even better. Now that the United States has become a leader in locking its population up, so many people are asking why the cycle continues. This is the million dollar question! I cannot magically answer that in a general way, but we can take a look at why I’m still out and what would or can put us back in the belly of the beast.
More importantly, I want to help keep you from being a ‘retread’ along with me. My higher power has blessed me beyond reckoning. It is a fundamental part of my religious beliefs, to share those blessings as best I can. Today we are going to look at what things are vital in staying out and how to build a future that precludes going back to the joint. We will focus on staying clean, landing a job, staying out of trouble and developing our safety net or support group. The key thing to remember is wanting to return to productive citizenship. I truly wish the same for you. There will be many times that a chance to make some quick money, in the wrong way may roll around, when you think you need it. I am not Rebbecca nor am I writing from Sunnybrook Farm. Jail and/or prison usually hooks you up with connections you would only dream of having before-hand. DO NOT slip and go this route. The ‘just this once, I really need the money’ excuse leads to hustling full time. Face it, the cops are not dumb. If you sling long enough you will get popped. Between that and the danger of becoming your own best customer, guarantees it will all end in tears. Now let’s move on to the positive struggle ahead. We can run the good race and win, to paraphrase the mighty Paul of Tarsus.
Let’s begin with the specter of homelessness. No matter what the pundits spout, it is a crime for all intents and purposes. You need a “home plan” (the specifics of your life, if released, on paper) to get out of prison. If you get out of jail, with only probation, the powers that be had better have an address to contact you. If not, back to the stripy hole with you. I found a bridge not burned in a distant couple I was acquainted with from church who put me up, when I got out. That was a very temporary but vital stay, for which I am still grateful. From there, I went to Michael’s Place, which is a haven for men just released from jail or prison and returning to the Pittsburgh area. Typically, a man was sentenced to time served for a retail charge (shoplifting) and it was three months, before his release. That’s generally how long it takes, for the assigned social worker, to find him a bed in a shelter in the jail system. If you are looking at a stint and feel you will not have an address by its end, start writing your church and local social services NOW. If you are accessing this article from a library, your timing is perfect and a great sign of your planning skills. It also shows you are using tools that are important in finding and landing job and continued success.
If you are a veteran and have at least five days clean, the nearest VA domiciliary is what you need to seek out. My time and experience in the VA system has been an anchor, for my recovery program, as well as my life. At the risk of sounding cheesy, the support at the VA (especially Dr. G. and Tim R. among many others) not only saved my life; they helped me build a life worth living. To any reader who hasn’t served, there are many fine civilian programs out there. Not surprisingly, most are church-sponsored. If you are fresh out and in a halfway house, make the most of it. Either way, you will meet some great guys who share the same goals and fears as you. The important thing is that you have a real address and a safe place to lay down your head. That is a baseline requirement, for all folks, not a step exclusively for ex-offenders.
The first REAL step in not going back in is simply put, stay off of drugs. That may sound like a no-brainer, but addiction is a battle that will last, until we shuffle off this mortal coil. To non-users, it defies description how one can go back to using after getting clean. Former and current addicts, you know exactly what I am talking about. Besides the fact that hanging with other parolees is a violation, you have to drop anyone you used to do drugs within the past. It’s tough enough, having lost most everything and everyone to drugs and incarceration. I am guessing that you are asking yourself a form of the following sentence: “Now I have to ditch my drug buddies, the only ones who say hi to me now?” I sympathize, but if you want to stay out and stay clean, it’s how it has got to be, my friend. I am in the same boat. I found that advice just as difficult to follow but it simply must be done.
The second part of staying clean is staying away from places that you copped (bought your drugs), where you used or makes you want to get high. It is as simple as that. Using me as an example, there is a part of Pittsburgh I HAVE to stay away from. There is an almost sexual thrill at copping and this area always makes my hands twitch and my mind dwell on heroin.
The third item to discuss staying off of drugs is triggers. Triggers are the potentially huge category of anything that makes you want to use drugs. A physical trigger for me is anytime someone breaks out a hypodermic needle in a movie or television. This can be a mad scientist or Chuck Heston about to sleep until crash landing on the Planet of the Apes. It doesn’t matter where I see one, it always makes me want to use. It can also be a mental thing; I have an adult daughter who wants nothing to do with me and I have no idea how to even start mending fences with her. I use that as an example because it is an easy one to turn around mentally. If I use, I can forget about any shot at reconciliation with her. I may never get her to like me again, but I would consider it a victory, if she did not hate me. Falling back into the pit and earning a new trip to the big house will certainly destroy any shot at earning back her respect.
Our next basic need in staying a free person is gainful employment. This, in my humble opinion, is where you bitterly learn the so-called ‘debt to society’ is never truly paid. I may not know the number one reason folks end up back in the slammer, but not finding work has to be a close second. The main tools we are going to need for work are a library card, a phone number, and a working resume. The local library has so many solid resources; a membership card is a must for us ex-offenders. The Internet really does offer many ways to find work and keeping track of your efforts. Even if you only have the most basic of computer skills, it will make your job search so much easier in many ways. A librarian will set you up and go over some basics. Some library’s also offer free beginner’s classes from time to time. While on-line at the library, make sure you set up an email address. Go with the on-line service of your choice. I prefer G-mail (provided by Google) for many reasons. Being able to store important documents on-line is a blessing, for our nomadic existence, and Google has many other handy tools as well. Whichever e-mail provider you choose, take the time to fill out your contacts information. We get a lot of numbers, names and leads, when first getting out. Keep track of them in a special notebook and on-line somewhere. Also, small jump drive on your key chain would be a very good tool for storing the documents you acquire. That can be your homework assignment; find out what a jump drive is, the price range for one, and how you can use it. The important things are that we have a real mailing address, private access to a phone, a resume, and an email address. The resume does not have to set the world on fire, as much as, needing it to keep our experience and dates accurate. Store one on your jump drive where you can continue to update it as needed. We need to get a job, any job and quickly. With any luck, either the halfway house will help you with that or line you up with an appointment to get a resume made. Please follow the links next to this article for some direction regarding your resume. Now comes the most aggravating, demoralizing, and self hating exercise, one ever faces, after being released back into society. Without a doubt it is the journey to gainful, indeed any, employment.
As spelled out in the previous paragraph, we need a private number for hiring managers to reach us. The phone may be a little trickier to access. Some halfway houses forbid them, or you can eventually earn the right to have one. If not, they usually provide a phone number that has a generic voice-mail, which will not tip off potential employers you reside in a group home. If you are allowed a cell phone, plan your purchase wisely. The real famous ‘unlimited’ provider is as cheap as they claim and I have never been surprised by their bill. That being said, they make their money when you purchase their phone, by not offering deals most are full price. Another viable option is a ‘pay as you go’ phone. That may not be the best bargain but requires the least amount of up-front money in getting a real phone number. The very best and most economical solution, for me, came about a year after hitting the bricks. A distant family member, still believing in me, added me to their plan; their provider allowed them to add a line on to their current account for $15 a month. They even gave me the actual phone. As your life normalizes, people will see you are doing the right things, and some of the right things happen to you in return. Regardless, a person needs a phone number to get a job and there are affordable options to make this happen.
This may be the one time (that I can think of) when someone having a G.E.D. will have the jump on me having a degree. I am sure some readers may accuse me of bitterness. I hope that it is not true. No one can refute that a criminal record denies many of the chance to truly begin again. Regardless of the intention, not having legitimate work is why too many ex-offenders return to crime. In that magic time before 9/11, the only checking into my past by an employer I experienced was of college transcripts and professional certifications. Since returning to society, temp work was my only means of making any legitimate money. I supposed I performed too well because each time I was offered full time employment. Each time having a record not only killed the application process, it also ended the temp assignment. What really makes it tough is being deemed over-qualified for menial jobs I would gladly and gratefully take. Now since I am approaching the seven year mark of last being arrested, maybe this nightmare will end. Like you, I understand why an employer would be leery of someone with a record. However, there was a time when applications asked about being popped in the last five or seven years. As tough as that is, it beats not getting a chance at all. Again, in this post 9/11 world, that kernel of humane understanding appears to have left this Republic. Please pray for me to land a steady job and I will pray for you, my friend. The main point of this paragraph is to prepare you for some tough times. We can do this, no matter what. The powers that be may think they can force us into drug dealing to get us back into the system but we are better than that. We know in our hearts the place that takes a chance on us will get a worker whose loyalty and work ethic was once considered extinct. Once we land that gig, we need to hold onto it like a lifeline.
So now, hopefully, we have an address, a phone, an email address, a list of drug free friends, and a job. It took a lot and will need to be maintained through daily prayer and dedication. Once we drift away from that support group and begin to think we have this drug and criminal thing beat, a fall is on its way. With that in mind, let us look at some statistics from the Ministry of Revenge, oops, I mean US Department of Justice website:
Prevalence of imprisonment in the United States*
*As provided by the US Department of Justice’s Study “Inmates returning to the community after serving time in prison” by Timothy Hughes and Doris James Wilson, Bureau of Justice Statistics Statisticians
• As of December 31, 2001, there were an estimated 5.6 million adults who had ever served time in State or Federal prison, including 4.3 million former prisoners and 1.3 million adults in prison.
• Nearly a third of former prisoners were still under correctional supervision, including 731,000 on parole, 437,000 on probation, and 166,000 in local jails.
• In 2001, an estimated 2.7% of adults in the U.S. had served time in prison, up from 1.8% in 1991 and 1.3% in 1974.
• The prevalence of imprisonment in 2001 was higher for
— black males (16.6%) and Hispanic males (7.7%) than for white males (2.6%)
— black females (1.7%) and Hispanic females (0.7%) than white females (0.3%)
• Nearly two-thirds of the 3.8 million increase in the number of adults ever incarcerated between 1974 and 2001 occurred as a result of an increase in first incarceration rates; one-third occurred as a result of an increase in the number of residents age 18 and older.
The numbers just get worse the deeper one digs. I really want to explore the numbers and present them in a more readable form sometime in the future. In the meantime, let’s stay clean and stay out of trouble.