Clutching a cardboard box holding his meager belongings, Delmarcus Burnette stepped into a cold and clammy October morning and toward freedom.
Still wearing his dingy prison greens, smartened up with a new pair of bright white LeBron James basketball shoes, Burnette lopes, smiling, toward the gate of Fox Lake Correctional Institution. He nods to the correctional officer who checks his face against the mug shot in his hand - the last line of defense in a series of redundant safety measures at the medium-security prison - before ushering him through the gate.
As the van taking him back to Madison turns out of the prison parking lot and slips through the fog, Burnette sinks back into his seat, a look of ease spreading over his boyish face. It's his first taste of freedom after two years behind bars for selling crack cocaine.
"This is the best day of my life. I knew it was going to come one day," he said, on his way to a Madison halfway house where correctional officials can monitor his progress at reintegration.
Despite his optimism, Burnette is re-entering society at a tremendous deficit. Like thousands of other young men who will be released from state prisons in the coming year, he's young, has no money, no car, no apartment and zero job prospects. Although he earned his high-school equivalency degree in prison, he has worked exactly one job in his 21 years, a two-week stint in the back of a fast-food restaurant washing dishes, baking biscuits, dumping hot grease.
Released under what's called "extended supervision," a period of court-ordered monitoring following his prison sentence, Burnette has a two-in-three chance of being re- arrested within the next three years. Nearly half of the people admitted to Wisconsin prisons each year were there before.
Prison hasn't exactly improved Burnette, who speaks in a quiet, dismissive monotone, the words spilling out in an endless stream salted with obscenities. He fancies himself a hit with the ladies. He says he was wrong to be selling drugs but can't say he won't go back to it if things don't work out.
Weeks before his release, he dropped $90 on a pair of Nikes and some new underwear, leaving just $21 to his name. He expected his ex-girlfriend (whom he calls "my baby's mother" and has been ordered not to have any contact with) to help him out. When she doesn't deliver, he's contemptuous. Didn't he take care of her when he was still dealing, buying her clothes and a car?
Helping Burnette become a law-abiding, tax-paying member of society is going to be a challenge. But the alternative is spending more than it would take to send him to one of the nation's finest colleges to spend another term at Fox Lake.
Yet, it's precisely here, when they are back in the community, when they pose the greatest risk to the public, that the state spends the least to supervise and, if necessary, punish offenders. On average, taxpayers pay more than $28,000 a year to keep someone in prison while devoting an average $2,000 a year to watch a person on probation or parole.
It's also the moment when there is perhaps the best chance of turning offenders away from crime by offering useful help finding housing, a job, drug counseling or other support. Nothing motivates a person to stay clean like the new-found taste of freedom following a period of incarceration, offenders and those who work with them say.
"People who control the purse strings don't feel this population is worthy," said Gerald Thomas, a Madison psychologist who works with returning offenders. "(They think) people who commit crimes don't need to be assisted."
Easy money in drugs
Growing up in Chicago, Burnette had a fairly ordinary childhood. His mother walked him to school until eighth grade. But the family was poor, and that wore on him.
"Going to school with holes in your shoes, same pants on (every day), your mother can't go to no department store. Shoot," he remembers. "You're like, 'Man, I want what he got. I want what you got. Those clothes are fine.'. "
He found those things came easily when you sell crack.
Like many dealers, he says he's never tried the stuff himself. He was turned off to it since his father, an addict, once unplugged the family's TV while he and his brother were watching it to sell it to buy crack. When he started selling, Burnette said, users would come to him begging for a hit, willing to do anything for it, even have sex with him.
It didn't inspire much sympathy, nor did he feel any particular responsibility for his part in fueling the cycle of addiction and crime.
"If they're going to kill themselves, it's on them; I want some money, too, you know what I'm saying?" he said. "If I don't do it, somebody's going to do it. Me stopping ain't going to change the world."
He tried working once, but quit after his first pay check. "It was, like, seventy-some dollars, then they took out taxes, so it was, like, sixty-something," he said. "I could have made that soon as I stepped out the door if I was selling drugs. . . . I went to get me some cigarettes and weed and liquor and I was broke."
Burnette followed a girlfriend to Madison, where he knew no one but eventually found a niche in the local drug market. They had a child, but they fought; she got an order of protection against him. He got arrested for dealing, and soon was earning 17 cents an hour in his prison job.
A job, finally
When he was released in October, the Department of Corrections put him up in a halfway house on Madison's East Side where his movement could be restricted and where he was ordered to participate in counseling - for drugs and criminal thinking.
Initially, he was allowed to leave only to look for work, and was required to call in frequently. But staff suspected he was going to the mall or seeing his girlfriend. He denied it. A month after his release, he said he had filled out 50 to 60 applications and interviewed for five service jobs at area restaurants and stores to no avail.
"They don't know what's going on. They ain't never been to prison, so they don't know how hard it is out here," he complained about the staff at the halfway house. "I got braids in my head. Man, nobody going to really, too much, hire me."
Eventually, the staff got fed up. In November, Vicki Trebian, the halfway house program manager, decided he'd have to go. The private facility, which contracts with the Department of Corrections and has a long waiting list, simply needed his bed for someone else.
"We need people who want to be here and who are going to work on stuff," she said, scheduling a meeting with his case manager and parole officer for the next day.
Against all odds, Burnette got a job that same day. Trebian was told as the group met to discuss his case. He was allowed to stay.
It's a temporary job bagging beef jerky at a plant in New Glarus. To get there, Burnette forces himself to wake up at 3 a.m., fixes a sack lunch then hikes four miles to a Madison temp agency, where he catches a ride with others working at the same company. He's getting $7.50 an hour.
"I think that once he got the job, it became a pride thing: He wanted to make it work," Trebian said. "He's really done a 180 here. Employment is always a big thing for these guys."
Burnette's outlook is less sunny.
"It's good I got a job and stuff," he said. "I probably wouldn't have had one if I just got out" without the halfway house. But he also says "it's no big deal."
"I got, like, probably, $400 saved up. I need some shoes. I need some clothes. That's going to be gone real quick."
He thinks of going back to selling drugs, then thinks of his daughter and how much longer he could get locked up if he's caught. Then just as quickly, he's thinking about that money again.
"When all else fails (there's) dope," he said.
The contradictions continue, and one can almost sense this impulsive young body waiting for a push one way or another.
"I like working. I like the fact that it's legit," Burnette said. "It's crossed my mind not to even sell drugs no more. I'm doing good. It's showing me the way to budget my money. I can't just go out and spend it cause I'm working for it, not out there selling dope. (But) I can go spend that money real fast. Easy come easy go."
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