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September 2, 2007 - Washington Post (DC)

Back From Behind Bars

Homelessness, Unemployment and Familiar Temptations Greet the 2,000 Prisoners Who Return to the District Each Year

By Robert E. Pierre, Staff Writer

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Few people understand the criminal justice system like Wendell Poole. He spent 21 years, four months, 16 days and three hours in prison for assault with the intent to kill two people during an argument. He arrived home middle-aged and paranoid, flinching at the sound of passing cars. He needed a job, a place to stay, a plan.

He slept on sofas, convinced a friend to give him a job and now, four years later, counsels just-released prisoners, nudging them toward a fresh start.

Staying out, Poole tells them, is simple: Change your clothes, your friends and your frame of reference. Don't expect handouts or even much help. As a small first step, Poole decided before leaving prison to wear a necktie in his new life.

"You have to reinvent yourself," he said.

But reinvention requires help. For many ex-cons, help can be hard to come by. The reentry system is overwhelmed, and the pipeline of people returning from prison gets replenished daily.

About 2,000 prisoners come back to the District every year -- an average of five a day. As many as 60,000 D.C. residents -- one in 10 -- are felons, 15,000 of them under court supervision.

They arrive at the homes of relatives, at halfway houses and shelters. One-third end up homeless or close to it. Seven out of 10 have abused drugs. Half don't have a high school diploma. Employers, landlords and even family members often avoid them.

Most emerge ill-equipped to stay out of prison. Two-thirds are re-arrested within three years. Forty percent are sent back to prison. This means more crime, more victims and more money spent to send them through the justice system again and again.

The District is the only jurisdiction in the country where the federal government has direct authority for supervising its felons, a legacy of the city's bankrupt '90s under Mayor Marion Barry (D).

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) says too many inmates are not getting the services they need in prison or after their release.

"These people are out of sight, out of mind," Norton said. "There's been no oversight, not one hearing. The whole notion of what role this population plays in crime is not part of the crime-prevention strategy."

The federal agency overseeing ex-offenders in the District spends $135 million a year, but former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. said more needs to be spent to ensure that residents get homes and training that will lead to jobs. Allowing people to be idle, he said, is dangerous.

"What you're saying is," said Fulwood, a member of the U.S. Parole Commission, " 'Keep robbing us. Keep busting us in the head. Keep breaking into our houses.' "

The District used to incarcerate its prisoners and monitor them on release. But in 1997, Congress transferred that authority to federal agencies because the District was financially strained and its key prison, Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County, was crowded, violent and corrupt.

Prisoners were sent to institutions run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. Parole authority was given to the U.S. Parole Commission in Bethesda, and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, or CSOSA, was created to do pre-release counseling, supervise parolees and provide drug treatment.

The federal prisons, although generally considered safer and newer, evoke inmate complaints: Spread across 75 institutions in 33 states, inmates are cut off from their families, and 15 percent of about 7,000 inmates serving time are beyond the 500-mile limit Congress set. Many are housed in facilities that do not offer college-level classes or training in such skills as barbering. One in nine inmates in federal prison reports getting drug treatment.

Poole, 52, spent time in both systems. During seven years at Lorton, he got a GED and started college. "I got to see my kids two or three times a week," he said. "I got a chance to be a part of their lives."

Going to "the feds" meant a game of survival. Calling home was too expensive, and inmates said they often felt mistreated by guards. At least as big a problem is they lost touch with the city -- and the city lost touch with them.

When an inmate leaves prison, a reentry system is supposed to kick in before old habits set in, say government leaders, community activists and law enforcement officials.

For Poole, a counselor at the Anacostia Men's Employment Network, there was no halfway house, no job training.

Now, however, CSOSA makes a concerted effort to reach out to prisoners a few months before they are scheduled to leave and develop a plan of action. About half of those leaving prison are sent to a halfway house to serve their final months. It is not uncommon for release dates to be held up because an inmate has nowhere to live.

Of 2,200 offenders released in the past year, 370 listed their residence as a homeless shelter. Many times, all a parole or probation officer can do is refer inmates to programs and hope they get in.

Even after years in prison, inmates often need drug treatment. Some continue using drugs in prison. Others have no access to drugs but without treatment come out with their desire intact. Returning to old haunts and temptations can be too difficult to resist.

"It's the number one issue," said Paul Quander, who heads CSOSA. "There aren't enough resources."

Treatment is expensive. Seven days of detox, 90 days of residential care and 54 outpatient visits costs $17,141 for one person; the cost of a year in prison approaches $30,000.

CSOSA gets $11 million a year for drug treatment, enough to serve one of four addicts under its care. So Quander focuses on people with multiple convictions and long-standing addictions.

The crown jewel of the agency's efforts is the 102-bed Reentry and Sanctions Center in Southeast next to RFK Stadium, between the D.C. jail and the morgue. For 28 days, ex-cons fill 14-hour days with counseling, group chats, academic testing and personalized assessments. A 2001 review showed a 35 percent drop in re-arrests, a rate the agency hopes to replicate on a larger scale. No one believes recidivism can be wiped out, but CSOSA officials say increased funding can help reduce overall crime in the city.

Michael Washington, 37, said chasing drugs kept him cycling in and out of prison, at one point for a burglary conviction and most recently for a parole violation. He started drinking at 12 and then began using drugs. He has dealt drugs, been robbed and been shot.

Washington hopes a treatment program he started after being released in late June will help him stay clean. "In my mind and my heart," he said, "I know what to do, but I need some help."

Those who don't get treated through CSOSA are referred to the District's Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration, which provides detox and inpatient care for all the District's addicts, not just ex-offenders. The District does not track whether the people it treats are ex-offenders but acknowledges drugs as a pervasive problem in the city.

APRA served 13 percent of an estimated 60,000 people in the District who needed drug treatment last year. Freed prisoners often have to join a long line. Some waiting lists stretch four or five months.

And treatment can cost $70 a week. To pay the fee, the felons need a job.

The census tracts with the highest concentrations of ex-offenders have unemployment rates up to 35 percent, a recent study by the Urban Institute found.

Dozens of job-training programs focus on life skills. Fulfilling a requirement of their release, inmates can cycle from one training program to another, never landing a job.

Many employers are reluctant to give ex-cons a second chance.

"If you check yes, they're not going to call you in for an interview. It happens all the time," said Lohren Robinson, 25, a cook who hasn't had run-ins with the law for the two years since he served time for convictions on stolen identity, breaking and entering and grand theft. He is unemployed but gets occasional temp jobs. "It takes away your ambition and your drive to want for something."

For a year, the D.C. Council has considered barring employers from asking applicants if they have a criminal history until after a job offer is made.

Opposition from business has been fierce. Business owners, colleges and security agencies say insurance premiums would rise, along with lawsuits from ex-offenders rejected for jobs. Some threatened to stop recruiting in the District. Business leaders said many emerge from prison lacking college degrees, certifications or training to qualify for jobs.

"While we will have some discrimination in our lives," D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang told council members earlier this year, "discrimination is not the major reason for the issue we are discussing today; preparedness for jobs is."

Sponsors said the measure is alive, although it has yet to come out of committee.

One hundred men and women showed up at a CSOSA job fair in June. A videolink was set up to Rivers Correctional Institution in North Carolina, where dozens of District prisoners were months from release. Agents for two construction companies were invited to offer tips on what to wear to an interview and how to create a good impression.

One audience member said he wanted to become a crane operator. Another, a man who had been sitting quietly, said, "I just need a job."

But Larry Barnes, a trainer in the D.C. Apprenticeship Office, which links District residents with employers in the skilled trades, said ex-offenders often sabotage themselves. "We show up late," he told them. "We're positive [for drugs] in our urine. . . . We got baby-mama drama. We rely on other people to get to work."

The Rev. Stephen E. Tucker, pastor of New Commandment Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, runs one of dozens of job-training programs for ex-offenders in the District. His is out of the church basement, mixing spiritual guidance with r?sum? writing and conflict resolution. The program forms partnerships with business owners who agree to interview and hire its graduates.

Since 1997, more than 1,000 have graduated. Eighty-five percent get jobs, Tucker said, and 90 percent keep them at least a year. Still, about half of those under CSOSA's supervision are without a job. Tucker said jobs, housing and drug treatment are parts of a whole.

"If you give a brother a job and he hasn't gotten over substance abuse, he's not going to have that job long," he said. "If he gets a job and doesn't have a place to stay, they're going to open themselves up to the same choices that got them locked up in the first place."

Inmates and their advocates, however, agree that programs and access to drug treatment do not guarantee success for those living on the margins.

Jason Kinney, 26, had been away for a year on a parole violation from a 1999 assault charge. Out of prison for two months, his job hunt was frustrating him, but he hadn't given up, his mother, Tawana Kinney, said.

He completed CSOSA's 28-day drug treatment and started a job-training program near his parents' home in Congress Heights. He talked about restarting his fledgling acting career. Once, he had a minor role in "Homicide: Life on the Street."

On July 13, Kinney stood in a crowd in his old neighborhood on Capitol Hill. A car drove past, and someone opened fire. Four people, including Kinney, were hit. The others lived. He died just before midnight.

Days later, 150 people gathered on a breezy afternoon as the summer sun eased into twilight. In death, Kinney had completed a familiar cycle: He got into trouble early. He went to prison. He died young.

The Rev. Roy Bowman, associate pastor of the Soul Factory in Forestville, told the gathering that the endless churn of black men through the prisons and the morgue has become so routine that it hardly warrants a passing glance. Help, he said, wasn't on the way.

"Ain't nobody coming, ya'll," said Bowman, a former police officer, looking from one teary face to another. "Ain't nobody coming to save us, to work this thing out. If you don't learn to read, ain't nobody going to show up to care. If you expect the police or the D.C. government to do something, it ain't going to happen. Nobody cares that we kill each other. . . . Ain't nobody coming."

Police have offered up to $25,000 to anyone who can help put the killer or killers behind bars.

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