Austin First Fair Chance City in the South Ban the box ordinance passes Council

    MAR. 25, 2016

    On Thursday, March 24, Austin became the first city in the South to pass a Fair Chance Hiring ordinance requiring private employers to delay asking about a job applicant’s criminal history until a conditional offer of employment has been made.

    The move came at the end of a meeting that saw several labor protections enacted, including a resolution to strengthen nondiscrimination protections for city employees, an extension of the city’s living wage requirement of $13.03 to construction workers on city-funded projects, and an extension of that same wage requirement to employees of subcontractors on city-funded projects.

    Public testimony regarding the Fair Chance resolution featured several emotional accounts from proponents, most of whom had been directly affected by criminal history-related job discrimination. Lauren Johnson, a longtime advocate for the ordinance, spoke about having spent the first year of her son’s life in prison, and said that it’s important that her three children “always have hope to be more than their worst choice.” Kandace Vallejo, executive director of Youth Rise Texas, an organization that works with teenagers who have been directly affected by parental incarceration, showed a video of Youth Rise intern Destiny Harris, a high school senior who was unable to attend the meeting because she had to work to support her family, as her mother’s criminal record makes it difficult for her to find employment. Harris said that the ordinance would give “people like me and my mom a second chance.”

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      October 23, 2014

      A Plan to Cut Costs and Crime: End Hurdle to Job After Prison


      Marilyn Scales, 52, of New York, who spent time in prison for selling drugs in the 1990s, said that telling the truth on job applications had made her virtually unemployable. “When I answer that question honestly,” she said, “I never get a call back.”

      WASHINGTON — James White had steeled himself for the moment. But when he got to the question on the job application — Have you ever been convicted of a crime? — he shifted nervously in his seat.

      If he checked the “yes” box, he would almost certainly not get the job as a hospital janitor.

      He checked the box.

      A moment later, a human resources employee looking over his shoulder told him not to bother with the rest of the form. “She said I should stop right there, that there was no need to continue filling out the application because I was done with the process,” he said.

      Mr. White, convicted of possessing a handgun without a license 10 years ago, is one of the 60,000 people with a criminal record who live in Washington, and who, along with the 8,000 city residents who are released from prison each year, have a difficult time finding decent jobs.

      To ease these residents’ re-entry into society, Washington’s City Council this summer approved legislation that forbids asking about criminal history on most job applications, a step being considered by Georgia, Michigan and New York, among other states.

      After more than 25 years of tough-on-crime laws and the incarceration of millions of low-level drug offenders, the effort is part of a bipartisan re-evaluation of the criminal justice system and reflects a growing concern that large numbers of people, especially African-Americans — who have been jailed disproportionately — remain marginalized from the work force and at greater risk of returning to crime.

      The reappraisal, joined by such conservative luminaries as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, includes a movement to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, endeavors to expunge the criminal records of nonviolent offenders and reassessing parole and probation rules so violators are not automatically reincarcerated.

      “There’s been a shift in people away from wanting to get even,” said Marc A. Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a conservative anti-crime group in Texas. “People are focused now on getting results. It really is a great benefit to public safety if ex-offenders are able to get jobs, find places to live and get occupational licenses — whether it’s from the perspective of the ex-offender or those of us who are going to live next to them.”

      With an estimated one in three American adults having been arrested at some point in their lives, and 16 million people — about 7.5 percent of the adult population — who are felons or former felons, the question of how to reintegrate the 700,000 people who are released from prison each year has become increasingly urgent.

      During the past several months, states and cities as varied as Illinois; Nebraska; New Jersey; Indianapolis; Louisville, Ky.; and New Orleans and have adopted so-called Ban the Box laws. In total, some 70 cities and 13 states have passed such laws — most in the past four years.

      The laws generally prohibit employers from asking applicants about criminal records as an initial step in the hiring process and from running criminal background checks until job seekers are considered serious candidates for an opening.

      Studies have found that ex-offenders, particularly African-Americans, are far less likely to be called back for job interviews if they check the criminal history box on applications, even though research has shown that those possessing a criminal record are no more apt to commit a crime in the workplace than colleagues who have never been convicted.

      Still, most of the Ban the Box laws have been enacted so recently that there is little conclusive evidence that they reduce recidivism or unemployment among ex-offenders. Surveys conducted in Minneapolis and Durham, N.C., after those cities passed laws showed that fewer job applicants had been rejected for public sector work because of a criminal conviction.

      Ex-offenders, who have been at the fore in pushing for the laws, say preventing employers from inquiring about their criminal pasts in first interviews is critical in removing prejudices against them that make it tough to get work, find a place to live, regain their voting rights, receive federal student aid or obtain professional licenses.

      Marilyn Scales, 52, a New York City resident convicted of selling drugs in the 1990s, said telling the truth on job forms had made her virtually unemployable, even though she was released from prison 17 years ago.

      “When I answer that question honestly, I never get a call back,” she said. “I feel like I’m still paying for my crimes 20 years later.”

      But researchers say Ban the Box laws and other reform measures have gained popularity with lawmakers because of fiscal constraints as much as a desire to aid ex-offenders.

      Cities and states emerging from the recession are being forced to cut corrections costs — which total more than $52 billion annually — and have begun to focus on reducing prison populations by discouraging recidivism.

      The changes come as the United States continues to have the world’s largest prison population, even though crime is far below its 1990s levels, when illegal drugs ravaged urban neighborhoods.

      “When a lot of these laws passed, there was anxiety about crack cocaine and black homicide rates and arguments that some criminals were ‘super predators,’ ” said Steven Raphael, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “That was a powerful argument, especially for legislators, so a lot of the re-evaluation happening now has to do with the budgetary implications of prisons.”

      While most Ban the Box legislation has covered only public employers, Washington, San Francisco, Minnesota and Massachusetts, among other cities and states, also have prohibited private workplaces from asking the criminal-history questions on introductory forms or in initial interviews. Several of the nation’s largest private employers, including Walmart, Target and Home Depot, have adopted the rules as well, the companies said.

      The laws still allow employers to conduct criminal background checks before making hires and to inquire about criminal histories, but not until after the first interview. The laws typically exempt hiring in law enforcement, schools and day care centers.

      And while federal law prohibits discrimination against job seekers based solely on criminal history, employers are permitted to deny jobs to ex-offenders if a crime is deemed to be directly related to the work — for example, if a person convicted of theft is applying to be a cashier.

      Many of those returning from prison to their old neighborhoods are African-American men, who have incarceration rates far higher than any other group — one in 12 African-American men of working age (18-64) are imprisoned, according to a 2010 Pew Charitable Trust study, compared with one in 87 working-age white men — a circumstance that has raised concerns about the creation of a permanent underclass of men and women freed from prison with little hope of ever finding work.

      “If we are going to block their path and not give them options to reintegrate — if they can’t get a job and the opportunity to earn a livelihood — what alternative do they have?” said Jim Scheer, a Republican state senator from Nebraska who describes himself as tough on crime but was still an outspoken advocate of the state’s Ban the Box law, approved 46-to-0 in April.

      There have been assertions however that, paradoxically, the laws might encourage discrimination against minorities.

      “If you’re not going to allow somebody without a criminal record to say, ‘I don’t have a criminal record,’ the hiring officer can say, ‘I bet this person has a criminal record, and I’m not going to hire them,’ ” said Adam T. Klein, an employment discrimination lawyer at Outten & Golden, a New York law firm.

      Jack Mozloom, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, a lobbying group, said he was concerned that hiring decisions were being taken away from businesses.

      “Does everybody deserve a second chance? Of course,” Mr. Mozloom said. “But it’s up to me as the guy taking the risk to decide that this person is worth taking the risk. The fact that they have a criminal record proves that at one point in their lives they weren’t trustworthy.”

      Mr. White, the ex-offender now seeking janitorial work, said the Washington hospital’s human resource officer had not asked him what he had been convicted of — or for any other details about his crime.

      “She didn’t know that I didn’t have to serve time,” Mr. White said. “All she knew was that I checked the box, and as far as she was concerned, I didn’t deserve a shot. I was somehow too dangerous to clean the floors.”

      A Plan to Cut Costs and Crime: End Hurdle to Job After Prison

      September 27th

      Continued Clinical Care For Ex-Convicts

      A clinical network tailored to the medical needs of ex-prisoners could reduce recidivism and strengthen the U.S. health care system.

      People newly released from prison confront serious health risks the moment they step off the bus. Many lack identifying documents and have only a few dollars in their pockets. Many don’t know how to find health insurance or medical care. And many quickly wind up in emergency departments with overdoses or exacerbations of chronic diseases that were being treated in prison. These are problems that Assistant Professor of Medicine Emily Wang, M.D., M.A.S., is trying to resolve.

      While an internal medicine resident at the University of California–San Francisco, Wang decided to talk to current and former prisoners about these barriers. In 2006, she co-founded a San Francisco clinic based on what she learned. The Transitions Clinic Network (TCN) is designed to connect ex-prisoners with medical and social services as soon as they leave prison. Eight years after its founding, the TCN has grown to serve 13 locations around the country, including at Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Primary Care Center.

      TCN has drawn substantial national media attention, in part because of its help enrolling returnees under the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—or “Obamacare”—may strengthen insurance rolls as well as reduce recidivism. Wang and colleagues at the TCN meet regularly with President Obama’s Federal Interagency Reentry Council to discuss policy barriers to returnee health, such as Medicaid termination for people incarcerated longer than a year.

      Funded by a Career Development Award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Wang also studies health outcomes in returned prisoners. In September 2013 she reported in JAMA Internal Medicine that about one in 12 are hospitalized within three months of release.

      The structure of the TCN is based on advice from current and former prisoners, who suggested to Wang that effective medical care for returnees needs four key elements: early access to primary care; workers with a history of incarceration to guide returnees to medical and social services; providers with correctional health experience or training; and strong connections to community organizations like housing, employment, and legal aid. Returnees have also alerted Wang to discrimination in the health care setting.

      “A big problem in many of the interventions that are designed for this population is that often they haven’t solicited the opinion of former prisoners,” Wang says. “You end up with interventions that either aren’t palatable or aren’t feasible.”

      By contrast, the TCN is succeeding. When Wang and her colleagues compared returnees receiving all four elements of the TCN’s care to returnees receiving just an early primary-care visit, they found that only one-quarter of TCN patients visited the emergency department in a year compared with 40 percent of non-TCN patients. The results appeared in the American Journal of Public Health in September 2012.

      Though medical care for prisoners is mandated under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, that care often abruptly ends when imprisonment does. The clinic makes it possible to access prison health records and resume care. In 2012 the TCN received a Health Care Innovation Award from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. The program has been mentioned in The Atlantic, Newsweek, and CNN.com.

      Some of the attention has centered around the TCN’s connections to Medicaid and the ACA. Poor health care in the form of untreated mental health problems and addiction lead many people to offend in the first place. So getting ex-prisoners enrolled in Medicaid—and making sure they receive treatment tailored to their needs, as the TCN does—might mean fewer of them return to prison.

      “Obamacare is key to reducing recidivism,” Wang says. She adds, however, that the reverse is also true. Over one-fifth of people eligible for Medicaid under the ACA expansion are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. Many are young and healthy, making them attractive to insurance companies looking to dilute their risk pools. Far from being burdensome, then, these individuals may strengthen the health care system—much as their involvement has made the TCN more effective.

      “In order for the Affordable Care Act to work,” Wang says, “you have to get former prisoners involved.”

      Continued Clinical Care For Ex-Convicts

      JobsforLife Mission and Purpose for Ex-Offenders:


      State Should Allow For Second Chances

      Editorial Board
      Published: June 11, 2012

      Former convicts have always struggled to find work. They tend to be poorly educated, they tend to have personal shortcomings that limit their ability to find and keep a decently paying job, and their time in prison is a stigma that often serves as a barrier to everything but the most menial employment.

      The State of Texas tries to give some convicts the means to climb the employment barriers they face by helping them learn a trade. Few things help a former inmate to re-enter society like a job does.

      But the state, to protect the public, also erects bureaucratic barriers over which many former convicts can't climb.

      The clashing policy goals cost the state money and put former convicts' potential rehabilitation at risk.

      The American-Statesman's Eric Dexheimer reported Monday on the case of Lynn Mays, a 42-year-old former convict who received the help of one state agency to try to become a barber — only to have a separate state agency deny him a license to practice the occupation for which he had been trained at state expense.

      Mays was released from prison in March 2010 after serving eight years for aggravated sexual assault, a crime he was convicted of committing once before, in 1991. He worked for a few months after his release as a cook and by mowing lawns, then he sought vocational help from the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. A counselor suggested he become a barber, and the agency agreed to pay for his training.

      Mays completed his training and passed the necessary exams. Because the state requires barbers to be licensed before they can cut hair, Mays applied to the Department of Licensing and Regulation for a barber's license. The agency rejected his application.

      It did so by saying his criminal record put customers at risk: "A person with a predisposition for crimes involving prohibited sexual conduct would have the opportunity to engage in further similar conduct," the agency said.

      The agency also noted that Mays hadn't been out of prison long enough to prove that he was, indeed, rehabilitated.

      The Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services wouldn't tell Dexheimer how much it had paid for Mays' barber training. The agency did tell Dexheimer that it pays up to $3,000 for training tuition and up to $1,500 to cover the cost of equipment and fees. So the state might have spent as much as $4,500 to help Mays become a barber before denying him the license to actually be a barber.

      The cost of training Mays is not the only money the state has spent on him. In unsuccessfully pleading his case before the State Office of Administrative Hearings, Mays correctly pointed out that the state has invested a great deal of money in him — first by providing him with rehabilitative programs while he was in prison for eight years, then by paying for his barber training. He said he wanted to be given the "chance to prove the system works."

      It's a shame he won't be given that chance, at least not as a barber. And the state is out a few thousand dollars.

      Employment rates and earnings are low for former inmates, adding to the challenges they face. Those ex-convicts who learn a trade and then are allowed to practice that trade have a better shot at successfully re-entering society. Reintegration benefits everyone; recidivism benefits no one.

      What is the proper time for inmates to prove they've been rehabilitated? Dexheimer reported that the state says it's 10 years in some cases — meaning the state essentially tacks an additional decade onto a former inmate's sentence. Caution is appropriate when hiring a former inmate, but it's in no one's interest to have policies that might practically ban some former convicts from employment other than menial, low-paying jobs.

      Mays' case is not unique. As Dexheimer reported last year in a similar story, "Thousands of applicants are denied state licenses to work in more than 100 occupations every year because of their criminal pasts."

      Sometimes the crime in question has little if anything to do with the field in which the license is being sought, or sometimes the crime was a misdemeanor rather than a felony. The most egregious cases occur when a former convict has been practicing a trade for years but suddenly finds his profession newly regulated by the state and himself unable to get a license.

      Mays' case also underscores an enduring question to which there is no easy answer. The state must protect the public's safety. But is the public safer when a former convict is working, or when the state denies him the ability to work because he might commit another crime?

      State should allow for second chances

      State Government Giveth, Then Taketh Away

      By Eric Dexheimer
      June 6th

      Why would one branch of the state government buy a citizen something with public money only to then to have another branch take it away a few months later? A recent State Office of Administrative Hearings case raises the question — but doesn’t fully answer it.

      Lynn Mays’s now-you-can-have-it, now-you-can’t story began in March 2010, when he was released from prison. According to SOAH records, the now-42 year old Dallas-area man was a twice-convicted felon, in 1992 and again in 2001, both for aggravated sexual assault. While the sentence for the first crime was suspended, the second landed him in prison for eight years.

      As I’ve written about before, a criminal record can make it difficult to find a job, and particularly one that requires a state license. Mays worked for a while as a cook, court records show, but was laid off when the restaurant closed. His rap sheet prevented him from finding work as a mechanic and truck driver, he said.

      Mays eventually turned to the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services for help. The state agency provides services to those with disabilities, including job training. His counselor recommended Mays learn how to become a barber, and the agency agreed to pay for the training, according to a letter his vocational rehabilitation counselor later sent to the Office of Administrative Hearings.

      “Mr. Mays applied for services June 2010 and completed the barber training, which DRS agreed to support,” Charlotte Reed wrote. “Mr. Mays has several learning disabilities which have been barriers for him in the past. Over the years he attempted several times to obtain his license and was discouraged and distracted due to his disability.”

      But, the letter continued: “This time Lynn stayed very focused, gained the necessary tutoring to complete the training and pass the exam.” State records show that Mays passed his written test to become a barber last March, and his practical exam in July. Soon after, he applied to the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulation for his state license.

      The regulatory agency rejected his application, however. The reason: Mays’s criminal record. “Crimes involving prohibited sexual conduct relate to the occupation of barbering,” SOAH records explained. “Barbers have direct contact with members of the general public, often in settings with no one else present, and a person with a predisposition for crimes involving prohibited sexual conduct would have the opportunity to engage in further similar conduct.”

      Mays, agency staff concluded, had not been out of prison enough time to demonstrate that he’d been rehabilitated.

      Early this year, Mays appealed his case to SOAH, which hears occupational disputes. In support, Reed, his vocational counselor, pointed out that taxpayers already had paid for his training.

      “I am very interested in Mr. Mays’ progression as the state has utilized resource(s) toward vocational employment as a barber and hope that he will soon be ready to become employed.”

      It is unclear precisely how much the agency spent on Mays’ training; Reed declined to comment on Mays’ case. Calls to a couple local barber schools suggest a barber licensing program — usually about nine months — costs several thousand dollars.

      At the TDLR’s regular meeting last week, where commissioners vote to accept or reject the judge’s recommendations, Mays said the rehabilitative agency supported his training up until that day: “They paid for me to go to barber school. They bought my supplies, they paid for my test, and not only did they pay for my barber license, but also my booth permit. They gave me the gas to get here today.”

      The big question is less why the regulatory agency blocked Mays’s license application — sex convicts are regularly denied occupational licenses, particularly recent releases — but rather how he was approved for state-supported tonsorial training in the first place.

      In recent years, the regulatory affairs department has implemented a program that allows potential applicants to first seek an opinion of their chances of getting approved for an occupational license given their histories. A spokesman for TDLR said Mays never asked.

      Still, in an unusually eloquent presentation to Department of Licensing and Regulation commissioners, Mays noted that the cost of barber training wasn’t the only bill citizens had footed on his behalf:

      “When I was incarcerated, I was in a correctional facility that was run by the state of Texas. Taxpayer money paid for programs that are called rehabilitation programs, therapeutic programs, that I successfully went through…I’m not here because I’ve broken the law; I’m here because I want to work. I’m asking for a chance to prove the system works.”

      The commissioners voted to deny Mays’s license 4-0.

      tate Government Giveth, Then Taketh Away

      Ex-Offenders In Texas Often Can't Find Housing Or Work

      Posted: May 28, 2012

      Tim Baker, 52, lives at the Salvation Army in Fort Worth and spends his days putting out dozens of résumés.

      For a brief moment, Tim Baker considered that death might improve his situation.

      "Suicide is natural for someone who is depressed," Baker said.

      Baker had a number of scrapes with the law, ending with felony convictions on two charges of driving while intoxicated. After an eight-year prison stay, he was released. He got a job as a heating and air-conditioning technician and reunited with his family.

      But he was let go after the company began working for a school district, which prohibits convicted felons from being on school property.

      Soon Baker was on the streets.

      "I get the sense that most people don't care," he said. "We're put in this mold of being once a convict, always a convict."

      Ex-offenders Tim Baker, left, and Brian Shaw, both of Fort Worth, often run into each other at Texas Re-Entry Services.

      Baker, 52, now lives at the Salvation Army in Fort Worth and spends his days putting out dozens of résumés in an effort to find work. He and Brian Shaw, who is also looking for work, often run into each other at Texas Re-Entry Services, which tries to give them the tools they need to find employment and housing.They are among about 75,000 inmates whom the Texas Department of Criminal Justice releases every year. This year about 7,000 are expected to return to Tarrant County.

      In the three years after release, about 32 percent of Texas state jail offenders and 24 percent of the prison population will be re-incarcerated, according to a Sunset Advisory Commission review of the Texas prison system released this month. Taxpayers bear the burden when offenders are re-incarcerated at an average cost of $50.79 per day, the review says.

      Finding housing and employment are crucial to an ex-offender's successful reintegration into society, experts say. But after serving their time, many ex-offenders find that they cannot get a job without a home address and cannot find a place to live without the money to pay rent. So they may end up roaming the streets.

      During a 2011 homeless survey in Tarrant County, more than 76 percent of the 410 people surveyed said their criminal records were the main reason they were unemployed, according to Cindy Crain, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.

      Kay Smith, founder of Texas Re-Entry Services, said: "If you are coming out of state prison you get $100, a bus ticket home and a suit of clothes. If they have a place to go they're lucky. If they aren't lucky they end up homeless."

      During the past three fiscal years, funding cuts have curtailed Re-Entry Services' reach, Smith said. Funding for the Directions Home Program, which helps ex-offenders needing housing, has dwindled from a high of $140,700 in 2010 to $51,600 this year, Smith said. Two case managers lost their jobs because of the funding cuts.

      Cindy Wright, supportive housing case manager for Re-Entry Services, said, "I've got 36 clients right now and I cannot effectively manage any more than that."

      Efforts To Help

      Several initiatives have been launched to try to help offenders transition back into communities.

      Last month, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that it had updated its criminal background check policy, saying employers should not base employment decisions solely on an arrest record when there is no subsequent conviction.

      The new EEOC policy also says employment policies with blanket exclusions against hiring people with criminal backgrounds have disparate racial impacts. The commission cited data indicating that about 1 in 17 Anglo men is expected to serve time in prison during his lifetime, compared with 1 in 6 Hispanic men and 1 in 3 African-American men.

      In 2009, the Legislature made key changes in state law to try to improve the planning and strategies of the Criminal Justice Department to help prepare offenders for release and reduce the likelihood they'll commit more crimes. But the sunset report says the department has not carried through, hindering efforts to reduce recidivism. The law created a new Re-Entry Task Force, for example, but it has not reported any findings or coordinated with local providers to improve services. And the report says the department has yet to draft a re-entry plan, as required by law.

      At the local level, Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks said that in 2005, he helped bring together people to create the Tarrant County Re-Entry Initiative, in hope of increasing the reach of nonprofits that are working on the problem.

      "Everyone needs a place to live in order to be a productive citizen," Brooks said. "It costs more money to maintain a person in the criminal justice system than it does to provide services to them in a community that will give them a chance to succeed."

      The initiative has had success, he said.

      "Since we've started the initiative, we've seen the recidivism rate go down in Tarrant County by approximately 1,500 people a year," Brooks said. "We've coordinated the efforts of 15 nonprofits and maybe 60 churches, and that has helped make a tremendous community impact during the past five years."

      A Long, Hard Road

      But the road that returns ex-offenders to respectability remains tough.

      Very few people who are not involved in the criminal justice system know the difference between burglary, robbery and larceny, said Otis Thornton, Fort Worth homelessness program director. Yet employers make hiring decisions based on their idea of what they mean, and landlords may require criminal background checks and reject applicants with a record, he said.

      "If we believe in the criminal justice system then we need to stop continually penalizing people," Thornton said. "I think it's appropriate for landlords and employers to have a risk model. I think they should write it down and be honest about what are their legitimate risks. If you have a risk model and you have met the person, people can then examine their willingness to provide a person with an opportunity."

      The issue for landlords and property owners is not money, but liability, said John Mitchell, executive director of the Apartment Association of Tarrant County. Landlords who rent to ex-offenders, whatever the crime, increase the likelihood that they will be sued if that person commits another crime that harms a tenant, Mitchell said.

      "There are a lot of great people out there who are trying to get their feet back under them, but their housing options are limited," Mitchell said. "If their risks could be limited, I'm sure landlords and property owners would open up their portfolios to some nonviolent ex-offenders."

      Most public housing is also out of the reach of ex-offenders. Last year, top Housing and Urban Development Department officials wrote an open letter asking the owners of HUD-assisted properties to do more to open their properties to ex-offenders. The letter said that about 7.5 million people nationwide are released from prisons and jails each year and that allowing ex-offenders to reunite with relatives provides people with incentives for staying out of prison.

      HUD officials asked owners to "seek a balance between allowing ex-offenders to reunite with families that live in HUD subsidized housing and ensuring the safety of all residents of its programs."

      About three years ago, the Fort Worth Housing Authority loosened its criteria for renting to ex-offenders, allowing those with certain criminal backgrounds to be eligible for assistance if they stay out of trouble for five years after the offense, instead of requiring that they have clean records for 10 years, said Selarstean Mitchell, the authority's vice president of assisted housing.

      Public housing authorities, however, must abide by guidelines set by Congress regarding potential renters with criminal histories.

      The Fort Worth authority denies aid to families with histories of drug-related or violent crime by any household member, as well as to registered sex offenders.

      While protecting the public is essential, public safety is compromised if offenders can't transition back into society, Brooks said.

      "Unless the community is willing to provide alternatives the ex-offender will re-offend," Brooks said. "For those who want to be taxpaying citizens, they deserve our help."

      Mitch Mitchell
      Twitter: @stcrime
      Looking for comments?

      Read more Here

      Program Looking At Ways To Put Ex-Offenders Back To Work And Keep Them Out Of Prison

      Posted: May 28, 2012

      FORT WORTH -- Victor Lee, Phil Ramirez, Westley Shaw and Vincent Perez all said they knew they needed to find work immediately after being released from prison.

      "If someone's not working within six months after they get out of prison they usually go back to prison," said the Rev. Mike Doyle, president of Cornerstone Assistance Network in Fort Worth. "If someone's working within three months ... they are usually not going back to prison."

      The four men said they also realized they might require more help than the prison system or their parole officers could provide.

      "The parole officers don't have the time to help you get a job," said Shaw, 48.

      Their prospects brightened when they got letters from NextSTEP, a study program devised to determine whether intensive career training and counseling along with other aid might help ex-offenders stay out of prison, reunite with their families and start paying child support.

      The program, run by Workforce Solutions for Tarrant County, provides fully subsidized salaries for the first eight weeks of employment, 50 percent subsidized salaries for another eight weeks of employment, and paid unemployment insurance and workers' compensation.

      Employees can receive free tools, clothing, haircuts, transportation assistance and other help to stay employed. Free bonding insurance for the employee and tax credits for the employer are available. The program was launched in November, and 30 ex-offenders receiving the intense supervision have gotten subsidized jobs and 15 have been hired without the subsidies.

      From 2000 to 2006, more than 30 percent of the 14,000 ex-offenders who returned to Tarrant County were re-incarcerated during their first year of release, according to Workforce Solutions for Tarrant County, which provides services to people seeking jobs and to employers in the county. It is part of the Texas Workforce Commission network.

      Officials at Workforce Solutions concluded that if something is not done to change the hiring patterns for ex-offenders, their unemployment rate will continue to rise over the current 60 percent.

      The goal is to recruit 1,000 randomly assigned ex-offenders, 500 of whom will receive intensive case management and the rest the same level of services that everyone can receive, then chart their progress, said John Torres, Workforce Solutions special projects manager. There are 228 ex-offenders enrolled.

      Ex-offenders tend to make good employees because they are truly grateful when they find a business willing to give them another opportunity, said T. Steward, director of human relations at a Fort Worth restaurant distribution company. Steward said about 20 percent of the company's 75 employees are ex-offenders.

      "I find these individuals are the most dedicated and loyal employees that I have," Steward said. "They realize that I took a chance on them just like they took a chance on us."

      According to a Labor Department news release, the Tarrant County Workforce Development Board got a $5.6 million grant for the program, which will be in the job placement stage for two years and will gather data on participants for six years, Torres said.

      "Mostly, it gave us confidence as far as what we needed to fix," said Perez, a program participant who was hired as a chef three months ago. "I had to make a choice to change myself. And then they helped me reinforce my positives."

      Mitch Mitchell
      Twitter: @stcrime
      Looking for comments?

      Read more Here

      U.S. Justice Department Sponsors Prisoner Recidivism Forum

      Department of Justice agency partners met with state policymakers to discuss strategies to reduce offender recidivism. Attorney General Eric Holder said the forum “demonstrates the Justice Department’s firm commitment to working with its partners in the states and nongovernmental organizations to improve public safety by supporting efforts to assist formerly incarcerated people as they return to their communities to become productive members of our society.”

      Outcomes of the forum included helping states create plans and identify benchmarks that can be used to measure success. Topics of the forum included implementation of cost-effective strategies and results from a study by the Pew Center on the States that highlighted the financial benefits that could be realized by states if recidivism reduction success were increased.

      “This nationwide effort is just one step of many taken toward improving the success of our nation’s correctional systems and the local communities they serve," said Morris Thigpen, Director of the National Institute of Corrections.

      “It sets the foundation for the advancement of corrections programming and an increase in targeted state-specific assistance across the nation.”

      Nongovernmental partners of the program included the Council of State Governments, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the Public Welfare Foundation, and the Pew Center on the States.

      Information on offender recidivism for Community Corrections, Prisons, and More are available at NIC.


        Freedom's Just a Word

        Texas is finally helping former prisoners. But can the smart-on-crime revolution survive budget cuts and a suspicious public?

        By Michael May & Laura Burke
        Published on: March 03, 2011

        EVERY MORNING AT AROUND 10 A.M., dozens of prisoners are released from the Walls Unit in Huntsville. Family members and friends sit on benches across the street from the brick prison waiting for loved ones. Most have gone through this before and hope things will work out better this time.

        On a bright September day, Observer reporters are visiting the prison to begin a six-month look into what prisoners face when they’re released. Rosalina Quejar is waiting for her 31–year-old son Samuel, who’s been in and out of jail since he was 16. She says he drinks and uses drugs. He fights a lot. He has three children with three mothers. He owes child support and tells her he might as well be locked up where he doesn’t have to worry about all that. “Sometimes I think we’re enabling him by taking care of him,” she says. “But I don’t believe in ever giving up on your children. Hopefully this will be the last time.”

        Soon the prisoners file out, carrying clear plastic bags that hold their meager belongings. Some embrace family members. Others don’t have anyone waiting. The first to be released are “discharges.” They have served every day of their sentence and will not be answering to a parole officer. A slight, Hispanic man in this group walks briskly past. He doesn’t give his name, but once he starts talking, anxious sentences pour from him. He was convicted of capital murder and spent 23 years locked up. His eyes dart back and forth. He’s got $100 and a bus ticket. “How are we supposed to survive on this?” he asks. He says he has hepatitis from drug use, and few friends in Texas. “I just hope I don’t re-offend,” he says. He says he plans to go to Dallas and find friends. “They’re gonna want to get me high, get me laid,” he says. “The decision right there is no. I used to be strung out real big time. As far as drugs and prostitution, no.” His hands shake.

        Soon the rest are released. They have to check in with parole officers in other cities, so most go to the bus station. This group is all male—women are released separately. Outside near some benches, young black men stand in a semicircle. They’re muscular and tattooed. One, Charles Farley, will let the Observer follow him for months as he tries to build a future.

        As buses line up to take prisoners to Dallas and Houston, a few volunteers from the Restorative Justice Ministries hand out pamphlets with numbers for halfway houses, churches and treatment centers. Ministry Coordinator Bill Kleiber, an ex-offender himself, stands on a bench and gets everyone’s attention. “I got out ten years ago,” he says. “It takes us about two weeks to learn how to function out here. They treat us like babies in there. We don’t know how to make decisions. Then we a get little bit of rejection, boo hoo, I’ll never get a job. I’ll go get a beer. I’ll hang out with the old crew. They’ll make me feel better. Bam. Locked up. Don’t fall in the same pit I fell in to 10 other times, OK?” He opens a box of Bibles, distributes them and holds a prayer meeting in the parking lot while buses spew exhaust into the crowd.

        With Kleiber are two men, Willie and James, both recently released prisoners. They are staying at the halfway house run by the Restorative Justice Ministry, and they come here in the morning to talk with ex-offenders. Willie, a former football player with a quick smile, once had an athletic scholarship at Sam Houston University—until a guy shot him at a party because Willie was talking to his girlfriend. The bullet lodged near his spine, and his football days were over. He lost the scholarship. It wasn’t long before self-pity led him to use and deal drugs. This is his third time out of prison. He’s been out a month, but he sounds confident he won’t be back. “It took this place to show me another way,” he says. “The change for me is knowing I can’t change it all myself.”

        James is a study in contrast. He’s white and wiry and has a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor. He’s a 40-year-old motorcycle mechanic with a cocaine addiction. He’s been out of prison for several months and has started using coke again. He failed a urine test, ran out of money, and now he’s here. It’s been 12 hours since he last got high. “I know what’s next. I’ll start stealing,” he says. So he’s checked himself into the halfway house. “I hope something sinks in, something’s different this time.”

        Six months later, the manager of the halfway house tells me that Willie is living on his own, working a steady job at a refinery. James is on the run from the law.

        WHEN FORMER INMATES GO BACK TO OLD HABITS, there’s a cost. Texans pay directly if they become victims of crimes, or in a more indirect way—tax dollars to build more prisons. For decades, the automatic response was to just lock ’em up again. Texas politicians sold themselves as “tough on crime.” In 1990, GOP gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams ran a TV spot that promised to double the number of prisons and teach drug offenders “the joy of bustin’ rocks.” He lost to Ann Richards, but the prisons were built. Between 1985 and 2005, the number of prisoners in Texas increased 300 percent. The majority were in prison for nonviolent offenses.

        Texas politicians have realized the limitation to being tough and tough only.

        Incarcerating 5 percent of the state’s population is expensive, and without rehabilitation programs, you’re creating more problems when prisoners are released. Over the last decade, a group of politicians—Democrats and Republicans—has coalesced around a new approach that would send fewer people to prison. In 2007, the Legislature invested $241 million in probation, drug treatment and other diversion programs. Now, with the lawmakers looking everywhere they can for spending cuts, they have proposed eliminating many of these programs.

        If the programs are cut, it would mark a return to a failing strategy. In 2007, the Legislative Budget Board estimated that Texas would need another 17,332 prison beds by 2012 that would cost over $2 billion to build and operate. That got lawmakers’ attention.

        The data showed that county probation departments were sending 12,000 probationers to prison every year who hadn’t committed a new crime, but had “technical violations” like missing probation meetings or failing drug tests.

        Around 2,000 paroled prisoners hadn’t been released because they were waiting for a mandatory drug treatment program. Thanks to all those sentence enhancements, the state was paying to hold more than 20,000 nonviolent offenders convicted of drug possession and only 15 percent of those got treatment.

        Republicans and their allies began embracing evidence-based practices that had been considered “progressive” or even “soft on crime.” The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative, free-market think tank, began to collaborate with social justice groups like the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Perry got on board. Legislators like Rep. Jerry Madden, a Plano Republican, and Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, cooperated to draft companion legislation.

        Lawmakers realized that the only way to slow prison growth was to stop sending people to prison. In 2009, legislators renewed the 2007 funding and gave the Texas Department of Criminal Justice money for staff to help offenders get their lives together after prison. “If they become productive taxpayers,” Madden says, “then we won’t have to provide them free room and board in prison.”

        The reforms paid off. Texas’ incarceration rates declined by 2009 for the first time in decades, by 4.5 percent. The state has already saved more than half a billion in prison costs. And here’s the kicker: In the period since the reforms passed, the crime rate has fallen. Now other states are sending delegations here to see how they can follow the Texas model—just as Texas may be on the verge of shutting it down.

        Even with the reforms, it’s not easy for prisoners to get a second chance. The state might give them treatment that changes their mentality, but ordinary folks still have to rent them a place to live and give them a job. Not many people want to take a chance on former criminals.

        CHARLES FARLEY, 27, WAS RELEASED in Huntsville after 11 years in prison. He spent the majority of his adolescence behind bars. He’s now being discharged after serving his sentence, which means a parole officer won’t supervise him.

        He’s on his own. At the bus station in September, Farley isn’t concerned about finding a job and a place to live. “Can’t nothing be harder than what I just came through. I’ll be able to make it. It won’t shake me up,” he says. He is determined not to return to his old friends and way of life. “The only person who stayed in touch with me was my father. That’s where my loyalty goes,” he says. Farley adds that he wants to walk down the street and not have to look over his shoulder.

        A few weeks later, Farley is back in Austin, strolling by the gazebo on Lady Bird Lake. It’s warm and sunny. Joggers run by with their dogs. Farley’s looking good in a white polo shirt, new black baggy jeans and black and white sneakers. This idyllic spot is where his life took a turn at 16. “Me and my friends, we had just hit a lick on some guns, and we were sitting looking at the guns,” he remembers. Some people approached the gazebo and, seeing the kids with guns, ran to their truck. Farley and his friends followed them. As the truck pulled out, Farley rashly fired a shot at its back window. The truck spun away. The teens ran, but eventually the police caught up a mile away. Farley was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. “So this is where my life went down the drain for 11 years,” he says.

        Farley’s dad, Charles Farley Sr., says his son was “hardheaded. ... He wouldn’t listen.” The young Farley admits he didn’t listen, but points to a reason: “When I was young growing up, I would see [my dad] this day, not see him again for a week or two. I’ll see him this year and not see him next year. It was a constant void.” His mom was a crack addict. His dad had relationships with many women. The young Farley found that with no guidance he had become what he calls “a man within myself.”

        The opportunity for a normal childhood or adolescence was gone before he knew it. Farley started dealing drugs at 11 years old. He got his first car at age 13 with drug profits. He took care of his mom and sisters financially. His mom has always had health problems. “If it was me helping her pay for her medication, paying for a doctor bill, you know, keeping a little money in her pocket, helping my grandma pay her bills… I felt good about that,” Farley says.

        All that ended when he was incarcerated. Prison was not a good influence on Farley. He continued dealing drugs. In every unit, he says, he had relationships with female guards. He would convince one of his “chicks,” as he calls them, to bring drugs in. After being in for two years, he got into a fight with a prison guard over a woman and received another four years in prison.

        Now he’s out and a grown man, but with few legitimate connections and less money than he had as a 15-year-old. “Every corner I turn, there’s a temptation for something,” he says. One of the ironies of the criminal justice system is that it’s harder to make it straight after being in prison. Most job applications ask if you’ve committed a felony—and Farley’s got two violent ones on his record. Still, Farley says he’s willing to do “any type of work—just something to do every day.” Farley signed up with Project RIO, a program run by TDCJ and the Texas Workforce Commission to find jobs for ex-offenders. The program couldn’t find him a job. (Project RIO was shut down in February due to budget cuts.)

        In December, Farley walks through his neighborhood of sun-faded trailers near the Austin airport. He says he has been feeling anxious and sleeps four to five hours a night. Staying indoors reminds him too much of prison. When he doesn’t have much to do, he uses a free bus pass from Goodwill to ride nowhere, just watching the scenery change. “When I think about it, I get upset,” he says. “I feel like here I am trying to be positive, and it ain’t working out like that. I’m just trying to do everything I can, follow the programs, but I’m just getting the run around.”

        Selling dope again would be easy, Farley says. “It would just be me asking, I need such and such, and a certain amount of money.” He brushes that idea off. “Right now, and in the near future, I don’t even see it as a choice for me. It could easily be, but I try to stay focused.”

        Later that month, Farley leaves Texas for North Carolina. He says he has a friend there, a music producer willing to teach him about the music industry. Farley has determined there’s no future for him in Austin. He promises to call, but there’s been no word.

        THOUGH LAWMAKERS REALIZE the state has a stake in ex-prisoners’ success, it’s not easy to change the system. For one thing, there is no one system. Prisoners are sent to county jails, state jails, state penitentiaries or to probation, each with its own rules and regulations. Local judges have their own sentencing philosophy, which can differ widely even within the same county. Forget about getting all these entities on the same page; they’re not even working from the same book.

        In a sign of how formidable the barriers are, the Criminal Justice Department set up a re-entry hotline. The No. 1 call was not about jobs or housing or mental health or substance abuse—it was ex-offenders desperate for help getting a state ID. “We expect offenders to find housing and a job. That’s how you reduce recidivism,” says Dee Wilson, director of the department’s Reentry and Integration Division. “But if you don’t have documents, good luck.”

        This problem absorbed much of Wilson’s first year on the job. As it turns out, getting ID cards for ex-offenders isn’t easy. The department isn’t sure of the identities of all of its prisoners. Some give fake names when they’re arrested, and the paperwork involved in verifying their identities is daunting. Wilson set up a contract to purchase Texas birth certificates and Social Security cards for prisoners before they’re released. Even that hasn’t solved the problem: Some prisoners weren’t born in Texas. Others weren’t born in a hospital. Some don’t know their mothers’ maiden names or their county of birth. Some prisoners refuse to sign releases allowing the Criminal Justice Department to obtain their documents. “I thought this was going to be simple to solve—until I got involved,” says Wilson.

        In the past, recently released prisoners could be sent back to prison to complete their sentences just for missing a meeting with their parole officer or failing a drug test. The reality is, many of those offenders could make it on their own if they were given a second chance and connected with the right treatment program. So the Legislature directed the department to create “intermediate sanctions” for wayward parolees. These can include a couple months in jail, mandatory drug treatment and increased supervision, and has led to the lowest percentage of revocations in more than a decade. In 2004, before the reforms, around 15 percent of parolees were sent back to prison, or around 11,000 people that year. In 2010, 8.2 percent were revoked. That’s almost 5,000 fewer parolees going back to prison.

        The Legislature also invested around $100 million in reforming probation, but that’s been harder because local governments control probation departments. Lawmakers provided new diversion options, including thousands of new beds in drug treatment programs, funds for halfway houses and grants to probation departments to implement evidence-based practices. But legislators couldn’t force judges and probation officers to use the new options. The percentage of felony probationers ending up in prison has decreased from 16.7 percent in 2004 to 14.7 percent in 2010.

        Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson has made a mission out of improving the system there, but it’s slow going. He calls the jail “the jugular vein of the county budget” and has been working to get judges to change their practices. “Judges need to take ownership of the jail population,” he says. “Think of it like a garden that needs to be attended to every day. And let us help you. We’ll look over your docket and find people who don’t have to be in jail.”

        Tony Fabelo is a researcher for the Council of State Governments and has analyzed the Bexar County probation department. He says the approach varied widely from judge to judge. “The best practice is to have a group of expert probation officers dedicated to assessing the risks and needs of each offender,” he says. “You look at mental health issues, substance abuse, employment, gang affiliation. By the time the person gets to court, the judge knows what kind of supervision is needed.”

        The key is giving judges ways to supervise offenders without incarceration. Jail can be a disaster for some individuals. It can remove low-level offenders from honest employment and family, and confine them with a bunch of career criminals. Often these offenders need treatment for drug addiction or mental illness.

        Dallas Judge John Creuzot convened one of the state’s first drug courts in 1998 after getting tired of seeing the same addicts come in and out of his court. “Now when they show up,” he says, “they already have a treatment program in place. We deal with everything from mental and physical health to housing to jobs. We tailor our responses to accomplish certain goals, whether it’s going to the doctor to get meds or showing up to work on time.”

        Adkisson is attempting to create a more holistic approach to re-entry. “Eighty-one percent of our jail population has been there before,” he says. “It’s a prescription for insanity. But it sells to the public. The path of least resistance is to say we’ve got tough justice and all that BS. Instead, we want people coming out, working hard, paying taxes. Government can help do that, but it’s transformative stuff.”

        Adkisson realizes government can’t do it alone. He’s convened a re-entry roundtable that includes local law enforcement, policymakers and service providers. Several other large counties are trying the approach, and the Legislature has created a statewide re-entry task force as well. Travis County’s re-entry effort succeeded by arranging job interviews before applicants are screened for criminal history. The hope is that private employers will follow the county’s example.

        Now the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable is trying to create permanent housing for the homeless and ex-offenders. But when a project called the Marshall Arms apartments was proposed, neighbors opposed it. Fact is, many people don’t want to hire felons or live near them. “There’s a lot of fear about hiring people with criminal backgrounds,” says Emily Rogers, planning coordinator for the Reentry Roundtable. “But when people are employed, they’re much less likely to recidivate.”

        Often the people most willing to lend a hand are ex-prisoners, people who know how hard it is to get a second chance. At the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Austin in January, former inmates have gathered for the seventh annual celebration of the church’s prison ministry. They discuss ways to make re-entry easier. The debate focuses on reforming the system (“The state doesn’t care if you succeed”) and the limits of government efforts to change lives. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to the Legislature,” says Rev. G.V. Clark, leader of Mt. Zion. “Go! But how long will it take you to change the system compared to how long it will take you to change you? Focus on what can be done rather than on what ain’t gonna happen soon. Someone in here made it.”

        One of the organizers of the prison ministry, Pat Jackson, comes to the podium and asks for concrete ways to help ex-offenders. People suggest finding employers that hire ex-felons and sharing the list. Others say they’ll organize donation drives for food and clothing and money. Some promise support to former prisoners who can’t rely on their families.

        ONE DRIZZLY NIGHT IN DECEMBER, at a newly renovated halfway house in Southeast Austin run by Texas Reach Out Ministries, women sit on soft couches in their living room for a 12-step meeting. The director of the home, David Peña, is an ex-offender. He says he had a spiritual awakening in prison and has devoted the past 24 years to helping men and women who get out of prison reintegrate into society. Texas Reach Out has a 74-percent success rate. Success is measured by not re-offending, acquiring full-time employment, staying sober and moving into one’s own housing within two years.

        All the women living here are recovering drug addicts, though no one would guess it. Amber, with blow-dried hair parted down the middle, a softball T-shirt and casual jeans, looks like an honor student. She works in a doctor’s office. Brittney, who works at a call center, is still in her business garb, her brown, curly tresses pulled tightly on top of her head. Two women in the meeting, Suzanne and Bree, have just left prison. Suzanne, 43, was on and off methamphetamine for 20 years and has been out for one month. She has long, straight brown hair pulled back with a headband and is missing some teeth. “A real hardcore issue that led me to my drug use was the guilt over my children and me not having them,” she tells the group. “Well, my son asked me a question that was pretty deep and deserving, and I handled it pretty well without going to dope. He asked me if I was going to stay out long enough to see him. I told him, knowing I was honestly telling him, ‘Yes.’” Tears stream down her face. “It was a big step for me, because if I didn’t choose to come here, I would have been high right now. So I just want to share that.”

        Next to Suzanne is Bree Taylor. She has been to more than 10 rehabs and transitional houses, and been incarcerated twice. The last time she was released, she went back to using and cooking meth. Taylor says it feels good being around women like Amber and Brittney, who have found jobs and are earning back trust from their families, but she compares herself with them. “It’s a positive environment, but whenever you’re trying and you don’t get anything done, it’s hard. You see them come home, and they’ve been able to go shopping. It’s just like, oh man, I want to be there.”

        A month later, Taylor is still looking for work. One day she drives to Texas Disposal Systems, a landfill where she is going to apply for an administrative assistant position. In her car, which her mom bought her, she says she has been depressed. Some days she doesn’t get out of bed. Fearful of facing rejection again, Taylor has put off going to the landfill for days. “When I first got here, I looked for a job so hard and tried so much, and everything is, ‘No, no, no.’ That’s real discouraging. I got real burnt out on it,” she says.

        Even with support, Taylor has days when she wants to give up. “I’m through with drugs, but when it gets hard, you get back to thinking, well, if I was just out there running around doing whatever I wanted to, I wouldn’t have to worry about my rent or what this person thought or what that person thought, getting a ‘no’ to a job. You just don’t care,” she says. “It’s a hard life, but it’s easier.”

        In a tight pair of pre-ripped jeans and too much eye makeup, Taylor pulls up to the building. “I don’t even want to go in there,” she says. She steps inside. Filling out the application, she wonders if she’ll have to put down anything about her criminal history. Then there it is, on the last page. Back in her car, she feels relieved. She opens a fresh pack of Marlboro Reds, lights one and takes a long drag.

        It’s tough going, but her perseverance pays off. In January, Taylor gets a job at a call center. And by March, she says she’s still clean and no longer depressed.

        TEXAS IS ABOUT TO FALL into a familiar pattern. In the early decades of the 20th century, Texas lawmakers pushed for reforms that would educate prisoners and pay them for their work. But the state ran out of money for the programs. “It’s a shame,” says Robert Perkinson, author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire. “Texas has movements for reform that are stronger than other southern states, but they’re always smashed on the altar of fiscal conservatism.”

        This year, when the House and the Senate issued their proposed cuts to the Department of Criminal Justice at the start of the current legislative session, they cut the biggest chunk out of the diversion programs. If judges can’t sentence people to programs because of long waiting lists, they’re likely to send them to prison. With the state facing a $27 billion shortfall, the proposed cuts are not always logical. It’s politically easier to end a treatment program than shut down a prison.

        The House bill would cut 21.7 percent of funding for probation, which includes diversion programs and treatment alternatives. The Senate bill was less drastic: It suggests cutting 12.8 percent from probation programs. The biggest share of the criminal justice department’s budget—operating prisons—was left virtually untouched. Out of its 114 prisons, the proposals suggested closing one.

        The budget cuts are merely preliminary, and there are signs that lawmakers are looking for alternatives. According to Ana Yañez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, there have been 11 bills filed that could save $250 million from TDCJ’s budget—enough to keep the diversion programs intact.

        There’s a bill that would divert low-level drug offenders directly into treatment programs. And the legislators are even considering doing what was once thought unthinkable—letting people out of prison and closing down units.

        Sen. Whitmire, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee chair, has suggested releasing 3,000 foreigners in jail for nonviolent crimes and deporting them.

        Legislators are also suggesting releasing elderly and infirm prisoners. If prisons can be closed, the department could still slash its budget without shutting down the treatment programs. The alternative, says Yañez-Correa, is “more victims and more people behind bars.”

        Rep. Madden, who is chair of the House Corrections Committee, was one of the architects of the reforms. He remains optimistic that lawmakers can save the treatment and diversion programs and keep lowering the number of Texans behind bars. After all, putting someone in prison costs ten times more than supervising them on parole. As he puts it, “When it comes down to it, would you rather spend money on prison beds or educating kids?”

        Freedom's Just a Word

        Finding jobs a challenge for ex-inmates in Texas
        Pay leaves many below poverty line.

        By Eric Dexheimer
        April 10, 2011

        As the number of people Texas locks up grows, so does the number of ex-inmates it releases into communities. In 1980, about 11,000 inmates left state jails or prisons. Last year, nearly 72,000 state inmates returned to Texas communities.

        In 2009, 1 out of 22 adult Texans was either behind bars or being supervised under parole or probation, according to the Pew Center on the States.

        For many, jobs are hard to come by. In late 2008, when the overall unemployment rate in Texas was about 6 percent, the jobless rates for parolees in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's top 10 counties of release were up to nine times as high, according to the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable. In Travis County, 42 percent of state parolees were unemployed.

        Ex-offenders present challenges to any employer: They are more likely to have mental illnesses, score lower on IQ tests and struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.

        "We don't start with the cream of the crop," said Susan Roberts, superintendent of the Windham School District, which educates Texas prisoners.

        Complicating their job search is the dramatic increase in criminal background checks by private employers.

        Ex-prisoners who do find work often don't make a living wage. Windham reported that of the released inmates it could track through last year, those who completed vocational training courses earned about $9,400 their first year out. Those without training earned just over $8,000.

        Both figures are below the federal poverty wage of $11,000. "It's abysmal," Roberts said.

        The less a former inmate earns, according to one study, the more likely he is to re-offend. A 2008 report by the Urban Institute found that ex-cons earning less than $7 an hour were twice as likely to end up back in prison than those earning $10.

        Adding to the pressure is that most prisoners leave lockup owing money. A recent study by the Texas Office of Court Administration calculated that parolees "owe anywhere from $500 to $2,000 in offense-related debt (not including restitution); 15 to 25 percent of parolees also owe child support."

        Drug offenders cannot apply for food stamps; applicants with certain criminal pasts don't qualify for some government-subsidized public housing.

        "That $8 warehouse job may look exciting at first," said Laura Smith, executive director of the Austin-based Crime Prevention Institute. "But that disappears pretty quickly. It's much more lucrative to be a drug dealer."

        edexheimer@statesman.com; 445-1774

        Finding jobs a challenge for ex-inmates in Texas

        March 28, 2011

        Criminal Background Checks Upend Job Search For Some Unemployed

        First, the college sent a letter.

        It welcomed Curtis Andrews, Ed.D, Ph.D, to its adjunct faculty. A few days later, the emails about faculty orientation sessions and department meetings started arriving in Andrews' email inbox. But when a college human resources officer called him three times to ask for details about his 2006 wire fraud conviction, Andrews started to suspect that the job was no longer his.

        “He just said, 'We’ll be in touch,'” said Andrews. “By that point, I had filled out, I guess, 70, 80 applications. So, I knew all about the box I have to check saying I have been convicted of a crime and that the applications all say that having been convicted may not prevent you from being hired.

        But you do get the sense that they get one look at a conviction and they put you in the technological trash … This time, they apparently thought I was qualified, then changed their mind.”

        About 65 million Americans -- that’s one in four adults -- have an arrest or conviction that can show up on a routine criminal background check. What’s found can effectively upend their search for work or put them out of a job amid one of the most difficult job markets in recent history, according to a new report released by the National Employment Law Project.

        In fact, in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, criminal background checks calibrated to detect everything from arrests on dismissed or expunged charges to misdemeanor and felony convictions have become an increasingly common part of the job application process. A 2010 survey of the Society for Human Resources Management's member firms found that more than 90 percent routinely probe job applicants' backgrounds. The trade group’s members are mostly large employers.

        A booming private criminal background industry has made clients of all kinds of companies doing everything from cleaning offices and delivering pizzas to sorting and delivering retail merchandise, said Maurice Emsellem, a policy co-director for the National Employment Law Project and one of the researchers behind the NELP report.

        The National Association of Professional Background Screeners, a North Carolina-based industry trade group, could not be reached for comment.

        “The industry of private screening firms, they make a big buck off of these practices,” Emsellem said. “They’ve got better and better at identifying and isolating employers who don’t use criminal background checks. The marketing pitch goes something like this: 'All your competitors are doing criminal background checks. Do you want to take the alleged risk?'”

        What’s never mentioned is the growing body of evidence suggesting that after as few as three years –- depending on the person’s age and original crime -- people released from prison are no more likely than the general population to commit more crime, Emsellem said. But failing to find legitimate work is a major predictor of a return to jail, according to the NELP report.

        That’s part of the reason why nonprofit agencies and even some corrections departments throughout the country are working to help ex-offenders find jobs.

        "I think we’ve finally reached the point where people are starting to realize that if we have 3 percent of the world’s population but 20 percent of its prisoners, disqualifying that many people from work once they get out just isn’t sustainable," said Todd Berger, the managing attorney with the Rutgers School of Law-Camden’s Federal Prisoner Reentry Project. Berger oversees a law school clinic in which students seek to resolve some of the issues preventing federal parolees in the area from obtaining work.

        In Maryland, Catholic Charities of Baltimore established the Our Daily Bread Employment Center four years ago. The center helps people with criminal backgrounds and limited job skills find work. The program reports serving more than 3,000 people in fiscal 2010. Since July, Our Daily Bread has helped place in jobs 296 of the 540 people who committed to the most intensive part of its program, according to Karen Heyward-West, a program manager for employment services.

        Our Daily Bread informs employers about tax credits available to companies that hire ex-offenders, but Heyward-West said one of the program’s most effective tools is the mock interview. About 80 percent of the companies that send volunteer representatives to conduct mock interviews wind up offering to hire the center's clients, putting in a good word at their company for the program or referring clients to job opportunities elsewhere, she said.

        “I am just going to be really honest -- there is a fear,” Heyward-West said. “There are people, employers who think we don’t want to hire those people, people with (criminal) backgrounds, people who were previously homeless. That’s a big part of what we have to overcome.”

        In 1987, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the nation’s workplace discrimination watchdog agency, issued a statement that declared employer policies that disqualify any job candidates with a criminal record likely illegal. Employers are supposed to consider the age and nature of a conviction and its relevance to the job. Because a disproportionate share of African American and Latino adults have criminal records, blanket policies can effectively discriminate against groups protected by U.S. civil rights law, the commission said.

        Still, the National Employment Law Project report found ample evidence of job ads that overtly exclude anyone with a criminal conviction. In a review of ads posted on Craigslist during a four-month period in five major cities, researchers found more than 300 ads in which employers stated that applicants with criminal records would not be considered. One ad for a sewer cleaning technician read, “***Do not apply with any misdemeanors/felonies.***”

        “This is a major civil rights issue and a violation of the law,” NELP's Emsellem said.

        There are entire industries where people with any type of criminal history –- no matter how minor or old –- will have difficulty finding work. After 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began requiring truck drivers to undergo background checks in order to pick up or drop off loads at certain locations, such as ports. Truck drivers with a criminal record can request a waiver, but if the waiver is declined, a driver’s ability to work just about anywhere on the east or west coast is virtually destroyed, Berger of the Rutgers-Camden law clinic said. At least three or four times per semester, Berger said, his clinic hears from a truck driver who is having problems getting the necessary clearance to work at a port.

        The situation defies reason, Berger said. “You can understand how someone with an embezzlement conviction should not work in a bank or why someone with a child pornography charge should not work with kids," he said. "But you cannot understand how a drug conviction should disqualify someone from driving a truck or working as a janitor for the rest of their lives.”

        Story continues below

        A series of lawsuits filed last year against staffing companies and corporations has highlighted just how common blanket bans on hiring applicants with criminal records have become. A 2010 suit filed against First Transit, Inc. alleges that the busing company won’t hire anyone who has been convicted of a felony or served a single day in jail.

        The practice isn’t limited to private employers. A class action lawsuit filed last year claims that the U.S. Census Bureau has refused to even consider applicants with criminal records for temporary Census jobs.

        “Another part of the problem is the total lack of regulation on background check providers and the extremely high number of errors that pop up in their reports,” said Elizabeth Farid, deputy director of the National HIRE Network.

        HIRE is a New York-based nonprofit founded by the Legal Action Center, an advocacy group that opposes hiring discrimination against those with criminal records, HIV/AIDS or a history of addiction.

        HIRE distributes information and advocates for policies that may expand job opportunities for people with criminal records. It also runs The Rap Sheet Workshop, in which job seekers with a criminal record are taught how to discuss their past in a frank but productive way. Participants are also shown how to identify duplications and errors and find help getting their records corrected.

        Some cities, including Chicago, and states such as Michigan have implemented policies that require public agencies or private employers to stop automatically screening anyone with a criminal record out of the applicant pool.

        But, there are also places like New Jersey.

        Andrews called the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General after the community college backed away from his job offer. Andrews said office staff told him that they were no longer taking on criminal background check-related civil rights cases.

        In an email, the New Jersey attorney general's office declined to comment on Andrew's case or its plans to pursue cases involving employers and criminal background checks.

        “If I had a hard time, I don’t know what the hell some of the people who are being released form jail are supposed to do,” said Andrews, who has found an adjunct slot teaching liberal arts courses at another New Jersey community college. “People have to be able to work.”

        Criminal Background Checks Upend Job Search For Some Unemployed


        Representative Harold Dutton: Every Texas Felon Gets A Life Sentence

        By John Nova Lomax
        Jul. 6 2010

        Criminal records are forever
        ​We like to think life sentences only go to the worst of the worst, the criminals whose deeds were so heinous they stopped just short of deserving the death penalty.

        According to state representative Harold Dutton, that's not the case. The Houston Democrat and member of the House Committee on Corrections believes that every Texas felon gets a life sentence, no matter how long their official sentence may be.

        The latest example of that sad truth comes through in the story of one of his constituents.

        A few weeks ago, this man's move-in to a new apartment was going well. He'd had his utilities changed and was all set to go when, the very day of the move-in, he was told to hit the road. He'd flunked his background check; he was a convicted violent felon.

        And it didn't matter that the man was 80 and the conviction was for a crime that took place 50 years ago. That Mad Men-era act of madness, for which he served a long prison sentence, is still dogging this fellow wherever he goes.

        "It's a 50 year-old felony and this is an 80-year-old man," Dutton tells Hair Balls. "What, are they worried he's gonna be throwing wild parties?"

        Dutton says he pled the man's case all the way up to the president of the Cleveland, Ohio-based company that owns the complex. "The president told me a rule was a rule, and it didn't matter how old the man or the crime was," Dutton says.

        Dutton thinks a little logic could go a long way in such cases. Many of these apartment complexes get tax breaks from the government, and yet they are still free to discriminate against ex-felons. Grits for Breakfast thinks that should change, pronto:

        The House Corrections Committee heard related testimony that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs does not prevent discrimination against felons by entities receiving affordable housing tax credits, and doesn't even track the issue. All their programs are strictly income based, said Kate Moore from TDHCA.

        What's more, there are 400 local public housing authorities with no uniform standards or screening for criminal backgrounds among them. Nationally, said Moore, one in five ex-inmates becomes homeless at some point following their release, often crashing with friends and family.

        Committee members questioned whether tax-credit recipients could/should be required by agency rule or statute to rent to ex-offenders, and I wouldn't be surprised to see legislation along those lines filed in the 82nd session. Dutton doesn't know if he would go that far. He would like to see apartment owners disclose in their application for tax relief whether or not they will accept ex-felons as tenants.

        "I would just like to know why or why not," says Dutton. "I don't think we need to create a blanket rule the other way" -- to compel complexes that accept government money to accept felons -- "because there could be valid reasons why they don't. I don't want to create the same situation in the opposite direction."

        Still, Dutton is very sympathetic to the plight of the freshly-released convicted felon. "It's interesting to me how society seems to tell felons that they are not entitled to a place to live or a job, but we want them to get their lives back together. What are the two things you need to get your life back together? A job and a home."

        He says he has even seen cases where people who have completed deferred adjudication have been denied a lease. Dutton says that those who have completed deferred adjudication are not even supposed to have a record, much less be turned down for a lease.

        "What's next?" Dutton asks. "Are they gonna stop allowing felons to buy houses?"

        Possibly. There's also a chance we could enact a law forbidding them from being buried in cemeteries with the dwindling number of Texans who managed to exit this vale of tears without a felony conviction.

        Every Texas Felon Gets A Life Sentence

        Every felon gets a life of trouble

        May 16, 2010

        In Texas, we give every felon a life sentence. Oh, I don't mean “we the jury.” It's more like “we the public.”

        Take for example the recent experience of a really nice man who called my legislative office. All he wanted to do was to move his family into another apartment complex. In fact, his truck was loaded, he had notified his previous landlord, he had the utilities turned on at his new place, and he was ready to move in when he called me.

        As he was leaving his old place with all of his belongings packed up for the short drive to the new apartment, his phone rang. The number on the cell phone indicated the call was from the manager at the new place. He didn't answer because he was already on the way over.

        As the truck pulled up to the new place, the apartment manager came over and said, “I am so sorry, but we are not able to rent you this apartment.”

        Surprised, the man asked why. The apartment manager stated that the complex had a policy of absolutely never, ever renting to an ex-felon. You see, a background check indicated that the man had a felony conviction on his record.

        This situation happens far too often these days. A person who has completed his felony sentence attempts to restart his life and no one will hire him and no one will rent him a place to live. In fact, this happens so often that if this was the end of this story, there simply would be no story.

        The background check of this man showed he had a felony conviction in 1960, 50 years ago. And if that doesn't surprise you, this man was 80 years old and his wife, a recent cancer patient, was 65 years old.

        I literally begged the owners of the apartment complex to add some common sense to their rule. “A rule is rule,” I was told, and “there are no exceptions.” I even suggested a change in the rule — exclude only those ex-felons who are at least 80 years old with a conviction at least 50 years old. Still, I was told, “A rule is a rule.” And no amount of common sense or anything else would change the apartment owner's mind and permit this family to move into this apartment complex.

        Well, maybe some will agree with this rule. Not me. Too many people seem to accept this ill treatment of ex-felons who have served the sentence the jury rendered. But the public jury stacks a life sentence onto all ex-felons, and the ex-felon serves it till death.

        Forget double jeopardy, that's just plain illogical. And wrong. A life sentence should come from the court jury, not from the public jury.

        Dutton, D-Houston, represents state House District 142, which includes Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens, Pleasantville and Settegast. He is serving his 13th term in the Texas House.

        Every felon gets a life of trouble


        The odds are against ex-offenders

        By BILL KING
        Nov. 7, 2009

        I had been told that he was a Baptist preacher and had worked as a prison chaplain in the Texas Department of Corrections for more than 30 years. When he walked into the restaurant to meet me for lunch he fit the stereotype one might expect. Wavy hair combed straight back, a western-style jacket and boots. When lunch was served he asked that we bless our food.

        But as soon as he began to talk about the plight of prisoners and ex- offenders any preconceived stereotypes quickly shattered. For the next hour he spoke quietly but passionately about the desperate circumstances of individuals who had been released from prison, the inhumanity of the prison system, the apathy and cruelty of society and misguided public policies.

        I was having lunch with Emmett Solomon because friends of mine had recently welcomed home a son from five years in the penitentiary. Their son's story is not unfamiliar. He developed a drug problem as a teenager that he was never able to whip. After four or five run-ins with our court system he found himself in Huntsville.

        It was an agonizing time for his parents, who were embarrassed their son had gotten into such serious trouble, petrified that he would be seriously harmed and haunted about what he might be enduring in prison. Any parent can imagine their relief when the call came that he was finally being paroled. Soon after the joyous homecoming, however, the reality began to sink in that the hardships were by no means over.

        No one wanted to employ an ex-felon. No apartment complexes wanted to rent him an apartment. They learned that he was barred from scores of licenses. Forget getting any credit. My friends have made do, allowing their son to live at home and finding him a job in a family company. But as I watched them struggle with trying to help their son get back on his feet, I wondered what becomes of the vast majority of ex-offenders who have no such support systems.

        For years at the TDC Emmett Solomon had asked himself the same question and did not like the answer. So in 1993, he left TDC and formed the Restorative Justice Ministry Network. For the last 15 years, Emmett and his group have met men as they walked out of prison, welcoming them back to society and offering whatever help they can.

        When people are released from TDC after serving their time, they are given $50 and a bus ticket home. Each day at 2 p.m., one or two buses leave Huntsville headed to Houston with 50 to 100 inmates released that day. It just so happened that Solomon and I were wrapping up our lunch at about 1:30 p.m.

        “Would you like to go down and meet the guys being released today?”

        Frankly, not what I had planned, but I agreed. When we arrived at the bus station, there was one unmarked bus, full of men, sitting with its engine idling. Solomon and his assistant, Bill Kleiberg, headed to the bus and motioned for me to follow.

        I was not sure what to expect and have to admit a little apprehension about getting on a bus crowded with men just released from prison. I wondered if they would be belligerent because of the treatment they had endured or if there would be that sort of last-day-of-school air on the bus because their ordeal was finally over.

        There was neither. The men sat quietly, waiting — obviously something to which they had become accustomed. Mostly they looked lost, staring into space or vacantly out a window. As I walked down the aisle shaking hands and chatting with those who would respond, I felt an overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness from men just given back their freedom.

        Suddenly, from the front of the bus, Kleiberg shouted, “My name is Bill. I am from the church and I am here to help you. I was released from TDC 12 years ago, just like you are being released today and I am here to tell you there is hope.” Instantly, the mood in the bus was transformed as the men eagerly snatched up the information packets Solomon's group had prepared on where they could find help in their home cities. The men suddenly became more animated, asking questions about the information we were handing them. I was amazed how deeply they seemed to appreciate even this small act of kindness.

        At the rate we put people in prison in Texas we need to be concerned about what happens when they are released. Worldwide, the incarceration rate is about 160 individuals for every 100,000 people.

        The second highest incarceration rate is Russia at about 650. The highest is the United States at 750. In Texas, the rate is about 1,000. That is, at any given time, about one person in 100 in Texas is in a prison or jail, six times higher than the world average and higher than even the world's worst dictatorships. Even if we stop putting people in prison at the current rates, we will be releasing 20,000 to 30,000 prisoners each year for many years to come just from TDC. Many thousands more will be released from county and city jails.

        Most of those released do not have a family to take them in as my friends' son did. Solomon told me that only about 5 percent of the men released are met by family members. The odds are heavily stacked against those with no support system. With almost no chance of finding a job or a decent place to live, most fall back into trouble within a few years. TDC studies show that about one in three is back in prison within three years. If you extend the time frame to five years and include other prisons and jails, the recidivism rate is more likely 60 percent to 70 percent. Since most of these inmates are also fathers, long absent from serving as any positive role model for their children, the cycle will likely be handed down to the next generation. The fact that Texas has one of the nation's highest incarceration rates and still has three cities with violent crime rates in the top 10 in the nation suggests that what we are doing now is not working.

        In the Gospel of Luke, there is a story about a man whose son has come home after deserting his family. The father rejoices that his son was dead, but is now alive. He was lost but now has been found. The truth is that we as a society would just as soon that these lost sons and daughters stay lost. We have branded them with the mark of Cain, made now more indelible with ubiquitous, easily searchable computer databases. Their crimes will never be forgotten. They will never be forgiven.

        Driving back from Huntsville, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be coming home on that bus. To arrive at the Houston bus station with no one to welcome me, no one to offer any help and with nothing but $50 dollars in my pocket. I tried to think what I would do if I were that person. I had no idea.

        There are unquestionably many government policies that should be examined in the search for a solution to this dilemma. Many will be surprised to know that Texas is actually in the forefront of developing programs that attempt to prepare inmates for release. But there are no easier answers. Employers' and landlords' reluctance to employ or lease to ex-felons is hardly unreasonable and, given the potential liability issues, some would argue it's simply being prudent. Add that many ex-offenders, even if given a second chance, will disappoint us and it is easy to understand why society would just as soon wash its hands of the individuals.

        There will be no solution until we as a society begin to feel differently about ex-offenders. People of faith should be in the forefront of such a transformation, for the principles of mercy and forgiveness are the cornerstones of virtually every great faith tradition. We can continue what we are doing now and likely get the same sad results, or perhaps, we can find another way. I think a soft- spoken Baptist preacher from East Texas has, at least, pointed in the right direction.

        King is a frequent contributor to Outlook.

        The odds are against ex-offenders

        October 11, 2009

        Consultants Are Providing High-Profile Inmates a Game Plan for Coping


        Athletes, celebrities and corporate executives have long sought counsel to prepare for their biggest moments. The same can increasingly be said of those among them who have lost their way.

        The former Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who is serving a two- year sentence for a weapons charge, recently joined a growing list of high-profile inmates who have hired prison consultants to help them navigate their entry to a confined life. Others have included Bernard L. Madoff, Michael Vick, Mike Tyson, Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley.

        The ranks of prison consultants include professionals who have been involved in the legal system for decades and former prisoners who sell their own experiences as a way to help others and make a profit.

        Some teach self-defense. Others calm such fears by explaining that the threat of violence, especially at minimum-security prisons, is not significant. And some of the advice even conjures the mundane chore of packing for a vacation.

        Becoming a consultant requires no formal training or certification, and nobody tracks the number of people in the business. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has taken no position on the service.

        “At every custody level — high, medium, low — do you want to know what should happen or what’s going to happen?” said Larry Levine, a former inmate turned consultant in Los Angeles. “How would a patient react if they asked their doctor, ‘Have you ever operated on anybody?’ and they respond, ‘No, I read a book, though’?”

        Levine talks fast, and his common-sense lessons are laced with profanity. His Web site shows his prison identification card as if it were a badge of honor. He served 10 years in federal custody for drug trafficking and was released in 2007.

        He said there were four consultants when he began such work two years ago and estimated that more than a dozen prison advisers were currently working nationwide.

        Levine got his start on the inside, offering advice to fellow inmates. Now he is pitching his work as a reality television show. He does not meet with his clients in person because his supervised release prohibits it. Instead, he fields phone calls and charges $1,000 to $5,000.

        He encourages clients to develop a routine.

        “I teach them that they should always keep a Bible on their bed,” Levine said. “If the guards see a Bible on the bed, they’re less likely to move it. It’s kind of like the Devil touching the holy water.”

        Kim S. Buchanan, a professor of constitutional law and prisoner rights at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, said there was nothing wrong with former prisoners making a living off of their experience. The potential problem, she said, is the perception that some people believe they will be physically harmed if they are not properly schooled before entering custody.

        “The prison consultants aren’t causing a problem; they are just exploiting a problem that exists,” Buchanan said.

        Herbert J. Hoelter, a consultant who once worked with Webster L. Hubbell during the Whitewater scandal in the 1990s, likened the role to teaching.

        “It’s a good thing to do just because knowledge is power, and the more you know, the better you’re going to do,” he said.

        Hubbell, an associate attorney general early in the Clinton administration, served 18 months on mail-fraud and tax-evasion charges. In a telephone interview, he said Hoelter helped calm concerns about the unknown world behind bars.

        “The devil you know is something you can deal with a lot better than the devil you don’t know,” Hubbell said.

        Hoelter first serves the inmates in his primary role as a sentencing consultant for the nonprofit National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Baltimore. His clients have included Madoff, Vick and Stewart.

        Hoelter discusses the psychological effects of incarceration with the client and the family. And when people meet with him, he said, they usually have prepared questions.

        One client, Steven Schulman, a former law firm partner at Milberg Weiss in New York, compiled a list of about 60 initial questions before he was to serve six months in federal prison on racketeering conspiracy charges. The questions concerned his schedule, what he could take with him and what the other inmates might be like.

        “When you’re first looking at it, it’s a black box, a vacuum,” said Schulman, who completed his sentence in July.

        Hoelter told Schulman to prepare a list of his medication and phone numbers for lawyers and associates. Otherwise, Schulman said, he would never have remembered such information.

        “Right now, these things seem obvious to me,” he said in a telephone interview. “They did not seem obvious at the time.”

        Richard J. Schaeffer, a New York lawyer, directs some of his clients to Hoelter because he said he was not equipped to answer the questions himself.

        “The kind of contact that lawyers typically have with prisons is very limited,” Schaeffer said. “On a day-to-day basis and the practical nitty-gritty on the climate of changes that the client is going to face, Herb is very skilled at that.”

        Hoelter’s knowledge of the prison system does not stem from a first- person experience, but from a database collected over three decades in the field and from a network of offices and employees. Hoelter said he had about 200 clients currently incarcerated. Some serve as greeting parties when a new client is sent to the same prison.

        Safety is a concern for many, but it is not considered a large issue at the minimum-security prisons where most of his clients end up because behavioral issues add time to sentences.

        Madoff, 71, asked about his medical care before beginning a sentence of 150 years at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina, Hoelter said. Vick wanted advice about the best course for returning to the N.F.L. after an 18-month sentence for his role in a dogfighting ring. Vick has since returned to the league with the Philadelphia Eagles.

        Hoelter said Vick developed a routine in prison surrounding chess.

        “He’d like to think he was the best in there,” Hoelter said. “But he was very competitive. He said, ‘There are a couple guys I can’t beat, but I’m working on it.’”

        Although Madoff and Vick shared no discernible links beyond their status as inmates, Hoelter said they presented him with similar concerns.

        “They both asked, ‘What do I do with the rest of my life now?’ ” Hoelter said. “And the answer is, you do the best you can. You can help other people. You can teach. You can educate. You have a mind. Use that and don’t atrophy.”

        Consultants Are Providing High-Profile Inmates a Game Plan for Coping

        Ex-cons having a tough time finding jobs

        Posted Sep. 13, 2009

        Eric Nevins — laid off in June from a job hauling mobile homes into the oil patch — knows what he’d say to a hiring manager if he got the chance.

        "I just want to work," he said. "Give me a job, tell me what time you want me to be there, tell me what to do, and you’ll never hear another word out of my mouth."

        The problem is that Nevins, 40, has had few opportunities to utter the words. There’s the matter of a night in March 2005, when he got drunk at a Houston bar and led police on a two-county chase that ended when they rammed him. Nevins pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and evading arrest in exchange for deferred adjudication and spent the next four years flipping houses with his mother.

        When that vanished in the downturn more than a year ago, a friend helped him get the driving job. He lost that with the drop in energy prices. Now, promising opportunities, including another job hauling mobile homes, dry up with each background check. The police accused Nevins of ramming them, but Nevins insists he didn’t.

        "That charge makes me look I could just fly off the bat at any moment, and that’s just the opposite of who I am," Nevins said. "Basically, I’m a normal guy who made a huge mistake, and now I’m paying for it big-time."

        He’s not alone. The job hunt, tough by any measure, is worse for ex- offenders.

        About 6,000 people are released from state and federal prisons back to Tarrant County each year, not counting people emerging from county jail or ones who get deferred adjudication. The recession has slammed some job segments — such as oil fields and construction — known for being more sympathetic to ex-offenders.

        At Texas Re-Entry Services, a Fort Worth nonprofit, the number of ex- offenders seeking help to find jobs, housing, GED classes, bus passes and gas vouchers reached 1,400 by the end of July compared with 1,500 for all of 2008.

        Last year at this time, the agency was helping 35 clients on average find jobs each month. But that fell to 30 in July and 21 in August, said Barbara Tennyson, the employment specialist. And July’s numbers were double what they were earlier in the year.


        Organizers of the county’s second annual Felony and/or Misdemeanor Friendly Community Career Fair on Sept. 25 "will continue to recruit employers until the last possible moment," said Angel Ilarraza, coordinator of the Tarrant County Re-Entry Initiative.

        Forty employers set up last year, but fewer — he’s not saying how many — have signed up this year. Fewer than 200 of the 900 job seekers who registered completed required advance work and will be invited to attend. "Not everyone needing a job is employable," Ilarraza said. Motivated ex-offenders can be loyal workers, he said.

        "These people have something to prove," he said.

        At the Texas-funded Project RIO jobs program for ex-offenders on parole or discharged from a Texas prison in the last 12 months, the number of ex-cons served in Tarrant County is expected to rise to 3,500-4,000 in fiscal 2010 from more than 3,000 this year, said Debby Kratky of Workforce Solutions of Tarrant County, RIO’s local administrator.

        Ex-cons having a tough time finding jobs

        Web Posted: 08/21/2009

        U.S. encourages hiring ex-cons

        The U.S. Probation and Pre-trial Office is looking for employers to sign up for an ex-offender job fair to be held next month.

        Businesses that hire someone at the fair could receive a $2,400 tax credit. The job candidates are federally bonded, according to a press release from the pre-trial office.

        The fair is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sept. 23 at The Neighborhood Place, 3014 Rivas St.

        Employers have until Aug. 28 to sign up for the fair by calling Senior U.S. Probation Officer Kaye L. Devon at (210) 472-6590 ext. 338 or by sending an e-mail to; kaye_devon@txwp.uscourts.gov.

        U.S. encourages hiring ex-cons

        Offenders illegally get subsidized housing

        August 20, 2009
        Associated Press Writer

        WASHINGTON — A few thousand lifetime registered sex offenders illegally live in federally subsidized housing, an internal investigation found.

        Investigators projected that the Housing and Urban Development Department subsidizes roughly 2,100 to 3,000 households that include a serious sex offender. The HUD inspector general's office conducted the review.

        Congress banned subsidized housing for the most serious sex offenders after a 1997 case when a convicted sex offender was charged with assaulting and molesting a 9-year-old neighbor girl who lived in the same public housing building. The legislation said that housing authorities must not admit any household that includes a person subject to the lifetime registration requirement, typically reserved for the most serious offenders.

        Investigators said HUD failed to meet the law's objective, in part, because of a lack of monitoring. For example, HUD did not require housing authorities to ask applicants whether any of the prospective residents was subject to a lifetime registration requirement. HUD also did not require housing authorities to check a national sex offender registry when it recertifies eligibility of its residents.

        In conducting the review, investigators identified 4,784 households in which one or more members' Social Security numbers matched an offender in the FBI's national sex offender registry. They then selected a sample of 67 of those households and found that 36 included a lifetime registered sex offender.

        The 36 had been convicted for a variety of offenses, including rape, sexual assault and lewd or lascivious acts. Some of their offenses were against children. For example, one person was still living in subsidized housing despite a 2002 conviction of criminal attempt to commit rape of a 5-year-old child. Another got subsidized housing in 2008 despite a conviction five years earlier for first-degree sexual abuse of a 4-year-old.

        In responding to the report, HUD officials said the rate for improper admissions was extremely small when compared to more than 4 million admissions into subsidized housing. HUD officials put the error rate at between .03 percent and .04 percent. Nevertheless, it would be issuing guidance to public housing authorities to remind them of their statutory and regulatory obligations not to admit lifetime registered sex offenders.

        The inspector general said more than $12 million could be saved annually by not subsidizing housing for those households with a lifetime registered sex offender.

        The inspector general also said legislation may be needed to ensure that HUD can terminate tenant agreements for those improperly allowed into subsidized housing. But HUD officials disagreed and said public housing authorities already have sufficient authority to remove lifetime registered sex offenders.

        Offenders illegally get subsidized housing

        On the Net:
        Inspector General for the Department of Housing and Urban Development:

        Copyright 2009, The Associated Press.

        Titled: Robbed of a job
        From The Texas Policy Foundation
        Written by Mark Levin
        Director, Center for Effective Justice

        Since the Foundation launched the Center for Effective Justice in 2005, we have identified policy solutions to reduce recidivism and limit the scope of criminal law. Similar concerns led Florida Governor Jeb Bush to issue a 2006 executive order requiring state agencies to justify barriers preventing ex-offenders from entering licensed occupations.

        This is a problem in Texas because we have so many licensed occupations and so many criminal offenses that can potentially bar someone from receiving or maintaining a license. Texas has more than 2,000 criminal offenses and over 150 state-licensed occupations. Some 20 percent of Texas adults-4.7 million people-have a criminal record that would appear in a background check. Yet, ex-offenders who are employed are three to five times less likely to re-offend.

        Texas law allows for revocation or denial of a license if a person has been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor that "directly relates" to the occupation, but this is often interpreted overly broadly. A conviction for drug possession, for instance, is deemed to be directly related to being a water-well driller, vehicle inspector, mortician or embalmer, and barber.

        Locksmiths´ licenses are automatically revoked or denied for most offenses-one locksmith who hadn´t drank in a decade lost his license in 2006 for a 1994 DWI conviction. Yet, research has shown that a person with a conviction seven years or older is no more likely to re-offend than anyone else.

        What is the motivation for these barriers? Are they to protect the public, punish ex-offenders again, or restrict competition?

        We criticized proposals last session that would have added new licensed occupations, including lactation consultants, sheet metal workers, and auto mechanics. Economics tells us that excessive barriers to entry-whether through licensing new occupations or excluding otherwise qualified professionals-will reduce the labor supply and increase the costs to consumers. Whether you are an advocate of free markets or second chances, or both, that´s reason to take offense.

        Isn't this what everyone except the Special Interests and the vigilantes have been saying all along. Problem is, There are no thinkers in the Legislature, only brainless moron bent on votes, money, and re-election. Let's see if we can't surprise one or two of them in the coming few elections.

        Study could ease concerns over hiring ex-offenders

        By Kevin Johnson
        USA TODAY
        July 2, 2009

        A study funded by the Justice Department concludes that over time accused robbers, burglars and batterers pose no greater risk to employers than job candidates in the general population.

        In a review of 88,000 arrestees in New York state, Carnegie Mellon University investigators found, for example, that after about 7 1/2 years the "hazard rate" for an 18-year-old first-time arrestee for robbery declined to the same rate as an 18-year-old in the general population. For 18-year-olds arrested for aggravated assault, it took about four years to reduce the risk.

        Hazard rates are calculated based on the time the suspect remains free from re-arrest. The calculation also accounts for the fact that risk of arrest generally declines with age.

        "We believe that our analysis provides the criminal justice community with the first scientific method for estimating how long is long enough for someone with a prior record" to no longer be considered a special risk, according to the study authored by Carnegie Mellon criminologist Alfred Blumstein.

        Blumstein and other criminal justice analysts say the ongoing research could ease employers' concerns about hiring former offenders and perhaps spark new legislative proposals to limit the liability for employers who do hire them.

        With more than 600,000 people expected to be released from prisons this year and entering the turbulent U.S. labor market, some criminal justice analysts say the research marks an important step to changing the perception that the criminal justice system is a revolving door.

        "This attempts to answer the question of when a person can break that cycle (of crime)," says George Mason University criminologist Faye Taxman.

        Blumstein says "redemption" for prior offenders has become increasingly difficult as potential employers demand more background checks.

        The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that 80% of U.S. employers perform background checks. An estimated 74 million criminal records were contained in automated databases across the U.S., according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

        "Computerized criminal records can have long memories, and this (study) is intended to provide guidance for imposing some limits to that memory," Blumstein says.

        The study focused on three offenses — robbery, burglary and aggravated assault — because they represented some of the largest sample numbers.

        Murder was not included in the report and will not be part of future reports, because, Blumstein says, "nobody fully redeems a murderer."

        "People are finally starting to get it. They would rather see people working, than to shut people out," says Veronica Ballard, a vice president of the Safer Foundation, which helps ex-offenders find work.

        Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., a sponsor of the Second Chance Act legislation designed to re-integrate offenders back into society, says any measure that might encourage potential employers to hire ex- offenders is a "powerful" tool.

        Find this article at:
        Study could ease concerns over hiring ex-offenders

        June 30, 2009

        Survey: Family best ally for successful post-prison reentry

        Results from three new surveys by the Urban Institute provide a lot of new detail and analysis regarding barriers to successful reentry for prisoners returning from TDCJ to Houston. See their recent reports:

        One Year Out: The Experiences of Male Returning Prisoners in Houston, Texas Women on the Outside: Understanding the Experiences of Female Prisoners Returning to Houston, Texas.

        When Relatives Return: Interviews with Family Members of Returning Prisoners in Houston, Texas

        To point out just a handful of notable survey-based findings from the longitudinal study of returning male prisoners:

        In terms of supporting themselves financially, men left prison with thousands of dollars of debt, and many faced challenges in seeking employment due to lack of photo identification and the existence of a criminal record. Despite these challenges, three out of five men were employed by eight to ten months out, and most of them reported that their employer was aware of their criminal record.

        Overall, "the strongest predictor of employment success over time was avoidance of drug use early after release."

        I was also interested to learn that, at least according this survey, most offenders were gainfully employed before they went in.

        The majority (69 percent) of men reported legal employment in the six months before entering prison or jail. Nevertheless, nearly a third (29 percent) reported receiving some income from illegal activity in the six months before incarceration, and 18 percent received most or all of their income from illegal activity during this time.

        The survey also found a marked disparity in recidivism rates between state jail felons and prisoners in TDCJ's institutional division:

        An important thread that runs through all of these findings is that of the striking difference in the reentry challenges, experiences, and outcomes between men released from state prisons and those released from state jails. In Texas, convicted felons sentenced to two or more years in prison are housed in state prisons, while lower-level offenders serve time in state jails, which primarily house drug and property offenders and probation violators. Men exiting from state jails have more extensive histories of substance use, are less likely to have received programming of any kind either before or after release, and are more likely to engage in postrelease substance use.

        Despite these deficits, state jail releasees are less likely to be returned to confinement in a year’s time, possibly because unlike those exiting prison, they are not under any form of postrelease supervision that might serve to detect violations or new crimes.

        The first night out of prison can become a key stumbling block to successful reentry for prisoners without family support or a home to go to, particularly among returning state jail felons:

        Unfortunately, the men interviewed for this study had few resources with which to navigate the challenges they faced during the first few hours after their release. Many men (73 percent) had only one set of street clothing, and fewer than two in five (37 percent) had a non-TDCJ photo identification at the time of release. Men exiting state prison left with $50 in gate money, while those exiting state jails were not provided with any cash assistance, relying instead on whatever funds they had in their prison accounts. The typical exiting prisoner had just $7 in account funds, and the average state jail inmate had $18 in account funds.

        The first challenge faced by many men following their release was transportation. While exactly half of men had someone to meet them at the time of their release, the other half left the facility alone. Just over half (54 percent) reported that they had been given a bus ticket, voucher, or money for transportation on the day of their release, and roughly one in four (28 percent) traveled away from the facility by bus.

        Another immediate challenge was finding a place to sleep. Figure 3 shows where former prisoners and state jail inmates slept on the first night after release. While the majority (60 percent) stayed in a family member’s home, about one in four stayed in their own home. Those exiting state jail, however, were much more likely to have spent their first night in some form of temporary housing, such as a motel, boarding house, shelter, halfway house, or treatment facility (13 percent of state jail releasees versus 4 percent of state prisoners).

        Seldom heard in discussions about recidivism is how much money many inmates owe when they get out of the state lockup, and how that debt burden can hinder their ability to get back on their feet, particularly (if, to me, somewhat inexplicably) for state jail felons:

        The men in this study left prison with many financial obligations, both new and old. Most (62 percent) owed at least one form of debt at the time of release, and all faced challenges in meeting their basic needs—including housing, food, clothing, and transportation. On average, state prisoners owed about $643 and state jail inmates owed about $3,000 in the first few months after release. By eight to ten months out, the average debt had increased to $900 for state prisoners and $8,254 for state jail inmates. These debts included fines, restitution, court costs, supervision fees, and child support, with the latter two being the most common forms of debt owed.

        I don't understand why debts for state jail felons would be so much higher than those coming out of regular prisons. More must be going on there than meets they eye.

        Finally, and quite remarkably, family support was identified the biggest factor predicting successful reentry, contrary to offenders' expectations when they left prison:

        When asked shortly before release which factors would be important in keeping them out of prison, men cited employment and housing more frequently than family support. However, when asked at eight to ten months after release which factor had been most important in keeping them out of prison, men were more likely to choose family support than any other factor.

        I think it's often assumed that inmates come from dysfunctional families and that returning to that environment may actually contribute to recidivism. But these data indicate that maintaining family ties offers the best chance for ex-prisoners to succeed, making inmates' families a key, under-appreciated and underutilized resource for preventing future crimes by former prisoners.

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

        Labels: employment, Harris County, Parole, reentry, Subtance Abuse, TDCJ

        June 8, 2009

        How a Former Prisoner Took On and Took Down Corrections Corporation of America's General Counsel (and Cheney Pal) - Deconstructing Gus

        By PAUL WRIGHT

        On June 13, 2007, former President Bush nominated Gustavus A. Puryear IV, 40, for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. While you’ve likely never heard of Gustavus Puryear, you may be familiar with the company he works for: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for- profit prison firm. CCA is conveniently located in the Middle District of Tennessee and Puryear serves as the company’s general counsel – its top attorney.

        Puryear’s judicial nomination did not go unnoticed; it drew the attention of a former CCA prisoner turned criminal justice advocate who opposes private prisons. By conducting extensive research, securing widespread media attention, contacting members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and recruiting organizational allies, he coordinated an opposition campaign that managed to stall – and ultimately scuttle – Puryear’s nomination.

        Further, the ex-CCA prisoner who took down CCA’s general counsel, denying him a federal judgeship in a humiliating defeat, happens to be employed by Prison Legal News.

        The Man Who Would Be Judge

        So who exactly is Gustavus “Gus” Puryear? Born into a wealthy family in Atlanta, Georgia, Puryear graduated with a B.A. from Emory University in 1990 and received a J.D. degree with honors from the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1993. He excelled in debate, placing third in a national debate tournament while in college.

        Puryear clerked for a year for Judge Rhesa H. Barksdale on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit before settling down in Nashville, Tennessee. There he landed a position with the law firm of Farris, Warfield & Kanaday (now Stites & Harbison), where his family had longstanding connections.

        Following three years as a corporate lawyer, Puryear turned to politics. He served as counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Affairs under former Senator Fred Thompson, then from 1998 to 2000 was the legislative director for former Senator Bill Frist.

        In what must have been a highlight of his political career, Puryear helped prepare former Vice President Dick Cheney for the election debates in 2000, and again in 2004.

        Upon his return to Nashville he was introduced to John Ferguson, CCA’s CEO. Puryear joined CCA as the firm’s general counsel in January 2001, where he oversees all of the private prison company’s litigation.

        Puryear serves on the board of Nashville Bank & Trust, and is a Commissioner on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. He’s a member of the prestigious Belle Meade Country Club and a deacon in the Presbyterian Church.

        With a reputation for being extremely intelligent, charismatic and genteel, Puryear appeared to be a perfect candidate for a federal judgeship under the Bush administration. Indeed, he said the nomination was “like a dream come true.”

        And in the Other Corner ...

        Approximately one year before Puryear joined CCA as the company’s top lawyer, Alex Friedmann was released from the Tennessee Dept. of Corrections (TDOC). He had served ten years in state prisons and county jails on convictions for armed robbery, assault with attempt to commit murder and attempted aggravated robbery.

        Six of those years, from 1992 to 1998, were spent at the CCA-operated South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, Tennessee. While at South Central, Friedmann was subjected to retaliatory cell searches, disciplinary charges and transfers due to his efforts to “degrade CCA with negative articles” and “create and disseminate information concerning negative incidents experienced by CCA,” according to records produced by prison staff.

        At one point CCA transferred him to a facility in the extreme northwest corner of the state, a decision that was overturned by the TDOC on appeal. CCA also refused to let him receive an article in The Nation that was critical of prison privatization, in which he was quoted. That blatant censorship was likewise overruled by TDOC officials. [See: PLN, June 1998, p.16]. During this period he became a contributing writer for PLN.

        While most ex-prisoners prefer to put their prison experiences behind them, Friedmann felt the problems he witnessed in the criminal justice system – particularly in regard to private prisons – could not be forgotten.

        Following his release on November 1, 1999, Friedmann worked for several law offices, using the legal skills he learned while incarcerated. He served one year with Reconciliation, a non-profit agency that advocates on behalf of prisoners’ families and children, and became involved in criminal justice issues ranging from felon disenfranchisement to restorative justice. He has volunteered as a trained mediator, and returned to prison as a visitor as part of an Inside/Out program.

        Continuing his anti-private prison activism, Friedmann joined the Private Corrections Institute (www.privateci.org), a Florida-based watchdog group that opposes the privatization of correctional services, where he serves in an unpaid capacity as vice president.

        Friedmann was hired by Prison Legal News in 2005 as PLN’s full-time associate editor; his responsibilities include news research, editing, website support and a variety of other tasks. He contributed a chapter to PLN’s third anthology, Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Imprisonment, and has spoken on justice-related topics at Yale University, an annual meeting of the National Lawyers Guild, and Critical Resistance; at legislative committee hearings in two states; and before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

        Identifying the Issues

        In June 2007, an article about Puryear’s judicial nomination crossed Friedmann’s desk. After discussing the nomination with other criminal justice advocates, the general consensus was little could be done. Candidates for U.S. District Court positions are perceived as less important than those for the appellate courts or Supreme Court, and tend to sail through Senate Judiciary Committee hearings with little opposition.

        Still, Friedmann did not want the nomination to go unchallenged; he believed Puryear was an unsuitable candidate for an appointment to the federal bench, beyond the moral issue that as a CCA executive Puryear profited from people’s incarceration.

        Further, U.S. District Courts decide the vast majority of cases in the federal court system, as the appellate courts issue relatively few rulings and the Supreme Court hears only a fractional number of cases. Thus, the district courts are arguably the most important rung on the federal judicial ladder, as they guard the entrance to the courthouse door.

        “District court judges make life-and-death decisions on a regular basis, e.g. in capital punishment cases, and the appellate courts often give deference to fact finding by the district courts,” Friedmann noted.

        Delving into Puryear’s background through LEXIS and Westlaw searches, reviewing court dockets and related research, Friedmann developed a list of issues that could be raised in an opposition campaign.

        Those issues included: 1) Puryear’s conflicts of interest in cases involving CCA, 2) his lack of litigation and trial experience, 3) the politically partisan nature of his nomination, 4) his questionable objectivity in prisoner lawsuits, 5) his concealment of information from the public, and 6) his membership in a discriminatory country club.

        After some deliberation, Friedmann added one final issue – Puryear’s involvement in an investigation and litigation related to the death of Estelle Richardson, a female prisoner who died at a CCA jail. As it turned out, the Estelle Richardson case would prove to be one of the most important elements of the opposition campaign.

        Conflict of Interest? What Conflict of Interest?

        Puryear was nominated to serve as a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee – the same jurisdiction where CCA is headquartered, where hundreds of lawsuits against the company are filed.

        Puryear’s annual compensation for fiscal year 2007 was around $610,000, including bonuses, and since August 2007 he has sold shares of CCA stock valued at $10 million. In short, CCA has made Puryear a multi-millionaire.

        Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455, “Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” Given Puryear’s lucrative history with CCA, he would, in theory, have to recuse himself from cases naming CCA or the company’s subsidiaries or employees as parties.

        This was a significant factor because a federal docket search indicated that CCA and its employees had been named in over 400 cases in the Middle District of Tennessee, with at least 260 of those cases filed since 2000.

        During his February 12, 2008 nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Puryear took issue with the number of cases in which he would have a conflict of interest. He also commented that there were only six active cases pending in the Middle District court that would constitute a conflict.

        But that was incorrect; Friedmann observed that as of the date of Puryear’s hearing there were 12 pending cases involving CCA or CCA employees – double the number he cited.

        Puryear stated that if confirmed he would divest the remainder of his CCA stock and recuse himself from all cases involving CCA “for an extended period of time.” When questioned by Committee members about the length of that “extended period,” he did not provide a precise answer but said he was “hesitant” to commit to recusing himself beyond five years.

        Yet Puryear would not be able to divest himself of his network of friends and political and business contacts, his social connections with CCA executives, or his inside knowledge regarding CCA’s litigation strategy and legal staff. As CCA presumably would still be around after five years, and still face a significant number of lawsuits in the Middle District, a temporary recusal period would not resolve those problems.

        “Less Courtroom Experience Than Most Inmates”

        According to the U.S. District Court in Middle Tennessee, Puryear has been named as counsel of record in 130 cases, which certainly sounds impressive. However, when Friedmann checked the dockets for each of those cases the results were telling.

        Of the 130 cases, 85 had been dismissed by the court prior to service on the defendants while 39 were handled by another law firm or attorney. Puryear answered one lawsuit with a letter stating the defendant no longer worked for CCA. He was directly involved in just five other federal cases over his entire legal career, most recently a decade ago.

        Additionally, Puryear had taken only two cases to jury trials – and lost one. A call to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is over the Middle District of Tennessee, revealed that Puryear was not admitted to practice before that court. A check of his academic credentials through Westlaw found he had authored just one law journal article, in 1992.

        “I could open an attorney directory, point randomly at a page and pick a candidate for federal court more qualified than Mr. Puryear,” Friedmann stated.

        While incarcerated, Friedmann was personally involved in six federal lawsuits, including three he litigated pro se. In one of those cases, filed against CCA and prison employees, he obtained a preliminary injunction and a $6,000 jury award against a former CCA unit manager following a default judgment. In another suit he prevailed in a pro se appeal before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

        Further, in Richardson v. McKnight, 521 U.S. 399 (1997) [PLN, Sept. 1997, p.1], Friedmann provided the plaintiff’s counsel with a legal argument and supporting documentation that was used in their Supreme Court brief (McKnight held that private prison companies cannot raise a defense of qualified immunity).

        From this perspective, Friedmann had more experience – and success – in the federal courts as a prisoner with no legal training than Puryear had as a practicing attorney. Indeed, Puryear’s apparent lack of familiarity with the federal courts led a reporter for Mother Jones magazine to observe he had “less courtroom experience than most inmates.”

        As Puryear’s supporters couldn’t dispute the fact that he had little trial or litigation experience, they instead pointed to his rating from the American Bar Association (ABA), which evaluates judicial nominees. Although the ABA ratings are not binding on the Senate Judiciary Committee, they reflect a nominee’s professional abilities.

        The ratings consist of not qualified, qualified and well qualified.

        Puryear was rated “qualified.”

        However, Puryear’s supporters, including Senator Lamar Alexander and former Senator Bill Frist, ignored the fact that of the 102 federal judicial nominees rated by the ABA during the 110th Congress, 79 – or almost 80 percent – received ratings of well qualified. Thus, Puryear ranked in the bottom 20 percent of his judicial nominee peers.

        Referring to Puryear’s ABA rating, Vanderbilt University associate professor Stefanie Lindquist stated, “A ‘qualified’ rating is relatively weak. That’s going to hurt him.”

        Or, as Friedmann put it, “Would you rather have surgery performed by a qualified surgeon or a well qualified surgeon? Would you want your child to be taught by a qualified teacher or a well qualified teacher? The same reasoning applies to the judiciary.”

        Friedmann had contacted the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary and provided them with information related to Puryear’s background and lack of trial or litigation experience during the rating process.

        So why would an obviously inexperienced and less-than-qualified attorney like Puryear, with such a sparse track record in the federal courts, be nominated for a lifetime position as a federal judge? An examination of his political connections supplied a likely answer.

        It’s Who You Know

        To say Puryear is a staunch Republican would be an understatement; he’s practically a poster child for the GOP. He worked under former Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) during an investigation into Democratic campaign fundraising, and served as the legislative director for former Senator Bill Frist (R-TN).

        Plus, of course, Puryear was an advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney during the 2000 and 2004 debates. He’s also friends with Cheney’s son-in-law, Philip Perry, who served as general counsel for the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security.

        Since 2001, Puryear has donated at least $18,000 to Republican candidates and political committees. The Nashville Post referred to him as a “Republican heavyweight.”

        Puryear’s employer, CCA, has been generous to the GOP, too – including to Tennessee’s current Republican senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who expressed strong support for Puryear’s judicial nomination.

        CCA’s political action committee and the company’s executives and their spouses gave more than $36,000 to Alexander and $27,000 to Corker from 2003 to 2008. CCA was Senator Alexander’s fifth largest contributor over that time period.

        Notably, neither Alexander nor Corker bothered to mention in any of their statements in support of Puryear’s nomination that they had received significant campaign contributions from Puryear and CCA.

        Senator Alexander’s personal and political connections with CCA go way back. CCA co-founder Tom Beasley once rented an apartment in Alexander’s house, and later helped manage one of his gubernatorial campaigns. Beasley, a former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, also reportedly gave Alexander’s campaign $100,000 in 1997-1998. Several staffers in Alexander’s administration from when he served as Tennessee’s governor later worked for CCA, including Charles L. Overby, who currently sits on CCA’s board of directors.

        “To say that CCA has long been in bed with the Republican Party diminishes the depth of their relationship,” observed an article in the Nashville Scene, an independent weekly publication in CCA’s home town.

        Given the political connections and bona fides of Puryear and CCA, and Puryear’s lightweight experience in the federal courts as an attorney, his judicial nomination smacked of partisan payback.

        “This is, of course, political,” said Friedmann. “I dislike politics.

        I believe the right person who is most qualified should be appointed to a position of public service – not someone who happens to be a member of one party or another and is being repaid for their political patronage. That being said, Mr. Puryear would be unqualified whether he was a Democrat or a Republican, whether he was nominated by Clinton or Bush. He’s not qualified and not the right man for the job. Which transcends politics, or at least it should.”

        Yet political connections that lead to government appointments are nothing unusual, as most nominations for federal judges and Assistant U.S. Attorneys are partisan in nature (though not always as blatantly as in this case). Thus, the political aspect of Puryear’s nomination was not raised to any significant extent during the opposition campaign.

        Bad-Mouthing Prisoner Lawsuits

        Upon researching the sparse number of news articles that mentioned or quoted Puryear, Friedmann found two that raised disturbing questions.

        In a July 2004 article in Corporate Legal Times, Puryear offhandedly remarked that “Litigation is an outlet for inmates. It’s something they can do in their spare time.” Another article in the October 2005 issue of GC South discussed Puryear’s “no settlement” policy and stated, “Of course [CCA] settles some suits, but Puryear’s overarching ‘no settlements’ goal stems from his belief that many inmates use litigation to fill their free time and that letting them win only encourages more jailhouse lawyering.”

        Of course most judges, and legislators, don’t like litigious prisoners; e.g., witness the Prison Litigation Reform Act. But the notion that a federal judicial candidate did not take prisoners’ legal concerns seriously was troubling.

        In his capacity as PLN’s associate editor, Friedmann had reported on many meritorious lawsuits filed by or on behalf of prisoners, including cases involving wrongful deaths, rapes and sexual abuse, grossly inadequate medical and mental health care, brutality by guards, abysmal conditions of confinement, and First Amendment and due process violations. The facts in those cases were often egregious; many resulted in settlements, jury awards or injunctive relief.

        “All persons, including prisoners, deserve impartial consideration from our nation’s judges,” said Friedmann. “All people are entitled to equal justice under the law.”

        Further, Puryear knew better than to disparage prisoners’ lawsuits as an “outlet” for their “free time,” because CCA had settled or been found liable in a variety of prison and jail-related cases, many of which were reported in Prison Legal News.

        For example, a $3 million South Carolina jury award for the abuse of juvenile offenders at a CCA facility [PLN, May 2001, p.17]; a $1.6 million settlement in a lawsuit involving abuse at CCA’s Youngstown, Ohio prison [PLN, Aug. 1999, p.14]; a $5 million settlement to a female prisoner who was raped by guards employed by TransCor, a CCA subsidiary [PLN, Sept. 2006, p.1]; a $235,000 federal jury award for medical neglect involving a Tennessee prisoner [PLN, July 2001, p. 12]; and a $41,885 settlement in a CCA prisoner’s failure to protect case in New Mexico [PLN, Feb. 2002, p.11].

        Those are just some of the highlights. From January 1, 2001 through December 31, 2003, during the first two years of Puryear’s tenure as general counsel at CCA, the company settled over 190 lawsuits or claims involving both prisoner and employee litigation for a combined total of $7.39 million.

        Predictably, upon questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Puryear expressed his view that lawsuits brought by prisoners “deserve a fair hearing,” and that if confirmed he would “strive to be fair and impartial ... in all cases, including those brought by inmates.” He claimed that his earlier comments only referred to frivolous lawsuits, prompting Senator Arlen Specter to ask what he meant by “frivolous,” which Puryear was hard pressed to define.

        To demonstrate he was not biased against prisoners, Puryear cited his position on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. The Commission, formed as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (45 U.S.C. § 15601), is developing standards to reduce incidents of rape and sexual assault in correctional facilities. [Note: PLN has submitted formal comments on the Commission’s draft standards].

        However, when Friedmann called the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission he learned that Puryear had missed fully half – four of eight – of the Commission’s public hearings. Puryear acknowledged his poor attendance record only after being questioned by the Judiciary Committee.

        Puryear also tried to counter accusations of bias against jailhouse lawyers by describing a 1992 case in which he had represented Christopher Johnson, a Tennessee state prisoner. Puryear took the case to trial in federal court (his only federal jury trial), where he lost. Then, he said, “Mr. Johnson, who had since been released, wished to represent himself on appeal. I sought and was granted leave to cease representing Mr. Johnson.”

        That characterization was not entirely candid. After pulling the case file from the court’s archives, Friedmann discovered that Johnson had asked to have Puryear removed from the case twice – before trial because Puryear failed to raise issues in Johnson’s supplemental complaint alleging retaliation, placement in segregation and being called a racial epithet by prison staff, and again after trial because Puryear had purportedly “failed to prepare for the trial and present all relevant evidence and proof.”

        The district court granted Johnson’s second motion to dismiss counsel and denied Puryear’s motion to withdraw as being moot. Thus, Puryear’s account of his representation of Johnson, and withdrawal as counsel, was at best misleading.

        Friedmann cited Puryear’s disparaging comments about prisoner litigation, his poor attendance record at Commission hearings, and his position as CCA’s general counsel in which he defends against prisoner lawsuits as evidence that Puryear would not be fair or objective when hearing prisoners’ cases if confirmed as a federal judge.

        The Public’s Right to Know ... Be Damned

        As a private company, CCA is not subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act or state public records laws in most cases. Therefore, government agencies that contract with CCA, and members of the public, must rely on documents that CCA produces either voluntarily or pursuant to its contractual obligations.

        This includes documents concerning security-related incidents at CCA prisons such as sexual assaults, riots, escapes and unnatural deaths, which CCA terms “zero tolerance events.” The company tracks such data internally through its quality assurance division, which was placed under CCA’s legal department – and Puryear’s oversight – in 2005.

        The opposition campaign raised this issue with the Senate Judiciary Committee, noting that Puryear and CCA had withheld information from government agencies and members of the public, who had a right to know about problems in the company’s prisons and jails.

        As one example, following a hostage-taking at CCA’s Bay County, Florida jail in 2004, which resulted in a prisoner and hostage being shot by a SWAT team member, CCA refused to release an after-action report. Puryear arranged to have a private law firm prepare the report, and a CCA attorney said it would never become a public record.

        When the Private Corrections Institute (PCI) requested a copy of the report, CCA claimed it had been “prepared by outside counsel in anticipation of litigation,” and thus was exempt from disclosure. Yet when Puryear responded to questions from the Judiciary Committee regarding the Bay County after-action report, he denied there was a written report and said it had been delivered verbally.

        In another case, staff at the CCA-run Hardeman Co. Correctional Facility in Tennessee failed to report a May 2007 incident in which the warden physically assaulted a prisoner. State prison officials learned of the abuse two months later after they were contacted by the prisoner’s attorney. CCA staff had tried to cover-up the incident; the warden subsequently resigned, was prosecuted and pleaded guilty. [See: PLN, June 2008, p.10].

        Due to CCA’s secretive nature, it was difficult to obtain details about other cases where information about security-related incidents had been concealed or withheld. But then came an unexpected development from an unlikely source.

        In July 2007, PCI was contacted by Ronald T. Jones, a former senior manager in CCA’s quality assurance division who had recently resigned. PCI had filed an ethics complaint against Jones in 2000 after he was hired by CCA within two years of leaving his state job with Florida’s Correctional Privatization Commission, a violation of state law. Nevertheless, he had no hard feelings. He did, however, have a conscience, and wanted to blow the whistle on CCA.

        According to Jones, a longtime Republican, CCA kept two sets of quality assurance audit reports. “I would prepare one report with all of the audit findings and auditor comments in it for ‘internal purposes only’ and a separate more generic report that contained only general information about audit results as a whole,” he said in a written statement. The generic reports without the detailed audit results would be provided to government agencies.

        Jones also stated, “When Mr. Puryear felt there was highly sensitive or potentially damaging information to CCA, I would then be directed to remove that information from an audit report.” The unredacted, detailed audit reports were designated “attorney-client privileged,” and Jones was “told by senior quality assurance department staff that Mr. Puryear wanted [that] language inserted into the detailed report to prevent that information from being accessible under Sunshine [public records] laws.”

        Jones further revealed that annual bonuses paid to CCA wardens and other company employees were based partly on the number of incidents reported at each facility. That supplied a financial incentive for CCA staff to underreport incidents – particularly zero-tolerance events – which in turn created a corporate culture of deception that undermined CCA’s quality assurance data. According to an internal CCA newsletter, the practice of linking bonuses to a facility’s audit score was discontinued in mid-2007.

        PCI referred Jones to a reporter at TIME magazine, who broke the story in an online article on March 13, 2008. Citing information provided by Jones, the TIME article said CCA kept the unredacted quality assurance reports for in-house use only so as to “limit bad publicity, litigation or fines that could derail CCA’s multimillion dollar contracts with federal, state or local agencies.” Jones contended that Puryear’s participation in this practice was unethical. The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, ran a front- page article about the accusations leveled against CCA and Puryear on March 14, 2008.

        CCA officials responded by quickly contacting their government contract partners and telling them Jones’ allegations were completely false – although the company acknowledged that “appropriate information gathered in the audits is separately provided to our legal department,” and Puryear admitted that CCA “did not make our customers aware of these documents,” referring to the detailed quality assurance reports kept for in-house use only.

        CCA senior vice president J. Michael Quinlan, a former director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, referred to Jones as a “former disgruntled employee” and said he was “personally willing to stake my 37 years of correctional experience and reputation as a corrections professional on the integrity of our work.” You could almost see the wagons being circled.

        Incidentally, while employed with the BOP, Quinlan was sued by a male co-worker who alleged that Quinlan had sexually harassed him in a hotel room – a suit that was later settled. [See: PLN, June 2000, p. 20]. He was also accused of silencing a federal prisoner who claimed to have sold drugs to then-Vice President Dan Quayle. [See: PLN, Feb. 1992, p.4; Oct. 2000, p.14]. So Quinlan’s reputation might not count for much.

        Regardless, the damage to Puryear’s reputation before the Senate Judiciary Committee had already been done, even though no official investigation resulted from the disclosure that CCA was concealing information from government agencies and the public.

        Country Club Connection

        Puryear listed the Belle Meade Country Club as one of his organizational memberships in a questionnaire provided to the Judiciary Committee. Most people aren’t familiar with the Belle Meade Country Club unless they have seven-figure bank balances; it’s so elite that not even its website is accessible to the public.

        The Club, founded in1901, is the most exclusive private golf and social club in Nashville. It is also almost exclusively white, not having admitted its first (and still only) black member until 1994 – and since that member lives in a different state, he doesn’t attend often. Not that there aren’t any blacks at the Club; it’s just that they mainly cut the grass, serve the food and clean the facilities.

        With its stately columned facade and well-tended grounds, the Belle Meade Country Club is reminiscent of a quaint Southern mansion where Nashville’s rich can role-play what it must have been like during the nostalgic era of slave plantations.

        The Judiciary Committee’s questionnaire asked Puryear to indicate whether any of the organizations to which he belongs “currently discriminate or formerly discriminated on the basis of race, sex, or religion – either through formal membership requirements or the practical implementation of membership policies.”

        His response? While acknowledging a lack of racial diversity prior to 1994, Puryear stated, “To my knowledge, during my membership at the club, it has not discriminated on the basis of race, sex, or religion.”

        Which is an interesting answer, not only considering the Club’s almost completely lily-white membership, but also because female members (and the Club’s single black member) do not have voting privileges.

        Only members with Resident Member status are able to vote on Club business or hold office. As it so happens, the Club’s approximately 600 Resident Members are all male. None are black. Women join the Club as “Lady Members” without voting privileges, and Non-resident Members, which include those who live in other states, likewise cannot vote.

        While there is no official policy that prohibits women or blacks from being Resident Members, none are – and new members must be proposed and recommended by the existing all-male, non-black Resident Members. Not surprisingly, the Club’s Constitution, By-laws and member handbook do not include a non-discrimination statement.

        That the Club’s Resident Members have never successfully proposed a black or female member for Resident Member status over the Club’s 108- year history smacks of intentional discrimination – or at the very least de facto discrimination. But Puryear, who is by all accounts a highly intelligent attorney, maintained he was unaware of any discrimination.

        Puryear defended his membership by noting that three federal judges, including Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, were members of the Club (Judge Merritt is no longer an active member). Puryear also observed that as an Associate Member he did not have voting privileges himself – although that failed to explain the inability of any women members to vote, or why all of the Club’s Resident Members were male and none were black.

        Others are not so shortsighted. Puryear’s ex-boss, former Senator Bill Frist, resigned his Club membership in 1993 shortly before he entered national politics. Rather than moot the controversy by canceling his membership, Puryear remains a member of the Belle Meade Country Club to this day.

        Puryear’s membership in an elitist country club with discriminatory practices did not go unchallenged. Friedmann contacted three women’s rights groups, the National Organization for Women, the National Council of Women’s Organizations and the Women’s Equal Rights Legal Defense and Education Fund, which sent letters to the Judiciary Committee sharply criticizing Puryear’s affiliation with the Belle Meade Country Club.

        “If Mr. Puryear is appointed to the federal bench, it is difficult for us to conceive how women defendants and plaintiffs, or indeed women attorneys, could appear before him and expect to receive impartial and equal consideration given Mr. Puryear’s past membership in the Belle Meade Country Club and his defense of that membership,” stated Susan Scanlan, Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations.

        Estelle Richardson’s Death Revisited

        PLN has reported extensively on the death of Estelle Richardson, 34, a prisoner at the CCA Metro-Davidson County Detention Facility in Nashville, Tennessee who was found unresponsive in her segregation cell on July 5, 2004, one day after a cell extraction.

        An autopsy revealed she had a fractured skull, four broken ribs and a lacerated liver. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Levy, who ruled Estelle’s death a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head, determined her injuries could not have been self-inflicted. “If she had fallen from a high window or if she had been hit by a car, I would expect to see these types of injuries,” he said at the time.

        Four CCA guards were indicted in connection with Estelle’s death in September 2005; however, the charges were later dropped because the timing of her fatal head injury could not be accurately determined. In February 2006, CCA quietly settled a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Estelle’s two minor children. Her homicide remains unsolved. [See: PLN, April 2005, p.14; Feb. 2006, p.1; May 2006, p.19].

        Initially, the opposition campaign raised the Estelle Richardson case as an example of Puryear’s priorities in representing and defending CCA. While there were no allegations that he had done anything wrong in connection with the investigation into Estelle’s death or the subsequent civil litigation, Puryear’s primary concern was protecting CCA’s interests – which, of course, is what he is paid millions of dollars to do.

        “What about the public’s interest in knowing who beat Estelle Richardson to death?,” asked Friedmann. “What about bringing her killers to justice, whether they were CCA guards or other prisoners? That, apparently, was not one of Mr. Puryear’s concerns, and a person who has no interest in ensuring that justice is served has no business being a judge.”

        Puryear faced tough questions about Estelle’s case at his February 12, 2008 Judiciary Committee hearing, and provided some rather disturbing answers. He stated the four CCA guards arrested in connection with her homicide had been “exonerated”; the cause of Estelle’s death could not be determined and she may have died accidentally; and her four broken ribs might have been caused by CPR, which he said was a “common” occurrence.

        Puryear further informed the Judiciary Committee that Estelle’s death was “profoundly distressing to me personally and professionally,” and had been “seared” into his memory.

        Despite such searing memories, Puryear forgot to mention the involvement of a fifth CCA guard in relation to Estelle Richardson’s death. Other prisoners had reported seeing that guard, Shirley M. Foster, injure Estelle in an unmonitored shower area three days before Estelle died. Friedmann tracked down two of those witnesses, now incarcerated at the Tennessee Prison for Women, and they confirmed that Foster had yanked Estelle out of the shower, causing her to fall and hit her head. Foster was never charged.

        Puryear also forgot to tell the Judiciary Committee that CCA officials claimed there was no video of Estelle’s cell extraction the day before her death, allegedly because the camera was not working. Instead, he made an oblique reference to “additional in-service training concerning video camera procedures” as one of the remedial actions taken by CCA following Estelle’s homicide.

        Police investigators who inspected the camera reported that it appeared to be in working condition, and an Assistant District Attorney said the missing video was a contributing factor in the decision to indict the CCA guards, as it signified a possible cover-up.

        After Puryear’s testimony at the Committee hearing, Friedmann did some fact checking. He spoke with the DA’s office and learned about the alleged non-existent videotape of Estelle’s cell extraction. He obtained a report from the Sheriff’s office on Estelle’s death that conflicted with statements made by Puryear; the report also detailed how CCA guards had maced Estelle and called her profane names such as “nasty bitch.”

        Friedmann further obtained a copy of Estelle’s autopsy report, with its finding of homicide, and supplied copies to the Committee members. He spoke with Dr. Levy, the Chief Medical Examiner who had conducted Estelle’s autopsy, and asked him to comment on Puryear’s characterization of her injuries and cause of death.

        Dr. Levy apparently took exception to Puryear’s remarks. On February 21, 2008 he sent a heated letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying he “was frankly stunned” by Puryear’s testimony. The Chief Medical Examiner rejected Puryear’s statement that CPR could have caused Estelle’s rib fractures and liver damage, which he said was “misleading at best.”

        “The Committee should be very concerned about a nominee for federal judge who is less than truthful when answering questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Dr. Levy warned, adding, “I hope Mr. Puryear’s statements before the Committee earlier this week were an isolated misjudgment and not the alarming statements they appear to be.”

        Puryear responded to questions about the Estelle Richardson case by noting that both medical experts in the lawsuit filed by Estelle’s family had disagreed with Dr. Levy about the cause of death. Further, the timing of the fatal head injury was disputed and likely occurred at least three days earlier.

        Puryear also explained that CCA’s paid medical expert had opined Estelle’s broken ribs were “almost certainly” caused by CPR. Of course that same expert, Dr. William McCormick, had testified in an earlier, unrelated murder case that the death of a woman who had a skull fracture and internal injuries, and whose body was “covered with bruises from head to toe,” was an accident due to a fall down a few steps. The jury in that case rejected his expert opinion. See: State v. Gray, 960 S.W.2d 598 (Tenn.Crim.App. 1997).

        In regard to his remark that the four CCA guards had been “exonerated,” Puryear said he had used that term in its “common, colloquial meaning,” and backpedaled by acknowledging that “a prosecutor’s decision not to prosecute a previously indicted defendant is different from a jury’s verdict of ‘not guilty.’”

        In a February 26, 2008 letter to the Judiciary Committee, CCA attorney James F. Sanders tried to jump to Puryear’s defense.

        Presumably with a straight face, Sanders wrote, “there is no credible evidence to support Dr. Levy’s homicide conclusion, other than the head injury and the death itself.” This led one journalist who wrote about Estelle’s case to observe, “Ah, yes, just those bothersome little details. The head injury and the death itself.”

        Meanwhile, Joseph F. Welborn III, one of the lawyers who defended CCA in Estelle Richardson’s wrongful death suit, and attorney David Randolph Smith, who represented Estelle’s children, filed a joint motion to unseal the settlement hearing transcript in that case. The unsealed transcript was then provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Puryear’s answers to questions concerning Estelle’s death.

        Although Smith and Welborn had advised the court that “The transcript does not contain terms of the minor settlement and will not violate the order of the Court that the settlement remain confidential,” the unsealed transcript in fact contained sufficient details to determine that CCA had paid approximately $2 million to settle the lawsuit filed on behalf of Estelle’s children. [See: PLN, May 2008, p.28]. The transcript is posted on PLN’s website.

        After being contacted by Friedmann, Estelle Richardson’s sister-by- adoption sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee describing the circumstances of Estelle’s death. She told the Committee that CCA had “never apologized” to Estelle’s family or children. Apparently Puryear, who personally negotiated the settlement, felt $2 million was sufficient compensation and no apology was necessary.

        Silja J.A. Talvi, a PLN board member and senior editor at In These Times, a monthly news magazine,had been following the Estelle Richardson case for years. On May 5, 2008 she wrote a scathing two- part article on Puryear’s judicial nomination in the context of Estelle’s death, which was published as an exclusive on AlterNet.

        Contrasting Puryear’s rich and privileged life with that of Estelle Richardson, a “low-income, African American mother of two,” Talvi noted that it would have been “unlikely that the two would have ever met under even the most random of circumstances.”

        And yet their fates were strangely intertwined – Estelle, who died at a CCA jail alone in a segregation cell, and Gus Puryear, who years later had to answer uncomfortable and difficult questions about her death. Talvi was later interviewed by Amy Goodman on the news program Democracy Now!, where she discussed her reporting on the Puryear nomination.

        Following the publication of Talvi’s article on AlterNet, an anonymous donor offered a $35,000 cash reward for information in the Estelle Richardson case. The reward consisted of $10,000 for the recovery or proof of existence of the elusive videotape of Estelle’s cell extraction the day before she died, and $25,000 for information leading to the prosecution and conviction of those responsible for her death.

        “The substantial reward offered in Estelle Richardson’s unsolved homicide demonstrates that the lives of prisoners are not worthless,” said Friedmann. “While for the past four years CCA officials have been unable to explain who was responsible for Ms. Richardson’s murder, this reward will hopefully shed some light on her tragic death.”

        The Puryear opposition campaign devoted a separate website to Estelle’s case and the $35,000 reward (www.whokilledestelle.org), and a Nashville civil rights group, Power to the People, took on Estelle’s death as a social justice issue and held a protest rally in Sept. 2008.

        Ultimately, Estelle Richardson did what the other, more mundane issues raised by the opposition campaign could not. Her unsolved homicide put a human face on the prisoners held in CCA’s for-profit facilities; it also revealed Puryear to be little more than a corporate hack whose primary goal was protecting CCA’s interests, regardless of who died in the company’s lockups or under what circumstances.

        Fighting the Good Fight

        Friedmann formed an independent group to coordinate the opposition campaign, called Tennesseans Against Puryear. While that organization conducted most of the opposition efforts, Friedmann also participated in his capacities as PLN’s associate editor and vice president of the Private Corrections Institute, at his own expense.

        Tennesseans Against Puryear worked with several organizational allies, including the Alliance for Justice, a national association of left-leaning advocacy groups. The Alliance for Justice was one of the first organizations to sound an alarm over Puryear’s nomination, saying he lacked “the fundamental commitment to transparency, integrity, honesty, and legal ethics required of those seeking a lifetime appointment to the federal courts.”

        Other organizations that signed on to the opposition campaign included the National Lawyers Guild; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); Grassroots Leadership, a North Carolina-based civil rights organization; the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA); and Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, which opposes prison expansion as being against public policy.

        AFSCME and the CCPOA joined mainly because they reject privatization, which is a threat to union jobs, and didn’t want to see a pro-private prison advocate like Puryear on the federal bench.

        Also, as noted previously, three national women’s rights groups submitted letters of opposition to the Senate Judiciary Committee as a result of Puryear’s membership in the Belle Meade Country Club.

        Prior to Puryear’s Feb. 12, 2008 hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Friedmann sent statements and proposed questions to the Committee members that addressed Puryear’s conflicts of interest, lack of experience, bias against prisoner litigation, concealment of information from the public, and role in the Estelle Richardson case.

        Not even Puryear’s position as a deacon in the Presbyterian church was left unscathed, as Friedmann mentioned that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church had passed a resolution in 2003 condemning for-profit private prisons such as those operated by CCA.

        To their credit, Committee members took note and grilled Puryear at his nomination hearing, using the documents and questions provided by Friedmann as a guide. One reporter described the proceedings as “testy.” According to a spokesperson for Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, “During that hearing, a lot of red flags were raised.”

        Afterwards, the opposition campaign submitted a formal response to the Committee that identified inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Puryear’s testimony. Senators Leahy, Dianne Feinstein, Russ Feingold and Edward Kennedy sent written follow-up questions to Puryear. At least one senator sent a second round of questions.

        On the home front, Friedmann wrote two editorials opposing Puryear’s nomination that were published by the Tennessean. He worked closely with media contacts, issued press releases on new developments in the opposition campaign, and ran public notices in the Tennessean and Nashville Scene. During two trips to Washington D.C., Friedmann met with representatives of seven members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Chairman Leahy’s staff.

        Senator Leahy, as Chair of the Judiciary Committee, was a key part of the strategy to keep Puryear’s nomination from going to the full Senate. In a small state like Vermont, citizens have extraordinary access to their congressional delegation. During the opposition campaign, PLN editor Paul Wright, who lives in Vermont, spoke a number of times with Senator Leahy’s chief of staff and was able to mobilize several dozen voters – including members of the local bar and the Vermont chapter of the National Lawyers Guild – to express their concerns about Puryear’s nomination. Those concerns were far from academic; more than 500 Vermont prisoners are housed at a CCA facility in Kentucky, where they have been mistreated.

        The year-long effort to derail Puryear’s nomination generated extensive coverage in the news media, both locally and nationally.

        The Associated Press ran two national wire stories about the opposition campaign, while both the Tennessean and Nashville Scene published front-page articles and numerous other commentaries.

        Puryear’s contentious nomination was also reported in the Nashville Post and Nashville City Paper, and on the national level in TIME magazine, Harper’s Magazine, Mother Jones and the National Law Journal. Additional coverage appeared on AlterNet and Democracy NOW!, and in a Think-MTV video exposé.

        Some aspects of the Puryear opposition campaign were ineffective, such as unsuccessful bar complaints filed against the attorneys who had unsealed the confidential settlement transcript in Estelle Richardson’s wrongful death suit. Also, research into a methadone clinic that rented its property from a realty company owned by Puryear proved to be unproductive (except to disclose that the clinic was improperly disposing of patient records, which resulted in an investigation by state officials).

        The touchstone and focal point of the opposition campaign was Friedmann’s website, www.againstpuryear.org, which laid out the various arguments against Puryear’s nomination and included links to supporting documents and nomination-related news coverage.

        The site, which went live in January 2008, received almost 4,000 unique visitors over a 10-month period. According to analytics software, CCA kept a close watch on the Tennesseans Against Puryear website, visiting it 295 times – almost once a day. Other notable visits came from the U.S. Senate (54), federal courts (40) and U.S. Dept. of Justice (31). In order to thwart a counter site, Friedmann had also reserved the domain name for www.forpuryear.org.

        CCA Strikes Back

        It took Puryear and CCA some time to take the opposition campaign seriously, but once they did they mounted an earnest defense.

        CCA found a media ally in the Nashville City Paper, a free daily publication with a conservative viewpoint. The City Paper ran several articles generally favorable of Puryear’s nomination, reporting CCA’s “renewed public relations push” and support for Puryear from other attorneys and notable figures.

        Puryear obtained letters of endorsement from a number of well-heeled law firms, including Bass Berry & Sims, Baker Donelson, Neal & Harwell, and Walker Tipps & Malone. Further, he received a letter of recommendation from Thurgood Marshall, Jr., the son of late Supreme Court Justice (and former FBI informant) Thurgood Marshall.

        Even the attorney who represented Estelle Richardson’s children in their lawsuit against CCA, David Randolph Smith, sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee in favor of Puryear’s nomination. Puryear would make “an excellent judge,” Smith wrote.

        However, Friedmann perceived a common thread. Almost all of the attorneys who sent letters in support of Puryear worked at firms that shared “financial, political and/or professional relationships” with CCA, he observed.

        For example, Bass Berry & Sims had represented CCA in connection with securities offerings. The firm hired former CCA senior director Leslie Hafter to head its lobbying efforts; also, Bass Berry & Sims partner Lee Barfield II was the brother-in-law of former Senator Bill Frist, who had employed Puryear as his legislative director.

        Likewise, Walker Tipps & Malone had represented CCA as a client, including in the Estelle Richardson case. It was a partner at that firm, J. Mark Tipps, who recruited Puryear to work for former Senator Fred Thompson. Tipps later recommended Puryear to then-Senator Bill Frist, and subsequently introduced him to CCA CEO John Ferguson.

        And so on...

        In regard to the letter of recommendation from Thurgood Marshall, Jr., Friedmann noted that Marshall sat on CCA’s board of directors and owned 7,000 shares of the company’s stock. “He thus has a substantial financial stake in CCA’s continued success and, of course, has a duty as a board member to be supportive of the company and its officers, including Mr. Puryear,” said Friedmann.

        As for plaintiff’s attorney David Randolph Smith, a Democrat, his support of Puryear stemmed at least in part from a desire not to see an even worse Republican candidate should Puryear’s nomination fail.

        In a conversation with Friedmann, and later on the record with the Nashville Scene, Smith said he did not want a “right-wing religious nutjob” appointed to the federal bench in lieu of Puryear, whom he viewed as a moderate. That Smith thought Puryear was the least objectionable nominee was not exactly a ringing endorsement.

        On April 13, 2008, Puryear’s ex-boss, former Senator Bill Frist, weighed in with a Tennessean editorial in support of Puryear. Frist condemned “political posturing fed by outside groups” and the “political circus” that accompanies judicial nominations, and urged the Senate to “not play politics with the federal courts.”

        Oddly, Frist failed to mention that during his tenure in Congress he had proposed the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules in order to prevent Democrats from using filibusters to block votes on judicial nominees, in a partisan attempt to ensure the confirmation of more Republican judges. Perhaps it slipped his mind.

        At CCA’s annual shareholder meeting on May 16, 2008, which Friedmann attended, CEO John Ferguson acknowledged the company had spent funds on Puryear’s nomination for the purpose of countering “unfounded” accusations and “mischaracterizations” about CCA as a result of negative media coverage.

        As part of those corporate expenditures, CCA hired MMA Creative, an advertising and marketing firm, and placed paid ads with the City Paper and Nashville Post.

        CCA created a blog site on August 1, 2008 to “provide factual information” about the company and “separate the facts from the reported myths about private prisons.” While not specifically in response to the Puryear opposition campaign, the site (www.thecca360.com) includes links to two pro-Puryear blogs, one of which has since been taken down.

        The CCA 360 site also contains a section devoted to Friedmann. Titled “Who is Alex Friedmann?,” CCA answers that question by saying he is a convicted felon (without mentioning his felony convictions are almost two decades old) who “lacks academic training” and is “not a reliable media source.”

        In response, Friedmann said the website “is exactly what I’d expect from CCA, and I’m flattered that they consider my efforts so effective that they have to resort to such infantile tactics.”

        The End Game

        CCA’s public relations campaign proved to be too little too late. The Tennessean, the Nashville Scene and the Associated Press all ran articles casting doubt on Puryear’s judicial nomination. The Nashville Post reported that Puryear should “keep his day job.” Even the right-leaning Nashville City Paper referred to his nomination as “stalled.”

        Senators Edward Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein, both members of the Judiciary Committee, reportedly put a hold on Puryear’s nomination, deeming him a controversial candidate rather than a consensus nominee. “I understand they have put Puryear in the ‘controversial’ category,” said Vanderbilt University law professor Brian Fitzpatrick. “It’s very rare for a district court nominee to become controversial.”

        Finally, on September 23, 2008, after no movement on Puryear’s nomination in the Judiciary Committee for seven months, Senator Lamar Alexander, Puryear’s chief standard bearer, raised the white flag and acknowledged it was “not going to happen.”

        Ironically it was one of Puryear’s ardent supporters, Alabama attorney Ed Haden, who may have driven the final nail into Puryear’s judicial nomination coffin. In an August 14, 2008 Associated Press article, Haden was quoted as saying Puryear could still be confirmed based on quid pro quo deal-making. “At the end of the session, it’s, ‘Who wants a bridge in Vermont?’” he said, in a not-so-subtle reference to Vermont senator and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.

        While that may in fact be how things are done in Washington – and Haden would know, as he previously served as nominations counsel for Senator Orrin Hatch and chief counsel for Senator Jeff Sessions – it isn’t prudent to say so publicly. Upon being informed of Haden’s cavalier comment, Senator Leahy’s chief counsel noted dryly that Haden “seems to have no idea how Senator Leahy approaches nominations.”

        In the end, the Puryear nomination concluded with a whimper, not a bang. After the Senate adjourned on January 2, 2009 his nomination was returned to the White House, dashing Puryear’s dream of a federal judgeship. The vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee will now be filled by President Obama; in a written statement, Puryear blamed the demise of his nomination on “election-year politics.”

        The Puryear opposition campaign declared victory in a January 22, 2009 press release. “While some may consider it ironic that a former CCA prisoner managed to derail the judicial nomination of CCA’s general counsel, the fact remains that Mr. Puryear was a questionable, partisan candidate who had conflicts and problematic issues, both past and present, that ensured his nomination would not survive scrutiny,” Friedmann stated. “The opposition campaign simply provided the necessary level of scrutiny.”

        Although Puryear and Friedmann have never met, they both attended CCA’s annual shareholder meeting last May. “I don’t have anything personal against Mr. Puryear,” said Friedmann. “And I’m sure he’s enough of a professional to understand that the opposition campaign that killed his nomination was simply business. Just as his employment with CCA, in which he profits from people’s incarceration, is simply business.”

        www.againstpuryear.org, Tennessean, Nashville Scene, Nashville City Paper, Nashville Post, Mother Jones, TIME, Harper’s Magazine, AlterNet, Democracy Now!, UPI, Associated Press, politico.com, www.usdoj.gov, Jackson Sun News, www.finance.yahoo.com

        Paul Wright is the editor and founder of Prison Legal News, www.prisonlegalnews.org. The longest publishing independent prisoner rights magazine in US history.

        He can be reached at:

        How a Former Prisoner Took On and Took Down Corrections Corporation of America's General Counsel (and Cheney Pal)

        H.B. No. 1711

        By: Turner of Harris, Guillen, Martinez, Veasey, Marquez


        AN ACT relating to requiring the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to establish a comprehensive reentry and reintegration plan for offenders released or discharged from a correctional facility.


        SECTION 1. Subchapter B, Chapter 495, Government Code, is amended by adding Section 495.028 to read as follows:


        (a) The department may contract and coordinate with private vendors, units of local government, or other entities to implement the comprehensive reentry and reintegration plan developed under Section 501.092, including contracting to:

        (1) coordinate the supervision and services provided to offenders in correctional facilities with any supervision or services provided to offenders who have been released or discharged from the correctional facility;

        (2) provide offenders awaiting release or discharge with documents that are necessary after release or discharge, including identification papers, medical prescriptions, job training certificates, and referrals to services; and

        (3) provide housing and structured programs, including group homes for recovering substance abusers, through which offenders are provided services immediately following release or discharge.

        (b) To ensure accountability, any contract entered into under this section must contain specific performance measures that the department shall use to evaluate compliance with the terms of the contract.

        SECTION 2. Subchapter C, Chapter 501, Government Code, is amended by adding Sections 501.091, 501.092, 501.098, 501.099, and 501.100 to read as follows:

        Sec. 501.091. DEFINITIONS. In this subchapter:

        (1) "Correctional facility" means a facility operated by or under contract with the department.

        (2) "Offender" means an inmate or state jail defendant confined in a correctional facility.


        FOR OFFENDERS. (a) The department shall develop a comprehensive plan to reduce recidivism and ensure the successful reentry and reintegration of offenders into the community following an offender's release or discharge from a correctional facility.

        (b) The reentry and reintegration plan developed under this section must provide for:

        (1) an assessment of each offender entering a correctional facility to determine which skills the offender needs to develop to be successful in the community following release or discharge;

        (2) programs that address the assessed needs of each offender;

        (3) a comprehensive network of transition programs to address the needs of offenders released or discharged from a correctional facility;

        (4) the identification of providers of existing local programs and transitional services with whom the department may contract under Section 495.028 to implement the reentry and reintegration plan; and

        (5) subject to Subsection (c), the sharing of information between local coordinators, persons with whom the department contracts under Section 495.028, and other providers of services as necessary to adequately assess and address the needs of each offender.

        (c) An offender's personal health information may be disclosed under Subsection (b)(5) only if:

        (1) the offender consents to the disclosure; and

        (2) the disclosure does not violate the Health

        Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (Pub. L. No. 104-191) or other state or federal law.

        (d) The programs provided under Subsections (b)(2) and (3) must:

        (1) be implemented by highly skilled staff who are experienced in working with inmate reentry and reintegration programs;

        (2) provide offenders with:

        (A) individualized case management and a full continuum of care;

        (B) life-skills training, including information about budgeting, money management, nutrition, and exercise;

        (C) education and, if an offender has a learning disability, special education;

        (D) employment training;

        (E) appropriate treatment programs, including substance abuse and mental health treatment programs; and

        (F) parenting and relationship building classes; and

        (3) be designed to build for former offenders post-release and post-discharge support from the community into which an offender is released or discharged, including support from agencies and organizations within that community.

        (e) In developing the reentry and reintegration plan under this section, the department shall ensure that the reentry program for long-term inmates under Section 501.096 and the reintegration services provided under Section 501.097 are incorporated into the plan.

        Sec. 501.098. REENTRY TASK FORCE. (a) The department by rule shall enter into a memorandum of understanding with the following entities to establish a reentry task force in the office of the governor:

        (1) the Texas Youth Commission;

        (2) the Texas Workforce Commission;

        (3) the Department of Public Safety;

        (4) the Texas Department of Housing and Community


        (5) the Texas Correctional Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments;

        (6) the Health and Human Services Commission;

        (7) the Texas Judicial Council; and

        (8) an organization selected by the department that advocates for or provides reentry or reintegration services to offenders following their release or discharge from a correctional facility.

        (b) The reentry task force established under Subsection (a) may:

        (1) identify gaps in services for offenders following their release or discharge to rural or urban communities in the areas of employment, housing, substance abuse treatment, medical care, and any other areas in which the offenders need special services; and

        (2) coordinate with providers of existing local reentry and reintegration programs, including programs operated by a municipality or county, to make recommendations regarding the provision of comprehensive services to offenders following their release or discharge to rural or urban communities.

        Sec. 501.099. FAMILY UNITY AND PARTICIPATION. (a) The department shall adopt and implement policies that encourage family unity while an offender is confined and family participation in an offender's post-release or post-discharge transition to the community. In adopting the policies, the department shall consider the impact of department telephone, mail, and visitation policies on the ability of an offender's child to maintain ongoing contact with the offender.

        (b) The department, when determining in which correctional facility to house an offender, shall consider the best interest of the offender's family and, if possible, house the offender in, or in proximity to, the county in which the offender's family resides.

        (c) The department shall conduct and coordinate research that examines the impact of an offender's confinement on the well-being of the offender's child.

        Sec. 501.100. RECIDIVISM STUDY; REPORT. (a) The department shall conduct and coordinate research to determine whether the comprehensive reentry and reintegration plan developed under Section 501.092 and the policies adopted under Section 501.099 to encourage family unity and participation reduce recidivism rates.

        (b) Not later than September 1 of each even-numbered year, the department shall deliver a report of the results of research conducted or coordinated under Subsection (a) to the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house of representatives, and the standing committees of each house of the legislature with primary jurisdiction over criminal justice and corrections.

        SECTION 3. (a) As soon as practicable after the effective date of this Act, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shall enter into a memorandum of understanding as required by Section 501.098, Government Code, as added by this Act.

        (b) Not later than January 1, 2010, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shall adopt and implement the policies required by Section 501.099, Government Code, as added by this Act.

        (c) Not later than January 1, 2010, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shall develop and implement the comprehensive reentry and reintegration plan for offenders as required by Section 501.092, Government Code, as added by this Act.

        SECTION 4. This Act takes effect immediately if it receives a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each house, as provided by Section 39, Article III, Texas Constitution. If this Act does not receive the vote necessary for immediate effect, this Act takes effect September 1, 2009.

        H.B. No. 1711

        Senate approves prison re-entry bill

        By Mike Ward
        May 20, 2009

        More than 70,000 Texas convicts leave prisons each year and return to their hometowns, where they face high hurdles to successfully reintegrate themselves into society.

        The Texas Senate this afternoon gave final approval to a bill that would ramp up state programs to ensure that more can resume life as tax-paying law-abiding citizens.

        Under House Bill 1711, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice would establish comprehensive reintegration and reentry plans for convicts who have served their sentences or are leaving on parole.

        “This will help these inmates transition from prison to our communities,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the Senate sponsor of the measure. “Making this transition successfully is important to lowering our recidivism rate and improving public safety.

        “If these inmates who are getting out can get housing, get a job, get the skills they need to succeed, they will be much less likely to commit new crimes.”

        Senate and House budget negotiators have added funding for 64 new prison employees to operate the new reintegration program.

        The measure will also create a special task force, involving prison officials and community and social groups, to oversee the increased initiative. And it will require prison officials to better track recidivism rates.

        Senate approves prison re-entry bill

        May 04, 2009

        Felony Franks

        CHICAGO (WBBM Newsradio 780) -- If a near-West Side businessman gets his way, Chicago and the rest of the country will one day be full of hot dog stands that hire only one kind of employee: ex-offenders.

        WBBM Newsradio 780's Steve Miller reports the idea is getting a warm reception from Congressman Danny Davis.

        Felony Franks. That's what Jim Andrews wants to call the hot dog stands.

        "We would have a Pardon Burger. We would have a Misdemeanor Wiener," Andrews says.

        Andrews is serious about his mission: to give jobs to people who have a hard time finding jobs. Ex-offenders who were convicted felons.

        "If they didn't have a criminal background, you know what? And you came in and filled out an application and you didn't have a felony background? We would probably put it on the side, like is being done today to the felons."

        Andrews says he knows from experience that ex-offenders are good workers.

        That's all he's hired in the past five years at his paper company on West Randolph Street.

        "It's the best crew I've ever had in my life."

        Andrews is legally blind.

        He is committed to starting a chain of Felony Franks, and Congressman Danny Davis, whose district includes Andrews' company, says it's an "excellent idea."

        "It's an exciting approach, and it's something that I'd really like to see developed."

        Andrews imagines Felony Franks as a place with a black and white striped-awning and windows with bars on them.

        Perhaps kitschy, but to the point.

        Jim Andrews is starting to raise the approximately $150,000 he thinks it'll take.

        Jim Andrews' organization is the Rescue Foundation,
        845 W. Randolph St., Chicago, Ill. 60607,
        on the Web at; www.therescuefoundation.org

        Felony Franks

        The New York Times
        April 28, 2009

        Television Review | 'The Released'
        Documentary Asks, ‘After Prison, Then What?’ The Answer Is Often More Prison


        “The Released,” a documentary to be shown on Tuesday on most PBS stations, seeks to confirm everything you may already believe about the egregious lapses in the nation’s prison and mental health systems. Specifically, the film deals with the insurmountable difficulties facing mentally ill inmates once they are set free, often with little more than petty cash, a ticket out of town and two weeks’ worth of medication.

        Written and directed by Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor, who five years ago made “The New Asylums,” a documentary examining the treatment of mentally ill offenders in the Ohio prison system, the new film bears the distinct characteristics of a “Frontline” offering: dolorous, reproachful, illuminating in detail if not enlightening in its arguments.

        Here again, good and decent people are caught up in fallible systems: the caseworkers, psychiatrists and judges filmed all mean to serve their population well, and yet the outcome for mentally ill prisoners remains incredibly bleak.

        According to the film, one million people with psychiatric disorders fill the country’s prisons right now, and a vast majority of them will be back behind bars within 18 months of their release. Whose fault is this? Presumably, in the film’s assumption, it is the Man’s.

        “The Released” cites the closing of state mental hospitals in the 1970s as part of the problem — prisons essentially replaced them as care facilities — but doesn’t engage in the debate about deinstitutionalizat ion, even as one of its own talking heads calls it a largely positive change in policy. In place of any real analysis of the issue, the film gives an admittedly harrowing account of the lives of mentally ill prisoners once they’ve re-entered society.

        One man sets his girlfriend’s house on fire within weeks of his release.

        Another, whom the filmmakers met in 2004 as he was about to be paroled after serving time for aggravated robbery, wound up in prison three months later for robbing a pharmacy. He swallowed a cassette recorder, crushing it into bits and downing it with water, but he doesn’t consider himself mentally ill, describing his condition instead as a “spiritual insanity.”

        Recidivism results largely from the difficulty of getting treatment.

        Homelessness, the all-too-frequent aftermath of prison release, makes obtaining help virtually impossible. As Mike Unger, a doctor running a mobile outreach unit, saliently puts it: “This isn’t a population that’s going to come with their planners and their organizers and keep track of their appointments and seamlessly integrate their own physical health care issues with their mental health issues and be compliant with their medications and keep them in that perfect little medication box, as they live, you know, behind a Dumpster somewhere.”

        It is a population that needs supervisors, saints, heroes.


        The Released

        On most PBS stations on Tuesday night (check local listings).

        Produced by “Frontline” with Mead Street Films. Directed, written and produced by Miri Navasky and Karen

        O’Connor; series producer, WGBH Boston; Michael Sullivan, executive producer of special projects; David Fanning, series executive producer.

        Former inmates prone to high blood pressure: Study

        Apr 13, 2009

        NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A new study shows that young adults who have served time in prison have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure and an enlarged heart than those who have never been incarcerated.

        Ex-inmates are also less likely to have access to regular health care, according to a report of the study appearing today in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

        Between 1987 and 2007, the U.S. prison population tripled, making it "especially important to understand the implications of incarceration on future health status," Dr. Emily A. Wang of San Francisco General Hospital and colleagues note.

        Among 4,350 individuals participating in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults, or CARDIA, study, 288 had been incarcerated 1 year before or 2 years after they joined the study.

        According to Wang and colleagues, in the 3 to 5 years since release from prison, high blood pressure occurred much more often in former inmates aged 23 to 35 years old than in young adults of the same age who did not spend time in jail (12 percent versus 7 percent).

        In addition, enlargement of the heart muscle that is a common consequence of high blood pressure -- was more common among ex- inmates (2 percent vs. 0.6 percent).

        Former inmates were also more likely to lack treatment for their high blood pressure, as mentioned.

        "For the more than 7 million people that pass through U.S. jails and prisons each year, incarceration may be an independent risk factor" for the development of high blood pressure and an enlarged heart, both of which put such persons at higher risk for developing symptoms of cardiovascular disease, Wang and colleagues conclude.

        SOURCE: Archives of Internal Medicine, April 13, 2009.

        Former inmates prone to high blood pressure


        Ex-cons take a hands-on approach to living life outside prison walls

        By Colin McDonald

        Blue tattoos of topless women, scorpions and the names of people they love cover their arms, necks and backs. They have spent decades behind bars, convicted of arson, robbery and drug possession.

        In prison they learned a simplified and fast-paced version of handball to help cope with the frustration of being locked up. Now they use the same game to deal with the challenges of life on the outside.

        “This is the only thing that keeps me away,” said Toby Ybarra, who has been on parole for the past six months after serving eights years of a 20-year sentence for drug possession. “I'm 50 years old and for the first time I'm realizing there is a good life.”

        Ybarra said the stress relief and fellowship with other ex-cons make the games a kind of support group. The structure of regular games helps keep them from reverting to their old ways as they make the transition from prison to the outside world.

        So every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon a dozen men can be found playing handball at Escobar Field on the West Side. For hours on end, they rotate through games of two on two using their bare or gloved hands to smack a hollow rubber ball against a 20-foot- wide concrete wall. They play to seven points. The winners stay. Just like in prison, the games go on continuously.

        “This is what keeps people who don't have the social skills,” said Pete Tenorio,73, who has spent almost half his life serving time. “You just go in there and sweat it off.”

        Instead of using the officially sanctioned handball that is used in country clubs and private gyms, the players at Escobar use the slightly larger and softer racquetball. The balls come in packs of three and can be bought for little more than a dollar each.

        In prison the wardens provided the balls. There was no lack of concrete walls to play against.

        “They take it very seriously,” said Jason Clark, public information officer for Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “Next to basketball, it's one of the most popular.”

        Clark said there is almost no prison recreation yard in the Texas system that does not have an area designated for handball.

        “In prison it's more of a pride thing,” said Henry Arce, 33, who was sentenced to six years for robbery. “Here it's just for fun. Here people know each other.”

        The 73-year-old Tenorio is one of the oldest players. In his life he has “gone down” seven times for various drug-related convictions. Now most days he comes to the park just to watch and smoke a few cigarettes.

        “I don't even know why I come here, because I just want to play,” he said. “But I know I'm just going to hurt myself.”

        Although most have played for decades, the players' hands still swell and ache after several games. They have gotten used to the pain, and their palms have toughened to the point they no longer split open and bleed. The discomfort is not an issue, said Samuel Rodriguez, who at 67 has been playing for more than two decades. The concern is simply to take care of their bodies so they can keep playing.

        There is talk of having an official tournament in May.

        For now, the only organizing principle is a loose directive to show up around 4:30 on weekday afternoons and noon on weekends. There are no sign-up sheets, club meetings, flyers or advertisements. The games go on until players get too tired to continue or until it gets dark.

        Anyone with skills is welcome.

        “This is our way of putting back into the community,” Tenorio said. “Because we have taken so much out.”

        Ex-cons take a hands-on approach to living life outside prison walls

        Some US cities eliminate criminal-history question

        Associated Press Writer

        NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Hoping to prevent convicts from being shut out of the work force, some major U.S. cities are eliminating questions from their job applications that ask whether prospective employees have ever been convicted of a crime.

        Most of the cities still conduct background checks after making conditional job offers, but proponents say the new approach will help more convicts find work and reduce the likelihood they will commit new crimes.

        "This makes sense in terms of reducing violence. The amount of recidivism — committing crimes again — in this population is dramatic, and it has taken a toll on this community," said John DeStefano, mayor of New Haven, where officials recently proposed a so-called "ban the box" ordinance that drops the criminal-history question from job applications.

        Similar measures have been adopted in recent years in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Baltimore, San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., and Norwich, Conn. Los Angeles and other cities are considering doing so. Some cities such as Chicago continue to conduct criminal background checks for all positions.

        Others such as Boston do so only when reviewing applicants for school jobs or other sensitive duties.

        In New Haven, 25 former prisoners arrive each week after being released. Without help, about 10 of them will return to a life of crime, officials said. The city has some 5,000 residents on probation or parole. New Haven's existing application asks whether prospective employees have ever been convicted of anything other than minor traffic violations or juvenile offenses. Shelton Tucker, a New Haven resident who served five years in prison for assault with a firearm, said he has lost countless job opportunities because of his record. "There were some times I was tempted to go back to my old way of making money," Tucker said. "I fell off the wagon a few times. You get stuck with this decision of telling the truth and possibly never being called or lying to get the job and losing it later."

        Tucker, who was recently laid off from a glass company because of the weak economy, said eliminating the criminal-history question would encourage more people to apply for jobs. But, he said, the policy will not solve the problem, noting that criminal background checks would still be conducted. "In a way it's just window dressing," Tucker said.

        Cities that have dropped the question could not say how many convicts they have hired. Baltimore has had a hiring freeze since it banned the box nearly a year ago, officials said.

        Proponents acknowledge that changing the application is not a panacea, but they insist it allows people with criminal records to get a foot in the door. Cities are also creating standards for determining whether a criminal record is relevant to the job.

        In Chicago, where more than 20,000 inmates return from prison annually and two-thirds are arrested within three years, the city adopted a hiring policy to balance the nature and severity of the crime with other factors, such as the passage of time and evidence of rehabilitation. San Francisco also considers factors such as the time elapsed since the conviction and evidence of rehabilitation. Boston's job application starts with an anti-discrimination statement and lists "ex-offender status" as a classification protected under civil rights laws. The city only does criminal background checks for sensitive positions such as jobs with police, schools, and positions involving large amounts of money or unsupervised contact with children, the disabled and elderly. Boston officials sent a letter in December requiring companies that do business with the city to comply with that policy. "What are these folks going to do if they cannot work?" said Larry Mayes, chief of human services for Boston. "You're creating a permanent underclass."

        In New Haven, the changes are part of a broader strategy to help convicts make successful transitions by offering them support with monthly assistance sessions and helping former inmates mentor each other. But critics worry about the message being sent by the changes. When the Norwich City Council adopted the policy in December, critics feared it would attract criminals.

        Edward Jones, who owns a computer business, opposed the effort, though he said cities should make efforts to ensure everyone is fairly considered for jobs. "I think they're doing a disservice because this person could end up being in a position of trust," Jones said. Supporters point to a study in October by the Urban Institute that found former prisoners who had jobs and earned higher wages were less likely to return to prison.

        When they are released, most inmates start out ambitious to change their lives, Tucker said. But after they are unable to find work, many grow frustrated, he said."You start to get desperate," Tucker said. "You go back to what you know."

        Some US cities eliminate criminal-history question


        Re-entry services for former inmates deserve support

        Reported By; Ana Yañez-Correa,
        December 03, 2008

        Men and women released from prison by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice get $50 and a bus ticket back to where they came from. For someone trying to start a new life, that isn't much.

        These people have served their time. A judge and a parole board have determined that they are ready to re-join society. For most, however, the days and weeks ahead will be their greatest struggle yet.

        On their first night out, they will need a place to sleep, but many landlords will refuse to rent to someone with a criminal record.

        Some public housing projects may reject them on the same grounds. Many will end up in temporary housing and homeless shelters, where they may be exposed to the problems they are trying to put behind them.

        One 2004 study found that parolees who lived in temporary shelters after release were more likely to end up re-incarcerated than those who had more stable housing.

        A person making a transition from prison to the community will quickly need to find a job that can make them self-sufficient.

        In Texas, however, they will face many barriers to finding skilled employment; those with felony records are barred from being licensed for 168 different professions, from electrician to manicurist. Even unskilled jobs may be hard to find, as employers conducting background checks often choose not to hire the formerly incarcerated.

        In the weeks and months after release, they will also have to contend with the lingering problems that took them to prison in the first place. One recent estimate held that 50 percent of the prison population suffers from mental illness. Drug addiction is another common problem. Nationally, about half of the prison population committed their crimes while under the direct influence of drugs.

        While people may be treated for mental health and drug problems while incarcerated, once they return to the community, those services become much harder to access.

        These problems are inextricably linked, and together they form a barrier to re-entry that some will find impossible to pass. Of the 70,000 people released from Texas prisons each year, about half will return. Faced with unemployment, homelessness, a lack of opportunities and untreated mental illness and drug problems, many will become desperate. In their desperation, they will offend again in a cycle of disappointment and failure all too familiar.

        According to the professionals who work most closely with released and paroled prisoners, the worst gap of all is the lack of coordination between those who do provide services to the recently released. While many good programs do exist, working alone and against great odds in communities across Texas, they need the state's support.

        Texas needs a Statewide Re-entry Council to ensure that parolees are given the tools they need to take responsibility for their lives, to become productive members of their communities and to fully re-enter society.

        Locally, the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable is working to bring together volunteers and community organizations to assist formerly incarcerated persons in finding housing, employment and health services. Travis County is on the forefront of offering re- entry services, but local efforts need an investment by the state to continue their good work.

        If we truly believe in the promise of redemption and the hope of a second chance, we must support the released men and women who wish to make new lives for themselves, as well as the selfless professionals who work with them and the communities to which, ready or not, they will return.

        Yañez-Correa is executive director of the coalition, an advocacy organization based in Austin.

        Re-entry services for former inmates

        LOCKED OUT

        Source- Mother Jones Online

        Nearly 800,000 Americans are on parole. Add in those on probation, and the total is more than 5 million.

        48 states prohibit prisoners from voting.

        30 states also exclude felons on probation.

        In Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and Virginia, certain ex-felons lose their voting privileges for life.

        13% of black men currently have no voting privileges.

        5.3 million Americans will not have the right to vote this November due to felony convictions.

        In 2000, 614,000 ex-felons lived in Florida. The state went to Bush by 537 votes.

        Ex-felons can be prohibited from becoming bus drivers, exterminators, dental hygienists, bartenders, cemetery managers, and nursing-care attendants.

        n the 2003-04 school year, 29,000 former drug felons were denied student loans.
        But robbers and rapists were still eligible.

        Drug felons in 18 states are permanently banned from receiving welfare.

        Public housing programs can evict an entire family based on one member's past drug felony conviction.

        Because the 2000 census counted Americans based on where they "live and sleep most of the time,"

        44,326 New York City residents were tallied as living in parts of the state where they were imprisoned.

        Reported by; Justine Sharrock

        August 13, 2008

        Judge seeking employment options for felony probationers

        Austin District Judge Charlie Baird believes probation works better than prison for many offenders, but says the key for their success is getting and keeping a job.

        Reports Steven Kreytak at the Austin Statesman ("Judge takes active role in lives of probationers," Aug. 13):

        Judge Charlie Baird says that for the more than 1,800 people on probation in his court to turn their lives around and stay out of jail, they need a job.

        But getting one is not easy for people with criminal records, said Baird, a second-year state district judge in Travis County who thinks, sometimes to the dismay of prosecutors, that probation, and not prison, is appropriate in many cases.

        Baird last week began the county's first in-court effort to link people on probation with counselors who could help them find jobs. On Aug. 6, he called to court about 25 people he had previously sentenced to probation and ordered them to meet with City of Austin counselors in rooms adjacent to his courtroom. Most of them had been convicted of drug crimes; none was a violent offender, Baird said.

        "The best anti-crime program is a job," Baird said.

        When people come before him because of parole violations, he said, "the dominant factor is they don't have steady employment. That leads to depression, drugs, drinking too much, hanging with the wrong crowd."

        Judge Baird essentially is undertaking a one-man experiment in stronger probation practices, using probation instead of incarceration for most offenses but intervening more directly in individual cases so probation doesn't become a joke:

        Baird often calls probationers back to court after they have violated the conditions of their probation but rarely sends them to prison. Most violations are minor, such as failing to pay probation fees or meet with a probation officer, he said. He uses those settings to speak with the probationers, asking them about their lives and what they need to be successful. He looks them in the eyes and calls them by name.

        He sometimes offers a reward — cutting the term of their probation or the fees they must pay — for successes such as getting a high school equivalency certificate or a job.

        He has asked friends if they would be willing to hire ex-offenders. And last year, he began sending a few people from his court to a City of Austin program designed to help people transition out of poverty. The program offers job training and counseling and seeks to solve other problems such as a lack of transportation or presentable clothing.

        Martin Harris, director of the federally funded program, offered to take counselors into the courthouse so probationers would associate the program with their sentence and feel compelled to follow through. Baird plans to host counselors and probationers once a month for several months to see if the effort makes a difference.

        This blog has long considered finding employment for probationers a huge barrier to reducing crime and recidivism. Indeed, if I had my druthers, employment status of their charges would be a primary outcome measure by which probation officers are evaluated and departments are funded - same goes for parole.

        That said, employment alone is not a silver bullet for every offender, and Travis County has been investing in other evidence based approaches that complement Judge Baird's job hunt.

        Geraldine Nagy, director of the Travis County adult probation department, said employment is "an important piece to the puzzle" and lauded Baird's efforts. She said some of her probation officers are being trained as employment counselors, but her department puts much of its resources toward what she considers the most effective ways of reducing future crime: substance abuse treatment and classes designed to alter anti-social thinking.

        A 2006 report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy says drug treatment reduced by 12.4 percent the recidivism rates of offenders with a history of drug involvement. The report, which combined the results from almost 300 studies done since 1970, says programs designed to alter criminal thinking reduced recidivism rates from 8 percent to 31 percent, depending on the type of offense committed.

        Employment training and job assistance for offenders reduced recidivism rates 4.8 percent, "a modest but statistically significantly reduction," the report says.

        Here's the Washington State report on recidivism and probation programs (pdf) the article referenced. I was interested to read those statistics and a little surprised the recidivism reduction from employment appears lower than other approaches. But IMO such analysis would be misleading if it caused officials to think finding employment isn't as important as other strategies, because at the end of the day finding and holding a job is the key to stability and normalcy.

        Here's hoping Judge Baird's employment experiment succeeds swimmingly and that other jurists follow his lead.

        Posted by Gritsforbreakfast
        Labels: employment, Probation, Recidivism programs, Travis County

        Dallas County ex-parolees found steps to success after exonerations

        August 10, 2008
        The Dallas Morning News

        James Waller and James C. Giles were paroled from prison more than a decade ago. But they've only felt free in recent months, since being exonerated by DNA tests.

        Before being cleared of rapes they didn't commit, both men had achieved a measure of success, particularly for ex-cons – finding regular work, getting married, staying out of trouble. Mr. Waller helps a friend in his locksmith business and does construction work; Mr. Giles helps his wife in her bail bond business and prepares tax returns.

        But as parolees and registered sex offenders, they were regarded as the lowest of the low. Despite some success, before he was exonerated, "I was just existing," Mr. Waller says.

        Both Mr. Waller and Mr. Giles refused to give up the fight to clear their names. The two men were able to get DNA tests years after they'd left prison because Texas is one of 28 states that do not limit testing to those who are incarcerated.

        The men who once had cells next to each other now make a point of appearing at hearings for other exonerees. They've learned that life as an exoneree is far sweeter than the restricted life of a parolee and sex offender.

        Mr. Waller, 52, spent "10 years, 11 months, three days" as a guest of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where he became acquainted with Mr. Giles, 54, who also served 10 years inside. Each was on parole for an additional 15 years when officially cleared.

        Both say there's an irony in the way the system works: Being a criminal on parole can be easier than being freed as an exoneree.

        Parolees get state services, such as help finding a place to live and work. Exonerees are entitled to financial compensation, but it may take years, so they often depend on others. Coming straight out of prison, they're often ill-prepared to cope.

        "It's extra hard because you can be manipulated," Mr. Giles says, particularly financially.

        Both Mr. Giles and Mr. Waller hope to receive compensation for their wrongful convictions but say their years in the more structured world of parolees make them less likely to spend carelessly or be swindled.

        "People don't understand ... what a person coming out of prison has to go through," Mr. Giles says. "They don't have no money, they don't have no clothes, they don't have no car."

        Parolees usually get $100 from the state when they leave prison. Exonerees don't.

        That's why Mr. Giles says he gives a hundred-dollar bill to any exoneree who has not been on parole.

        He says he wants to send a message that they're on their own, without a parole officer or safety net, and the "next hundred" is up to them.

        Both men say getting a job, reuniting with family and finding spiritual support are critical for success.

        Finding stability

        Mr. Waller and Mr. Giles insist the hurdles placed in front of ex- cons and sex offenders can be overcome. "Anybody who goes back to prison, they want to go back," Mr. Waller says.

        Mr. Waller earned a college degree in prison, but he willingly took the first job he was offered on parole – working in a shopping mall parking lot during the holiday season. "Santa Claus hat and a red suit," he says.

        Though he was underemployed, "It didn't matter. I had a job; I was getting paid," he says.

        Mr. Waller continued to work odd jobs until he landed steady employment at a chemical plant. He lost that job several years later when details of the rape charge against him became public as he fought for exoneration.

        But he doesn't regret working to clear his name.

        Having to register as a sex offender was "so degrading and so humiliating," he says. "It makes you feel like you're the scum of the earth. ... You've got to sit there with real sex offenders. ... I'm an innocent man, I've got to sit there with them. Then you've got to go through sex offender class. ... They've got to tell you how they molested these kids.

        "I talked to the instructors, I said, 'Man, I'd have shot these people my own damned self.'"

        Mr. Waller says every time he had to reregister as a sex offender, he would return home and take a long shower in an effort to feel clean again.

        Mr. Giles says the stigma of being a registered sex offender was worse than prison.

        Though his first wife stood by him during his incarceration, they divorced after his release because his sex offender status made life difficult. For instance, she was mistakenly told that he couldn't live at home because they had a young son. So Mr. Giles ended up living with his parents, who also helped him buy a car.

        Before his arrest on the sexual assault charge, Mr. Giles had been on probation for attempted murder after pleading self-defense in a fight with a co-worker.

        He says his family members might get in a shootout at a gambling shack, but "robbing somebody, raping? No. That isn't no Giles. That doesn't run in the family."

        Though he knows how hard it is to find work as a parolee and sex offender, he has little patience for people who say they can't get hired. "They don't have the determination," he says. "If you don't give me a job, I'll make my own job. That's what they don't have – that zeal."

        He started his own barbecue business. Later he earned money as a preacher, did some remodeling work and, after remarrying, sold cosmetics.

        "I sold a lot of Mary Kay," he says with a smile. "The only reason I didn't do facials is because my wife is a little jealous."

        Today Mr. Giles helps his wife in her bail bond business. Because of his previous felony conviction, officially "she can't hire me," he explains. "I'm not her employee. I do this because I want to do this."

        He couldn't have made it without family support, Mr. Giles says.

        Mr. Waller agrees. "It's important to have somebody waiting for you when you get out of your cell because you're going to be able to relate to somebody," Mr. Waller says.

        Whenever he was unsure about how to act, he made a point of observing others.

        "I usually just watched people, what they doing that I may have done forgot ... watched how they eat and stuff," he says. "I constantly watched other people."

        Relationships with women often are difficult for parolees and exonerees, not just because they've been out of the dating game but because of their current or former status as sex offenders.

        "There's a stigma, and some of them can't ever get over that stigma," Mr. Giles says. "You're kind of leery about the things you do. You might want to get intimate, you might want to touch her, hug her or whatever, and it becomes a problem."

        When Mr. Giles began dating again, he didn't tell his future wife about his legal status. When she found out, she responded compassionately "because she could not believe [it], knowing who I was."

        Keeping faith

        Mr. Waller told his future wife – a former California corrections officer – about his status soon after they met. "I would have understood if she left," he says. He told her to "pray about it and see what God tells you. She came back and said, 'I know you're innocent and we're going to clear your name.'"

        They married in 1999. But two years later, shortly before one of his DNA hearings, Mrs. Waller and their unborn child were killed in an automobile accident.

        "I wanted to just lay down and die," Mr. Waller says. But "God just wasn't ready for me to die yet."

        After recovering from his grief, he redoubled his efforts to clear his name, an effort he estimates cost him $60,000 over the years. "She would never have wanted me to stop no matter what," he says. "She wanted everybody to know her husband was innocent."

        Through their darkest days as prisoners, parolees and now exonerees, Mr. Waller and Mr. Giles say faith in God kept them going.

        "Having something to hold on to" makes all the difference, Mr. Waller says. "I knew family couldn't be with me all the time in that cell. But God could be with me all the time. That's what I held on to then, and that's what I hold on to now."


        Dallas County ex-parolees found steps to success

        Agencies urged to hire ex-offenders

        By Brittany R. Ballenstedt
        June 11, 2008

        The government should do more to assure individuals with criminal records that they are not barred from certain types of federal employment, lawmakers said on Tuesday.

        At a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, members of Congress said hiring ex-offenders could help many of them as they re-enter communities and also help government as it addresses impending staff shortages.

        "The fact is that we as a country and employer continue to fall short in our attempt to eliminate barriers to employment for ex-offenders," said subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis, D-Ill. "Aside from select branches of the U.S. military, there is very little evidence that the federal government is availing itself as a legitimate source of employment for ex-offenders."

        President Bush in April signed into law a bill sponsored by Davis that aims to help states and localities better address the needs of individuals re-entering society from the criminal justice system.

        The law reauthorizes a Justice Department grant program for offenders returning to communities and authorizes $320 million in grants for states and localities through fiscal 2010.

        Davis pointed to the Boston and Chicago city governments as models for hiring ex-offenders, specifically their practice of informing individuals that a conviction did not bar them from employment with the city.

        Individuals with criminal histories often are barred from employment or obtaining occupational licenses, even if their conviction was not related to the profession, said Roberta Myers-Peeples, director of the National Helping Individuals With Criminal Records Re-Enter through Employment Network. She said ex-offenders often have the proper education and skills for a job, but are not considered because they must indicate on job applications that they have a criminal record.

        "They're stopped when they check the box that they have a criminal record," said Myers-Peeples. "Remove the criminal record box up front, then later in the hiring process the criminal record is checked and the employer can determine whether there is a risk."

        Myers-Peeples said she does not know of any ex-offenders who currently work for a federal agency. At the U.S. Postal Service in particular, she said, many who indicated they had a criminal record could "not get through the front door."

        But Nancy Kichak, associate director for strategic human resources policy at the Office of Personnel Management, said none of the job postings on USAJobs.com asks applicants about their criminal history.

        She said the question could be asked, however, for certain federal positions not posted on the Web site.

        "We believe current human capital practices provide adequate opportunities for employment and that no special appointing authorities for hiring ex-offenders in the federal government are needed," she said.

        Thomas Bostick, a major general in charge of the Army Recruiting Command, said the service has a solid process for screening applicants who have been charged with felonies and other offenses, and it grants waivers to individuals who do not pose any particular threat. "For applicants who make a mistake earlier in life and want to serve their country, we examine their performance at school, at work, in their personal life and in the community," he said.

        Bostick said a 2003-2006 study comparing the performance of soldiers without waivers to the 17,000 soldiers admitted with conduct waivers found that those with the waivers re-enlisted at a higher rate, advanced to the rank of sergeant faster and had a higher ratio of valorous awards. He said the Army is evaluating whether soldiers with waivers perform on par with other recruits.

        Myers-Peeples argued that while agencies should check criminal records before making final hiring decisions, they also should consider the length of time since the criminal activity and whether the applicant completed a rehabilitation program.

        Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., probed whether OPM had conducted any surveys to determine which federal agencies had applications that asked about criminal records. Kichak said no survey currently exists, but pledged to ask agencies about their practices and whether questions were relevant to specific federal jobs.

        "We can't deal with legislation without knowing," Norton said. "It would be foolhardy for us to legislate in the blind and tell federal agencies what to do."

        Agencies urged to hire ex-offenders

        May 18, 2008

        Walk the Line
        Ex-con takes steps to save death-row inmates, reform prisons.

        Story by CARRIE STETLER

        After spending eight years of his life locked up, Andre Latallade still lives like a prisoner.

        He feels paranoid in social situations.

        Too much sunlight makes him edgy.

        His home in Newark is a cell-like basement apartment with no windows, no carpet and no kitchen.

        But two months ago, Latallade, 43, began a 1,700-mile walk to protest the death penalty.

        Next week, he vows, he'll be in Texas.

        "When I was in prison, everyone forgot about me," says Latallade, a rapper whose stage name is Capital X. "I want to show inmates on death row that I won't forget about them."

        The walk began on March 31 in Trenton -- where, in December, New Jersey became the first state in four decades to abolish the death penalty -- and will finish in Huntsville, Texas, the state with the most executions.

        Of more than 3,000 prisoners on death row, Texas executed 27 last year, more than 60 percent of the national total.

        "I'm not always up on all the statistics," admits Latallade, whose beat-up Air Jordans have lasted throughout the walk. "But I know what's immoral."

        Latallade (he pronounces it La-tah-LAH-day) turned his life around six years ago, after doing time on drug and aggravated assault charges.

        Since, he has built a name for himself as an activist for prisoners' rights, affiliated with national and international groups that are fighting capital punishment.

        For Latallade, death row is the last stop in a system that brutalizes inmates and makes rehabilitation nearly impossible. Even if they manage to break the cycle of crime and punishment, it leaves mental and physical scars that never heal, he says.

        "You committed a crime, you get removed from society and you pay your debt," says Latallade. "But these are environments that just make people worse, and society pays for that ... My purpose is to speak for human beings that are being treated like non-human beings."

        Events in Texas:

        When he arrives in Texas, the state Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty will hold rallies, vigils and other events to publicize Latallade's message, including a protest outside the governor's mansion in Houston.

        His "Walk for Life" has received support from Amnesty International and other abolitionist groups in the U.S. and Europe, including Senza Voce ("Voice of the Voiceless"), an Italian group that is co-planning the events in Texas.

        "What he's doing is quite a feat," says Bill Pelke, co-founder of Journey of Hope, a national group that helps murder victims' families fight capital punishment. "It shows that people can change and do good things. I think he reaches an audience that isn't always reached by the movement."

        Pelke, of Alaska, fought a well-publicized battle to get his grandmother' s killer off death row in 1986. He joined Latallade for part of his walk near Washington, D.C.

        Death penalty advocates, however, have questioned the credibility of ex-cons turned crusaders, like Latallade.

        "The way they represent harsh conditions can be much distorted," says Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School who favors capital punishment and had never heard of Latallade.

        According to Blecker, inmates awaiting execution receive some of the best treatment in the prison system, no matter how heinous their crimes.

        "Even a lot of death row inmates support the death penalty, for others if not for themselves," he says. "I've seen guys on death row in Tennessee saying, 'It's a joke, this other inmate is out their playing basketball and he killed three kids.'"

        Latallade's walk -- he hopes to complete 35 miles a day over 54 days -- comes at a time when a record number of Americans are in prison.

        According to a study released by the Pew Center on the United States in February, more than one in 100 adults is now incarcerated, the highest number in U.S. history and a figure that tops every other nation in the world.

        Rikers Island blues

        It's a process Latallade calls "prisonization. " For him, it began when he was sent to Rikers Island after being arrested on a drug charge at 17, three years after he dropped out of school.

        "That was the first time I saw a prisoner get killed. I hadn't even made up my bunk yet. These guys were arguing over the phone, one just started shanking the hell out of the other," he says.

        Latallade witnessed scores of stabbings, beat-downs and rapes in jails and prisons in New York and New Jersey, he says.

        The subtlest slight -- or perceived slight -- could trigger an attack, from failing to return a borrowed cigarette to holding eye contact for too long, a sign of disrespect. Guards also beat inmates, he claims.

        For protection, Latallade, whose parents are Puerto Rican, joined the Latin Kings gang. "I stayed with the Latinos. I had to," he says. "You had to find a group, and the groups were all segregated."

        He learned why prison gangs inspire such loyalty. "You have guys telling you you're a king when you're used to people telling you you're nothing," contends Latallade, who says he is no longer an active member of the gang. "If that's all you hear all day, it can destroy you."

        At his apartment in Newark, Latallade wears a black T-shirt stamped with the name of a Anthony Haynes, a death-row inmate who was convicted of murdering a Houston police officer in 1998.

        As an homage to Johnny Cash, Latallade dresses in dark colors. His bookshelves are filled with prison memoirs, like "In the Belly of the Beast," alongside contradictory tomes like Marx's "The Communist Manifesto" and Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich."

        His tattoos also tell a story. On his left bicep is an illustration of the gurney on which prisoners are strapped for lethal injections.

        The word "Freedom" is written across his upper chest. His prison number, 305375, is tattooed on his shoulder blades. It's also the name of the nonprofit corporation he founded to fight the death penalty.

        Becoming X

        Latallade was born in Brooklyn but spent most of his childhood in Morris County. In fourth grade, his family moved to Mine Hill, where he was the only Puerto Rican kid in town. Classmates threw rocks at him and called him "spic," he says. He went on to write a song called "The Spic in Black," a play on the famous Cash tune.

        "I didn't even know what the word meant, but I knew it was bad," Latallade remembers. With the song, he says, he was trying to transform a slur into a badge of honor.

        In his teens, he developed a PCP addiction and was dealing drugs when his criminal record began. It ended when he sought treatment for substance abuse. He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Meniere's disease, an inner-ear condition that has eroded his hearing and triggers episodes of vertigo.

        In Mine Hill, his parents worked hard to make a new life for themselves and were at a loss to help him adjust, he says. One person he could turn to was his older sister, Mary.

        "She was my anchor not to jump over the edge," he says. "When I was in high school, she kept handing me self-help books, like (M.) Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled," telling me to read these books. I was one of the only cats on the street doing illegal activity, but with a book in my hand."

        Mary was a college graduate who gave him "tough love" when he kept landing in prison, he says. Now a stay-at-home mom in North Carolina who processes disability claims for the state, she let him know that, until he changed, she couldn't help him.

        But the biggest incentive to stay out of jail was his daughter, Sheana, now 18. Latallade's marriage to an exotic dancer in the early 1990s ended after several years, but he formed a close bond with his daughter, whom he raised as a single father in Budd Lake for several years after his ex-wife moved to Texas.

        "When I got custody, I told her, 'I'm not pushing you to be an adult, but we're going to be a team.' It was tough, but I learned a lot and so did she. I learned how to be patient and flexible."

        His daughter, who now lives with her mother in Texas, will join him on the walk, too.

        Ex-con and activist

        After his release from prison in 2001, Latallade got a degree in sound technology from the County College of Morris and was about to start an internship for a major music label, but his prison record prevented him from being hired, he says.

        That's when he began speaking out against the prison system and started corresponding with inmates on death row.

        His stalled rap career picked up after he began writing about his beliefs. He got a slot on the Warped Tour in 2004, which led to gigs in Italy and other European countries, sponsored by Senza Voce.

        "His mission is to bring the truth to light," says his manager, Timothy Kostenko, a rapper and financial advisor with Morgan Stanley whose stage name is "Tim Grins."

        Kostenko, who grew up in the Sussex County town of Vernon and now lives in Annapolis, Md., is funding Latallade's walk, despite the fact that he's uncertain about the death penalty. "Sometimes I look at a guy that killed four people, three cops, and I think, 'Why should this person be allowed to live?,'" he says.

        But he believes in Latallade.

        "What he's doing is important. I've seen kids who are the result of three, four generations of poverty. He's an example to them that, listen, you don't have to choose this route. I can see it in his eyes that he's on a mission.

        I've told him, 'Why don't you convince me?'"

        Additional insight:

        Favorite rapper:
        Melle Mel of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five

        Favorite singer:
        Mary J. Blige

        Need to walk to Texas:
        Lots of prayer and focus

        First thing he did when he got out of prison:
        "Spent time with my daughter."

        Published May 18, 2008


        May 11, 2008

        Ex-con hunting funding to develop devices that fight identity theft

        By ANGELA SHAH
        The Dallas Morning News

        Like other entrepreneurs, Ray Beasley begins his day with an 8 a.m. coffee stop at Starbucks. Sipping a Cafe Americano, he flips open his Sony Vaio laptop, fires off e-mails and works his cellphone.

        REX C. CURRY/Special Contributor
        Ray Beasley talks to Adamson High School students on Career Day about his drive to develop a device to prevent identity theft despite a past that includes prison.

        But unlike them, Mr. Beasley's résumé doesn't include an MBA or experience in corporate America. He's an ex-con who developed his business idea while serving time in Texas prisons, and his "brain trust" is made up of fellow inmates convicted for the crime he's now trying to prevent – identity theft.

        "My first thought was: You've got to be kidding me," says Donald Hicks, a University of Texas at Dallas economics professor, when Mr. Beasley showed up two years ago, unannounced, at his campus office. "This guy is built like a linebacker, and he's just out of prison?"

        But Dr. Hicks listened as Mr. Beasley reeled off his tale of hours spent in prison rec yards and day rooms interviewing cons, learning their scams and silently drawing up plans for a computer program he believes could thwart identity theft using countertop machines in stores and restaurants.

        "The spirit and the drive he displayed ... on a human level, I admire that tremendously, " says Dr. Hicks. "I couldn't just blow him off."

        The 45-year-old Mr. Beasley grew up on Ramsey Street in Cedar Hill, a southern Dallas County town where parents turned children loose on bicycles and neighbors knew and looked out for each other. The Beasleys – Mom, Dad and four children – were devout Jehovah's Witnesses who quoted scripture with ease.

        Dad Raymond Beasley Sr. had founded his own construction business while in his early 30s. The younger Mr. Beasley often joined his father at jobs in Highland Park, where Beasley Foundation Contractors poured concrete for Bernard Fulton, founder of the prestigious Greenhill School, and real estate doyenne Allie Beth Allman. The boy saw –and liked – how the other half lived.

        The drug life

        In fall 1981, Mr. Beasley started classes at the University of Houston. But when his father's construction business fell on hard times a year later, he dropped out and went looking for a way to make money, quickly.

        It took one phone call to set up a meeting for him to buy 7 kilograms of cocaine – the first time the 19-year-old had ever seen the drug.

        "It was quicker and easier to get kilos of cocaine than a loan from a bank," Mr. Beasley says now.

        This was a heady time for the young man who'd been spit on proselytizing door-to-door as a Jehovah's Witness. He bought expensive suits, drove flashy cars and dated even flashier women.

        Then, in February 1990, Mr. Beasley and a business associate from East Texas went to meet "Angela" and her California connection at the Bennigan's on Northwest Highway to buy cocaine. "California, " he recalls, turned out to be an undercover officer, and the two were arrested.

        While out on bail on the drug charges, Mr. Beasley briefly joined a gang with a specialty in stealing identities and check kiting. "It was like robbing a bank with an ink pen," he says.

        Hard time

        In September 1991, Mr. Beasley saw the harder side of crime. He began his 99-year term at the red-brick, razor-wired Coffield unit in Tennessee Colony, about 70 miles southeast of Dallas.

        Beneath the 40-foot-tall stained-glass window in the prison's cavernous chapel, he and other inmates would pretend to listen to tapes of religious music. Instead, an inmate known as "Dorsett" would school Mr. Beasley in Identity Theft 101.

        All you need are obituaries in the newspaper, Dorsett told him. They'd give you a birth date and place of birth as well as the mother's maiden name – most of the ingredients needed to pose as someone else.

        Identities in hand, "Reginald" explained that personal checks could then be made from scratch with stock paper from an office supply store and some software. In 1994, Mr. Beasley picked up his abandoned college studies, enrolling in data processing classes, where he learned how to draw schematic diagrams.

        Fellow inmates tutored him in subjects such as COBOL programming and MS-DOS. He got a transfer to the Ramsey One unit near Houston in 2001 to continue his studies.

        If the prisoners at Coffield gave the inmate his undergraduate education in identity theft, Ramsey One was graduate school. Ramsey housed professionals: engineers, bankers and computer programmers.

        "We didn't talk scams; we talked systems capabilities, " Mr. Beasley says.

        This is where he met Michael Miller, a fellow inmate who had been a computer programmer. They were an odd pair – the fiftysomething bespectacled Mr. Miller and Mr. Beasley, who weighed nearly 300 pounds by then. Mr. Miller offered technical advice, and Mr. Beasley could resurrect his drug dealer's countenance when necessary, shielding Mr. Miller from prison violence.

        "I was very skeptical," says Mr. Miller, now released and living in the Dallas area. "In that environment, you always assume everybody but yourself is a scam artist."

        For three years, Mr. Beasley retraced the steps to Mr. Miller's dorm, six rooms down. Pointing to a particular formula in Mr. Beasley's hand-drawn schematic, Mr. Miller would ask: How would this stop someone from opening up an account in my name?

        Over the 15 years he was in prison, Mr. Beasley talked with about 900 inmates, he believes. This think tank of cons shared their methods with him and poked holes in solutions he would propose within his computer program.

        In March 2006, Mr. Beasley was paroled after 15 years in prison. By then, both his parents were dead and he was estranged from his brothers and sisters. He moved in with an aunt in Wichita Falls and got a job washing dishes at a local El Chico.

        But in Dallas, Carolyn Jones, an old high school teacher, became his agent, trying to drum up support for his fledgling company, B System.

        "He had a lot more potential than he ever really lived up to," she says.

        And then, that July, he paid his surprise visit to Don Hicks at UTD.

        It was Dr. Hicks who put him in touch with Tom Hill, an Electronic Data Systems Inc. fellow and a rainmaker in the tech world. Like Dr. Hicks, Mr. Hill found himself attracted to the ex-con's passion.

        Mr. Hill paid the tuition for an entrepreneurship class at Southern Methodist University, telling Mr. Beasley that having an idea wasn't enough.Mr. Hill also introduced him to Doug Harris, who runs UTD's cybersecurity institute. Dr. Harris said UTD would build a beta machine to test Mr. Beasley's theories if he could raise the money: $600,000.

        "If I can get that machine built, I can get everything I want," Mr. Beasley says now.

        Believers and backers

        Since that meeting last June with Dr. Harris, Mr. Beasley has rounded up investors in B System: a family of churchgoers in Sunnyvale, a group of Dallas firefighters, old friends who want this story to have a happy ending.

        One morning, Gigi White, now a Lancaster City Council member, walked into Starbucks and reintroduced herself to a speechless Mr. Beasley. He hadn't seen her since they were in their 20s on the Dallas club scene.

        But she'd heard about his time in prison, his release and his quest to make B System real. As she left, the councilwoman pressed a $300 check into Mr. Beasley's hand.

        "You've always been a smart man," she told him. "Now you're doing it smarter."

        In the last year, Mr. Beasley has raised about $85,000, most of which he has spent on food, rent, Internet service and an attorney to help him patent his idea.

        His investors say they believe in Mr. Beasley's dream.

        "I gave Enron a chance," says Ray Allen, a retiree who, along with his wife, Martha, invested $5,000 in B System. "Why not him?"

        Still, the big money has eluded Mr. Beasley, and the clock is ticking.

        "If this doesn't happen in a hurry, someone else will do it," Dr. Harris says.

        Mr. Beasley refuses to take time away and get a regular job.

        Working 9-to-5 wouldn't get him the money fast enough, he says. "My story hasn't been typical so far, so why should I act typically?"

        Mr. Beasley finds it frustrating to know that if he returned – even briefly – to his old life, getting the money would be easy.

        Instead, he hopes for a savior. "God gave Joseph the power to interpret dreams, and the pharaoh listened," he said, quoting from a Bible story in Genesis. "I just haven't found the right pharaoh."


        Aid reintegration of ex-prisoners

        Nancy La Vigne, SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR

        April 26, 2008

        Travis County commissioners made a heroic move this week, opening the doors to thousands of former prisoners who have hit a brick wall when seeking employment.

        The barrier? That little box on a county job application that asks if the applicant has been convicted of a crime. The banning of that box, a seemingly small gesture, will speak volumes to those trying to lead productive, law-abiding lives after spending time behind bars — and to local lawmakers throughout the nation.

        Critics charge that the move coddles offenders, lowers job-screening standards and puts the public at risk. But hard-nosed pragmatists know otherwise. As research shows, aiding the successful reintegration of former prisoners into the community is smart public policy.

        The truth is, in Texas, roughly 95 percent of people sent to prison eventually return home. The choice for policymakers boils down to either supporting released prisoners' efforts to make good in society or leaving them without resources, increasing the odds that they will commit new crimes and return to prison. The first approach costs a fraction of the price of a prison bed and has the public safety advantage of preventing new victimizations in the community. The alternative leads to more crimes, breaks up more families and costs taxpayers more money.

        Evidence supports the argument that employment makes a real difference for the formerly incarcerated. According to a study of 352 Texas prisoners by the Urban Institute, only 13 percent of those employed after release returned to prison within a year, less than half the share (28 percent) of their jobless counterparts.

        With a unanimous vote, the commissioners set the stage for what could be the first of many steps toward boosting employment for people leaving prison. The next logical step would be for the City of Austin to ban the box on its job applications as well.

        State regulations and licensing requirements that bar certain employers from hiring felons should be also reviewed. It's ludicrous to deny someone a landscaping job because of a conviction for check fraud. Yet in Texas, that and many other illogical, antiquated prohibitions remain on the books. Revisiting these rules with an eye toward creating job opportunities for the formerly incarcerated would demonstrate a true dedication to public safety.

        Another important role the state can play is to ensure that convicted felons have the skills and abilities to find and keep jobs. Sadly, research shows that only one in three of those released from Texas prisons participates in employment readiness, job training or GED programs in the community in the first nine months after release.

        It's no wonder that released prisoners cite finding a job as their greatest re-entry challenge. These men and women need to be prepared for the job opportunities that emerge from the county's latest efforts; otherwise, failure awaits and employers will be disillusioned or — worse yet — disinclined to take a risk on the next former prisoner who crosses their threshold.

        Make no mistake: The road to successful prisoner reintegration is not an easy one. If public officials focus solely on employment at the expense of other critical re-entry needs, such as addressing substance addiction, mental illness and housing, their efforts are sure to fail. What good is a job if it only supplies funds to support a drug habit? If a former prisoner suffers from depression that goes untreated, what are the odds she or he will keep a job? How can we expect a homeless person or shelter dweller to report to a job on time, day in and day out, without a safe place to stay?

        Indeed, re-entry's many challenges must be addressed together.

        Fortunately, Travis County is poised to do that. Through the leadership of the district attorney's office and the community-based collaboration of the Austin/Travis County Re-entry Roundtable, meaningful partnerships across city and county human services and correctional agencies have been forged. With continued leadership on the part of county commissioners, these efforts can yield a humane and successful approach to public safety.

        La Vigne, a senior research associate in the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, is the coauthor of 'Returning Home: Exploring the Challenges and Successes of Recently Released Texas Prisoners.'

        Find this article at:
        Aid reintegration of ex-prisoners


        The Right Way to Handle Former Inmates

        Published: November 29, 2007

        To control recidivism, and thus have a shot at controlling prison crowding and costs, the states and localities need to develop comprehensive programs that help former inmates find jobs, housing, training, drug treatment and mental health care. A promising model has emerged in Brooklyn, where District Attorney Charles Hynes started his re-entry program long before other jurisdictions even realized they were necessary.

        Created in 1999 in Brooklyn, ComAlert was recently the subject of a state-funded study carried out by the district attorney's office in collaboration with Bruce Western of Harvard, a sociologist and criminal justice expert. The program is still evolving and is far from perfect. But the study shows that former inmates are more likely to get jobs and keep jobs — and more likely to remain out of jail — if they undergo a rigorous regime of counseling and drug treatment while participating in a companion program that offers them immediate work experience and job training.

        Drug treatment, counseling and drug testing are cornerstones of the ComAlert program. In addition to being counseled and tested, participants are also encouraged to sign up with "Ready, Willing & Able," a highly regarded work and training program offered by the Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization in New York.

        Many of those who join the program have little or no experience with the world of work. They begin to get that experience by working full- time in low-skill jobs like street cleaning, which pays between $7.40 and $8.15 per hour. Most participants are eventually moved into vocational programs where they are trained in one of several areas, including food preparation, pest control, officer services and building management. They are often referred to jobs at companies that have long-standing relationships with the program.

        According to the report, ComAlert graduates are less likely be re- arrested after leaving prison and much more likely to be employed than either program dropouts or members of the control group.

        Participants who complete the Doe Fund work-training component do even better. They have an employment rate of about 90 percent, somewhat higher than the ComAlert graduates generally and several times higher than the control group.

        These results are quite promising, but more research will be needed to bear them out fully. Beyond that, the ComAlert team will need to find ways to lower the combined dropout and failure rate, which is nearly 46 percent. These issues aside, the program is clearly headed in the right direction and deserves to be expanded and emulated elsewhere. It represents an impressive start toward the goal of helping newly released inmates forge viable lives on the outside.

        Treating Former Inmates


        Out of Prison and Deep in Debt

        Published: October 6, 2007

        With the nation's incarcerated population at 2.1 million and growing — and corrections costs topping $60 billion a year — states are rightly looking for ways to keep people from coming back to prison once they get out.

        Programs that help ex-offenders find jobs, housing, mental health care and drug treatment are part of the solution. States must also end the Dickensian practice of saddling ex-offenders with crushing debt that they can never hope to pay off and that drives many of them right back to prison.

        The scope of the ex-offender debt problem is outlined in a new study commissioned by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and produced by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center.

        The study, "Repaying Debts," describes cases of newly released inmates who have been greeted with as much as $25,000 in debt the moment they step outside the prison gate. That's a lot to owe for most people, but it can be insurmountable for ex-offenders who often have no assets and whose poor educations and criminal records prevent them from landing well-paying jobs.

        Often, the lion's share of the debt is composed of child support obligations that continue to mount while the imprisoned parent is earning no money. The problem does not stop there. The corrections system buries inmates in fines, fees and surcharges that can amount to $10,000 or more.

        According to the Justice Center study, for example, a person convicted of drunken driving in New York can be charged a restitution fee of $1,000, a probation fee of $1,800 and 11 other fees and charges that range from $20 to nearly $2,200.

        In some jurisdictions, inmates are also billed for the DNA testing that proves their guilt or innocence, for drug testing and even for the drug treatment they are supposed to receive as a condition of parole. These fees are often used to run the courts, the sheriffs' offices or other parts of the corrections system.

        A former inmate living at or even below the poverty level can be dunned by four or five departments at once — and can be required to surrender 100 percent of his or her earnings. People caught in this impossible predicament are less likely to seek regular employment, making them even more susceptible to criminal relapse.

        The Justice Center report recommends several important reforms. First, the states should make one agency responsible for collecting all debts from ex-offenders. That agency can then set payment priorities.

        The report also recommends that payments to the state for fines and fees be capped at 20 percent of income, except when the former inmate has sufficient assets to pay more. And in cases where the custodial parent agrees, the report urges states to consider modifying child support orders while the noncustodial parent is in prison. Once that parent is released, child support should be paid first.

        The states should also develop incentives, including certificates of good conduct and waivers of fines, for ex-offenders who make good- faith efforts to make their payments. Where appropriate, they should be permitted to work off some of the debt through community service.

        Beyond that, elected officials who worry about recidivism need to understand that bleeding ex-offenders financially is a sure recipe for landing them back in jail.

        Deep in Debt

        Unseemly Perry veto shows how GOP fear of felon voters creates self fulfilling prophecy

        May 29, 2007

        With the 80th Texas Legislature behind us, now we can look forward to seeing how much of what was passed survives Governor Perry's veto pen. Already Governor 39% has vetoed a bipartisan bill that drew no organized opposition at the Lege: HB 770 notifying ex-offenders when they become eligible to vote and sending them a voter registration card (see Grits' discussion here, and testimony from TCJC).

        Perry's veto message on this bill is a bit of mealy mouthed flotsam masking base political fears that more ex-offenders might vote. It reads like one of Terry Keel's parliamentary rulings, avoiding the central questions and dressing up an unreasonable, politicized stance whose only real justification is political gain.

        The Governor's main, stated reason for a veto is that registering ex- offenders isn't part of TDCJ's "mission," but the state took away the voting right when offenders went to TDCJ, and it doesn't seem like a stretch to notify them when that restriction is removed. When offenders get "off paper" they already receive a packet of information from TDCJ, and this would just add the notice that they're eligible to vote and a registration card.

        Besides, the Department of Public Safety's "mission" is not voter registration, but that doesn't stop Texas from operating its "motor voter" program to let people register to vote when they obtain or renew their driver's license. If there's a difference, I don't see it.

        Indeed, Perry's veto message is full of such red herrings and misreprsentations. Perhaps the biggest one: "the state does not currently provide this service to law-abiding citizens, such as high school graduates who are new to voting. I find it unseemly that the state would make a greater effort to register former inmates to vote than we would any other group of citizens in this state."

        Well, Mr. Perry, we do notify kids they can vote. I was handed my first voter registration application in a high school government class, and most kids get a driver license so the motor voter program gets them a registration card.

        For ex-offenders, though, if they're not "off paper" when they re- apply for a driver's license, they won't be eligible to register then like others would be. The main reason for the bill is that many ex- offenders don't know what are the laws surrounding when they become eligible to vote again - a voter registration drive last year among ex-offenders found many people eligible to vote who believed they weren't allowed to do so. The 18-year old voters the Governor describes don't suffer similar misunderstandings.

        Plus, the 18-year old voting age is uniform nationwide, while every state has different laws on when ex-felons can vote. The situations simply aren't analogous. We're not talking about just a few people.

        Nearly one in 20 adult Texans today are in prison, on probation or on parole.

        In reality, it's Governor Perry's position on this that's "unseemly." The real reason for his opposition: Many GOP political consultants believe ex-offenders will be more likely to vote Democratic. OTOH, that could just be a self-fulfilling prophecy - perhaps it's policy stances like this one that make these voters less likely to support the GOP. Two thirds of Republicans in the Texas House and 75% of GOP senators voted for HB 770, but thanks to Governor Perry's veto, it will be hard for Republicans to avoid appearing as though this is their party's stance.

        GOP fear of felon voters

        Nonprofit donates clothes to inmates

        Found hopes new outfits help
        offenders shed prison scrubs,
        criminal lifestyle

        By Katie Humphrey
        Thursday, January 04, 2007

        Amid the stacks of jeans and cluttered racks of blouses and sweaters, Linda Ann White sees hope.

        The donated clothes will be washed, ironed and packaged for women of all shapes and sizes who have one thing in common: They are inmates about to leave prison.

        Larry Kolvoord

        In a building behind the Leander Assembly of God, Linda Ann White, founder of the Lost Closet minis- try, collects and organizes donations of clothing to give to women who are being released from prison.

        "They're in prison, but when they get out, they deserve to feel beautiful about themselves," said White, who founded a nonprofit ministry called the Lost Closet to collect clothes for inmates.

        "I'm giving them hope, telling them, 'There are people who'll help you.'" Even one new outfit could give an inmate the confidence she needs to shed not only prison scrubs but also her former criminal lifestyle, she said.

        White, 49, of Liberty Hill said she became active in prison ministry through her church, Leander Assembly of God, about eight years ago, when she volunteered with a friend at the Halbert Unit, a prison that houses about 600 female inmates in Burnet.

        The unit holds women undergoing treatment for substance abuse while serving time for felony offenses. White, who said she overcame substance abuse when she was younger, felt a need to reach out to the women.

        She founded the Lost Closet in October 2004 after being inspired by biblical verses in the Book of Isaiah.

        White spoke with the Halbert Unit chaplain and developed an order form for inmates to fill out before they are discharged.

        The orders came slowly at first, only five or 10 a month, but quickly picked up.

        Now, White estimates that she delivers 40 to 50 outfits to the prison each month.

        In the summer, she bundles together capri pants and tops for the exiting inmates.

        In the winter, they get pants and a shirt, along with a jacket or sweater.

        Donations have been steady at the Lost Closet's home base, a small building behind the Leander Assembly of God, but plus-size clothing and jeans are always needed, White said.

        Many inmates' families bring clothes for them when they are released from prison, said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons. For others, the department purchases clothing in bulk from thrift stores such as the Salvation Army, she said.

        "She really is providing a service, not just for the inmates, but for the State of Texas," Lyons said about White's program.

        The department recognized White in March 2005 for founding the Lost Closet by awarding her the Governor's 2005 Criminal Justice Religious Service Volunteer Award.

        White has never heard from any inmates after they have been released from prison, but she said she did not start the organization to garner recognition. "The rewarding part is when I get up in the morning and I'm able to put on my clothes; those ladies should be able to do the same," White said.

        "Everyone should have a chance."

        Email; khumphrey@statesman.com;

        How to donate:
        The Lost Closet, a nonprofit ministry that gives outfits to women preparing to leave prison, welcomes donations of new and gently used women's clothing, especially jeans and plus-size items.

        It also accepts monetary donations.

        For more information,
        contact founder Linda Ann White
        at 512-336-1174 or
        the Leander Assembly of God
        at 512-259-4131.

        Learn more at www.thelostcloset.org
        Source: The Lost Closet

        The Lost Closet

        Houston & Texas News
        Dec. 26, 2006

        Texas Supreme Court to tackle religious freedom law

        By JIM VERTUNO
        Associated Press

        AUSTIN — When a pastor set up a rehabilitation program for prison parolees across the street from his church, the city of Sinton stepped in to stop it.

        Now, nearly eight years after then-Gov. George W. Bush endorsed a law to curtail government limits on religious practices, the city's action is the center of a legal case scholars and activists say will test the law and others like it around the country.

        The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether Sinton's zoning ordinance — which prohibited parolees from living within 1,000 feet of churches and therefore shuttered the pastor's program — violated the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

        Oral arguments are expected in March or April.

        The outcome could have a national impact because the Texas law is similar to laws in other states, said Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on religious issues and First Amendment rights.

        Also joining the fight on behalf of the church are the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.

        "It's significant, " said Shackelford, whose organization frequently files lawsuits related to religious freedoms. "What kind of powers does government have to look at a church, say they don't like it, and ban it from the city?"

        In 1999, the Legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act with help from Bush, who held a news conference with various religious groups to support it.

        "This country was founded on the rock of religious freedom," Bush said at the time. "Texas intends to restore it."

        Under the law, state and local governments must show a compelling interest, such as protection of public health or safety, before limiting the practice of religion.

        Supporters said it was designed to tackle such cases as children who were not allowed to make up school work missed for religious holidays or efforts to prevent someone from wearing religious garb into a courtroom.

        In this case, Rick Barr, pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship, had set up his faith-based rehabilitation program for non-violent parolees in 1999 in two homes near his church in Sinton, a few miles north of Corpus Christi.

        City officials then passed an ordinance prohibiting parolees from living within 1,000 feet of a church, a school and other certain areas.

        Barr's lawyers say the ordinance specifically targeted his ministry and effectively prevented him from operating his faith-based program anywhere in the city.

        The city argues the zoning change did not limit religious practice and worship, just where parolees can be housed. A trial judge and appeals court ruled in the city's favor.

        Sinton attorney Carlos Villareal said the courts properly ruled the city had a compelling public safety interest in keeping convicted offenders away from schools, residences and playgrounds.

        "I'm dealing with a two-square-mile town that is trying to protect its citizens and maintain appropriate land use," Villareal said. "It has every right to go in and protect its citizens."

        Barr's supporters worry the appeals court has carved out a broad exemption from the religious freedom law for city zoning. If zoning ordinances, a major enforcement power for cities, are not covered by the law, it is effectively worthless, Shackelford said.

        "Zoning is massive power over churches and ministries," Shackelford said.

        Douglas Laycock, professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan and professor emeritus at the University of Texas, agreed that if the lower court ruling is upheld, "(the law) will hardly ever be applied."

        Two current and former legislators who sponsored the law in 1999 have joined legal briefs supporting the church.

        They argue the Legislature was aware that some "unorthodox" religious practices would need extra protection from zoning ordinances that might stamp them out.

        The law was meant "to give religion a chance against absolute government power to control zoning," the groups said.


        The Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act case is Barr and Philemon Homes, Inc. vs The City of Sinton. case No. 06-0074.

        Religious freedom law

        Helping offenders back into society

        November 29,2006

        Klamath County residents returning to the community after serving a jail or prison sentence will be able to enter a new program to help them reenter society.

        In the past, it wasn't unheard of to have an offender released and returned to the community late in the night with no resources or living arrangements, making it more likely for him or her to revert to bad behavior, said Klamath County Commissioner Al Switzer.

        The county community corrections program will be paid for with a $277,000 federal grant and matching state funds.

        Commissioners accepted the grant Tuesday. The state contributed $98,000 in matching funds, providing a total of about $376,000. Once established, the program would be self-sustaining, said Steve Berger, community corrections director.

        Switzer said he was glad to see the program, partially to make offenders into good citizens, but also to keep costs down from fewer repeat offenders.

        "So much of what is done is a revolving door and it's costly," he said.

        Funded by federal dollars distributed by the state Office of Homeland Security, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Awareness Grant will fund drug and alcohol treatment, job placement and other services to help inmates prepare to enter society once their sentences are fulfilled. An estimated 120 inmates are expected to use the program each year.

        "When they're released and their feet hit the street, they'll be better prepared for the transition," Berger said.

        The grant will allow the Consortium, a local drug treatment program, to maintain a 14-bed minimum security work release program within the community corrections facility on Vandenberg Road.

        Offenders would enter the program three to six months before their release date and access services to adapt to life outside the corrections system.

        Berger said that the "outpatient" aspect of the program began offering services Nov. 1, the same day the grant was formally awarded to the county. The residential portion of the program is expected to begin accepting offenders in February 2007.

        Corrections officials applied for the grant in April and asked for bids from local agencies to conduct the program. The Consortium was the only agency to submit a bid while also being the best suited for the job, Berger said.

        Helping offenders back into society

        Texas law and ex-felons

        In Texas, ex-felons can register to vote if they have finished serving time in prison or are on probation or parole. They are not required to prove eligibility, only affirm it when applying. Not telling the truth is a crime.

        Local county registrars certify voter rolls. Registrars have recently begun using Department of Public Safety felon files and running them against voter registration rolls to ensure the rolls are clean.

        According to the secretary of state's office, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not required to provide counties with a list of 'cleared' or pardoned felons.

        Texas has the same voting rules for ex-offenders for both state and federal crimes. A misdemeanor conviction does not affect the right to vote in Texas.

        Anyone who applies to vote must be at least 18, a U.S. citizen and a Texas resident. Anyone officially declared mentally disabled by a court of law is ineligible.

        Sources: Texas secretary of state's office, Unlock Your Vote Disenfranchisement laws and their impact

        * About 4.7 million Americans have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction.

        * 1.7 million disenfranchised citizens are ex-offenders who have completed their sentences. In 2002, Texas had an estimated 523,000 citizens ineligible to vote because they were serving a felony prison sentence or were on probation or parole.

        * A 1998 report by The Sentencing Project found that 1.4 million African American men were disenfranchised, 13 percent of the eligible black male voting population.

        * About 677,000 women are ineligible to vote as a result of a felony conviction.

        * In 2002, blacks were more than 5 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated in Texas.

        Sources: The Sentencing Project, Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Bureau of Justice and Statistics

        Right To Vote

        Former felons who are "off paper" cannot...

        1. vote in some states
        2. possess firearms
        3. hold a license:
        a. to teach
        b. to practice law
        c. to practice medicine
        d. to barber
        e. to plumb
        4. be a Boy Scout leader
        5. be a CPA
        6. hold public office in
        some cities/counties/states
        7. live in public housing
        8. receive public assistance
        9. live in public housing
        10. work for Target

        Any other "CANNOT"s???


        Local employers find parolees fitting needs
        By: DEE DIXON , The Enterprise

        BEAUMONT - "Now Hiring" signs are a mainstay in area business windows these days, and employers desperate to fill positions are turning to an applicant pool they might have been reluctant to consider before - parolees.

        The number of parolees being placed in jobs has increased in Hurricane Rita's aftermath, said Marilyn Smith, deputy director of the Southeast Texas Workforce Development Board.

        In February, the number of employed ex-cons in a local job program increased to 78 percent. Of 331 ex-cons enrolled in the program, 257 have jobs.

        That is up from October, when about 63 percent of ex-cons enrolled in the state-managed Southeast Texas Workforce Development Project RIO had jobs, Smith said.

        Imogene Chargois, operations manager at the Texas Workforce Centers of Southeast Texas, said ex-cons now are moving into more permanent, long-term positions.

        "It goes back to demand. Employers are trying to meet their needs," Chargois said. "And they are hiring anyone with the skill sets to accomplish whatever tasks are at hand."

        Although employers such as schools and financial institutions are reluctant to hire parolees, Tommy Chamblee, manager of the Metal Depot in Silsbee, is not.

        "I am a believer in second chances," said Chamblee, who said he had brushes with the law when he was younger.

        Both Chamblee, who has no parolees on staff at this time, and Tommy Patrizi, Golden Triangle Cycle Center general manager, have had employees who were on probation. They said they wouldn't discriminate because someone is on parole.

        "That would not be a reason why they would not be hired here," Patrizi said. "We would consider them on their own merits, work history and experience. They are no different than anyone else."

        Efforts to interview an ex-con for this story were unsuccessful.

        The desperate demand for workers is underscored at the Lamar Institute of Technology.

        Calls for prospective employees to LIT have increased about 50 percent, placement coordinator Yolanda Avery estimated. She receives up to 10 calls a day from employers looking to fill clerical, machinist, welding, refinery and accounting positions.

        "Typically I would fill every order that came in, but that has slowed down since the hurricane," Avery said.

        Michelle Lyons, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman, said having a job is key to a parolee staying outside prison walls.

        The number of parolees who return to prison is about 30 percent, according to a state report released in January.

        The report shows that 11,388 of the 40,239 ex-cons, or 28 percent, released in 2001 went back to prison. The figure for inmates released in 2000 was 31 percent, or 11,043 of 35,353 parolees.

        The study also showed that offenders younger than 24 and between the ages of 35 to 39 were most likely to return to prison.

        "It is in everyone's best interest that inmates are given viable job skills while they are in prison," Lyons said. "People have re-offended because they didn't have a means of earning a living."

        There are incentives for hiring parolees.

        In 1966, the U.S. Department of Labor established a Federal Bonding Program to cover "at-risk" job seekers. An at-risk job seeker is someone with a criminal record, a welfare recipient, someone with bad credit or a person who has filed for bankruptcy, according to www.bonds4jobs.com.

        Through the program, employers can get insurance protecting them against employee dishonesty, such as theft, forgery, larceny and embezzlement.

        Employers also can receive tax credits by hiring ex-offenders.

        The bonds4jobs site says a Texas A&M University study found that through Project RIO, ex-offenders reduced their recidivism rate by 40 percent. The study also showed Project RIO saved $10 million a year in re-incarceration costs.

        "Bonding gives an employer an additional level of confidence in the program," TWC spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt said in a telephone interview from Austin. "If we can help them (parolees) get to work, it is a step in the right direction."

        Before inmates are released, Project RIO workers help them with their resumes and deal with their anxiety about answering questions about where they have been.

        (409) 833-3311, ext. 418

        ©The Beaumont Enterprise 2006

        Pilot Program Helps Prepare Inmates for Return to Free World

        Pilot Program Helps Prepare Inmates for Return to Free World Long-term prison inmates coming up for parole are often ill-equipped to return to the free world. A pilot program at a prison in Texas is helping these inmates transition to a life outside of prison walls.

        Lovelady, TX (PRWEB) April 21, 2006 -- Maria (not her real name) had not seen her son for 12 years. But the 80-year-old mother was determined to get to East Texas where her son is an inmate at the Eastham Maximum Security Prison. The only problem was how to get there from her home in California. With no other family or friends to help, she did the only thing she could do. She set out by car-alone-to arrive in time to be with her son for a unique Easter celebration.

        Called the Resurrection Family Celebration, 39 Eastham inmates-each serving sentences of at least 30 years for serious crimes-and 60 of their friends and family members came together in the prison gym on the Saturday before Easter to share a meal, laugh, cry and reconnect. The celebration was part of a new pilot program that helps offenders who are one year from being eligible for parole prepare for their eventual return to the free world. Dr. Paul Carlin conducts the program, known as Criminal Recovery and Relapse Prevention (CRRP). Dr. Carlin developed the program as a way to give serious offenders the tools and support they need to thrive outside the prison environment. The program is based on Belief Therapy, a model Dr. Carlin developed that takes it's name from the premise that people's beliefs directly impact their actions. Dr. Carlin was recently honored with an award from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and a Texas House Resolution for his prison ministry work.

        "We know that to make it on the outside, these men need the help and support of family, friends and the community they'll be returning to," said Dr. Carlin

        Dr. Carlin is also developing a separate program to help parolees better adjust to their new lives. Called Reentry Crisis Counseling, it is a modality aimed at intervening in situations that may result in the parolee being returned to prison.


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        April 14, 2006, 9:36PM
        Getting back on the payroll

        Program run by a Houston church helps ex-cons find jobs, stay out of jail
        Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

        For Don Moore, it's the toughest question on any job application:


        Have you ever been convicted of a felony?

        "Could you see someone in a retail store, where they deal with credit cards, could you see them putting me behind the counter?" asked Moore, whose forgery convictions kept him in prison for more than 15 years.

        Moore went to prison again and again because he thought he could "beat the system." Now that he wants to stay out, the system's been beating him.

        "Of course, I understand it," said Moore, 48. "But there has to be something for a person like me who says, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'"

        For the past three years, he and about 400 other ex-offenders in the Houston area have found help in a quiet neighborhood southwest of downtown. Inside the quaint, two-story building on Isabella, they gather with life-skills and job-training counselors to learn everything from how to write a good résumé to how to dress for an interview. The training is provided through "Moving Forward," a program run by Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church that helps nonviolent ex-offenders get back on a payroll — one of the surest ways to keep them out of prison.

        Moore, who says he would like to drive limousines, was the most enthusiastic participant in a recent Moving Forward job-training class.

        Keeping that momentum isn't easy, but he said the course has given him hope.

        Facing obstacles

        Latreca Shepherd, 30, knows that not even a college degree masks the stain she put on her résumé with several minor theft and escape convictions. Now on parole, she has an electronic monitor strapped on one ankle.

        "I can't wear skirts, 'cause they'd be looking at me, going 'She's got to be a bad person to have that on her leg,' " said Shepherd, who was released in December and is now an office assistant at Moving Forward.

        About 17,000 prisoners released this year statewide are expected to come to Houston, program officials say.

        National statistics suggest that two in five could return to prison within three years.

        But for those who want change, finding a job, one of the most important steps to re-entering society, is one of the toughest.

        "There's no sense of urgency to address this plight,"said Frederick Davie, president-elect of the public policy firm that designed Ready4Work, the national program of which Moving Forward is a part.

        Ready4Work is a three-year, $24 million demonstration project that has served more than 4,300 inmates in 12 states through local faith- based communities.

        Sixty-four percent of national Ready4Work participants find work, and more than two-thirds of those keep their jobs at least three consecutive months, officials said. On average, the program costs $4,500 per participant, while reincarceration costs taxpayers $25,000 to $40,000 a year.

        $50 and bus ticket

        More than 32,000 prisoners were enrolled in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice job training, placement and education program earlier this year.

        But most state assistance stops at the prison gate. Prisoners get $50, a bus ticket and the promise of another $50 when they report to their parole officer on the day of their release.

        "It's a constant struggle for them. They're ex-offenders. Doors are closed in their face," said David Russell, who served more than nine years in prison for burglary and now heads job placement for Moving Forward.

        Russell said that, when he talks with potential employers about hiring ex-offenders, he wears a suit and asks if they would be willing to hire him.

        "They look at me and say, 'Yes, of course.' And I tell them, 'Well, I'm an ex-offender.'"

        A number of local companies have signed on, including a scaffolding company that hired 18 program participants.

        Program to expand

        National funding for Ready4Work sites expires in August, but a $660,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor will allow the Houston program to expand. The site on Isabella can handle 150 clients at a time, but the expansion will make room for 200 more, plus four new staff members, said co-director Catheryn Longino.

        Moore started building ambulances for a local company last Monday. It's a long way from driving limousines, but he's grateful. He remembers being in a prison cell, missing out on his four children's lives. "It's not normal for a child to take her first steps to her dad in a prison visiting room," he said. He added that he will never let himself return to prison, but he's not ready to make yet another promise to his family. "I want to say it in my actions," he said.


        This article is: Click Here

        Transitioning Ex-Offenders into Jobs and Society

        By Hugh B. Price
        Special to washingtonpost.com
        Monday, April 10, 2006; 12:00 AM

        These days many governors face a conundrum that is taxing their cost-cutting creativity. State revenues are climbing steadily, but the top line growth is eclipsed by soaring Medicaid outlays, surging retirement obligations, declining state pension fund assets and, in some states, court-mandated increases in public school funding. The pressure is so acute that state officials are now thinking the previously unthinkable -- releasing inmates early to trim their prison and jail population.

        The war on crime launched two decades ago spawned a wave of tougher sentencing laws. This in turn triggered a steep surge in expenditures on prisons to accommodate the influx of offenders, even including nonviolent drug offenders and recidivists snared for minor crimes by the likes of California's "Three Strikes and You're Out" law. As a result, the nation's prisons are overflowing with nonviolent felons who languish behind bars many years longer than are necessary to see the error of their ways and pay their debt to society. And state expenditures on corrections have climbed by 24 percent alone in the past five years.

        Excessive incarceration saddles taxpayers and government with housing, feeding and guarding prisoners well beyond the point when there's any point at all. Once they've done their time, many inmates emerge from incarceration bereft of jobs, housing, money and hope. This marks them from the outset as prime candidates for recidivism. Ironically, the pressure to curb corrections expenditures has spurred state and federal officials to embrace prisoner re-entry programs, such as family assistance, housing aid, mental health services, education services and, of course, job training.

        These welcome initiatives beg the question, though, of whether ex- offenders actually will be able to land jobs. To be realistic, they rarely leap to the head of the applicant queue in the eyes of employers. When the labor market is very tight, some venturesome employers take a chance on ex-inmates as a last resort. But they're the laudable exception, seldom the rule.

        The travails of ex-offenders trying to find jobs ricochet all over society. They're in a miserable position upon release to support themselves and fulfill any child support obligations. Unable to secure jobs, they cannot burnish their credentials as trustworthy workers. Idle except for the shadowy underground economy, many eventually revert to criminality because there's little where else for them to fit.

        A soundly conceived transitional jobs program could help steer motivated ex-offenders down a constructive path and better position them to persuade employers that they're a safe bet. But where on earth, would the money to finance it come from?

        The answer may lie right under government's nose, namely in the massive appropriations for the corrections system. The wages and supervisory costs for a minimum wage public service job total considerably less than the per inmate cost of incarceration. Voila! Releasing carefully screened inmates several years early to participate in a well-run transitional employment program could get them back on track and plow savings back to the government in the bargain.

        As with many new ideas, there are many knotty issues to be resolved, preferably by launching this on a pilot basis. For instance, how would inmates qualify? For a year or more prior to their expected release, they might be required to demonstrate exemplary behavior, plus perform admirably in rehabilitation and training programs inside prison.

        Who would they work for? I envision the corrections department contracting with other government agencies, like the highway, public works and environmental protection departments, and with reputable nonprofit groups that can provide credible training and supervision.

        What kind of work would they do? To minimize static from unions understandably protective of their jobs, the ex-offenders could perform tasks that government clearly cannot afford, as evidenced by the fact that the work goes undone for years on end. Clearing, grooming and maintaining unsightly mass transit rights of way, viaducts and waterfronts are visible examples of unattended public work. The higher profile the assignments, the more taxpayers will value the debt to society being paid by the ex-offenders via their work and see the payoff from early release employment programs.

        The jobs might last for up to one year. After all, the aim is to ease their transition to the labor market, not shelter them forever from reality. Supervision, to fine tune work habits and skills, and support, with resume preparation and job search, are indispensable program ingredients.

        And what if they regress? Tiny infractions like occasional tardiness ought not to trigger severe punishment. But if workers fail to participate conscientiously or commit crimes, they should be remanded to prison to serve out their terms. Early release with guaranteed employment isn't an opportunity to be trifled with.

        Policymakers must think out of the box in order for ex-offenders to avert the trap of perpetual unemployment. Converting otherwise wasted years behind bars into transitional jobs based on good behavior will transform the debt they've paid to society into a dividend for society.

        X X X

        Hugh Price is Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former president of the National Urban League.

        © 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


        Nov. 26, 2005, 1:02AM
        Felons' view of freedom often rosier than reality

        Many coming to Houston find a struggle they're not prepared for, survey indicates

        By PEGGY O'HARE
        Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

        Larquonelius Roberts was released from prison almost two years ago, but he's still living with his mother and struggling to find what he considers respectable employment.

        Although he earns $5.15 an hour on such jobs as digging ditches and unloading trucks, he knows he must aim higher to be self-sufficient. He wants to build his credit. He dreams of going to college.

        "I knew it was going to be hard, but not this hard," said Roberts, 23, of Houston, who served a 7 1/2 -year sentence for aggravated assault. "I'm going on being out two years now, but I still don't have a real job. I just need a job. I'm just asking for one shot."

        Roberts is facing obstacles that are typical for most ex-convicts, who leave one struggle behind as they walk out of prison, only to find a new one awaiting them.

        And in the case of Texas prison inmates returning to the Houston area, a recent study indicates the struggle may be even harder, with many of them emotionally unprepared for the challenges they face.

        Inmates' expectations

        Researchers for the nonpartisan policy research group the Urban Institute interviewed 676 inmates shortly before their release from prisons and state jails and found most thought it would be "easy" to support themselves, renew family relationships and stay out of trouble. The group comprised 414 men and 262 women who planned to return to Houston.

        The reality that awaits ex-convicts is much harsher, experts say.

        Many find that prospective employers are reluctant to give people with felony records a chance to prove themselves, and finding rental properties that will allow felons to sign a lease can be even tougher. Also, experts say, family members long separated from them by steel bars may not be willing to reconnect.

        But one Urban Institute researcher said the inmates' optimism is simply human nature. "I really do believe they have every hope and every intent of making it this time," said Nancy La Vigne, one of the study's authors. "The disconnect comes after release, when they have no support system."

        Researchers found 71 percent of those surveyed expected to support themselves easily, although only 15 percent had jobs waiting for them. Most acknowledged they would need help with education, job training, money, transportation and health care.

        The study also found that 79 percent expected it to be easy to renew family relationships. As many as 63 percent expected to live with their families and 54 percent said they would rely on loved ones for financial support.

        A large majority also expected to avoid future trouble, including 84 percent who said it would be easy to stay out of prison.

        Support system needed

        The findings don't match up with former inmates' recidivism rates, La Vigne said.

        "Expectations are high, yet they're not really consistent with what we know," she said. "Right before release, they're in a place where they are open to assistance ..."

        Inmates nearing release need counseling and other support systems to help them understand that the transition to freedom won't be easy, she said.

        In addition to programs offered in prison, help is available to former inmates through such sources as their parole officers and the Texas Workforce Commission, said Andy Kahan, a former parole officer who directs the Mayor's Crime Victims Assistance Center.

        Most of those surveyed were not newcomers to the criminal justice system. Nearly two-thirds had been convicted more than once and 35 percent were serving time for a parole or probation violation.

        Like Roberts, Earnest M. Thomas,61, has struggled to rebuild his life since his January release after serving 23 years for aggravated robbery. His challenges aren't posed by lack of education. During his imprisonment, Thomas earned a master's degree in humanities, took a computer class and taught himself Spanish. Still, he is searching for steady work. He believes his age and his record ó "the X on my back" ó are hindering his quest for a job. When he applied recently at a sanitation company for the lowest positions available, he said, "they just shook their heads."

        Inmates 'not being honest'

        Roberts, Thomas and those who work with inmates question whether the responses to the survey reflect most inmates' true expectations.

        "Those prisoners that gave those answers were not being honest," said Dr. Paul W. Carlin Sr., of Crockett, who ran an assistance program in Houston in the 1990s called the Association of X Offenders. "The truth is, they will not be accepted by society. The truth is, they will need help getting a job and getting a place to live," said Carlin, who said he has counseled thousands of inmates. "And the truth is, they will need help to re-establish a healthy relationship with their family."

        Such optimism about the free world is not uncommon, Carlin said. Some, he said, "think they're going to get the ideal job, live in the ideal apartment, and the world is going to slow down for them to get on."

        That attitude is more typical among first-time offenders, observers say. Those who have been to prison more than once are more pessimistic, say ex-offenders such as Roberts and Thomas.

        "A lot of doors are slammed in our faces. A lot of employers don't want us to work for them," said Roseanna "Rosey" Ruiz, manager of Houston Mayor Bill White's re-entry program for ex-offenders. "There is a lot of fear."

        Success stories

        There also are thousands of success stories, Ruiz says, including her own. Before straightening out her life, she says, she was arrested 14 times and sent to prison twice. A veteran of four treatment programs, the recovering addict says she has been drug-free for 11 years and is a longtime volunteer in the prison system.

        After earning certification as a licensed chemical dependency counselor, she received her bachelor's degree, graduating with honors from the University of Houston-Downtown. She went on to earn a master's degree from the UH Graduate School of Social Work, graduating with high honors.

        Ruiz, who helped launch the re-entry program in the mayor's Citizens' Assistance Office four years ago, says she fields about 200 calls a week from former inmates trying to rebuild their lives in the Houston area. Now she is trying to launch an ex-offenders' support group. "There are tons of us out here: good, hardworking, positive people that are tired of living that negative lifestyle," she said. "So many of us are turning this thing around." But that isn't easy, she adds.

        Preparation starts inside

        She urges inmates to start preparing themselves while still locked up, taking classes on cognitive intervention and parenting, as well as attending groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

        A resilient attitude also helps, because rejection will come in abundance, whether from family, employers or housing owners, experts say.

        Many of those released from prison ó especially those with long criminal histories ó are tired of the consequences of their behavior and want productive lives, but can't find anyone willing to give them a chance, Ruiz said.

        "What a lot of these people are seeking is stability in their lives," she said. "... A lot more needs to be done to help them."

        More social services also are needed, Ruiz and others say. "If they have zero to come out to," said Chuck Hurt, a former board member with the Texas Inmate Families Association, "then their chances of success are very slim."

        _peggy.ohare@chron.com_ (mailto:peggy.ohare@chron.com)

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