BY AMANDA BEAM
In jails and prisons across Indiana, as the clock strikes midnight, men and women who have served their sentences walk from the confines of these locked doors to re-enter society.
Many swear they’ll never be back.
But don’t think these stories always have happy endings. From finding gainful employment to adjusting to long-forgotten freedoms, life can be tough after incarceration. It can be so difficult, in fact, that within three years of their release, half of these inmates will be convicted of another crime. When all is said and done, more than 25 percent will actually return to prison.
The United States has found itself a niche in the jailing business. Out of 100,000 citizens, roughly 700 are imprisoned at a given time, the highest rate of any country in the world. According to William Farrell, professor of criminal justice at Indiana University Southeast, incarcerating nonviolent offenders only exasperates the problem.
“The trend over the last 40 years or so has been get tough on crime, and the war on drugs is a part of that. The way this has manifested itself is in large-scale incarceration. We incarcerate five times as many people now as we did in 1980,” Farrell said.
Amazingly, the number of violent offenders imprisoned hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. In fact, it’s stayed the same. What has increased is the number of first-time, nonviolent drug users.
“That’s a problem because for these people, prison seems to make them worse. And we incarcerate them for very long periods of time with very little to do, which means when they get out, they’re still drug-dependent,” Farrell said. “But now they have two problems: they’re drug addicts and they’re ex-cons.”
Clark County Circuit Court Judge Dan Moore understands the difficulties those recently released from prison face. Despite his and probation officer Denise Poukish’s efforts to help former inmates adapt, the recidivism rates are troubling.
Cash-strapped counties do what they can despite limited resources and heavy caseloads. Risk assessments aid in identifying potential problems, but funds and time to provide the programs aren’t always easy to come by.
“We can pinpoint where the needs are now. But the problem is it’s the time.” Poukish said. “When you’re sitting on a caseload of 200 offenders, it’s nearly impossible with all the other responsibilities probation has, and the courts too, to spend that time with them.”
Moore said unfunded state mandates don’t make matters any easier.
During the past few legislative sessions, he said the Indiana General Assembly has attempted to divert some of the state prison population to the county level. Overcrowding continues to be a concern for many corrections agencies. Yet, Moore laments that no money nor additional resources accompany the shift.
“Funding is going to be the name of the game,” Moore said. “Prisoner management is really becoming a big part of our job. We’re really hoping the money will follow the order right down I-65 [from Indianapolis] so the county can be helped.”
Fewer funding options can affect local programs. Clark and Floyd counties have only a couple of treatment facilities to treat alcohol and drug dependencies. Hindering matters more, Louisville programs cannot be used due to federal laws on sentencing and jurisdiction.
Research shows those participating in addiction programs both during and after prison are three times less likely to be arrested than those not receiving therapy. Adding to the appeal, treatment programs are considerably less expensive than incarceration, sometimes amounting to only a third of the cost of imprisonment. Random drug testing by the courts also provides accountability to the newly released.
Considering a 2010 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 65 percent of inmates in America met the medical criteria for substance abuse addiction yet only 11 percent receive treatment during incarceration, lack of therapy options can cause major roadblocks to effective re-entry.
“You have to put money into the re-entry process to help them succeed, which in the long run saves money because they’re not going back to prison,” Farrell said. “People want to help and we know how to help. We need resources to do it. But understand giving these resources is just not politically popular.”
While treating addiction lowers the recidivism rate, finding a job still remains one of the fundamental factors to a released inmate’s long-term success. Courts stress its importance as well, normally making it a mandatory element of probation.
In addition, some prisoners must pay back the county or state for their treatment plans and court fees. Inability to find work, and thus earn money, can make these requisites difficult to accomplish.
In a Population Reference Bureau article, authors Tyjen Tsai and Paola Scommegna paint a picture of the schooling of an average prisoner. Most have the education level of a 10th grader with 70 percent having failed to obtain a high school diploma. Both realities only hurt the released prisoner’s chances of finding a job.
While in the final months of prison, the Indiana Department of Correction does work with the men and women on gathering important documents like state-issued IDs or birth certificates that might make finding employment a little easier. Job training and other educational programs are available, too, depending on the amount of time of the sentence and the holding facility.
“I think the key thing is employment. If they don’t have the financial means to support themselves, they’re going to revert to criminal activity,” Moore said. “If you really look at the big picture here, you’re missing a lot of the potential employment pool that might be good employees because they have to [be]. We’re holding them accountable.”
Yet all the preparation in the world doesn’t mean a released prisoner will actually find a job in the outside world — especially in the current economic environment. By law, they must disclose a felony convictions by checking a box on applications. Despite employer tax incentives and other enticements given by the state, stigmas remain.
“It’s becoming much more select in this current job market. Employers can be selective. Jobs are hard to find for the normal guy that has a skill set and no felony conviction,” Moore said.
Still, Poukish compiles a list of employers in the area willing to hire felons and recently released offenders. New legislation recently passed by the Indiana General Assembly would also provide some relief by allowing an avenue for some nonviolent class D felonies and other misdemeanor convictions to be expunged from records after certain criteria had been met.
Life after prison goes on for those who figure out how to make it work. Community and family support also can help. Yet Farrell said there’s no one-size-fits-all model. Different types of people require different types of programs. For local government, the challenge is to convince lawmakers to fund these initiatives.
“The distinction must lie in where the legislature is taking us,” Moore said. “Leadership from them is everything.”
WHAT’S IN THE WORKS
In April, legislation sponsored by State Sen. Brent Steele to update Indiana’s felony code passed through the General Assembly. It changed Indiana’s four classes of lettered felonies from A-D to six numerical categories listed as 1-6.
Steele said the legislation will ultimately reduce prison costs; however, it doesn’t take effect until next July. In the interim, another committee has been assigned to review the legislation as well as issues surrounding prison expenses including the costs to local governments.
State Sen. Ron Grooms, R-Jeffersonville, said with more state prisoners being shifted to local jails, counties will have to absorb more costs in the beginning until existing legislation can be reviewed and perhaps improved upon.
“The prison population is going to change. Some counties will be impacted more than others,” Grooms said. “It’s an ongoing issue and I think it’s something that we’ll continue to discuss. And I’m watching it. It’s got my attention.”
— Staff Writer Daniel Suddeath contributed to this report.