Nov. 18 2008 07:58 PM

Nonprofit coalition aims to help parolees avoid returning to prison


Sitting in her tidy, one-bedroom City Heights apartment, Robin Scott tries to remember how many times she's gone to prison.

“Eight times, maybe nine,” she says. “I think I lost count.”

The former crack addict barely looks her 47 years, save for a tiny patch of gray in her close-cropped hair. But it's been two decades since her first prison stint, which began when she was 27.

“I'd stay out for two, maybe three years, five years, but I always started using again,” she says.

Back in 2006, Scott entered prison for what she's decided will be the last time. That year, she was among 90,000 inmates making a return trip—more than 67 percent of the state's total inmate population. California's recidivism rate has declined since hitting a peak in 1989—when nearly nine out of 10 prisoners went back—but there are far more people in prison now than there were back then. Last year, 92,819 people were sent back to prison—a new record for California, which has the highest recidivism rate in the country.

“Every time I go back to prison, it's the same cycle of girls doing the same thing, trying to be tough, and that ain't no life,” Scott says. This time around, she realized how tired she was—tired of doing drugs and tired of going back to prison: “Tired of doing the same old stuff and getting the same results.”

Only a few months out of rehab, Scott has her own carpet-cleaning business. She earns extra income caring for her elderly aunt and doing part-time janitorial work at a local church. When she's not working, she's taking classes at San Diego City College, and next semester, she'll begin studying to become a certified substance-abuse counselor.

In mid October, Scott sat at the end of a long table on the sixth floor of the Price Charities building in City Heights. Earlier that day, she'd gotten a new set of teeth—eight of hers had been pulled in prison, a consequence of drug abuse. “They don't fill [cavities] in prison or in jail,” she explained. For the first time in years, she was able to smile without wanting to cover her mouth with her hand.

For the past several months, she'd been part of a committee of more than a dozen people, most employed by social-services agencies that work with the formerly incarcerated. Many of them had, like Scott, spent time behind bars. The committee, brought together by San Diego Grantmakers, an umbrella group for nonprofits, had been asked to draw on their experiences to come up with a model prisoner re-entry program. To a room filled with family members of prisoners, service providers and law-enforcement staff, the committee presented the product of their meetings.

Called “Coming Home to Stay,” the program model touches on every possible aspect of a returning prisoner's life—what it takes, step-by-step, to help someone successfully transition from prison to the outside world, from pre-release to post-release to several years out. The model addresses barriers to fulfilling a person's obvious needs—housing, healthcare and employment—but also the not-so-obvious needs.

As one service-provider pointed out, almost two-thirds of his clients leave prison with no form of identification. “You can't get a Social Security card without a picture I.D.; you can't get a picture I.D. without a birth certificate—and it's expensive,” he said. Scott, who had a DUI on her record but needed to be able to drive to get her carpet-cleaning job up and running, relied on the assistance of three different agencies to clear all the hurdles to getting her license back. “Recidivism is right there waiting if people get frustrated and go back to whatever lifestyle they were doing before,” said Robert Tambuzi, executive director of the United African American Ministerial Action Council (UAAMAC) and a committee member.

Coming Home to Stay isn't a new program, but, rather, an effort to strengthen the network of programs and services that already exist, said Linda Lloyd, vice president of programs for the Alliance Healthcare Foundation, one of Coming Home to Stay's funders. “Increasing coordination and reducing barriers” is how she put it. “How do we work together to create a system of care for a population that has more barriers than others?”

Coming Home to Stay's funding will come entirely from the private sector. Nonprofit foundations like The California Endowment, Price Charities and the Parker Foundation have committed to getting the program up and running. The goal is to hire a program coordinator in the next few months and eventually create a one-stop-shopping resource center, Lloyd said. “We see this as a broad community approach,” she said. “Otherwise, nothing's going to change.”

The initial focus, said Steve Eldred, program officer for The California Endowment, will be on 50 to 100 parolees returning to City Heights and Southeast San Diego, where rates of incarceration are disproportionately high. A number of studies have found that in communities with high rates of incarceration, the threat of prison, over time, fails to act as a deterrent and instead is seen as an inevitability. Studies have found that 70 percent of children with an incarcerated parent will end up behind bars, too.

“The more people you incarcerate, you lose that public-safety protective benefit, and before too long, you actually see a worsening crime rate,” Eldred said. “And, because you've taken so many people in their productive years out of a community, it's not economically viable anymore—the social networks are damaged, [and there are] family impacts. It's a strategy that, in the long run, does more harm to the community than good.”

If it's difficult for the public to grasp the community benefit of prison re-entry reform, there's a more pragmatic way to look at it: “It's astronomically expensive to keep somebody incarcerated,” Eldred said, “and all the costs related to that. There will be tax savings for every person who can stay back in the community once they return.”

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the cost to keep one person in prison for one year has grown to $46,104. Once a person's released, the state spends only about $4,100 per person on supervision. Significantly, the majority of people who return to prison do so within 18 months of release, while still under state supervision.

“You have 10,000 [parolees] per month for the state of California,” said Scott Silverman, executive director of Second Chance, a nonprofit that works with the formerly incarcerated. They have “no money, no I.D., no real places to go, no improved self-esteem, no substance-abuse treatment of any measurable amount and potentially no family or friends waiting for them. It's just like walking into a forest fire with a squirt gun. That's the kind of defense you have. Corrections spends $10 billion to keep them inside and maybe $10 million to try to keep them from coming back. That's gotta change.”

In 2005, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis worked with state Sen. Jackie Speier on Senate Bill 618, a program that links up prisoners with services from the time they enter prison through post-release. So far, the program is offered only in San Diego County at R.J. Donovan prison in Otay Mesa and is limited to nonviolent offenders who have to enroll when they're first sentenced. Out of 100 people who've completed the program, only six have re-offended or violated terms of parole, Dumanis said. SB 618 relies on the state for funding, though, and last year, CDCR balked on funding the behavioral-health component of the program.

“Right now, as we know, the prison system does not have enough programming to go around to give people the tools to get out and to change their lives,” Dumanis said. “One way or another, they're coming out into our communities, and if we do nothing, they will commit more crimes, they will victimize more people and they will end up back in state prison.”

A 2003 study of California's parole system found that roughly 80 percent of people coming out of prison have a substance-abuse problem. While CDCR's made it a goal to provide more in-custody services, this year's budget figures show that the state funded fewer than 10,000 treatment slots (out of a prison population of roughly 170,000).

Within a prison system that's 193 percent over capacity, inmates who are focused on cleaning up their lives often struggle to do it within a larger population where drug use is rampant.

“It's kind of like living with an alcoholic and trying to be new in recovery,” Silverman pointed out. “If you've got a bottle of booze on every table in the house and you've got 30 days sober, the odds are you're going to get drunk. So that's what happens with treatment on the inside.”

As for treatment for parolees, the state pays for roughly 3,000 post-release slots, leaving it up to counties and nonprofits to fill the gaps.

If “rehabilitation” is going to be right there in the name of the department, UAAMAC's Tambuzi said, it shouldn't be given such short shrift. “I can't ever say ‘rehabilitation' because it's a joke,” he said.

Tambuzi and his staff got permission from CDCR to go to Donovan to talk to prisoners about their programs, to try to get people focused on what they're going to do upon release. But, in order to do that, they had to sign a waiver acknowledging CDCR's “no hostages” policy. In other words, if a fight breaks out, the UAAMAC staff would be considered part of the prison population, Tambuzi said. “Even the brave people are going to have some trouble. They give you two lines to write a message to your next of kin. Now, that's a harsh thing. You can't tell people not to go, but you certainly can create some barriers.”

Robin Scott enrolled in a treatment program while in prison and, when she was released, entered an inpatient program. She followed that with outpatient treatment and moved into a sober-living facility—she knew she couldn't return to the same places and hang out with the same people who were part of her life as a crack addict. She stuck to a chart she'd drawn up while she was still in prison that listed her priorities.

“I put family, recovery, spirituality, recreation, education, career, and I put in those boxes what I wanted to do with myself. I did everything that I needed to do, but the main thing I think that helped me is I utilized every resource they had. People tell me something about a resource, and I run to it.”

Even now, she structures her day-to-day life on sheets of paper that she carries with her at all times. She realizes that not everyone possesses the same sort of determination and focus and that hers comes largely from years of trying and failing.

“I wish I had somebody to help me when I was younger, like right there,” she said.

“There are so many layers of challenges that it's remarkable when somebody does succeed in staying out,” Eldred said. “In California, that's only 30 percent of the population that's successful in doing that. But we know that there are other places, particular types of programs where they have a 70-percent success rate rather than a 30-percent success rate. So there are things that can be done. Nobody's found a way to be successful with everybody, but the difference between 30 percent and 70 percent is huge.”    

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