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October 8, 2010 / sadhbhanu

Thomas Person: from prison to personhood

See original article in the Guardian

I met a man recently who called himself Thomas Person, as in “I’m a person too.” He had just been released from prison and was attending the initiation into a programme devised by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J Hynes called ComALERT (Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together), which is designed to help prevent people like him who have done time from doing time again. Around six out of 10 prisoners nationwide end up back in prison within a few years of their release for parole violations or for committing a new offence; and their numbers are burdening the overcrowded and increasingly unaffordable US prison system.

When Thomas explained his circumstances to me, it became clear why this is the case. His first prison term was a two-year sentence for drugdealing. The second time he found himself in the dock, he received a ten-year sentence for assault. He was released on parole after serving four years, three months and three days of that sentence, and hopes that his prison days are behind him. He’s 50 years old now and he’s ready for a decent life. The thing is that without an extensive network of support upon his release, his chances are pretty slim.

Each year, over half a million people are released from state and federal prisons in the United States, and their needs when they re-enter society are great. According to DA Hynes:

“All carry the stigma of at least one, and often more than one, criminal conviction. About half have not graduated high school. Over two thirds have engaged in substance abuse. Many were unemployed before incarceration and have no job to go to upon their release.”

When you factor in lack of family support, mental health issues, the debilitating effect of the prison experience and now the recession, it’s easy to see why these individuals are unable to make it on the outside.

At the ComALERT initiation where I met Thomas, the soul-destroying aspect of doing time was all too plain to see. The parolees, who were all male and all black, looked physically and mentally worn out. Despite the best efforts of the staff involved to encourage them, many remained slumped over their seats, jaded and withdrawn. But according to the programme director John Chaney, this does change. Once the prisoners are assigned their individual counsellors and become aware of the possibilities of the well-integrated program which partners with organisations like the Doe Fund, which helps them find jobs and housing, they “begin to perk up”.

Statistically, this claim is borne out. According to a Harvard evaluation of ComALERT’s progress, the rate of recidivism for graduates falls to 2.5 out of 10, as opposed to the nationally accepted rate of six out of 10. The problem is that despite the programme’s cost-effectiveness – it requires only about $1,000 per prisoner – the programme only has funding to service about one third of the prisoners who are released back into Brooklyn each year. As DA Hynes put it, “there is always more money for prisons but never enough for programmes that keep people out of prison.”

Because we are locked in this mindset, we are now in a situation where the US has the highest rates of incarceration on the planet – around five times the world’s average. Thanks to the implementation of “tough on crime” policies, such as the three strikes law and mandatory minimums, which went into effect three decades ago, our prison population is now 240% higher than it was in 1980. By 2008, there were over 2.3 million Americans in prison and the cost of keeping them there is crippling state and federal budgets. California now spends 11% of its state budget on incarceration – more than it spends on public education.

The thing is, whether we like it or not, eventually the majority of prisoners are going to be released and will once again be walking among us. As Chaney put it:

“From the standpoint of public safety, it is irresponsible not to include a re-entry program into the law enforcement equation. If you want the neighborhood to be safer, you have to address the needs of the people who are coming home and 95% of those who are incarcerated will be coming home.”

There is an altruistic reason, too, to move away from the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” culture that has been prevalent in America for the last 30 years. The impact of incarceration on communities, families and individuals is devastating. This was all too evident when speaking to Thomas, who told me, “I’m tired of being a nobody.”

“Well, I was never a nobody,” he corrected himself, “but that’s how I’m looked on. Now I want to make a difference.” Luckily for him, he’s in a place where that is a possibility. Would that the same could be said for the hundreds of thousands of other former convicts with similar aspirations.

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