When he got out of prison on Feb. 25, 2002, Mike Medina had finished serving a 5-year sentence for selling drugs. He had $42.78 in his pocket. He had no job, no place to stay, no particular prospects, and ended up in a forbidding homeless shelter in Brooklyn, Newsday reports.
Medina got lucky. Seventeen months later, aided by a chance conversation that helped place him in an unusual housing program geared to ex-offenders, he has stayed clean and established a fragile handhold on a life outside of prison. He has found a job in a new program that meets the buses full of released prisoners that arrive from Rikers Island every weekday night in Queens.
Medina’s help came from the Fortune Society, a Manhattan-based group that has been working on prison issues since the late 1960s. Its latest projects – a 59-bed home for ex-offenders in upper Manhattan, and the Rikers outreach project -reflect innovations drawing increased attention as the nation tries to figure out ways of decreasing recidivism among the surge of ex-offenders leaving jail. “This isn’t a situation where no one knows what works,” says JoAnn Page, the Fortune Society’s director. “It’s a situation where little, little things do a lot of good.”
One key is better planning before prisoners are released. To varying degrees, many states provide some resources inside prison to help prisoners prepare. But experimentation is focusing on improving the quality and intensity of that experience. The Vera Institute of Justice in New York has completed a yearlong project targeting a small group of prisoners scheduled for release for two months of concentrated preparation. In Project Greenlight, prisoners’ families, parole officers, jobs counselors and drug treatment providers were brought in for one-on-one planning sessions with inmates. Counselors work to solve problems – with housing, for example – before a prisoner is released.
Another experiment, the Harlem Re-entry Court, brings together threads of new thinking on the role parole supervision should play in managing the rising tide of ex-cons after they get out. Nationally, approaches vary. Some states – notably California – police heavily, supervising more than 95 percent of released prisoners, and ultimately nearly 80 percent return to jail for violations or arrests, or abscond. Other states, such as Massachusetts, take a looser approach, eliminating parole for minor offenders, supervising fewer than 50 percent, and only 20 percent are unsuccessful in completing their terms of supervision.
The variations reflect uncertainty about whether society wants to help, police or ignore ex-offenders. “It’s mission confusion,” says Jeremy Travis, who studies parole trends at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. Re-entry courts, championed by Attorney General Janet Reno at the end of the Clinton administration, are testing a new model. They are neighborhood-based; the Harlem program handles only parolees in three nearby police precincts. Supervision is more intense than traditional parole. Two parole officers at the Harlem court have lower than average caseloads, and social workers aid participants in working through problems. It uses an administrative judge to serve as a buffer between the parole officer and the ex-con, adding balance and an aura of importance to the process.