President Obama will call attention to criminal justice reformers tomorrow night in his State of the Union address, based on people invited to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama. “You know I’m an ex-felon,” one invitee, Sue Ellen Allen of Arizona, told a staffer of Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett who called, reports the Arizona Republic. He did. That’s why she got the call to attend. Allen founded Gina’s Team, a non-profit helping women transition out of prison, with an emphasis on education. She started the effort after serving time for securities fraud. She named the group after her cellmate, who died of leukemia. Allen said education is a necessity for making it after prison. She was shocked by what she saw behind bars, saying her white, middle-class background didn’t prepare her for demeaning treatment of inmates. “I thought, ‘Not in my country, we don’t treat people that way,'” said Allen, 64. “But we do.”
In prison, an inmate can buy 10 packs of cigarette a week from the prison store, but at the time could own only seven books. “You can smoke yourself to death, but reading is discouraged,” she said. She appealed to officials, who raised the book limit to 10. Her program has 594 graduates, of whom 365 have been released and 35 have returned to prison. That’s a 9.5 percent recidivism rate, compared with national rates of 67 percent after three years out. Shelby County, Tn., Mayor Mark Luttrell was also invited because of his work in criminal -justice reform, reports the Memphis Commercial Appeal. As mayor, Luttrell helped create specialty courts to handle mental health and veterans’ cases and provide resources for rehabilitation instead of incarceration. Shelby County’s new mental health court launched just this month.