Reentry and Recidivism: How to Fix the Jails and Prisons

Posted on September 29, 2015

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Normally I gloss over, my eyes grow dim, and my mind wanders if I try to read an article in the newspaper about budgets. I simply cannot imagine millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions, and finally trillions of dollars. You might as well be writing about the stars and galaxies. I know they are real, but I simply cannot get my peanut-sized brain and imagination around them.

I can get a grip on a hundred dollar bill, or a bill from Alabama Power Co. in the summertime for maybe seven hundred dollars. I live in an old home with lots of leaky windows and not enough air conditioning power for all the additions my wife has made.

Now I read that the Governor and Legislature is agonizing (I don’t know how else to describe their interaction) over how to deal with the problem of a growing prison population that has stretched the prison system far beyond its planned capacity. They want tens of millions to fix it. More prisons, upgrades, more guards, etc. etc.

I have a stake in all this. I have been going into the Tuscaloosa County Jail now for fifteen years in a Christian ministry that I share with many brothers and sisters. One learns a bit from the constant interaction with the inmates on a weekly basis.

The answer to crowded and dangerous prisons Dr. Bentley and esteemed members of the Legislature is not throwing more money at it. I am not a lawyer or a politician, but I have a news flash.

The answer is reducing the astonishing rate of recidivism and returning ex-jail inmates and prisoners to a normal life, thereby reducing the costs to the State by those tens of millions of dollars you want to assign to “reform” the prisons of Alabama. Making more cells and hiring more guards is the proverbial band aid over a deadly cancer in our society. You deal with the cancer directly.

The cancer among our prison population is drugs and alcohol. Somewhere between seventy and ninety percent of those in jail are in jail and prison because of drug and alcohol-related usage and addiction, or substance abuse in the argot of the specialists.

And the rate of recidivism, or those who are returned to jail and prisons a second, third, fourth or more times hover around seventy percent here and nationwide.

The answer is so simple and intuitive that perhaps it is beyond our politicians who are constantly running for re-election, are often easy targets for powerful lobbyists with deep pockets, and seem to have lost the capacity to think for themselves honestly.

Return these thousands—and millions if we speaking nationally—of prisoners to work, rather than send them back to prisons, and you will see the prison population dramatically fall and the restorative power of reentry and rehabilitation programs will run through our State like an elixir, not a cancer.

How to do this? You may be thinking: can we really change patterns of life and behavior among a hard bitten population that ends up in jails and prisons?
The answer is yes, it has been done, and we can do it right here in Tuscaloosa County and be a model program for the rest of the State.

A program that started in Florida more than three decades ago, Bridges of America, has done it in Florida and dozens of other states. They have come into communities and reduced the rates of recidivism by half or more. The savings to the communities and states is in the millions by reducing the population in the jails and prisons and restoring ex-inmates to productive and useful lives.

It is not easy. It takes funding. It takes commitment. Not everyone is saved from self-destructive lives. But it works. It takes the cooperation of not only public entities (Mayors’ offices, District Attorneys, the Courts, law enforcement, etc.) but the private sector and the faith-based communities as well. The latter, especially, has to be involved.

You cannot truly change a man or woman or juvenile except on the inside. Then you work on the outside–job training, education, substance abuse rehabilitation, etc.

The District Attorney’s office here Tuscaloosa is leading a collective effort across the community to bring the Bridges of America program here. Equally important, she (our D.A. is Lyn Head) is tapping into an outpouring of community interest and experience already here to establish a bridgehead to begin the program right here in river city, the “one and only” as we recently discovered our identity, or brand, to the tune of a cool hundred thousand dollars.

Well, let’s live up to the expenditure, and the brand. If we have a hundred thousand dollars to throw around, we can certainly find the funds to make the Bridges of America program work here, and work well.

The fix is right before our eyes. It is not simple, or easy, but it has proven it works in communities across Florida and other states.

Let’s bring it here and give it our own stamp. Integrate not only the business community (the ones with the jobs) but UA as well (a perfect place for Criminal Justice students to work as interns for example), and especially the faith-based community, code, of course, for the Churches of Tuscaloosa. If you don’t change the inside, the rest is sugar coating or a nice coat of paint on a rusting, rotting body. It won’t work.

Let’s give it a try Governor and Legislature. It will work, but only if those of you with power and money put your shoulder into the job. It will save the State millions, it will reduce dangerous pockets of crime and violence, it will restore first a few, then dozens, then scores, and finally hundreds and thousands to fruitful, satisfying lives in their communities. Now is the time.

Published in my OpEd “The Port Rail” as Incarceration Reform to Help County, in
The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, September 20, 2015.