I have a few quirks about myself—one of which I’m willing to share. Escalators and automatic revolving doors terrify me. Perhaps there was a 20/20 episode I watched in my childhood that caused this irrational fear; Barbara Walters staring at me through the glowing screen detailing the events of a child who was crushed between the wall and door of a revolving entrance. Whatever the reason, I’m always worried about getting caught in the incessant mechanical movements of those machines. This fear caused an essay from my Prison and Public Policy class in my freshman year of college to jump out at me, “The Revolving Door: Exploring Public Attitudes Toward Prisoner Reentry.” Now, the core (somewhat illogical) reason this essay has stuck with me is irrelevant. What the article actually states is just as scary to me. This article brings together the discussions and opinions of three different focus groups, and asks them various questions regarding the prison system, prisoner reentry, and the barriers that exist for people with felony records. When one focus group was asked about time being served, one woman complained about “shortening prison sentences”:
I think that the thing that gets frustrating is the judge hands down a sentence; you have five years in prison. In 14 months that person is out. Four or five years should be four of five years, and then you let the [out]. They should do the time.
What that woman displayed in her statement, and what exists in the United States as a whole, is a misconception of prisons, people with criminal records, and the justice system. Realistically, if the person was sentenced for five years to prison and they are released early, they are still in the corrections system because they were released on parole or probation. They still have to report to correctional employees, and can be sent back to prison in an instant. These were some areas we studied in my class, but they have become even more apparent through my work with the Yavapai Reentry Project.
The Yavapai Reentry Project began as a grassroots effort in 2010 when community members and professionals in the criminal justice field noticed a lack of resources for people returning to Yavapai County from prison. Community Counts, a non-profit 501(c) 3, stepped up and funded the cost to hire an AmeriCorps VISTA (me!) to get the program started. We contact every person being released from prison and returning to Yavapai County to let them know of our services. We offer two programs, the Independent Referral Program, and the Community Coach Mentorship Program. Both provide direct support, resource information, and barrier navigation for people with felony records. Since beginning direct services in January 2012, the Yavapai Reentry Project has contacted over 120 inmates eligible for the program, provided direct services to dozens of reentering and former offenders, and has had 24 community members complete training to become Community Coaches to mentor a reentering person.
What I have learned from meeting with people returning from prison, as well as studies and statistics, is that playful idioms such as “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time” and “Prison is just three hots and a cot” oversimplify systemic issues that affect almost every area in our community. Homelessness, public health issues, foster care and broken families, public safety, high rates of unemployment, and the need for government welfare are all impacted by incarceration and prisoner reentry. The “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality behind incarceration causes people to fall into a cycle that is difficult to escape. For example, did you know that:
|VISTA member Becca Fealk serving|
with Community Counts is helping launch the
Yavapai Reentry Project
· In Arizona, employers can ask about arrests that never led to conviction and have that weigh in on the hiring decision.
· Currently, 176 inmates are diagnosed with HIV, and 5,620 inmates are diagnosed with Hepatitis C, but with the current freeze on AHCCCS they have few options for healthcare when released.
· In Arizona, 1 in 33 adults are under some kind of correctional control—meaning incarceration, probation, or parole.
· In July 2010, 58% of the men and 69% of the women incarcerated at ADC were parents, meaning their children were either taken in by other family member or put in foster care.
· The state raised the budget for prisons to over $1 billion for 2012.
· 75% of ADC inmates assessed at their intake have significant substance abuse histories, but struggle with getting treatment due to not having transportation and income upon release.
· While Arizona’s population more than doubled between 1980 and 2008, the state’s prison population increased more than tenfold.
· 44.6% (17,821 of the 39,949) people incarcerated in ADC have served at least one prior sentence.
When people are released from prison, systematic barriers exist that make it more difficult for people to succeed. In fact, a 2005 recidivism study done by the ADC, found that out of 54,660 people 42.4% returned to prison within three years of their release. The Yavapai Reentry Project works to connect people with substance abuse services, employment training, GED and college courses, and other basic needs to prevent them from going back to through the revolving door between prison and our community—and not just because I’m terrified of revolving doors.
The bi-monthly community meeting for the Yavapai Reentry Project is happening March 1st, 2012 from 10:00 to 11:30am at the Prescott Public Library. We are looking for interested and invested community members to aid in forming committees for our program. Committees will include housing, employment, volunteering, and more. No experience is needed to attend the meeting or be a part of a committee, just a desire to help a person and improve safety in one’s community. For questions, call Becca at (928) 708-0100. Hope to see you there!