Re-en­try cen­ters give in­mates a chance at new start in life

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - JEANNIE ROBERTS

MALVERN — Two years ago Gov. Asa Hutchin­son stood in a board­room out­side his of­fice, pointed to a dis­play board and hailed re-en­try cen­ters as a key to the state’s over­pop­u­lated pris­ons.

Last week, in­mates at the state’s largest re-en­try cen­ter stood in front of state of­fi­cials and their peers, and gave tes­ti­mony to the heal­ing pow­ers the cen­ter’s pro­gram­ming has had on their lives.

“I ain’t never thought I’d have a job for this long of time.”

“This is what I needed to be­come a grown man.”

“This is the first time any­one has ever given me a chance.”

The idea of re-en­try cen­ters isn’t new. The pri­vate fa­cil­i­ties con­tract with Arkansas Com­mu­nity Cor­rec­tion to take pris­on­ers within 18 months of their re­lease dates for a six-month res­i­dency pro­gram that rein­tro­duces them to so­ci­ety by way of life skills, ad­dic­tion treat­ment and em­ploy­ment. Sev­eral states around the na­tion em­ploy the idea, and other state of­fi­cials have raised the sug­ges­tion for years.

But Hutchin­son de­cided in 2015 to put money be­hind the en­deavor — $5.5 mil­lion, from state in­sur­ance re­serves and un­claimed prop­erty funds. Hutchin­son ear­marked a to­tal of $32 mil­lion in two-year costs for his prison plan that also in­cluded nearly 800 new prison beds and in­creases in pa­role staffing lev­els.

The plan’s main pur­pose, he said at the time, was to ease the prison pop­u­la­tion and to re­duce the state’s high re­cidi­vism rate.

It’s too early for mea­sure­ments — the re­cidi­vism rate and pop­u­la­tion num­bers — to gauge the suc­cess of the ini­tia­tives, but those num­bers seem to be creep­ing higher.

The re­cidi­vism rate, which mea­sures how many in­mates re­turn to prison within three years of their re­lease, is up to 51.8 per­cent from the 43 per­cent it was two years ago.

On the day Hutchin­son un­veiled the plan, the prison sys­tem was burst­ing at the seams with 15,341 in­mates, 107 per­cent of pris­ons’ 14,331 ca­pac­ity. An­other 2,631 state in­mates were housed in county jails. To­day, 17,798 in­mates are be­hind prison bars and an­other 1,212 are housed in county jail back­ups, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est re­ports from the Arkansas Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tion.

It will take time and com­mit­ment to see a dif­fer­ence in the num­bers, but the most

im­por­tant im­pact is the lives turned around, said J.R. Davis, a spokesman for the gov­er­nor.

“We’re still very much in the early stages of this,” Davis said. “I think what we’re see­ing is what the gov­er­nor had en­vi­sioned — giv­ing those that go to jail a sec­ond chance. Peo­ple make mis­takes, and they are re­spon­si­ble for those mis­takes. But let’s change be­hav­ior; let’s give peo­ple a chance to change.”


When Katy Petrus an­swers the phone in her of­fice as di­rec­tor of Covenant Re­cov­ery, the state’s largest re-en­try cen­ter, she shakes her head be­fore ut­ter­ing a word.

The caller, a lo­cal man­u­fac­turer, is plead­ing for eight more em­ploy­ees.

“We’re maxed out. We have no one else to send,” Petrus said.

The cen­ter houses up to 100 in­mates. Only those who have passed the 21-day mark are el­i­gi­ble for em­ploy­ment.

The first phase at the cen­ter is an ad­just­ment pe­riod, a time for pris­on­ers to get pre­pared for the real world. Petrus helps them get their So­cial Se­cu­rity cards, driver’s li­censes and en­rolls them in the lo­cal col­lege.

Petrus un­furls a list of em­ploy­ers who call and who ask her to send work­ers.

Ini­tially when Petrus and Jeremy McKen­zie, founder of Covenant Re­cov­ery — which in­cludes two re-en­try cen­ters in Pine Bluff as well as a Malvern lo­ca­tion — in­tro­duced them­selves to the com­mu­nity, the re­cep­tion wasn’t ex­actly warm.

“I asked them to just give us a chance,” McKen­zie said.

The tide started to turn when McKen­zie and Petrus sent the in­mates out on vol­un­teer projects like city cleanups and the lo­cal Neigh­bor­hood Watch pro­grams. Soon, re­quests were com­ing in from city of­fi­cials and com­mu­nity mem­bers. The two an­swered the call from the Malvern Fire Depart­ment to clean up the house of a lady who had more than 100 cats.

“The city was go­ing to con­demn her,” McKen­zie said. “We went in there and cleaned ev­ery­thing, in­side and out.”

Word quickly spread among lo­cal em­ploy­ers that the cen­ter’s res­i­dents were go­ing to show up for the job each day, work hard and be drug-free.

“I’m proud of the ones we have,” said James Scal­lion, man­ager of gar­den oper­a­tions at Gar­van Gar­dens in Hot Springs. “Two of them have taken full ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­nity. They’ve grad­u­ated, are home­own­ers and got their kids back.”

Gar­van Gar­dens has used up to 60 em­ploy­ees from the cen­ter each year, with some tak­ing per­ma­nent posts af­ter they grad­u­ate from the pro­gram.

“I wish I had more jobs, more op­por­tu­ni­ties to help,” Scal­lion said. “We give peo­ple a sec­ond chance, a chance to be re-ac­cli­mated to so­ci­ety and be­come pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens. I’m tick­led to death.”

Mark Lo­bel with Dock Lev­el­ing Man­u­fac­tur­ing said he en­cour­ages other em­ploy­ers in the area to give the cen­ter’s res­i­dents a chance.

“They’re ea­ger to be here. They work hard,” Lo­bel said. “They ap­pre­ci­ate the chance. I know how a lot of peo­ple look at felons, but they’ve paid their dues.”

Still, they’re not per­fect, Lo­bel said. He said out of every 10 em­ploy­ees he gets from the cen­ter, about two don’t make it.

On Day 150 of the pro­gram — the last phase of the 180day pro­gram — the in­mates are au­ton­o­mous. They are ac­quir­ing their own hous­ing and mak­ing their own de­ci­sions with only a weekly drug test and an­kle mon­i­tor to hold them ac­count­able.

It’s dur­ing this time that they are more likely to fail, said Car­rie Williams, the as­sis­tant di­rec­tor over the Arkansas Com­mu­nity Cor­rec­tion’s re-en­try pro­gram.

“We have some of them at Day 150 say­ing, ‘I can’t do it.’ ‘I’m not ready.’ ‘I’m scared.’ They’re used to some­body telling them what to do,” Williams said. “They go to work, but then when they’re home there’s no one there. The next thing you know, some­one calls and there you have it.”

Sev­eral of the in­mates stay at the cen­ter past the six-month mark, even though com­plet­ing the pro­gram makes them el­i­gi­ble for early pa­role. If the cen­ter staff de­ter­mines that the in­mate is not ready to be re­leased into so­ci­ety, it has the op­tion of keep­ing them un­til their orig­i­nal pa­role el­i­gi­bil­ity dates.

The re-en­try cen­ters teach struc­ture and ac­count­abil­ity. There are no guards with guns or locked gates. Covenant Re­cov­ery is a fam­ily setup, with shared chores and in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity. Some in­mates just can­not han­dle that level of free­dom, said Dina Tyler, a deputy di­rec­tor of the Com­mu­nity Cor­rec­tion Depart­ment.

Of the 669 pris­on­ers sent through a re-en­try cen­ter pro­gram since its in­cep­tion, about 34 per­cent, or 229 in­mates, didn’t make it and were sent back to prison to com­plete their sen­tences. A failed drug test or get­ting fired from a job au­to­mat­i­cally re­vokes the in­mate’s el­i­gi­bil­ity for the pro­gram.

“They come out of prison, and they have to build struc­ture them­selves. They don’t know how,” Tyler said. “If they had known how to build struc­ture in their life with the right planks and sup­port beams in place, they wouldn’t have been to prison in the first place.

“That’s what we’re try­ing to teach them now.”


At a re­cent group meet­ing at the fa­cil­ity, a large, heav­ily tat­tooed man smiled broadly as he leaned for­ward in his chair, took his driver’s li­cense out of his wal­let, and waved it back and forth like a flag in front of about 40 of his house­mates.

“It’s been years since I had one of th­ese,” he boomed.

An­other man, who re­ferred to him­self as a “seven-time loser” for his seven stints in prison, said his suc­cess in the cen­ter’s pro­gram gives him hope for the first time in his life.

“I turned 18 in Tucker prison,” he said. “I ain’t go­ing back.”

An­other teary-eyed man tes­ti­fied he’s work­ing a “real job” now, some­thing he never saw for him­self.

“You have a real op­por­tu­nity,” he said. “Th­ese aren’t min­i­mum-wage jobs. Th­ese are $15-$20-an-hour jobs. This wouldn’t have hap­pened just com­ing out of prison with $50 and a bus ticket.”

The out­comes, as il­lus­trated in the tes­ti­mo­nial group meet­ing, were the best the state had hoped for, said Williams, the state leader of re-en­try.

But their fears, to a de­gree, also have been re­al­ized.

In­mates at some fa­cil­i­ties walked off, and drug use is an ever-present is­sue.

The se­lec­tion process for an in­mate’s par­tic­i­pa­tion is stren­u­ous. An in­mate must ap­ply, show a will­ing­ness to work in the pro­gram and have a clean prison dis­ci­pline record. And only mod­er­ate- to high-risk in­mates are el­i­gi­ble.

“If they’re low risk, you do noth­ing for them. Chances are they’re go­ing to make it,” Tyler said. “You want to con­cen­trate your re­sources where they’re needed most, and that’s those that are most likely to re-of­fend. Those are your high and medium risks.”

The first fe­male to grad­u­ate the re-en­try pro­gram was in prison for first-de­gree mur­der. She’s now work­ing at a prison tran­si­tional house as an em­ploy­ment spe­cial­ist.

“She’s done very well,” Williams said. “She’ll tell you this is some­thing she didn’t ever ex­pect to hap­pen to her.”

The in­mates sent to re-en­try are al­ready on their way out of prison and into the com­mu­ni­ties, Tyler said. With the re-en­try pro­gram, their is­sues can be ad­dressed to send them in a new di­rec­tion, she added.

The re-en­try cen­ters have been the most sur­pris­ing as­pect of the process, Tyler said.

“It’s a long, drawn-out process to get ap­proved as a

“You have a real op­por­tu­nity. Th­ese aren’t min­i­mum-wage jobs. Th­ese are $15-$20-an-hour jobs. This wouldn’t have hap­pened just com­ing out of prison with $50 and a bus ticket.”

— Par­tic­i­pant in a re-en­try pro­gram

re-en­try cen­ter,” she said. “We thought at first it would take a month, six weeks tops. But first some­one has to de­cide they’re go­ing to open a cen­ter, then they scout for a build­ing. They have to go through our ap­proval process and then the city li­cens­ing pro­ce­dures.”

And once the cen­ters are up and run­ning, the state mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem is strin­gent. They are sub­jected to ran­dom and an­nual in­spec­tions. Their per­for­mance is graded based on mea­sure­ments like the num­ber of grad­u­ates, how many drug tests re­turn as pos­i­tives, the ad­e­quacy of the fa­cil­ity and the feed­back from in­mates.

Of the 12 orig­i­nal re-en­try cen­ters, only six re­main. Some changed to tran­si­tional hous­ing — which takes in­mates who have al­ready made pa­role — while oth­ers were closed by the state.

Still, the fu­ture is re-en­try, Tyler said. In the past two years, the state has paid out $2.7 mil­lion to re-en­try cen­ters for their ser­vice. The cost could be much higher, but the cen­ters charge $14 per day in rent to the in­mates once they are em­ployed. Also, the daily rates paid by the state to re-en­try cen­ters — $20 for mod­er­ate risk, $26 for high risk and $30 for sex of­fend­ers — is much lower than the $60 av­er­age per day per in­mate that state prison of­fi­cials es­ti­mate it costs to house in­mates in Arkansas pris­ons.

The state needs more: more cen­ters and more fund­ing, Tyler said.

“It’s a new pro­gram. You’re start­ing from scratch. There’s go­ing to be some trial and er­ror,” Tyler said. “The im­por­tant thing is you try to fine-tune things, but you don’t quit. The dream is that some­day, ev­ery­body who leaves prison will go through a re-en­try cen­ter.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN

Sam Ham­mons, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of Covenant Re­cov­ery in Malvern, speaks to pris­on­ers dur­ing one of their group ses­sions at the cen­ter July 20.

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