WARWICK — Crimes are bound to occur and people will inevitably be arrested for committing criminal acts. But what happens to those convicted of crimes when they have met the terms of the prison sentences a judge has given them?
That question was the focus of a summit of government and community leaders at the Crown Plaza Hotel Tuesday that aired concerns over public safety and the rights of released prison inmates to restart their lives in the community.
Some former inmates making re-entry into the community may have difficulty securing housing or employment and those failures to transition to independence can affect their ability to avoid a return to crime. Such failures not only impact the former inmates and their families but also the state's communities.
That point was made during workshop meetings between members of law enforcement, the ACI and its probation and parole division, representatives of community-based support initiatives, housing and employment experts and representatives of the faith community during the program, and highlighted again during a wrap-up session attended by three Rhode Island mayors whose communities are significantly involved in prisoner release programs.
The police chiefs of two other communities, Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Carey and Pawtucket Chief Paul King, also participated in the wrap-up discussion and acknowledged a need to inform the public about such efforts.
The ACI on average has a total of 26,000 former inmates out in Rhode Island communities under some form of release and that means all of the state's communities are impacted to varying degrees, according to A.T. Wall, Director of the ACI.
The residents of local communities may not like the fact that prison inmates do win release on probation or parole, but that is nonetheless a fact of life in the United States, according to Wall.
The mayors participating in Tuesday's program, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, Cranston Mayor Allen Fung and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedesian, and the chiefs from Woonsocket and Pawtucket, have all worked to ensure the release of prisoners back into the community is a successful one, Wall told the gathering.
“They are determined to do what they can to ease the risk of prisoner recidivism,” Wall said.
In Providence, Wall noted, one in every 11 men may have spent time in the ACI. That number is 1 in 31 for Warwick, but 1 in 16 for Pawtucket and 1 in 14 for Woonsocket, he said.
Taveras told the gathering that his community receives about 40 percent of all the prisoners released from the ACI and many of those former inmates end up living in the South Providence neighborhoods of the city.
Inmates who return to crime put a “tremendous strain” on public safety in the community and for that reason there are incentives for communities like Providence to head off the problems that cause such recidivism, he maintained.
“What we have got to do is a better job focusing on the needs of people coming back into the community,” he said.
There is often a “not in my back yard” reaction to the development of programs assisting former inmates in making the transition to life in the community but Taveras said communities also need to think about the consequences of not assisting inmates in such transitions.
“It is hard enough to get a job for those who don't have the criminal marker and much more difficult for those who do,” he said.
People leaving prison may not possess the skills needed to gain a job and require job training as part of their efforts to make a successful transition, and how they secure a place to live on limited resources can be another hurdle to overcome, according to Taveras.
Inmate release also affects their children and Taveras noted that in some neighborhoods in his city as many as 1 in 4 men have served time in the ACI. “And behind each one of them is usually a family,” he said.
The challenge of returning inmates to the community is not an easy one, according to Taveras, and residents of a community must decide if “we are ready, able and willing to accept them back into our societies.”
The goal of success is an important one, according to Taveras, when one in three children in some neighborhoods live in poverty. “If you lift the parent out of poverty, you lift the child out of poverty,” he said.
Mayor Fung said the success of inmate re-entry often depends on how well a community is informed about that process.
The initial reaction can be one of opposition as was the case in his own community when policies in place at the ACI were directing sex offenders released from the ACI to a homeless shelter in his community. A process was not in place to inform the community about the releases and that contributed to the opposition that rose against them.
Changes were made to the ACI's policies on such releases and a new plan worked out in conjunction with the local community, he said. “At least people know there is a plan in place that was created in partnership with the state and the local community,” he said.
“If you do the appropriate planning, I feel you are least creating a safe environment,” Fung said.
Mayor Avedesian said he came into the issue from a different perspective initally after the release of a couple of former inmates into neighborhoods in his community created a public outcry.
“We had a number of discussions between municipal officials and the director of the ACI as to how we can do something more appropriate so it is not neighborhood against neighborhood,” he said.
The ACI's Probation and Parole Division stepped up to help by arranging meetings between people being released from the ACI and local law enforcement officials and assistance agencies.
Avedesian said he even sat in on some of the sessions and found them to a positive factor in the release process.
“A feeling of trust gets built up and a feeling that the individual has a rightful place in our community,” he said. The program has helped released inmates make a successful transition and Avedesian said he believes it has contributed to a reduction in the rate of recidivism for those involved.
It has also helped parolees to build better relationships with members of the police department and be more willing to call the department for help if they have a problem, whether that is over housing, employment or transportation, he said.
Chiefs Carey and King acknowledged the potential exists for public concern over the ACI's release programs but also voiced support for the move to partner reentry with local community agencies, social service organizations and religious groups.
Carey, who served as a detective during his prior 26-year-long career in St. Petersburg, Fla., offered an example of two drug offenders he had encountered through his work.
One of the two cocaine addicts lived a hard life on the street and actually welcomed his arrest and told Carey he was “doing me a favor” by putting him in jail. Going to jail, the man told Carey, was a opportunity to “take a vacation” from the street and live in an environment where he would have shelter, meals and even health care, Carey said.
The other man, also addicted to cocaine, had a good family support network and a connection to a church that worked in his favor.
His family stuck by him and got him into counseling and members of his church found him a job, Carey said. The man “turned things around,” Carey said, adding “the last time I checked he was a manager for a nationwide company.”
In Woonsocket today, Carey said the department also makes use of notifications of prisoner releases by the ACI through the Probation and Parole Division to direct the former inmates to services available in the community. The department works with a local reentry panel that includes representatives of social service agencies to direct the released invidivuals to assistance programs that can help them with a successful transition.
And where released inmates require monitoring under the terms of their release, Carey said he is able to notify the appropriate members of his department as to their status and also to make notifications to the community where necessary as in the case of registered sexual offenders.
Chief King pointed to resistance in the community to a planned recovery program in Pawtucket for people with substance abuse as an example of the community-wide work that must go into any effort to release former prisoners into the community.
“What happened was that the neighborhood didn't accept it, because they didn't know what it was about,” he said. It took Anchor Recovery almost a year to change that viewpoint but eventually the organization did convince businesses and residents of the Main Street business district it was helping to make change in the area. People involved with the center helped clean up graffiti in the neighborhood and took responsibilty for keeping trash off the sidewalks, he said. They also became customers of the businesses in the area.
“We now want to make them to be part of the solution and we want them help us show that the city is moving forward,” he said.