Life isn’t always the way we would like it to be and often we, as an individual, as a community, as a state and as a nation, have to deal with things we just would rather not deal with. There are those issues that we wish would just go away … or at the least be someone else’s problem.
But, that isn’t how life works. We must all face certain issues and deal with them in the best way we know how.
The men and women in our State’s prisons are one of those issues. Prisons will always be with us. And, as prisons will always be with us, so will be the men and women who — for a short time — fill prison beds and walk prison corridors.
No one stays in prison forever. Eventually all are released … through death … or because they completed their sentence … or because they have been granted parole. Most prison inmates will be paroled into the community. During 2011, 7,263 men and women entered prison and that same year 6,985 men and women were released from prison. It is estimated that approximately 97 percent of prison inmates will be granted parole or will discharge. The question becomes — where do they go?
Because these men and women who commit crimes will always be with us, will ultimately be imprisoned and then paroled, we need to face the fact that felons are now and always will be living in our community — every community. It serves no purpose to ignore the issues created by a growing population of adults with a criminal history. We need to address the fact that felons need jobs, stable homes and a chance for redemption and those things needn’t be a drain on the limited resources of this state. They can be transitioned to the community in a cost-effective manner that addresses the need for community safety.
The Arkansas Department of Community Correction is charged with supervising the probationers and parolees who live in our communities.
For parolees, that supervision can mean the difference between success and failure — the difference between a life of being constantly in and out of prison or a life of being a hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying neighbor.
The dedicated professionals of the DCC who supervise parolees know that working with an offender who is released from prison can change their lives for the better. They know that parole supervision works.
Sometimes though, that is hard for the public to believe.
Take the case of John*
John* is in prison. He’s a thief and he was using drugs. John, like most people with a “criminal” mind-set, was caught and sent to prison. It is a just punishment for a man who has had a long history in the criminal justice system — including a sex offense conviction that occurred when he was a young man.
John won’t spend his entire life in prison … nor does he need to.
He has been sitting in prison for nearly four years. He has at least six more to go on his sentence. At the end of six years, John will be a free man. He will walk through those prison gates and can do as he wishes, go where he wishes. He will not be supervised by anyone. Parole supervision is only for those inmates released from prison before their sentence is complete.
It is hoped that John will be a changed man - but the question is will he be a better man having spent time in prison?
While the philosophers argue the subtleties of what prison does to a man, the people of Arkansas will one day have John or one of his peers in their community, in their grocery store, their church and their restaurants.
What kind of man will John be?
Experience tells us that John will not want to return to prison. Experience also tells us that John will have a difficult time transitioning from prison to the free world and that he faces obstacles that others cannot comprehend. The transition would be easier if John had support from a family or close friends, but he doesn’t.
Experience also tells us that John will most likely be bitter. John doesn’t have to spend a full 10 or 12 years in prison — he could be paroled and was even granted parole, but because he had no place to go and no one would take him in, John has been sitting in prison and he will be there until he completes his entire prison sentence or finds someone who will sponsor him. It hasn’t happened yet and it isn’t likely to at this point in his life.
Experience tells us that John will not leave prison a better man and that is something that should concern the people of Arkansas.
John and the men like him who sit in prison long past the date when they have been granted parole concern the correctional professionals in Arkansas — enough that the DCC has taken extra steps to ensure that these men have a chance to make a successful transition from prison to the community. For their sakes and for the sake of the communities that will be their homes.
This spring, the DCC plans to open four transitional living facilities on the grounds of DCC’s Southeast Community Correction Center.
This facility will house up to 32 men who already have been granted parole and who otherwise would sit in prison until they discharge their sentence because they have no place to go.
There is a belief that only violent inmates or predatory sex offenders will be allowed to live in DCC’s transitional living facility and that simply is not true. Yes, there could be parolees allowed into the program who have a violent offense in their history or a sex offense in their history.
But — this is not merely a program for violent offenders or sex offenders. This is a program for all offenders.
These offenders could have a theft conviction. Or a forgery conviction, a DWI or might have been imprisoned for using drugs.
Inmates will not be selected for this program based upon their conviction, but upon their need for a place to live and their ability to work for a living.
They will be supervised by a professional parole officer just as the other 23,000-plus parolees in this state are supervised.
In addition to the supervision, they will be living in duplexes on a correctional facility next to another correctional facility and facing land used by both correctional facilities. Their houses will be surrounded by two 10-foot tall fences and lights will illuminate the entire setting. Also, security cameras will be in use around the duplexes and security personnel will do periodic security checks at the facility. There also will be a parole officer on duty in one of the duplexes during the day.
The DCC chose this site because it had the duplexes and didn’t have to put a strain on taxpayers to build a new facility and it is in the midst of existing correctional units.
The people of Arkansas have two choices when it comes to men like John:
1. He can be left in prison to complete his sentence and then he will be set free to make his own way in this world in any way he sees fit until he succeeds or fails. His survival, without the aid of parole supervision or the assistance of family or friends, will not be easy or pretty and it could easily endanger the people who cross his path. Experience shows us that the inmates who leave prison without supervision are more likely to return to prison by committing new crimes.
2. He can be paroled to a transitional living facility where his move from prison to the community is planned and supervised with an eye to the safety of the community.
To the professionals at DCC it isn’t even a choice — prison inmates who are released need to be under parole supervision. Supervision works.
The planned transitional living facility in Pine Bluff is a tool to aid in that supervision and the support of the community as well as the people of this state as DCC works to make supervision work would be appreciated.
*An actual offender whose real name is not being revealed.
• • •
By Rhonda Sharp is the public relations manager for the Arkansas Department of Community Correction.