How to help ex-offenders stay out of prisonby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
For the 9,000 inmates currently locked up in Minnesota prisons, life after release won't be easy. More than two-thirds will end up back behind bars within three years. Advocates say this cycle is taking a toll on ex-offenders and their communities, and costing the state too much money. Lawmakers are working on a bill for next session that would help ex-offenders get the jobs and services they need to stay out of prison for good.
Minneapolis, Minn. — Darryl Covington has spent one-third of his life in federal prison. He's determined never to go back.
"My priorities have changed. I want to be a productive citizen in society. I want the kids to say, 'That's Mr. Covington.' Those are the type of things and the environment I want to be around," Covington says.
He's been out of jail since 2000 and since then, he's waged a fierce battle with alcohol and drugs. Covington is now clean and sober. But he worries if he doesn't find a full-time job soon, he could lose his edge and end up in trouble.
For now, Covington, 45, is working a temporary job doing maintenance at the Minnesota Resource Center, where he recently completed a custodial and maintenance training course and attends sobriety meetings.
The program earned him a boiler's license and other state certifications. Despite these accomplishments, full-time jobs aren't easy to come by when you've got a criminal record.
"They judge me because I once was a bad apple, they put me back in that same position even though I show progress," Covington says. "They are very skeptical about giving you that good job, or even a job, period, because 'He did it once, he'll do it again.' And that's not fair to us, because we are trying to show society that people can change."
Unlike a lot of people getting out of prison, Covington has some college under his belt -- but his job skills are limited.
Most inmates get out of prison with little, if any, money, job training or prospects. Internet background checks make it tough to find housing, and many end up back in the very communities where they lived before going to prison.
DFL Rep. Michael Paymar is on a House committee looking at ex-offender issues. He says the costs associated with crime and repeated incarceration spread across the state, and touch more than just crime victims.
The state estimates it costs more than $35,000 a year just to house one inmate. But Paymar says taxpayers also pick up the tab for related police and court costs, legal services and building new prisons -- and for the long-term cost of damage to communities and families.
Paymar says what happens when inmates are released is crucial to whether they'll successfully re-enter society or end up back in jail, repeating the cycle.
"Common sense would tell you that if you got someone in treatment, if you got him a job, if he didn't have the obstacle of finding a place to live, he'll be less likely to recidivate. Common sense would tell you that, but we have to measure it with numbers," says Paymar.
Last year, the state funded a pilot program to provide job supports, housing help, drug and alcohol treatment and other services to ex-offenders. The goal is to prevent them from going back to prison.
Louise Wolfgramm runs AMICUS, an organization that provides similar services to ex-offenders. She says the state is moving in the right direction by expanding these programs. But she says more needs to be done to prepare inmates before they are released.
"If somebody's been locked up for a long time, and they've had their responsibilities taken away from them -- that they've really had to live by somebody else's rules -- that to put that person right back out on the street and expect them to function in a way that would be productive for the rest of the community is pretty risky," Wolfgramm says.
She says looking the other way will only lead to more and more people ending up behind bars.
Darryl Covington doesn't have to look far to see how much he's changed.
Through the blinds in the Resource Center kitchen, he points across the street to a porch, where some drug dealers are clustered.
He says he can't believe that used to be him.
"I look at these guys and say, 'But dang, was I really like that?' And that's another thing that keeps me away from it. It really looks sick, it's sick, and I was a sick person back then," says Covington. "I was young. I thought that that was a good life because of cars, jewelry, women and just about anything else that came along with it. I was a much different person than I am now."
Covington recently interviewed for a maintenance job at the Colin Powell Cristo Rey High School in Minneapolis, and hopes to hear back soon.
If he doesn't get the job, he says he'll just keep looking.
- Morning Edition, 11/19/2007, 7:24 a.m.