Ex-cons help ex-cons ease into life on outside

The optimistic glint in Julio Medina's dark brown eyes suddenly shifts to concern. He's just learned that one of his ex-offenders spent the night in jail after jumping a subway turnstile. "What were you thinking?" he asks, incredulously.

"I had to get to a job interview. I didn't have any money," explains a shaken Thomas "Kaseen" Johnson. "This lady, she gave me 45 cents, then says, 'Why don't you just push through with me?' So I did. Then I looked up and there was a cop."

It was a setback for Mr. Johnson, who is out on parole after serving 19 years in prison on a murder rap. For Mr. Medina, himself a convicted drug dealer, it was another crisis to juggle that day as the head of an unusual program that tries to help criminals adjust to life back on the streets.

Called the Exodus Transitional Community, the group was launched by Medina with help from several churches. It helps ex-offenders with everything from drug treatment to resume writing to, sometimes, even train fare. Perhaps more important, it is staffed by people who have been there themselves - almost all ex-offenders. "Few people understand the trauma of getting out," says Medina. "So much has changed. You don't know how to act in social situations. I call us the wounded healers."

The work that groups like Medina's are doing is becoming increasingly important. Just as a record number of people are incarcerated in the United States, so, too, are a record number of ex-offenders now returning to their communities.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than 600,000 ex-offenders will be released in the next year, some returning to homes, others to local homeless shelters. That's more than a three-fold increase since 1980. Twenty percent of the newly released prisoners will also have no legal supervision because of cutbacks in parole.

And because the nation has moved away from rehabilitation towards punishment as the prevailing philosophy of incarceration, experts say, more prisoners are being released with fewer skills and, sometimes, wore attitudes. All this is prompting a rethinking of the reentry process.

"We can't forever exile people," says Jeremy Travis, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and former director of the National Institute of Justice. "They continue to live amongst us, so we have a very real challenge, which is how to live with the felons in our midst. People are now asking whether there are ways to reconnect people to the institutions of the communities, so that their contributions can be maximized."

Several states, notably Vermont and Washington, have pioneered collaborations between corrections departments and communities to help prisoners better adjust to life on the outside. The Justice Department this year will also give $100 million in grants to encourage reentry projects.

"Because the programs have been reduced on the inside - including education - we need more programs now on the outside," says criminologist James Fox of Northeastern University in Boston. "We're releasing some people from prison now who aren't even literate."

Masters in theology, and life

But even for those who do have skills, reentry can be traumatizing. It was Medina's own experience that prompted him to start Exodus. While serving nine years on a drug conviction, he earned a bachelor's degree (it was before 1994, when Congress banned prisoners from receiving federal education aid) as well as a masters in theology.

That helped him realize he needed to do something productive with his life. He also noticed that too many people who got out kept coming back.

"Of all the men, no one ever said, 'I can't wait to get back to prison,' " says Medina. "It bothered me. I knew I wanted to do something about that."

When he first came up for parole, he was told he would never be anything but a "vulture who feeds on his community." He was denied. Two years later, he was released on parole. He returned home to a supportive family and girlfriend.

Still, he struggled for three months to find a job and reacclimate himself to society. "I said, 'If I consider myself OK, imagine those less educated... Imagine those who have no place to go but a shelter,' " he recalls. "It was from that and talking to those people on the inside that the Exodus community was born."

The program is having some success. Though less than two years old, staffers say 80 percent of the ex-convicts who have gone through the program have stayed out of jail so far. Nationally, some 50 to 70 percent of those who are released end up back in prison.

Hope and despair in a cubicle

Housed on the top floor of the Church of the Living Hope in Spanish Harlem, Exodus hums with activity. Emotions run the gamut in the brick-walled office - despair, hope, determination.

In one cubicle, a young woman breaks down weeping because no one before has ever offered her any help. Nearby, a middle-aged man in a gray suit sits alone at a phone, dialing endlessly. He has got two master's degrees. He thought he'd landed a job a few days ago. Then a parole officer read his prospective employer the man's 17-year-old rap sheet, which included a conviction for attempted kidnapping. The job was withdrawn.

"No one is the same after 17 years," he says. "I ask you, is that fair?"

Much the same frustration faces Johnson. Since being released two and half years ago, he's worked as a security officer. He'd even been made a supervisor. Then a few months ago, a parolee working as a security guard killed someone. The state Department of Corrections passed a regulation forbidding all ex-offenders on parole or probation from working in security.

Johnson has been out of a job now since April 13. He's three weeks behind on his rent. He's had to ask people for food. "I need to get a job," he says. "My heart is heavy now. I'm scared. I don't want to go back."

Medina puts his hand on his shoulder: "[Keith is] going to give you a list of every job we have that's available. Make some calls, then go directly to talk to your parole officer. Tell her what happened. After that, I want you here for every group we have."

Johnson nods, relieved. "OK. I'm going to keep that pledge I made to God. I'm going to do everything I can. I'm not going back."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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