Above, EPOCA member Jay McCcune gets ready to head to Boston to lobby for better policies aimed at helping ex-prisoners return to society/Elizabeth Brooks photo
After he was released from state prison, it took 36-year-old Tim Peak of Worcester two months to get a state I.D. He said he couldn’t even get a library card, his only access at the time to a computer.
A week and a half after Mariousz Bezak, 39, of Webster, was released from the Worcester County House of Corrections, he found out his license was revoked for life, and had no opportunity to develop an alternate plan for transportation before learning that.
When Wahya Wolfpaw, 51, a Cherokee Native American in Worcester, was released from prison two years ago, she spent the first few months homeless, unable to find a place to stay aside from stints in homeless shelters.
When Richard Albert III was arrested for violating probation, he lost his job at a temp agency and has struggled to find a new one. He has a home, but he is not on the lease. He has previously struggled with drugs and said he is trying hard not to fall back in.
Jessica Morales, 25, of Worcester, got in a fight several years ago. Because of it, she lost her job and her kids, spent 10 months behind bars and, just recently, escaped a probation period without falling back into it.
Christopher Williams of Lawrence was recently released from the Worcester County House of Corrections, and applied for emergency assistance through the state welfare program, but was told he needs to first see a doctor. The waiting list for his doctor is 90 days.
Thirty-nine-year-old Jason Ludwig of Lynn, who now works for the Worcester-based Straight Ahead Ministries, spent nine and a half years in and out of prison. When he was released, he would skip a court date, get drunk and into trouble, revert back to stealing for money, and wind up right back where he started. It took a religious experience and a found family to pull him out of the cycle.
Their stories are all too common among returning citizens (a preferred term for men and women who have previously served prison terms), who struggle to find work, to find housing, to find a place in society that won’t drag them back into old habits, and to navigate a justice system eager to suck ex-convicts back in with default warrants, probation violations, random drug tests and endless fees.
The individual stories above are among thousands that contribute to a roughly 44-percent recidivism rate among Massachusetts inmates, a rate estimated to cost the state $450 million a year. The days, weeks and months following release from prison are fraught with pitfalls, both bureaucratic and of the returning citizen’s own making. Many local advocates and returning citizens feel state institutions provide woefully-inadequate re-entry service, leaving vulnerable people in near-impossible situations.
Two thirds of those sentenced to state and county prison had been incarcerated before, according to a 2016 policy brief on recidivism rates by the public policy research group MassINC. When prisoners are released, they are often still battling addiction, dealing with mental health issues and have a weak support system. At the point of re-entry, the statewide issues of recidivism, drug addiction and homelessness are one. When the former inmate hits the street, data shows they have just under a 50-percent chance of going back within three years.
In January, at the start of the current two-year legislative session, state lawmakers highlighted criminal justice reform as a key goal with an omnibus package of reforms with near unanimous backing and a myriad of other bills aimed at specific issues. But local advocates, who have been picking up where they feel the state has failed, feel the Legislature is not moving fast enough.
Two Worcester-based organizations, Ex-Prisoners And Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement and Straight Ahead Ministries, both based in Worcester’s Main South neighborhood, are working to improve re-entry one returning citizen at a time. And a new re-entry program, the Worcester Initiative for Supported Reentry, is showing major improvements in recidivism rates, though it’s working with a relatively small amount of inmates.
JOBS NOT JAILS
Parked in front of City Hall Monday was a beat-up, old yellow school bus. People wearing shirts with “E.P.O.C.A.” emblazoned on the front and “Jobs Not Jails” on the back milled around it, waiting for more to come. Each person was handed a tee-shirt as the group filed on the bus, headed for the statehouse Tomiko Walker, Steve Denson and Kevin Lynch, three leaders of EPOCA, ushered folks on the bus. In all, there were about 25, many of whom had previously served time. They were heading to Boston to let members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary know Worcester wants criminal justice reform.
“Alright people, we’re talking on mandatory minimum for drug offenses today,” said Walker, sitting on his leg in a seat halfway down the bus. He also gave a quick primer on the Justice Reinvestment Act, an omnibus bill backed by many legislators and Gov. Charlie Baker. The bill, he said, “ain’t got any teeth in it.”
From the front of the bus, Denson began passing out $3 Subway half-sandwiches: turkey, Italian or veggie. Sandwich orders were shouted in every direction as the sandwiches, chips and water made way down the rows of seats. Many of the people on the bus had previously served criminal sentences, were on parole or had just recently been release. Almost all of them knew someone in jail. Some were among the roughly 150 that signed up to speak at a Statehouse hearing on the various criminal justice bills introduced this legislative session.
Since it started 11 years ago, EPOCA has burgeoned, gaining hundreds of members and satellite operations in other cities. The organization is based out of a small, two-room office in a large green house on King Street that also houses Stone Soup Kitchen. Founders Walker, Denson and Lynch sat around a conference room with a single sheet of paper it: the form to seal a criminal record. The walls of the office were covered in graphs, charts, fact boxes and campaign literature.
At its onset, the group worked to help people navigate the barriers returning citizens saw in trying to get jobs, like employers that ran background checks. They also joined the many groups around the state petitioning the state Legislature for CORI reform. CORI, which stands for Criminal Offender Record Information, is the state’s background check system, revealing misdemeanor and felony charges on a person’s record. In 2012, the group scored a major legislative win with the Ban the Box Act, which prevented certain employers from including a section for prior criminal history on applications.
Now, EPOCA is expanding its scope. The group is forging partnerships with local businesses and the city’s unemployment office, Workforce Central, to help local returning citizens find work. They help people seal their criminal record, find places to stay and navigate options for state and private assistance. The organization is still a regular fixture at the Statehouse, petitioning the Legislature to do more. They support several pieces of legislation, including the Justice Reinvestment Act, the Act to Stop The Criminalization of Poverty and a bill that would make it easier to expunge juvenile criminal records. Though the state has signaled its intention to make criminal justice reform a priority in this two-year legislative session, EPOCA leadership believe the state isn’t doing all they could.
“They’re not moving fast enough,” said Walker, who serves as EPOCA president. “They’re shuffling feet, knowing that elections are coming up next year, so they trying to prolong the process.”
Decades of tough-on-crime policy, he said, have left county and state prisons overstuffed with low-level offenders, at an exorbitant cost to taxpayers.
“They could be doing a lot more than what they’re doing,” Walker said. “It’s so obvious, knowing these jails are filled up.”
After years of relatively little focus on the issue, the Legislature has appeared to signal the time is now to make changes to the criminal justice system, amid a widening discussion on mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the state’s relatively high level of recidivism.
As of 2011, the statewide recidivism rate was 44 percent. EPOCA, a small but growing group of advocates, have found themselves in the middle of that conversation, pushing the state and the city for more while helping local returning citizens to get a home, get a job and stay away from the kind of activity that landed them in prison to begin with.
At Monday’s meeting at the Statehouse, it was standing room only as advocacy groups such as EPOCA, politicians, analysts, journalists and attorneys filled the hearing to discuss the many bills on file in this two year session, which started in January. The debate around mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking proved a focal point in the criminal justice reform debate, as advocates, scholars, defense attorneys and lawmakers squared off against the district attorneys, who were reticent to relinquish a powerful tool for law enforcement.
A group of five – Worcester District Attorney Joe Early was not in attendance – were represented by Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. He argued at length that minimum mandatory sentences are important for negotiating plea bargains and for targeting the drug traffickers that bring violence to communities. The sentencing guidelines, he said, are “used as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.” But others rejected the argument entirely.
“You cannot use a one-size-fits-all approach to address this health crisis,” said Rasshan Hall, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program.
The line between drug user and drug dealer is often a blurry one, he said, and the sentencing guidelines cast people away for years that may be better treated with substance abuse programming.
Many believe mandatory minimum sentences have a detrimental effect on both those who serve them and the community once they’re released. Those serving a set amount of time are less likely to correct behavior, as they cannot earn good time or early release in prison. Mandatory minimum sentences, critics maintain, also preclude certain people from signing up for programs within prison that help prisoners land on the outside more smoothly.
EPOCA is firmly on that side of the fence. The organization largely wants to see change made to the state’s mandatory minimum sentences laws, which they see as draconian holdovers of the war on drugs, and further, as a modern holdover of slavery – one of the more brutal aspects of a system that turned slaves to criminals.
According to the ACLU, 75 percent of Massachusetts inmates serving mandatory minimums, which often stretch at least several years, are African Americans. The mandatory sentences mean drug offenders often serve longer sentences than those who commit violent crimes. For an armed robbery or kidnapping charge, prisoners have the option of early release or work release, an opportunity not extended to those serving mandatory minimums.
From EPOCA’s perspective, mandatory minimums keep people in prison for too long, and also pose significant challenges once its time for that prisoner to return to society.
“Most people on minimum mandatory, they’re not going to do any programming because there’s no incentive for them to get out early,” said Walker. “Therefore, they stay stuck still in that same mindset that they was before entering the jail. You’re putting that same mindset back into the communities.”
Mandatory minimums, he continued, do not make the community safer. Instead, Walker argued, they hinder entry — sometimes banning it outright — into programs that help inmates rehabilitate themselves and prepare for success. Statistically, and perhaps by design, mandatory minimum policy has overwhelmingly affected black, Latino and poor white people.
“It’s the underlying racism,” said Walker.
BY THE NUMBERS
While officials are quick to tout the state’s relatively low incarceration rate at least compared to other states (as of the end of 2013, there were 21,400 people incarcerated in Massachusetts – or 400 per 100,000 adults), the high rate of recidivism is an undeniable problem.
According to a 2016 MassINC report, approximately two thirds of people sent to state and county prisons had been previously incarcerated. About 67 percent of all state Department of Corrections inmates and county House of Corrections inmates had previously been inmates.
In fiscal 2013, a third of repeat offenders committed violent crimes and another third committed property offenses, according to the report. Those returning to society have been found to be concentrated in a small number of poor and urban communities, like the Main South neighborhood.
“The large number of ex-offenders in these areas has a criminogenic effect, increasing the likelihood among residents of both first-time offending and re-offending,” the report’s authors write.
Another report on re-integrating ex offenders, published in January by the New England Public Policy Center, shows recidivism rates are higher among younger inmates, at 42 percent throughout New England. Black men, according to the NEPPC, have the highest recidivism rate of any gender and race combination, at 40 percent.
At the Worcester House of Corrections, there are about 1,100 inmates. Of them, 50 percent had been inside before, and nearly 90 percent struggle with some sort of substance abuse problem, according to Sheriff Lew Evangelidis.
But WISR, a Worcester-county based program launched several years ago, is showing some results. An evaluation of the first three years of the program shows dynamic decreases in recidivism among the roughly 150 inmates that went through the program. Within a year, rates dropped from 19.8 to 9.2 percent re-incarceration, a 53-percent change. Within three years, rates dropped from 39.5 to 20.8 percent, a 47-percent change. Of the participants in need, 97 successfully enrolled in MassHealth, 75 percent of participants got the mental health services they were referred for, and 62 percent became employed. Of those, 71 percent were employed for a year or longer.
The WISR approach is a relatively simple one, involving more intensive case management both before and after release than the inmates would have gotten otherwise. Inter-agency teams of social service and health care professionals worked to refer the returning citizens and help navigate an often confusing bureaucratic web. The inmates had individual case management and incentives to participate by way of decreased participation time. The new program has excited the reentry team at the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department, which provides a less intensive version of the service on a shoestring budget.
“There is no magic bullet on this, but we know the more that we can do regarding this continuum of care, the better,” said Don Siergie, director of inmate services. “It’s the right thing to do and it makes sense for public safety.”
Many of the returning citizens interviewed for this story listed a lack of guidance after release as one of the biggest challenges.
“Resource, more options, a better way to get an I.D.,” said Tim Peak. “You come out of prison with nothing.”
In many ways, the intensive case work of WISR is an institutionalized version of the work that EPOCA and Straight Ahead Ministries do to help returning citizens find work, stay on the right path and navigate the system.
A SPIRITUAL APPROACH
Just down the street from EPOCA, Straight Ahead Ministries is headquartered in a second-floor office on Main Street. The organization has been around for about 30 years, and focuses on atrisk youth, from young teens to 24 year olds. The organization has satellite locations around Worcester, so as to not force kids into enemy gang turf, and has other offices in Lynn, Lawrence and the New Bedford area. Much of their work focuses on young returning citizens.
For Straight Ahead, it is the days following release that prove the most vital.
“They’re thinking, their head is clear, they’re not high. They’re thinking, ‘Where am I going?’” Straight Ahead president Scott Larson said. “But when they hit the street, everything else is the same. Every system kind of works to get back to an equilibrium, whether it’s a family or a community. They know what to do with this guy or girl as a drug dealer or criminal or whatever their thing is. If they make that change, it sort of upsets the whole system.”
A young returning citizen may find a job, but they have to go from making several thousand dollars a night selling drugs to earning minimum wage. And they often have random drug screenings, probation appointments and other commitments with the justice system that make keeping steady hours near impossible. They’re homeless a good part of the year, and often times are dealing with the pressures of gangs, rival gang, and police. It takes some kind of experience, Larson said, some kind of spiritual moment, for many to make the commitment to a better life against difficult odds.
Jason Ludwig, a former inmate and youth outreach coordinator for Straight Ahead Ministries working in Lynn, said his own life changed in a peculiar way. He was involved with a church, he said, but still holding on to his old life. After a bad fight with his girlfriend, he bought a 30 pack of beer and an eighth ounce of cocaine. He stayed up all night drinking and doing drugs, falling back into it. In the morning, he was wracked with guilt. But a few friends from his church came over and showed support, despite the slip-up.
“He said, ‘Jason, you’re probably going to do it again,’” Ludwig recalled. “But what I heard in that was like, ‘No matter what you do, even if you mess up again, we’re still going to be here for you. We love you. It doesn’t matter.’”
He started crying, he said, and they hugged him. He felt loved, like he had a place to fall back to, a found family that would be there for him.
“That’s it,” Ludwig said. “I never went back again.”
Bill Shaner can be reached at 508-749- 3166 x324 or at wshaner@worcestermag. com. Follow him on Twitter @Bill_Shaner.