US: helping former prisoners rebuild their lives after incarceration

US: helping former prisoners rebuild their lives after incarceration

Hassan Latif (right) is the founder of the Second Chance Center in Aurora, Colorado. Along with staff members like Sean Taylor (left), Latif helps former prisoners stay out of prison, stay employed and stay off of drugs.

(Brittany McDonald)

In the exercise room of the support centre Hassan Latif runs near Denver, Colorado, men and women like him, who are intent on not returning to prison, can get physically strong.

Of the counsellors who also double as weight-lifting partners, Latif says: “If you can trust someone to spot 300 pounds over your face, maybe you can trust them when they say, ‘How are you doing?’ and tell them what you’re struggling with.”

Latif pushes his charges to confront their fears as a step towards change. He also calls on all Americans to take a long hard look at why people return to prison.

Prison reform activists point out that reducing an oversized prison population is impossible without lowering recidivism rates. They also say that society will be safer if former prisoners become productive citizens.

“It’s a matter of community health and that includes public safety,” Latif says.

Latif, a former cocaine user with a record of robbery and other charges, emerged after two decades in state prison to become a drug addiction counsellor. Five years ago, he opened the Second Chance Center in the Denver suburb of Aurora.

In addition to access to a fitness centre, the centre also offers a laundry service and meals. Guests can get help doing things to keep them from returning to crime such as kicking a habit, reconnecting with family, finishing a high school diploma, starting a college degree or finding a job.

“We understand the challenge and are willing to help if you’re willing to listen,” Latif says.

The prison-industrial complex

Latif is also taking part in a broader conversation in the United States about the prison-industrial complex. In the US, prisoners account for 20 per cent of all the world’s inmates, even though it only has 5 per cent of the world’s population.

He has spoken to various groups at a national level, such as investment bankers, urging them to reconsider investing in the private prison industry, which he believes helps create a financial incentive for putting more people behind bars for longer periods.

“If people knew that lobbyists were busy driving people into prisons for profit they might choose to divest from these things,” Latif says.

He also lobbied for a 2014 Colorado law that calls for parole officers to be trained to guide released inmates to mental health counselling; state corrections officials to work with colleagues in the labour department to create job training programmes to ease the transition from prison to freedom; and grants for community programmes like the Second Chance Center.

An important part of Latif’s project is building empathy amongst former prisoners who had to turn off feeling for others to succeed as criminals. His Second Chance clients volunteer at food banks and other projects.

“Most of our folks have felt apart from, as opposed to a part of [something], for most of their lives,” Latif says. “The fact that they feel a part of this place I think is important.”

“The most important innovation is the recognition that re-entry is everyone’s problem,” says Jeremy Travis, president of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has been tracking the problem for decades.

Democrats and Republicans have come together behind, for example, a law President George W. Bush signed that stepped up drug treatment, mentoring and other services for people leaving prison. At the time, Bush said what is known as the Second Chance Act expresses a fundamental American belief that individuals, even those who have made mistakes, have “limitless potential and worth.”

The new US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a member of the Senate that approved the proposal by unanimous consent. During his confirmation hearings, Sessions noted he had supported reforms that narrowed a disparity between punishments for offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine that had resulted in longer sentences for African-Americans.

But Sessions also spoke of concern about a spike in crime, though he acknowledged an overall downward trend. His tough-on-crime rhetoric echoed the language that accompanied the ‘war on drugs’.

In one of his first acts after he was confirmed, he reversed an Obama administration move toward ending the use of private prisons. Sessions says the Bureau of Prisons, which he oversees, needed flexibility “to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

Roots of the problem

The ‘war on drugs’ accounts for much of America’s imprisonment problem, as civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the US rose from 300,000 to more than two million. Between 1985 and 2000, drug offenders accounted for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half the increase in state prisons. In many states, 90 per cent of those imprisoned for drug offenses were black or Latino, though there is statistically little difference in drug use among racial and ethnic groups.

Once they are out, many of those released find they are barred by law from public housing and financial aid for education, and discriminated against by private landlords and potential employers. Drug addiction and mental health problems are common amongst inmates; counselling services on the outside are scarce.

No wonder, as researchers who have been tracking recidivism in 30 states have found, that two-thirds of those released are re-arrested within three years of getting out and three-quarters end up reincarcerated within five years.

Eric Young, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals, sees recidivism as a sign that prisons are failing at rehabilitation. He lamented that budget constraints made it difficult to offer training, counselling and other programmes that prepare prisoners for a life beyond bars.

“You’ve got to offer programming,” Young tells Equal Times. “You cannot run prisons on the cheap.”

Young’s brother was once an inmate in a Florida prison where authorities failed to help prisoners on the threshold of release secure a driver’s license (which can expire or be lost during a long sentence, or which some prisoners have had suspended).

Young said his brother spent months unable to drive after he was released, which limited his ability to get a job in an area with poor public transportation.

Sessions’s Democratic predecessor Loretta E. Lynch had launched an initiative in her last year in office to make it easier for people leaving federal prisons to obtain state IDs.

Abused and traumatised

After her then husband was sent to prison in 2004, Jessica Jackson Sloan was galvanised to earn a law degree and co-found #cut50, a California-based advocacy group committed to halving the prison population by 2025.

Jackson Sloan speaks out for people sent to prisons as teenagers, where they are often abused and traumatised. The tragic story of Kalief Browder – a young black teenager who committed suicide after spending three years on the notorious Rikers Island without being convicted of any crime – is one of the most high profile examples. But there are countless others; many inmates are released after decades in prison with no work experience, at an age when most people are contemplating retirement. For them there are few options.

“You take somebody who’s been hurt and expect them to be able to function in society without any real support or guidance,” Jackson Sloan tells Equal Times. “We really need to look at what these extreme sentences are doing.”

Lawyer-author Michelle Alexander and others have made progress in recent years in raising awareness about such issues, says Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project. For three decades, the Atlanta-based project has provided legal services for poor people accused of crimes, as well as services and advocacy for those leaving prison.

In 2015, Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal signed an executive order banning the state from asking about criminal histories on job applications.

If the past comes up later during an interview, at least the applicant would have a chance to explain and make a case for being hired nonetheless, Deal said in the order. It is common for employers to ask applicants to check a box on forms if they have a record, leading to ‘Ban the Box’ campaigns by civil rights groups who say it handicaps job-seekers who are trying to change their lives.

In Georgia, Ammar had shown Deal the state job forms after first asking the governor where he thought the question came up. It was fourth on the list.

“I saw a light go off,” Ammar told Equal Times. “Who’s going to hire someone if the first thing you see is that they’ve been convicted of a crime?”