Righting re-entry: Students learn the trials of ex-offenders after their release from prison

El Sawyer, left, co-producer of "Pull of Gravity", and Robert Reed, executive assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,  joined a panel for a criminal justice forum at Wheeling Jesuit University last week. They addressed the issues facing ex-offenders making the transition from prison life to home life.

El Sawyer, left, co-producer of "Pull of Gravity", and Robert Reed, executive assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania,  joined a panel for a criminal justice forum at Wheeling Jesuit University last week. They addressed the issues facing ex-offenders making the transition from prison life to home life.

By Lee Chottiner

Almost all people imprisoned in America will be released someday. But that doesn’t mean their problems will come to an end.

Most ex-offenders are paroled to neighborhoods with high unemployment rates, high homeless rates, and high rates of illegal drug use—the scourge that got many of them into trouble in the first place.

Some have families that will support them. Others, though, have brothers, fathers or children who are behind bars themselves. Many grew up in fatherless households or have no family at all.

With no jobs or little family support, the streets remain a constant temptation, luring ex-offenders back to the very lives they are trying to leave behind. It is no wonder that the national recidivism rate—the rate of ex-offenders relapsing into crime—is so high.

How high? While West Virginia has the fourth lowest recidivism rate in the country, a 2014 study of 30 states released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about two-thirds of released prisoners in 2005 (67.8 percent) were arrested for a new crime within three years. Within five years, the rate climbed to 76.6 percent.

Consider that with a 2011 report by the Pew Center, which found that states spend more than $50 billion on corrections, and it isn’t hard to see those jurisdictions are not getting a good return for their money.

The question is, what can be done about it?

A panel of ex-offenders, prosecutors and nonprofit leaders tackled the question of “re-entry”—the transition from prison to freedom—on Tuesday, Nov. 3, during a criminal justice forum at Wheeling Jesuit University.

Some 700,000 people are released from American prisons each year, said Betsy Jividen, assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, in opening the forum. “Are they ready?” she asked rhetorically. “In a lot of cases, no.”  

More than 100 people at the forum, mostly students, but some adults, including other ex-offenders, watched the sobering documentary Pull of Gravity, which followed three parolees in Philadelphia trying to rebuild their lives following their time in prison. In all, some 15 people—the parolees themselves, their families and friends—were interviewed for the film.

After the lights went on, one of the panelists, El Sawyer, himself an ex-offender, a Philadelphia-based filmmaker and a co-producer of Pull of Gravity, offered this chilling statistic: Twelve of the 15 people interviewed for the documentary have since been shot, four of them fatally.

The lure of the streets is strong, he said, especially for drug addicts with no other opportunities.

Sawyer, who at the time of the Wheeling Jesuit program had 11 days remaining on his parole, said he made the film to graphically illustrate the problems ex-offenders face when released. He hoped it could serve as a tool for families, judges, parole officers and other professionals who assist men and women reentering society.

The transition doesn’t happen overnight, Sawyer said. “You need to come home and get yourself together, and the court system has to be nurturing enough.”

The panelists didn’t just describe the problems; they offered solutions.

Mike Walker, property manager of the Fairmont Community Development Partnership in Marion County, which manages public housing, said more transitional housing is needed for men and women emerging from the prisons.

“You’ve got to have some place to go,” he said.

Robert Reed, executive assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which includes Philadelphia, suggested that the Justice Department offer public housing vouchers to ex-offenders. Those same people, he added, could be given a chance to learn a trade by being employed to rehabilitate rundown housing.

Jeri Kirby, assistant professor of criminal justice at Fairmont State University, and herself an ex-offender, said training future judges, police and parole officers, and lawmakers about the hurdles ex-offenders face is the best way to lessen challenges of reentry.

Kirby told the students, many of whom are preparing for  fields in criminal justice, that they can make a difference while still in college.

“If you think you can’t do anything,” she said, “all you have to do is reach out to your local nonprofit organizations.”

“The best addiction is service,” she added.

Kirby is involved with a program called the Inside-Out Center. Established by Temple University, it is a partnership between colleges and universities and the prison system through which undergraduate students and inmates are brought together to study for a semester as peers behind prison walls.

“You’re not teaching them; they’re not teaching you,” Kirby said. She described the experience as "transformative" for both groups.

While the students at the forum put no questions to the panel, one ex-offender asked a provocative one: How can society keep offenders from committing crimes in the first place?

“Is there something we can do before we start locking people up?” he asked.

Reed, who moderated the panel, was sympathetic to the question, but there is only so much prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officers can do, he lamented.

“I never felt we needed to get a conviction just to get a conviction,” Reed said about his own office.

But he added, “Can police stop homelessness? No. Can they stop addiction? No.”