Missouri program acts as model for prisoner release

Thursday, May 1, 2008 | 3:35 p.m. CDT; updated 2:19 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

TIPTON — With six criminal convictions and two stints in prison, Adam Arnall is a problem for Missouri.

But this time, when Arnall walks out of the medium security Tipton Correctional Center on May 29, prison officials hope an intensive effort to prepare him for life outside the razor-wire will help keep him from coming back to prison.

Arnall got help lining up a job as a forklift operator in a Tyson poultry plant and has taken classes to help him understand how his prison stint has hurt his wife, children and 2-year-old granddaughter.

“It’s a total difference from what I’m used to. Before, it was like, ‘I’ll give you a bus ticket, a handshake and wish you good luck,’” he said.

In 2002, Missouri became one of the first states to overhaul its prisoner release program by linking state agencies, employers, nonprofit groups and drug and mental health counselors to help inmates fix the problems that led them to crime. Because nearly all inmates eventually are released, states across the country have been looking to copy ideas and methods that researchers and prison officials say are working best in Missouri and Oregon.

Gary Kempker, Missouri’s prison director at the time, said budget concerns prompted the program. Increasing inmate populations meant the state had to build new prisons — even while money was so tight that the state was removing light bulbs from public buildings.

“I’d like to say it was foresight that this is the way it should be done,” Kempker said. “The reality is that if there was a good side to the budget difficulties we went through, it was that it forced us to go out and look for different methods.”

The Missouri re-entry system was solidified when it was maintained in 2005 during the change from the administration of Democratic Gov. Bob Holden to that of Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who issued an executive order cementing coordination within state departments.

The model’s centerpiece is a transition accountability plan that has inmates identify problems in their lives that led them to prison, come up with ways to correct them and identify community resources that can help after release.

“One thing that we’re trying to show them is there is hope and there is a reason to go out there and get a minimum wage job and start working their life in a positive direction,” said Tim Wilkerson, a case manager at Missouri’s Tipton prison. “Because realistically, there’s more money on the illegal side of things, but the retirement sucks.”

Prisoners who will be released within six months stay in special housing, though limited space means not everyone eligible can live there. Inmates in the transitional units take courses in parenting, developing job skills and understanding the victims of their crimes.

For many, that means lessons on filling out resumes and writing cover letters. For those completing long sentences, it can mean learning how to use debit cards and microwave ovens.

“There will be people who do well no matter what, and there will be people who will mess up no matter what,” said Tony Streveler, an adviser to Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections, which has sent people to Missouri to study its system. “It’s the ones in between that the philosophy can help.”

One of every three ex-convicts who lived in the transitional housing ended up back in prison within two years, whether for probation violations or a new crime. That compares with a nearly 50 percent recidivism rate for all other ex-convicts in Missouri.

One obstacle to overcome is prisoners’ skepticism.

In prison since last summer, Justin Monge said that after he started the program, he wondered why he was sitting through a class.

“It was run by the state of Missouri, so I came in skeptical,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK maybe it’s a money scam; maybe they’re just trying to do this to look good.’”

But eventually Monge, 33, said he found that the atmosphere in the program was different, with inmates really focused on becoming prepared for their release.

“In the general population, you don’t even want to tell anybody that you’re going home, for the simple reason, people get upset.” he said. “They may have a few years to do yet, and here you are bouncing around the house screaming: ‘I’m going home.’”

Those who run the prisons also have had to adjust.

Ginger Martin, an assistant director in Oregon’s Department of Corrections, said it has taken a major culture change in the last decade to convince corrections officers that their responsibilities go beyond running safe and secure prisons.

Now, she said, “I don’t think there’s anybody who works in our department who doesn’t understand that one of our jobs is to prepare our inmates to be successful when they leave.”

Arnall already left prison once when he wasn’t ready. He said preparing while he’s still locked up has made a difference this time around.

“I know I’m not coming back,” he said. “But this program is helping me with steps to not come back, to know where my errors lay before” and not repeat those mistakes.

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