The Need for a Helping Hand
By Peter Korn
Robert Lyday never even made it past the sidewalk in front of the Old Town Greyhound bus station.
He’d been released from the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem with a bus ticket to Portland. He stepped off the bus in Old Town and walked through the sliding glass doors facing Northwest Fifth Avenue.
“Soon as I walked out the door, I was greeted by old friends,” Lyday, 53, recalls. “We did the superficial ‘How are you doing, you look good,’ and the money started burning a hole in my pocket.”
Lyday, a cocaine addict with seven different prison stints and more than 100 Multnomah County jailings, spent four days on that sidewalk getting high and dealing drugs. He never made it to his required check-in with his parole officer. On the fourth day he was picked up by police and jailed; his parole officer had put out the equivalent of a warrant for his failure to report in.
With no one to meet him at the bus station, his reentry into the world outside prison was doomed from the start, Lyday says. And his odds of going straight were even lower three days later when he was released from the downtown county jail, again, with instructions to report to his PO.
“The destructiveness of addiction was already in effect,” he says. “I was still homeless. I had no structure. I still had to report, so I had to make the long walk from the jailhouse to the Mead Building (headquarters for county parole officers). Or, I could go right down the street to the Greyhound station.”
He went back to the Greyhound station to feed his habit.
Need for change
Lyday’s most recent release from prison was very different than his four-day sidewalk bender. This time he was met at the bus station by a mentor from Bridges To Change, a nonprofit that houses and works with ex-convicts for their first 90 days after release.
Today, Lyday is clean and sober and adopting a new, positive attitude that is almost infectious. But he is outspoken about flaws in the post prison system that he believes make it almost impossible for ex-convicts to reform.
Everybody needs to be met on the outside — at the prison gate or at the bus station — by a mentor or sponsor, Lyday says. The adjustments from life inside prison to life outside are so abrupt and perilous that most ex-convicts begin losing their battle to change old habits practically before they have begun.
Corrections officials agree. “It is the number one fact that influences returning to prison,” says Jeremiah Stromberg, the Oregon assistant director of community corrections, about the lack of positive role models and new social environments for those released from prison.
Lyday says community justice officials need to insist that every released prisoner has a safe place to stay on release. Ostensibly, they do. Before release, prisoners must provide an address where they intend to live. But many, Lyday says, provide the names of family members or friends who are not the answer. Mom or dad or a favorite aunt might be addicts or criminals themselves, Lyday says. If not, it’s likely they are enablers and part of the problem that led the ex-convict to addiction or crime in the first place.
At the very least, Lyday says, releasing to family or old friends nearly guarantees an ex-convict will be living with the old behavioral triggers he or she needs to avoid.
But corrections officials and parole officers can’t insist that Oregon inmates on release take advantage of mentors or halfway houses. That’s because the state’s criminal justice system, which provides mandatory early release for all inmates, removes the leverage that parole boards once had to keep inmates in prison if they didn’t agree to accept more outside help.
When someone in Oregon is sentenced to prison, the sentence includes a release-to-supervision date that sets an offender free as much as three years before the end date of their full sentence. Men and women convicted under the state’s mandatory sentencing law cannot, through good behavior, get out earlier. They also cannot be held past their release-to-supervision date. Consequently, there is no early release incentive for them to engage in programming that will lead to an outside mentor at the gate, or a halfway house bed.
However, holding a prisoner past his or her release date — even if it were legal — might not be the right thing to do, says Ginger Martin, deputy director of the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, which oversees probation and parole.
“Is it fair to hold people in custody as a punishment if they don’t have a place to live?” she asks. “I don’t think punishment, and that is what prison time is, is the answer to homelessness.”
Most non-violent offenders (who are not subject to mandatory sentencing laws) can earn up to 90 days earlier release. But if convicts refuse to engage in treatment while in prison and reject the offer, they still get released to parole on their post-prison supervision dates, which is well ahead of the end dates of their full sentences. There is little funding to help transition those who are not affiliated with a gang or willing to get addiction or mental health treatment, but instead opt for general release.
Lyday says he knows ex-convicts who, like him, never make it to their required PO meeting. Many others, he says, report to their PO on the day after release only because they know they won’t have to report again for 30 days. “Then they have another 30 days to run and gun,” he says.
Early release, Lyday says, should be viewed as a privilege, earned by convicts willing to work on treatment in prison and work with mentors on release.
Part of the problem, some experts say, is that corrections officials are responsible for inmates while they are in prison, while county community justice officials take charge once inmates are released to parole. Requiring corrections officials to delay release based on what will happen after release requires a cross-jurisdictional cooperation that rarely occurs.
Having a firm release date does have advantages, says Stromberg. Corrections officials know how long they have to work on rehabilitation and prison counselors can begin working with county parole officials a guaranteed 120 days before release.
Stromberg, a former member of the Oregon Parole Board, acknowledges that the traditional parole system, which required prisoners to earn their release date, had advantages. “It allows you to leverage that incentive, to say, ‘We’re going to consider what kind of support you have on the outside ... in determining that release date,” he says.
Inside prison, Lyday says, most convicts look upon halfway houses like Bridges To Change with disdain. “Most think it’s just another ploy,” he says. “A resource for the system to get paid for your bed.”
Lyday says his experience at Bridges has taught him differently. He had a mentor by his side, helping him get through those first 24 hours — providing a place to stay, driving him to his PO, taking him to get his food stamps, providing a transit pass. Since then he has had structure — a house with six others which he is required to leave during the day to work or look for a job, with a mentor checking in every day to make sure he is staying on track.
“Accountability and structure is the key,” Lyday says. “There are different rules on this side. (Bridges) has allowed me to engage life on terms I never really embraced before. I never really knew it is as simple as it is.”
Recently, Lyday talked to a counselor at Powder River Corrections Facility in Baker City, where he spent his most recent prison term before his release in October. He asked a favor.
“I wanted her to relay the message that this is nothing like they think it is,” he says. “It’s like a diving board where you spring into life.”
Incentives key to new programs for released inmates
In Montgomery County, Maryland, state convicts who get family members to attend prison support groups with them earn more privileges.
“We created a system of privileges that was tied to their stages of change,” says Stefan LoBuglio, Director of Corrections and Reentry for the nonprofit Council of State Governments.
National data shows recidivism rates holding steady at the same levels they’ve been at for years, despite a decade of initiatives and programs aimed at helping newly-released convicts. With new federal and state policies calling for the release of more offenders from prison, criminal justice experts are scrambling to figure out what works.
The discouraging data, LoBuglio says, may not tell the full story. He says federal funds that have been allocated in recent years have mostly gone to a variety of pilot projects, not infrastructure. That funding, which included $15 million in Justice Reinvestment funds to Oregon counties in 2014, is supposed to support programs that reduce recidivism.
One lesson that has become clear, according to LoBuglio, is that Incentives are crucial. In some states (not Oregon), prisoners are denied parole until after a corrections official has inspected and approved a home and post-release plan.
In Ohio, according to LoBuglio, the majority of prisoners are released to halfway houses. Other states and counties (including Washington County in Oregon) are trying out pre-release centers where prisoners can search for jobs and earn money while awaiting full freedom.
LoBuglio’s own organization is involved in a national initiative aimed at finding ways to keep offenders with mental illness out of jails and prisons.
“Think about the numbers involved,” LoBuglio says. “Each year nine million people are cycling through our jails and between 600,000 and 700,000 are leaving federal and state prisons. The reentry programs that have been funded by the federal government Second Chance Act have served over 137,000 over the last six years. It’s still a very small percentage of the overall prison population.”
The hope, LoBuglio says, is that the best of those pilot projects will get used on a wider scale. “We have ideas, but they’re not systematized right now,” LoBuglio says.
Nationally, the percentage of prisoners serving their full sentences has been rising over the past 25 years. But Oregon has the nation’s lowest max-out rate, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That means that almost all Oregon prisoners leave state prison before serving their full sentences, and they leave under the supervision of a parole officer.
States with lowest max-out rates
1) Oregon 0.4% of prisoners serve full sentence
2) California .9%
3) Arkansas 5.0%
4) Wisconsin 6.1%
5) New Hampshire 6.3%
States with highest max-out rates
1) Florida 64.3% of prisoners serve full sentence
2) Maine 63.4%
3) North Carolina 59.9%
5) Ohio 46.6%
Data from: PEW Charitable Trusts