Many Indiana residents may not realize that the prison population in the state is big enough to become its own city.
There are now 28,016 people in the state – 25,558 men and 2,458 women –incarcerated, according to the latest data released by the Indiana Department of Correction.
Annually, hundreds of prisoners are released and return to live in Marion County. How can they avoid repeating the choices that landed them in prison?
In Indianapolis, a new organization has joined the effort to help ex-offenders build a stable life and avoid returning to prison.
Formed last year, Starting Over Corps helps formerly incarcerated men and women find the resources necessary to meet basic needs, as well as job training and professional development opportunities.
“Our goal is to remove the barriers, hurdles and potholes that can keep a client from being successful,” said Lionel Muse, a reentry coordinator who was released from prison for a non-violent felony last year, and found employment with Recycle Force.
“When someone comes out of prison, their life is fractured, and we want to help them find what they need and put it all in one, holistic package.”
Starting Over has presented itself as a “one stop shop” for individuals who have left prison, or might be preparing to leave prison, so that they can have one reference source to find the services.
Often, former inmates have to go to different places to obtain housing, bus tickets, clothing vouchers, employment opportunities and other necessities.
“A lot of people coming out, they don’t have the bus fare to be going all over the city for services they are looking for,” said Charles West, who reformed his life after prison and is now a re-entry coordinator for Starting Over. “Our job is to make sure we inform clients about what’s out there and help them meet the criteria to get it so that they don’t back to street mode in order to survive.”
Starting Over is part of the federally funded AmeriCorps service initiative, and operates out of a facility owned by the HRH Development Corp.
Most of Starting Over’s direct work is done by a committee of dedicated reentry coordinators who were once incarcerated, and understand the difficulties of making the transition from a life behind bars back to a life of choices.
“Some people are not ready to make certain choices and meet certain challenges after being locked up for a long time because life is different than it was when they were first incarcerated,” said Gloria Cook, who served a sentence at Indiana Women’s Prison. “The world can be difficult, and we are taken out of it and expected to walk back in like we never left.”
Starting Over reentry coordinators provide one-on-one consultation to clients, offering assistance in locating service providers as well as personal instruction, guidance and support in helping ex-offenders overcome reentry-related obstacles.
“They have helped me get on track,” said Kim Carnes, who is on work release following a drug conviction. “They guided me in getting a license and housing.”
Starting Over coordinators are among concerned individuals who point with alarm to the rapid increase of Indiana’s prison population.
According to a report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, Indiana’s prison population, despite an overall decrease in crime, grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, jumping from 19,309 inmates to 28,389.
In its report, the Justice Center notes, “if existing policies remain unchanged, the prison population is projected to continue to grow, and the state will need to expand prison capacity at a significant cost to taxpayers.”
Reentry coordinators such as DaVinci Richardson are doing everything they can to keep that from happening.
“Every time they increase the prison budget it is done at the expense of schools,” Richardson said. “The community is going to have to take our leaders on the issue of reentry seriously, because we can’t afford private contractors making money the way they do off of us.”
Muse and Richardson believe that reentry has not been a policy priority because too many people involved in the prison industry would lose money if every inmate reentered society successfully.
To help address the problem, Starting Over coordinators and clients have been lobbying state legislators to address issues such as the removal of non-violent offenses from a person’s record after a certain time so that they can better obtain employment.
Also, state lawmakers have pledged to take a closer look at the topic of re-entry during the current session of Indiana’s General Assembly.
“That will be among our top issues,” said state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, chairman of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus.
Randolph said the high number of African-Americans affected by a prison sentence in Indiana is horrible, and the increase in the prison population drains needed resources. He added that the caucus will look at legislation to help remove obstacles to employment, expunge criminal charges that did not lead to a conviction and lessen the impact of sentences given for non-violent offenses such as possession of marijuana.