Beyond Prison, Probation and Parole-Interview With Former Offender Randy Kearse
DC Public Safety Radio
LEONARD SIPES: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentleman, we are doing a series of radio shows for people who’ve been caught up in the criminal justice system, and to get their perspective as to what it is that we do both within the District of Columbia and throughout the country. My guest today is Randy Kearse, host of Straight Talk with Randy Kearse. It’s a public access show in New York City. He’s a bestselling author and independent film maker. He was convicted for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine in 1992. Randy spent 15 years in a federal prison, sentenced under the mandatory minimum and now infamous Crack Law. His first documentary film is A Deeper Truth: The Politics of Racism; The Media Hysteria Behind the Crack Cocaine Epidemic. Randy, welcome back to DC Public Safety.
RANDY KEARSE: Thank for inviting me back, Leonard. I really appreciate what you’re doing. I really appreciate being on your show. I just hope that, you know, this conversation will help further the conversations that are going on in the reentry field today.
LEONARD SIPES: Well you know, I always get a bit of criticism that “Leonard, everything that you do is DC based. Why don’t you reach out to somebody beyond the District of Columbia when talking about the issue of reentry?” So you and I are Facebook friends, and I always think of you in terms of reaching out beyond New York City. People also say, “Leonard, everybody that you interview who’s caught up in the criminal justice system are documentary film makers. Is that the norm?” And I’m going, “No.” I said, “It’s just that they seem to do a better job of offering their opinions. They’ve thought about these issues, thought them through, and then offer clarity in terms of how they feel the criminal justice system should be improved.” So we were talking about issues right before we hit the start button in terms of recording the program, and this is interesting. One of the things you wanted to talk about was creating a reentry initiative think tank which consists of successful of former offenders. Tell me about that.
RANDY KEARSE: I think that today, we need to relook at how we approach reentry. If we look at the history of reentry over the last 20-30 years, nationally, the statistics of people returning back to prison is pretty much stayed the same in the high 60s, sometimes even up to 70s in the states. So I think it’s time to start really, honestly taking a different approach toward reentry and to tap into those people that have been to prison, came home, and are doing extremely well, and have done some extraordinary things to see what their formula was for not returning. And I think if you get enough of us people who have been there, done that, and are now doing that, I think that we’d have a better opportunity to have some real impactful reentry programs.
I mean if you look at the money that is being put into reentry, I mean we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars yearly. You know, upwards, I don’t even know how high it is, but the numbers never change. The numbers are not changing. For the money that we’re spending on reentry, and the numbers are not going down substantially, I mean, that would make anyone say, “Well, we need to rethink this thing. We need to, you know, find a different approach.” And I feel that if you took… if we created – you guys in DC, the politicians, and the criminal justice system was to be able to create a think tank that is basically filled with people from all over the country who have successfully transitioned back to society, and are doing well, and put these guys in a room and did some real serious stuff that think tanks do, I think we would have a better opportunity to really get to the meat of what the problem is and how to offer some real meaningful solutions.
LEONARD SIPES: When you’re talking about the numbers not going down, you’re talking about the recidivism numbers in terms of arrest convictions and return to prison?
RANDY KEARSE: Yes, yes.
LEONARD SIPES: Well, you’re absolutely right. The latest survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a very high rate of return to the criminal justice system for people who have spent time in prison and that’s caused people to pause.
RANDY KEARSE: Exactly.
LEONARD SIPES: I mean they’re saying to themselves, “What is it that we need to do better?” And quite frankly I think the reentry initiative think tank composed of people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system has value.
RANDY KEARSE: Yeah, it just makes sense to me that you bring in people who have been through that situation and made it through successfully, to be able to come up with some guide, some instructions, some type of blueprint on what the correctional facilities can be doing better, what reentry programs could be done better in order to help people transition back to society more completely. I think it just makes sense.
LEONARD SIPES: The title of today’s program is beyond Prison, Probation, and Parole: a Reentry Story. So that’s part of your reentry story, is getting people once caught up in the criminal justice system, people who are doing well to sit down with what? A hundred other people from all around the country and sit down and teach the rest of us in the criminal justice system how we could be doing it better?
RANDY KEARSE: Yes, I think that the criminal justice system and especially those who work in the reentry field should be, at this point, open to trying some different approaches. I mean listen, whatever is going on or whatever it’s been the norm for the last 20-30 years isn’t working, and you keep pouring money into a system that is not producing the results that we are looking for. I mean you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. Imagine what we could be doing with that money if we had some real sense of what would be better, where that money could be better spent, and how that money that could be better allocated when it comes to prison reentry? Now who better to talk to that issue than those who didn’t have those hundreds of millions of dollars, but were able to transition successfully and are doing good? We’re talking about entrepreneurs. We’re talking about educators. We’re talking about business people. We’re talking about a whole gambit of people who have been through that experience and are doing successful to this day. I mean you have celebrities. You have people across the board. And if you do it on a national level, and then maybe set up some state-wide task force or reentry type of think tank, I think that we would get a lot better mileage out of what we’re trying to do here.
LEONARD SIPES: What would we get out of it that we’re not getting now? The bureaucrat sitting in Washington, the people at the state level throughout the country – what is it that we’re missing about this story?
RANDY KEARSE: What you’re missing is that all of the money that’s being spent and the results that you’re getting don’t match up.
LEONARD SIPES: But no, we know that. We can see from the national data that recidivism remains high, and we’re sitting back and going, “Well, um, okay.” But at the same time 80% of people with a history of substance abuse – we know that people caught up in the prison system, 80% have a history of substance abuse – yet a lot of surveys out there say that 10%, while in prison are getting drug treatment. There’s disconnect between 10% getting treatment and 80% having history of substance abuse. Other people are simply saying, “Hey, it’s simply a matter of money, and the public doesn’t seem to be willing to support those expenditures that raises that to 40, 50, 60% getting drug treatment.”
RANDY KEARSE: Well, that’s another thing. I mean, being able to educate the public about why that we should get behind this kind of initiative that would help more people than just the 10% who are getting help, it’s about educating the public. I think politicians or people that are looking at this don’t take into account what the public wants or what the public doesn’t want. So there has to be a better sense of getting the information out to the public, to society, to show them that the benefits of providing services, of providing treatment, of providing alternate to incarceration and providing reentry service and all of these thing that would help people transition from that lifestyle that puts them in the situation to go to prison or go back to prison. So the public needs to be more informed on just how much society would benefit from having these type of conversations, having these type of programs that would help people get off of that, get out of that revolving door, to be able to get their life back together. And until we inform the public more, until we get that information out there, then I think we’re going to be beholden to people who think that they know what’s best for society, and society doesn’t have a say in it.
LEONARD SIPES: Go ahead.
RANDY KEARSE: So where I stand is just I think that one of things that’s missing here in this equation is people need to understand why reentry doesn’t start when a person gets out. Reentry should start when a person’s in. So we should switch from a reentry mindset to a pre-entry mindset. And if we took all of the resources, if we took more of the resources that are on the outside and actually put them inside the prisons and you set up a system where a person’s need are addressed in the prison, you would be able, we would be able to have more impact because we’re dealing with more of the population that’s going to return. Now if a program can only handle 50 people a year, or 75 people a year, and you have 2000 people getting out in DC alone every year, I mean how many people can actually be successfully acclimated back to society when the resources aren’t there for them?
If you put that money and you put those resources inside the prison, and used some of these programs as an after care tool to basically check up on what a person need when he gets out, I think we would definitely have a better advantage of helping people not go back to prison. When I was in federal prison, there was a reentry program, but the type of reentry program that it was, it was a joke. I’m going to be totally honest with you. It was something that was, if you showed up, you showed up. If you didn’t, you didn’t. You signed your name, but then you went to the [PH] wait tile. That was the only accountability that was needed or required of you. So if you didn’t take your own initiative to prepare yourself for getting out of prison, you were pretty much struck. You were pretty much stuck.
LEONARD SIPES: Let me ask you this. If we had the drug treatment for the 80%, if we had the mental health treatment for the 50%, if we had job training, vocational training, GED programs, reading programs; if we had all of that, if we had a full package so the individual inmate when he goes to prison, spends his or her entre day either dealing with substance abuse, dealing with mental health, learning a trade, learning how to read, getting a GED, what would be that impact? What would happen in terms of the recidivism rate, in terms of people getting out?
RANDY KEARSE: Oh man! That would help decrease the recidivism rate exponentially. I mean, it would be one step that would be part of helping to lower the recidivism rate, but now you’re talking of bringing the job preparedness, you’re talking about preparing job skills and computer training, getting people ready to get into the workforce while they’re there. I mean you have people who are coming home – I just talked to a guy, he’s been away for 25 years. He doesn’t know anything about a computer; he doesn’t know anything, the basics, anything sending an email, doing Word or anything like that. So how can this guy go into the new technology workforce when he’s not prepared? So once you address those immediate needs: education, substance abuse, and learning skills, and GED – okay, that’s one level. Now we have to take people to the next level where we get them job ready.
LEONARD SIPES: Okay, I need a quick air [INDISCERNIBLE 00:13:10] because we have so much to go over. With governors throughout the country, really very, very clear, stating that they can no longer afford the level of incarceration; I mean it’s taking away money for schools, it’s taking away money for highways, it’s taking away money for colleges. So every governor in the country, theoretically, has had a conversation with their Director of Corrections saying, “You’ve got to decrease your budget. You’ve got to do a better job.” Then, okay, so if everybody’s on board, if everybody seems to pretty much agree with what it is that we should be doing, what’s your explanation for why it’s not happening?
RANDY KEARSE: Because the money is not being put in and the resources are not being put in place that we would allow for the things that we just talked about.
LEONARD SIPES: And why? Why is the bottom line question?
RANDY KEARSE: I don’t know. I’m not in control of the money. If I was in control of the money, then I could tell you. At least from my experience and research of some of these organizations in New York, I mean some of these organizations are getting million dollar budgets, hundred thousand, two hundred thousand dollars to service the reentry population and the numbers are still the same. So why don’t we grab some of that money that is being put into these programs that are not producing the results that we want, and shift that money into the prison and create that reentry department inside the prison, right there, in the prison where the guy goes to his case manager, he goes to see a reentry manager, reentry coordinator and we deal with it. They get the programs right there in the prison. You have the, an employment connection within the prison where a year before the guy comes out, you already have job opportunities that might be waiting for him based on his services or his productivity in the prison, and you can match to where he’s going to go when he gets out. To me, that’s the problem, that’s the problem.
LEONARD SIPES: We’re half way through the program. We’re talking today with Randy Kearse. And he spent 15 years in a federal prison, but Randy is now becoming an independent film maker, he is working on a variety of projects, and one of the things that I find it very interesting the movie that he’s about 80% though A Deeper Truth: The Politics of Racism, and Media Hysteria Behind the Crack Cocaine Epidemic. He is funding the last part of that through Indigogo. It’s I-N-D-I-G-O-G-O.com/a-deeper-truth2. If you just go to Indigogo and search for A Deeper Truth: The Politics, Racism, and Media Hysteria Behind the Crack Cocaine Epidemic. You can fund Randy’s newest project and with this announcement, Randy, I’m going to, this afternoon, go and make the donation to the project, so I’ve been…
RANDY KEARSE: I appreciate that, man. Thank you very much.
LEONARD SIPES: I’ve been waiting for this radio show before making that announcement.
RANDY KEARSE: Thank you man.
LEONARD SIPES: Let’s go back. Again we’re beyond… Today’s program is called Beyond Prison, Probation, and Parole: a Reentry Story. A little bit about the crack cocaine issue. So the film that you’re doing The Politics of Racism, and Media Hysteria Behind the Crack Cocaine Epidemic, I remember those days. I’ve been around long enough. I do understand that the crime rate in this country was just astronomical and that crime rate and the crime problems associated with it, were destroying cities, hurting education, hurting business, hurting development, hurting investment in communities, and so we’ve had a pretty much a continuous 20 year decline in crime since that time, and there are some criminologists who would say that a portion of that decline has been massive incarceration. There are other reasons for it. I’m not saying it’s 50%, 75%. There are some criminologists – in fact the cover of Time Magazine just a couple years ago talked about that being a significant reason. Talk to me about that.
RANDY KEARSE: Any time you have a situation where there’s a new drug or some type of prohibition of a substance that the public wants, and there opens up an illegal market for it, you’re going to find that there’s going to be a propensity for violence. I mean, it happened in Prohibition where the gangs fought over the alcohol profits. It happened during heroin, where the gangs just fought over the heroin profits, and it happened in Las Vegas when they fought over profits of the casinos. It happened during the crack cocaine epidemic.
What we’ve found now is that the crack itself, the drug, was not the driving force that caused the violence, that the drug users weren’t the violent ones. It was the people who fighting over the profits or for the drugs that caused the violence. There is no excuse for violence. There is no reason that violence should be tolerated in this society, but what I’m trying to point out in this documentary, that it’s deeper than what society has been taught to believe, what the problems of – that everything was based on crack cocaine. Before crack cocaine in the African American community, there was unemployment, there was poverty, there was poor education. There was other factors that were in play before this drug hit the market to where we have to look at the root causes of why this phenomenon happened, and what were the reason.
One of the reasons was the media. The media had a very strong role in shaping the framework for how society seen this drug, who used the drug, who was more susceptible to the violence of the drug, and stuff like that. But those studies and studies and studies, a lot of the things that politicians use to instill fear in society and was actually led to war on drugs, was not facts. It was a lot of fear. And even if you take away the drug aspect, even when you look at some of the things that are going on today in politics, in how policy is shaped, a lot of times based on misinformation and fear. And that’s what we’re talking about, how fear drove a lot of the policies during that period of time. And we hope to bring out some of those factors in the documentary, where hopefully that we, as the public and society, that we will be more visible and more wanted more facts before we decide to make policies that actually do more damage the situation itself. The war on drugs did more damage to the African American community than crack cocaine could ever do. And if you fast forward. . . Go ahead.
LEONARD SIPES: What you’re suggesting is inherently a misinformation campaign that it was not as portrayed by the media, not as portrayed by the larger community, there were deeper issues; and those deeper issues were ignored, and that it resulted in incarceration policies.
RANDY KEARSE: Absolutely.
LEONARD SIPES: Specifically within the African American community.
RANDY KEARSE: Absolutely. I mean, now, if you fast forward almost 30years later, they lowered the penalties for crack cocaine astronomically, to the point where it’s almost equal to powder cocaine, now. Remember the infamous crack war was 100:1. One gram of crack cocaine was equal to 100 grams of powder cocaine. Now one gram of crack cocaine is equal to, I think, 18 grams of powder cocaine. So now that law was not based on scientific fact because… and in this documentary, we’ve talked to one of the nations, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists who have done studies upon studies upon studies of drugs and the pharmaceutical impact of drugs and cocaine and crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same drug. It’s just the manner of ingestion that is different, but they’re actually the same drug. So they’ve lowered the threshold for crack and powder, now, they’re about to make it retroactive in November, the Commission, they’re supposed to make it retroactive, but now…
LEONARD SIPES: Federal Sentencing Commission?
RANDY KEARSE: [OVERLAY] Yeah, the Federal Sentence Commission, in order to make it retroactive, now you have 30 years of people who were sentenced to these Draconian drug laws who… I just interviewed a guy Thursday, last Thursday. First time offender. Never been in trouble in his life. Never even had a traffic ticket. I’m not saying what he did was right, what I’m saying is first time offender. He got caught in a drug conspiracy and he got 20 years. He did 20 years. And now 30 years later, they’re saying, “You know what? It’s not that bad. We’re going to equal it out.” How do you give that person back their time?
LEONARD SIPES: But I get where there are common themes, and we do want to get on to the third part of the program which is specifically Beyond Prison, Probation, and Parole: A Reentry Story, your next project that you’re currently working on. But in essence, what we’re talking about in terms of first topic, in terms of the funding for reentry; the second topic in terms of the perception of an overreaction to the cocaine epidemic, we’re talking about a fearful society, not giving a good hard, look at what the reality is, and that lack of that good, hard look at reality is creating forces that are not necessarily productive for the larger society. If we’re saying that we can no longer afford the level of incarceration that we’ve had, and every state in the country is basically wrestling with this, if we’re talking about it, we can no longer afford those expenditures, then we have created a scenario that we can’t sustain. And what you’re suggesting is that we’re not taking a hard look at what’s going on by the larger society and the media.
RANDY KEARSE: I think that, you know, people get so used to doing the same thing, and it just becomes the norm. I think it’s time to think outside the box. That’s the bottom line. It’s time to really look at what isn’t working, and try to come up with some better solutions. I mean, come on. . .
LEONARD SIPES: And that gets us back to the initial opening statement in terms of what I find fascinating, the reentry initiative think tank consisting of former, successful offenders from throughout the country that would be that body that would say, “Hey, you know, let’s look at this a bit differently in terms of how you’re looking at it because you could end up doing more harm than good.” Okay, your third project, and we only have a couple minutes to address this, and I want to get to it. The title is Beyond. . . the show is Beyond Prison Probation and Parole: a Reentry Story, but it’s also your new project?
RANDY KEARSE: Yeah, I’m working on a series. It’s going to be a series that I’m profiling successful people who have been to prison and made a successful transition back to society. The name of the project is Beyond Prison, Probation, and Parole, and what we’re trying to do is get as many profiles for people and then to hopefully have a correctional institution bring these profiles into the prison and be able to show the offenders and the inmates some of the people’s stories of how they successfully transitioned and how they were able to beat the odds of going back. I think that for people who are incarcerated right now, they need to see what is possible. You know, whether they’re being provided the resources right there in the immediacy, I think they need to see other people who have done it. You know it’s easy, and you guys in the reentry and the criminal justice system have a lot of good intentions. You want to try to beat back this problem of recidivism and stuff like that, but it’s those guys, like ourselves, that have been there that will probably have a better bearing on what a person decides to do with their life if they see that they see someone else doing it. If they see the formula that someone else used. That they be able to connect to these stories, and think that’s another way to provide some incentive for people to not want to go back to prison.
LEONARD SIPES: Randy, beyond the lack of resources in terms of the funding for these programs, what is the bottom line analysis in terms of the individual caught up in criminal justice system? He or she comes out of prison. There are a lot of people who do make it, 50% go back to prison, but 50% don’t. So for the 50% who don’t go back to prison often times I’ve had hundreds of people over the years sitting in front of microphones or doing the TV show, and they simply say, “Hey look. The bottom line is I made my own personal decision not to go back.”
RANDY KEARSE: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
LEONARD SIPES: But, I mean, is it just that? Is it, “Hey, I have the will and the determination, and you don’t?”
RANDY KEARSE: Well, it’s going to be according the individual. In my case, it was just that the bottom line was I decided I wanted something better for myself. I decided I want to make a change. I decided that I was going to not go back to prison. And I was offered no programs or resources to tap into, so I had to create my own opportunities. Now for someone who might want to change and may not want to go back, they might not have that willpower or that determination, but if you provide them just a little push, just a little push in the right direction, that might be all that they need. Every individual is not as strong, every individual is not as solid to take that step on their own, but if you provide them a little nudge, a push, you’ll be surprised at what they’ll probably be able to accomplish. So, yes, it is up to the individual, no matter how many resources or their availability, but at the same time, if you provide the right resources, at the right time, for the right people, then you’ll definitely have a stronger impact on the recidivism and beating down the recidivism rate, absolutely.
LEONARD SIPES: We got 10 seconds left, but the right time and the right person at the right place is as awfully… is a very scientific and very precise formula. Are we in the criminal justice system really capable of figuring out right person, right place, right time?
RANDY KEARSE: Yes, you are. I mean, like I said, we get together. You know, you guys with us that have been through it. We can sit down at the table, and we can come up with a formula that will work. That will work, and it would be cost effective to the public.
LEONARD SIPES: Randy, you’ve got the final word. Randy Kearse is host of Straight Talk with Randy Kearse up in New York City. I really appreciate you being by our microphone today.
RANDY KEARSE: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
LEONARD SIPES: An independent film maker. He is… his latest film is A Deeper Truth: The Politics of Racism, and Media Hysteria Behind the Crack Cocaine Epidemic. If you’re interested in funding this project, it’s through indigogo/a-deeper-truth2 or just go to Indigogo and search for “a deeper truth”. Ladies and Gentlemen, this DC public safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms, and I want everybody to have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.