Offenders Discussing Re-Entry

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[Audio Begins]

Leonard Sipes: Hi and welcome to the radio version of D.C. Public Safety, I ‘m your host Len Sipes. At our microphones today are James Spencer, Eddie Ellis, and a community supervision officer, William Ware. And gentlemen, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

James Spencer: Good morning.

Eddie Ellis: Good morning.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Gentlemen, we’re here to talk about re-entry month, the fact that the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency every January does a series of events to focus on people coming out of the prison system and the fact that if you have programs for offenders as they come out so there is a better chance for them to become taxpayers not tax burdens, to stop recidivating, to stop doing drugs, to stop committing crime-it’s the whole idea behind this concept of re-entry month. If we have programs people will do better as they come out of prison, if we have supervision, if we have drug testing, will do better. So that’s the issue of the program today. James, tell me a little bit about your background, who you are.

James Spencer: Hello, my name is James Spencer, I’m 23, I just came back into society on June 1st after doing five years incarcerated in the federal system.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, what were you incarcerated for?

James Spencer: I was locked up for assault with a deadly weapon, and the weapon was a gun.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. And Eddie, your background please.

Eddie Ellis: My name is Eddie Ellis and I just came home after doing 14 1/2 years in prison for manslaughter.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Now gentlemen, let me be blunt, and you guys can be blunt right back. As we did with another program on women offenders when I was discussing it with Henrietta Meeks who has also served three times in prison, the average person listening to this program is going to say, ‘well James-well Eddie, you done did nasty things, why should we help you? I mean, we’ve got programs for kids that are not being funded. We’ve got programs for the elderly that are not funded. You guys were charged and did prison time in federal prison systems for doing some dangerous stuff. Why should we give you guys a second chance or a third chance or a fourth chance? Why should we invest our tax-paid dollars for programs to help you out when there are so many other deserving causes?’ James, why don’t you give that a whirl.

James Spencer: I’ve been on the journey-I’ve been on a journey to get a better understanding of who I am and a better understanding of what society means to me and what society has to offer me. While I was incarcerated I did some things that helped me have a better lifestyle for when I came back home. I achieved getting my GED, I’ve read books to have better knowledge of who I am and where I’ve come from as far as my heritage. I’ve spoke with other men who will never come home and it was just a blessing for them to be able to talk to me knowing that someday I will go back out in society and hopefully some of the things that they’ve told me, I can come out here and perform and do better in society. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been able to have three different jobs. So everybody saying the statistics of being able to find employment, that’s false of how hard it is. It is difficult-I don’t want to mislead anyone, it is difficult to come home from prison and get a job, but it all reflects on that individual. If you want to change, you will change. You can’t blame your parents, you can’t blame my background, I can’t blame my charge-all I can do is blame me. And I can use that same thing that holds me back to motivate me as I’m doing right now.

Leonard Sipes: James, how old are you?

James Spencer: I’m 23.

Leonard Sipes: Eddie, how old are you?

Eddie Ellis: 31.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. The statistics basically say that you guys aren’t going to do well. I mean, that’s that hard, cold, reality of the situation. You take a look at national statistics and it talks about close to 70% of the individuals coming back to the criminal justice system for a new charge, close to 50% being reincarcerated. That’s the hard, cold reality. Eddie, when I give you those figures, what’s going through your mind?

Eddie Ellis: Well me myself, I don’t really follow statistics because it could be misleading. For one because it’s a lot of brothers out here coming out prison who want to do right if given the opportunity to do right. You know, and people in the community are giving up on us too soon and they expect a lot of us to come home-like myself, I went to jail when I was 16. I’m 31-years old now. I never had a job before I went to jail, so now I’m coming home to something new and it’s been a struggle but it’s been fun because I got my freedom back and I’m having a chance to work and better my life. But the statistics only speak about the negative part of people coming home. And they need to have people speak about the things that people do do right like me and this brother sitting beside me because it’s a lot of us that do right.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Eddie Ellis: But it’s the lack of programs that’s in the community for us is what’s holding a lot of us back. Because the programs that is out here that’s present, they are too crowded and they’re pushing too many people back. You might have to go to a class and wait six months to get in the class, when I think the federal government should fund these programs so we can have the opportunity to do right.

Leonard Sipes: All right. I’m going to get into this one more time and either one of you can deal with it because I want to deal with what’s real and I want to deal with the perceptions on the part of citizens. We’re talking about re-entry month, we’re-entry talking about 30 days re-entry reflection, we’re-entry talking about people coming back out of the prison system, we’re talking about helping them, but the average person listening to this program right now is going to say, ‘you know, every night I turn on the T.V. and somebody’s doing somebody else wrong. And they’re all out of prison…’ -and this is night after night after night. People coming out of prison doing nasty things to other human beings-that’s people’s perceptions of offenders. That’s people’s perception of you guys. How do you respond to that?

Eddie Ellis: Well me myself, I say that corruption, crimes, and misfortunes have been a part of our society and world forever. Those things are going to happen. What can you do to help a person that wants to change? Not a person who comes home and plans to do the same thing again, they’re a lost cause. We’re talking about the guys who want to change.

Leonard Sipes: What percentage though do you think, James, of folks coming out of the prison system want to change? Virtually everybody that I’ve ever talked to coming out of prison, they all say that they’re not going back, and yet so many do. So there’s a big disconnect between the person saying, ‘I’m not coming back,’ and seeing his face back in the prison system 12 months later. If we had the programs, all the programs that were necessary: drug treatment, mental health treatment, employment-doesn’t matter, what percent of the people coming out of the prison, in your opinion, would make it-become taxpayers instead what I call tax burdens?

James Spencer: My opinion, I don’t believe in a specific percentage, I do believe in an opportunity.

Leonard Sipes: All right.

James Spencer: You don’t know what any individual is going to do, but you know what they will do if they don’t have an opportunity.

Leonard Sipes: What will they do then if they don’t have an opportunity-tell me-

James Spencer: You know that the possibility of an individual breaking law without an opportunity is much higher than a person who has an opportunity. This is what this is about-funding programs, different programs that can help a person participate to make a positive transition back into society.

Leonard Sipes: What do you think those programs should be?

James Spencer: More jobs. In the federal prison system, they’ve cut back on a lot of vocational training.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

James Spencer: And some guys, they have college courses which you must pay for now.

Leonard Sipes: Right. There’s no longer any public funding for college courses.

James Spencer: No sir.

Leonard Sipes: And by the way, I know this drives people crazy because they say, ‘why should he-the guy who does an armed robbery-why should he get a free college education, and yet I’m out here and I can’t supply a college education for my kids?’ That’s a real issue, but at the same time, the research was never stronger in terms of people who had those college programs in prison having the lowest rates of recidivism.

James Spencer: I like that you just said that. Somebody listening to you just found out something new. I agree with that, that is true. And because I agree with that, that’s why they should put something like that back into the federal system. A guy who has no money, he-all right, your scenario, the bank robber, he has no money. He wants a better education, he’s trying to rehabilitate himself, he’s doing 12 years straight. But he wants to rehabilitate himself, he has no extra money. He works on the compound for $12 a month. His college course-his books are $36 a month. He has no outside support. Now this man is sitting here letting his misery build up because he strives to do something better but he can’t. So 12 years from now, he comes back into society-he’s not your neighbor, but he’s back into society. Now what does the public do to him? He goes and he tries himself for a job without no education, without no past knowing of how to do anything but maybe wash or cook food for the past 12 years.

Leonard Sipes: It’s always been my question when talking to people– ‘what do you want? Do you want them to come back and commit additional crimes? Or do you want them to come back and become taxpayers? What do you want?’ Without the programs, it’s almost inevitable that there’s going to be a lot of people, especially younger people, it’s almost inevitable that they’re going to return to crime. Now people find that difficult because they are saying, ‘well Leonard, if it’s that inevitable, why am I bothering anyway? I mean, let’s put the money into the educational program. Let’s put money for the elderly.’ The question becomes, ‘when they come back, do we want offenders to come back ready to be taxpayers, ready to be contributing members of society?’ And most offenders, most male offenders coming out of prison, 70% of them have kids, so it’s just not about them, it’s about their children as well. If we had the programs in place, the recidivism rate would drop-that’s our contention-and drop considerably. Eddie, you want to come in on this?

Eddie Ellis: Yes, what I would like to say about that is when you have certain programs in place; you give a person a better chance to try to help himself. I don’t care how many programs you have out here, you’re going to have people fall through the crack and do what they do.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Eddie Ellis: You know, but in the same breath, you must put programs there that’s going to help people. You got a lot of guys in jail think there’s no jobs out here, and I think it’s the probation office or whoever office that deal with these guys coming out on probation and parole to inform these guys 30 days to 60 days before they come home about these self-help programs that they can use and things like that. And as far as people thinking that we can’t change and we can’t to do right, that’s just not right because there’s a lot of us that can change. And for those regular citizens that go see psychologists and counselors for whatever they go see them for, you go see them to deal with your issues-those are your personal issues. If you feel that you can change-dealing with your depression and whatever you go through in your everyday life, why can’t they? Because problems are problems, whether they’re-entry small problems or big problems. And if you take these programs away from us, what’s going to happen when we come home?

Leonard Sipes: That’s the question – what’s going to happen?

Eddie Ellis: But see, something bad might happen because people-

Leonard Sipes: Something bad probably is going to happen, that’s the point that I’m making.

Eddie Ellis: Yeah but see, people keep complaining about us getting funded in prison and having these programs, but in the same breath, they’re complaining about a lot of people coming out into society and breaking law.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

Eddie Ellis: How can you complain on one side of your face about us breaking law, and then complain about us getting help in jail with programs funded? I’m just saying if you’re going to walk a line, walk the line-get us some help, put the programs in place so a person can help themselves, those who want to help themselves. Those who don’t want to help themselves; they’re not going to help themselves. But don’t punish us that’s trying to do right by criticizing us and making it harder for us to get jobs.

Leonard Sipes: I tried to get it out of you guys, but I couldn’t. My experience of being in the criminal justice system for the last now 37 years, really dates me. But in terms of working directly offenders, a third, if you give them the help, they’re done deals. They’re-entry going to take care of their own business. Now that’s a tremendous number of people. I mean, we’re talking about 650,000 people coming out of prison every year-that’s a third out of 650,000. Every year about 2,000 people come back to the District of Columbia-that’s a lot of people. A third are on the fence because they may go one way or the other. And a third, it doesn’t matter. Right or wrong? That’s my opinion, you guys chime in. James?

James Spencer: I see you’re basically about statistics, but the statistics aren’t always true. Look at prison. Prison-when everyone gets sent to prison, the number one thing that they say is rehabilitation.

Leonard Sipes: Right.

James Spencer: How are you going to rehabilitate a man if you have nothing to offer him but cell food and water?

Leonard Sipes: All right, that’s a good point. We talk about rehabilitation, we talk about re-entry, is the talk equal to the reality?

James Spencer: By far, no. That’s why we’re concentrating so much, me and Ed, on our opinions, have basically been all about programs. What programs do you have to offer? What programs will you put into place? You’ve been specific; you’ve been asking what can they do. What programs do I feel as though they should offer, and I’ve told you job training program. They should have never took the college courses out of the federal facility. They took parole away from D.C. and they took the education away from D.C. So what they’re doing in D.C., from my perspective and what I see, is they’re just locking you. Time. Time is your rehabilitation in D.C. now. My opinion of what rehabilitation should be is okay, you’ve done your crime, as you do your time we’re going to teach you a different way to do something else so when you get back into society, you can do what you’ve learned. Now, I just did five years in the federal facility, they’re-entry teaching you nothing. Your other inmates, prisoners, convicts, or however a person may want to categorize them, are the only teachers there basically. You have a guy who opens the cell, locks the cell. You have a case manager who tells you when it’s almost time to go home, when you need to pay your fines, and that’s it. That’s what prison is right now from what I have seen for the past five years.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

James Spencer: So what they need to do, the federal government, because we have a lot of money for other things, but what I feel as though the federal government should do is help these prisoners that’s coming into their system now. Because later when they do get out, you’ll still have your same problem.

Leonard Sipes: Eddie.

Eddie Ellis: I agree with everything he said. And my focus is on the programs that should be in place, and my focus is also with these kids out here. The same thing the government-D.C. government has money to make a new national stadium and talk about building a new D.C. united stadium, but they don’t have the money to front programs for these little kids out here and for people that’s coming home from prison. And that’s the stuff I don’t understand.

Leonard Sipes: William Ware, I’m going to involve you in the conversation and I’m going to move the microphone over so you can get involved.. We’ve heard from James, we’ve heard from Eddie. They have both been very dramatic, and I appreciate their comments. The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency that we belong to is a federal independent executive branch agency. We are the parole and probation entity for the District of Columbia. We provide pretty strict supervision, we have lower caseloads probably than any place else in the country. We have a lot of contact with offenders, we drug test the dickens out of them. We also have a wide array of programs for them. But you’ve heard what James and Eddie said, do you have a response in terms of the problematic themes that they’re presenting?

William Ware: Yes. I mean, I feel that there are a lot of programs available in the district. I’m not too familiar with the prison facilities and I’m sure there probably could be more. I think rehabilitation would be the way to go or is the way to go. I think that anyone without opportunity, anyone without the training, anyone without the employment, anyone without the education, is already a step behind everyone else in society. In order for anyone to come out of prison, change their lifestyle, there needs to be skills taught, there needs to be training, there needs to be everything that you have already talked about in order for them to change their lifestyles. If people are ready to make that change and the training and the services are in place, then I think they’re more than likely going to make that change. If nothing’s in place, then there’s no change to make.

Leonard Sipes: One of the things that strikes me, William, is just the conversation regarding re-entry. I’m familiar with the research throughout the country, I’ve talked to a lot of my counterparts throughout the country, and we do a lot of talking about re-entry. We talk a lot about offenders coming out of prison and what could be done with them, should be done with them. But yet, I’m struck at the reality of so many states where, quite frankly, very little is done. I mean, the overwhelming majority of offenders in the prison system have substance abuse histories, drug histories, alcohol histories-yet the overwhelming majority don’t get drug treatment while in the prison system-the waiting list for the different programs are endlessly long. So there’s a big gap between our discussion on what should be done, and I think we heard that pretty clear from James and Eddie, if we had the programs, a good number of offenders would do better than returning back to the criminal justice system. But there’s a gap between what we say we want to do and what we are doing throughout the country. So how serious are we about re-entry becomes the question.

William Ware: You’re absolutely right. I mean, it would take a significant dedication of resources in order to service all of the offenders, all of the inmates who need to be serviced. The dedication isn’t there. I mean, let’s be real, we’re talking about people who have committed crimes against society, people who have done things to other people that most of society would look at as horrible-horrific, horrific things.

Leonard Sipes: But that’s my point in terms of that gap between what we say and what we do.

William Ware: There is definitely a gap. There is definitely a gap.

Leonard Sipes: And I understand the reason for the gap. I mean, we talked about this, and James and Eddie, I’m going to give you the chance to come in on this again if you want to come in on this again. The average person out there wants to take Eddie, wants to take James, and basically say, ‘man, you’ve done terrible things, I’m not going to support anything for you at all.’ Now that’s their privilege. And I understand why they feel that way, I truly do-we all understand why they feel that way, but the hard, cold reality is that if they’re not properly supervised, that’s an important component of this, and if they don’t get the programs that are necessary, they’re probably going to go back to hurting you, me, my kids’, their kids’ and society.

William Ware: You’re absolutely right. At the same time, the James and the Eddies of the world aren’t going to stay locked up forever, they are going to come home. They need to have somewhere to come home to and be able to be productive members of society. We can’t just turn our backs on them and act like they don’t exist because they do. You have crime all throughout the city, all throughout the nation-crime is a serious problem. But the only way we’re going to actually get to the root of the problem and actually change people’s behaviors and change their lifestyles, is by giving them services. I mean, they can’t do it on their own-no one can do anything on their own. It’s going to definitely take dedication of our services and of society as a whole in order to make that change.

Leonard Sipes: Now I’ve done a lot of talk radio and I’ve been a proponent or an advocate of services for people coming out of the prison system for a long time and I get a lot of angry calls from citizens. And they’re basically saying, ‘hey, they had their shot, it’s called an education system. They had perfect opportunity to go and get an education through high school or to go to a trade school, which is what I did. I didn’t go out and hold somebody up. I didn’t go out and burglarize their home. So why am I rewarding these guys?’ And I guess our quick answer is that we want to prevent more crime. We want to see their kids taken care of responsibly. We want to see them pay taxes, not being a burden to society, but a taxpayer. I guess that’s my answer, but there are people who object to it.

William Ware: Everyone hasn’t been provided the same opportunities throughout their lifetimes. Everyone grew up differently. Environment isn’t a determining factor, nothing is a determining factor. The decisions that we make throughout our lives is what determines what happens to us in our life. Because someone made a bad decision, they should be defined by that bad decision throughout their whole entire life. They should be allowed to make change, they shouldn’t be held back. They should be given the opportunity to make change. And if you turn your back, there’s no way that they can make that change.

Leonard Sipes: There’s research from the Department of Justice now that talks about the majority of offenders having mental health problems. This is self-reported, this is not a diagnosable condition of a mental health problem, this is self-reported. And it just strikes me that if a person comes out of the prison system-and let’s say that they have a diagnosable mental health issue, that person is bound to get caught back up in the criminal justice system unless he has treatment. I mean, it seems to be inevitable-you don’t provide the mental health treatment, the person is going to hurt somebody else, the person is going to go back to prison. You provide the mental health treatment, you provide that person with a chance. I mean, the mental health aspect of it seems to be clear cut to everybody, regardless of what political persuasion you happen to be.

William Ware: No, I wouldn’t say that everyone with a mental health problem is going to definitely go back to prison or do something horrible to people, but with services they are more likely to get the medications that they might need-

Leonard Sipes: Right.

William Ware: -the therapy that they might do better, absolutely.

Leonard Sipes: I guess I’m talking about the odds because I’m not talking about mental health people in general. I’m talking about people who have committed a crime bad enough to go into the prison system and come out who need mental health treatment. It seems highly likely that that person may return.

William Ware: Absolutely, but that isn’t just confined to the mental health community, but to all inmates, anyone ever convicted of a crime.

Leonard Sipes: Right, well, that’s the broader sense and that’s why we’re doing this program because it’s just not about mental health, it’s about drug treatment, it’s about anger management, it’s about finding a job, it’s about job training, it’s about getting a GED-I mean, the package has got be there.

William Ware: Absolutely.

Leonard Sipes: All right. I’m going to go back to James and Eddie and I’m going to move the microphone one more time. Gentlemen, have any comments to what I just said or what William just said?

James Spencer: Well on the topic of mental health, they say any person that goes to prison and comes back home and goes back in again must have some insanity. The meaning of insanity in the dictionary says, ‘anyone who chooses to do the same thing and think that they will get different results.’ So every person walking around here in society is a little insane because we’ve all did something and tried to go and do it again and think that we were going to get different results. So a person committing a crime doesn’t always mean that their brain is really messed up, that person could have genuinely made a mistake. Or that person could have been very conscious of what they were doing and chose to go ahead and commit that crime whatever it may have been. I personally feel as though I’m not mentally insane. I feel as though that I’m a very cool person-I’m sociable, I can hold a conversation with you, I have character, I’m respectable, I conduct myself with a good character-I just had a situation in my lifetime where I chose to do something that was wrong. Now that I’m back into society, I don’t look at myself as my charge, as you said some people will perceive me as. Maybe if we never discussed our charges and just had a basic conversation about this topic, you may have thought that neither one of us may have never been to prison. Because just meeting this man, I would never believe that he just did 15 years incarcerated, he’s not shell-shocked-

Leonard Sipes: The bottom line is that you’re a neighbor. You’re out there; you’re a productive part of society. You represent something that the rest of us deal with on a day-to-day basis, and we may not realize it.

James Spencer: Yes sir, I sure do. I am a model resident.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

James Spencer: My charge does not describe my character.

Leonard Sipes: Does not define who you are.

James Spencer: Exactly.

Leonard Sipes: All right.

James Spencer: And I don’t feel as though people should categorize every person that commits a crime in that category. People who have committed crimes-you have some people who may continue to commit crimes. But just because a person has made a mistake or done wrong, doesn’t mean that they should be an outcast to society.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Eddie, you’re going to have the final word on this.

Eddie Ellis: What I want to say on this topic-it’s a lot of things that happen in this world that’s going to continue to happen. You know, and we need to do-what we need to do in society is try to reach out to those who need the help and who want the help. You’re going to have people who will be judgmental and be frustrated, they’re-entry dealing with their emotions. They don’t know what took place in these people’s lives to make them do what they did. But they’re passing judgment on somebody-throw them away, they don’t need help. But when this same person you talk about throw away-don’t need help move next door to you and something happen to you, then you’re wondering why-your family wondering why. This is the same person that you didn’t want to get help, but he wanted help, or she wanted help. And all I’m saying is that I know a lot of good people in jail that I met in jail that made some dumb choices, you understand? And they are being defined and judged by the choices that they made, but I know a lot of them are productive people in prison sending their money home to their kids, sending their money home to their mother, sending their money home to their little sisters and brothers, sending letters home that are constructive and positive to help keep them on line. But none of this stuff is being spoken about. It’s like on the week of the 17th I’m going to go speak at the school to little kids and this is something that I always wanted to do because people spoke to me, but I didn’t listen to them. I didn’t know how to take heed to what they were saying. So I want to go out there and do my part, I don’t want to do it for no publicity; I want to do it because I want to help somebody.

Leonard Sipes: I want you both back for other programs because this is a intriguing conversation. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the radio version of D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Len Sipes. At our microphones today-James Spencer, Eddie Ellis, and William Ware, a Community Supervision Officer. Our website is – Have yourself a very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

Subtitle: Information about crime, criminal offenders and the criminal justice system.

Meta terms: crime, criminals, criminal justice, parole, probation, prison, drug treatment, reentry, sex offenders.

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