Previously Incarcerated Persons (PIPS)-An Interview

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[Audio Begins]

Leonard Sipes: Hi and welcome to D.C. Public Safety. I am your host Len Sipes. Today we’re going to talk about people coming out of prison-what needs to be done, what should be done. And at our microphones is Darnell Bradford El, he is with the Moorish Science Temple of America, he is a minister and is a coordinator with the PIPS program and it stands for the Previously Incarcerated Persons program. Also at our microphones is a veteran of this show, Reverend Yvonne Cooper, she is also a coordinator with PIPS and she is with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And again, we’re here to discuss what happens, what needs to be done, what should be done in terms of people being released from prison. Darnell, we’re going to start off with you. We have well over 650,000 people being released from prison systems throughout the United States. Approximately 2,000 come back to the District of Columbia out of federal prison every year. They go through what can only be described fairly, regardless as to what side of the political spectrum that you’re on, as extraordinarily difficult times. They face substance abuse issues when they came back home, housing, healthcare, finding a job, going back into the communities where you have all these influences that drag you back into the life of crime. Sometimes they come out determined not to go back and sometimes they come out determined to continue their life of crime. It’s an extraordinarily difficult situation. But your group has been around for how long?

Darnell Bradford El: We’ve been around for about three years formally.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. And why did you form the Previously Incarcerated Persons as an organization in the District of Columbia? Why did you get together?

Darnell Bradford El: Well there are a number of people who have navigated the system and have returned to the community and have stayed out and become successful. And we look back and we try to remove the stones that were on the path so those who follow us won’t have to stumble over the ones that we had to stumble over. So it’s about giving back.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Darnell Bradford El: And we saw that we had understood how to get through the system, how to make it, some of the keys to being successful, and we want to pass them on because it’s too many people are going back for too many reasons.

Leonard Sipes: Now there is a piece of research that came out of the United States Department of Justice that essentially said that two-thirds-66% within three years are rearrested, 50% are reincarcerated. To a lot of people those are pretty discouraging statistics.

Darnell Bradford El: Well you take a look at what you have as the situation. First of all, the prisons do very little to help prepare people for reentering back into society so that some people spend a lot of time in the institutions and a lot of their time is wasted. There are golden opportunities to get in touch with yourself, and without the distractions of life on the outside you can learn things. It used to be that you could get a college degree in prison, right now you can’t do that because the money is not available, it’s not allowable. People come out with their major occupation there was making automobile tags.

Leonard Sipes: Right, and that was the old D.C. prison before all D.C. inmates under the Revitalization Act, and for those of us listening beyond the District of Columbia, there was an act that occurred in 2000, actually it was 1997, but it took place for us in 2000 where all D.C. offenders now went into the federal prison system to relive the District of Columbia from what should be state level financial responsibilities. Darnell, you’ve been a prisoner.

Darnell Bradford El: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, can I ask why you were in?

Darnell Bradford El: Yes, I was in for armed robbery. I had two counts of armed robbery and I had four years-four to 12 years for both counts and that was turned to eight to 24 years. Because of work that we did inside of prison, transforming our lives and transforming the reformatory through an organization founded by myself and Rich Brown called Intervoices where we took our lessons of life and put them on the stage first of all for the inmate population, and then we took them into the community so that we could give young people an opportunity to see how they could go another route. That was a very successful experience, it gave me a footing into the community. As a result of that work, Judge June Green, who gave me the 24 years, reduced my sentence to 12 years and I was eligible for a parole and came out and continued the same work. And I’ve been doing the same related work for the past 30 years.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. We’re going to go over to Reverend Yvonne Cooper. And she is again a minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Reverend Cooper, or Yvonne, now you’ve done time in prison as well.

Yvonne Cooper: That’s correct. I did-as a matter of fact, I faced 105 years in prison but through God’s grace and mercy, he shortened that time and I only did eight months. That’s the only time that I served was eight months. And as I tell people from time to time, I’m so excited and delighted that God gave me that opportunity to go to prison because like my brother Darnell, I too tried my level best to help those who have been in prison and even go to the prisons and assist those that are in prison so when they do come out, prayerfully they’ll have an opportunity to stay on the outside. You said it quite well, Len, that folk are going back at phenomenal numbers and something needs to be done. And so Darnell and I and a few others got together and formed the PIPS Association and what better way to help those that are inside than to have those of us who have been there and done that-because we’ve gone down that road, we’ve gone through the fire, we’ve gone through the flood, and so we know those things that the people go through. And so we do the best that we can to assist them.

Leonard Sipes: Now can I ask you what you served time for?

Yvonne Cooper: Sure, this was for accepting bribes. I was an administrative law judge in Washington D.C. and had seven counts of accepting bribes. And I’ll be the very first one to say I did accept the bribes. But I have been forgiven, I’ve forgiven myself and I paid my debt to society. And like those others who have gone to prison, I wanted-once I came out, I wanted to have the opportunity to redeem myself and I want to pay my taxes. I mean, even people who go to prison, once they come home they really want the opportunity to pay their taxes, they want the opportunity to come out and help their family.

Leonard Sipes: Both of you are involved in as mentors.

Yvonne Cooper: That’s correct.

Leonard Sipes: Faith-based mentors as part of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency’s faith-based program? Okay, cool. Now let’s get around to the larger issue of offenders and what they need and what they should get because there is good research now that basically indicates that the better prepared an individual is in prison, the better they are going to do on the outside. There is research now that basically says that if they’re provided with services when they’re released from prison, which we try to do in conjunction with D.C. government-which we tried to do in conjunction with the faith-based community or other governmental entities like the Veteran’s Administration, what we try to do is to provide a certain level of services, the collective we.

Yvonne Cooper: Sure.

Leonard Sipes: Because we know that they continue to need drug treatment, they continue to need a place to live, they continue to need medical care, they continue to need a job, job training, day care in some cases, educational programs, job development, job training-there’s a need for that that is not completed when you’re in the prison system. Now depending upon who you talk to and depending upon what federal prison you go to, there’s a difference in terms of the level of preparation that they will give you.

Yvonne Cooper: That’s correct.

Leonard Sipes: So there’s a lot that need in terms of dealing with the social needs of offenders. We all recognize that and we all recognize the research essentially states that these programs are successful. Yvonne, I’m going to ask you the same question I asked you last time that we were at these microphones, is that the average person sitting there is going to say to themselves, ‘wait a minute, schools are in dire need. The kids need textbooks, teachers need salaries. The elderly-and we have an increasing number of elderly with needs, the elderly need housing, they need healthcare, they need people-we have so many needs, why do we spend money on individuals who have hurt other human beings? The kids haven’t hurt anybody, the elderly haven’t hurt anybody, that’s where the money needs to go-or all the other programs that people think need to be funded. Why give it to former offenders? Why give it to people coming out of the prison system?

Yvonne Cooper: Well that’s an awfully good question and a long question. I’m going to do my level best to address those things you raised. First and foremost, Len, Darnell and I just happen to have gotten caught. I’m more than sure you’ve done something and the listeners have done things that they should have been, not couldn’t have been, but should have been arrested for but did not get caught. And so the question then becomes is there any reason why we should not help out those that are the least of them, the lost and the limited?

Leonard Sipes: I’m going to interrupt you-

Yvonne Cooper: Sure.

Leonard Sipes: -because again, representing the audience, they’re going to say, ‘I’ve never put a gun to anyone’s face.’

Yvonne Cooper: [Laughs] That’s true.

Leonard Sipes: ‘I’ve never raped another human being.’

Yvonne Cooper: That’s true.

Leonard Sipes: ‘I’ve never threatened another human being’s life. I’ve never killed another person.’

Yvonne Cooper: Okay.

Leonard Sipes: So they’re going to say-

Yvonne Cooper: Well I didn’t either.

Leonard Sipes: I know.

Yvonne Cooper: Okay. [Laughs]

Leonard Sipes: But they’re going to say in terms of people coming out of prison who have done these things-

Yvonne Cooper: Sure.

Leonard Sipes: They’re going to say, ‘I am separate. No, no, we don’t buy the argument.

Yvonne Cooper: Right, I was going to get there.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Yvonne Cooper: And what I was going to say is that I don’t know about you, but I know I’ve seen men and women in a grocery store-in Washington D.C. we have stores called Safeway, Giant-those kind of stores-Piggly Wiggly down south and I would imagine people go in and they see strawberries and they’ll pick one up and taste it and say, ‘mmm, that tastes good, I guess I’ll buy some,’ that’s stealing.

Leonard Sipes: But they’re not going to go to prison for it.

Yvonne Cooper: No, but they could.

Leonard Sipes: But they’re not.

Yvonne Cooper: No, they’re not-

Leonard Sipes: Not in our criminal justice system.

Yvonne Cooper: Well no, they wouldn’t go, but they could go.

Leonard Sipes: Theoretically.

Yvonne Cooper: Theoretically they could. I mean, if you steal supplies out of the office where you’re here today, you really could be prosecuted.

Leonard Sipes: Theoretically.

Yvonne Cooper: Right, theoretically you could.

Leonard Sipes: I know that if I rob-if I use a gun and rob somebody, I may go to prison.

Yvonne Cooper: True.

Leonard Sipes: I’m not going to go to prison for stealing the strawberries.

Yvonne Cooper: That’s true.

Leonard Sipes: That’s what people say. I mean, people say that, ‘okay, there’s a degree, yes, we’ve all done things that theoretically we could go to jail for or that we could go to prison for,’ but these are pretty big events in people’s lives and why help them?

Yvonne Cooper: Okay. Well it’s ingrained in us, those of us that are protestants, and I’m more than sure the Muslims feel the same way that we should be helping out those that are the least of us, the limited and the lost, which would include senior citizens, which would include the children-plus there’s a public safety issue. I mean, the children and the seniors can’t get the certain things that they need done if you don’t help those that are in prison because they’ll come right back out and do the same thing all over again. And let me say-

Leonard Sipes: All right, and that’s the point I was going for.

Yvonne Cooper: Okay.

Leonard Sipes: I mean, it doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum that you’re on, it’s pure pragmatism. The more we assist individuals coming out of the prison system, the less damage they’re going to do to the rest of us.

Yvonne Cooper: Right.

Leonard Sipes: Now we can do it from a religious point of view because you’re right, I mean, biblically speaking, Jesus didn’t request us-he ordered us to go inside the prison system.

Yvonne Cooper: That’s right.

Leonard Sipes: The Islamic religion has the same tenants that we are obligated to help out those people who have been caught up in the system. So we have an obligation according to our own religious tenants, I’m not quite sure we follow that obligation. We have the pragmatism of simply helping us, but at the same time one of the things that influences me is talking to literally hundreds of people who have committed crime who are now taxpaying people who are now reunited with their kids, they’re being good fathers, their being good mothers, they’re being taxpayers. And inevitably I always said, ‘if that program that you run through wasn’t there, would you have made it?’ and that perso would have said, ‘no, I think I would have continued my life of drugs or crime.’ Darnell-

Yvonne Cooper: Let me say-

Leonard Sipes: Okay, go ahead.

Yvonne Cooper: Let me say this one thing before we go to my brother Darnell. You know, you mention, and so did Darnell mention the fact that there are no things inside prison today and so certainly CSOSA and other organizations are doing things once they come home. But I venture to say that if we would go back to what we’ve done in the past, and that is to have some programs and opportunities inside the prison, then it would be-we would be further along in helping folk when they come home because they have something to hold on to. Now when they come home they have to start once they get home because there’s no-some prisons don’t even have a GED program.

Leonard Sipes: Right. The state of Washington utilizing research not just in the United States, but throughout the world, they ordered programs to take place in their prisons. They ordered reentry to begin the day the person goes into the state of Washington. They ordered that reentry begin as soon as the person enters the prison doors and continue when the person is out. Now they are doing this, I’m quite sure, not from a religious mandate, I’m not quite sure they’re doing it from a moral mandate, what they’re doing it from is a budgetary point of view because they believe that they’re going to lower the rate of recidivism to a certain point where they don’t have to build a new prison. And new prisons are-you know, we’re talking about $500 million structures and well over, oh heavens, about $125 million a year to run. So we’re talking about an enormous fiscal issue that the states have got to take a look at. And Washington’s basically said, ‘if we put more rehabilitation programs, for lack of a better word, in prison and while they’re on community supervision, that’ll keep us from building a brand new prison. Darnell.

Darnell Bradford El: Well Len-and I wish we had more time to deal with this because the issue is far broader than prison. Prison is a part of an unfair, unjust system that has the audacity to label those who get caught up in it as offenders, when the reality of their existence is an offense to human beings to have to live in unsuitable housing where drugs and all types of vices circulate around their being all the time to go to schools that don’t educate, that don’t teach, teachers that don’t teach-to have a whole pattern of criminal experiences set for young people and they fall into those traps by simply responding to their human nature under the conditions that they live, and then they end up in prison. And over the past few decades, the number of people in that system has increased to the point now that it’ll become a problem when they must come out-society begins to respond to it. So I want-I don’t like the idea of just isolating the prison and reentry because the larger issue is the disparity between races and classes in this country, and prisons as a tool all the way back to the plantation to maintain the equilibrium. Many of the people who are in the prison system who are of African descent represent what would be the potential leadership in this country. How many Obamas are down in Oak Hill? We don’t know.

Leonard Sipes: Oak Hill being a juvenile facility for the District of Columbia.

Darnell Bradford El: Yeah, a juvenile facility, I apologize for the audience.

Leonard Sipes: Please continue.

Darnell Bradford El: But the whole idea is that we don’t know that because we’re living in a system starting with the old prison leasing system and emancipation. People were released from the plantations as slaves and then arrested in the cities for vagrancy and then placed right back on the same plantations to continue to work as a part of their sentencing. And when we look at who not only are in the prisons, but who even gets arrested and how the laws are defined to capture and maintain a status quo that is both unjust and unfair. So here in D.C., we are challenging the government and getting some support to give us some basic human rights.

Leonard Sipes: Now when you say we, who is we specifically?

Darnell Bradford El: The PIPS.

Leonard Sipes: And the Previously Incarcerated Persons.

Darnell Bradford El: The Previously Incarcerated People are trying to-Mayor Marion Berry submitted a bill which included us under the Human Rights Act. It has faced some challenges, there are many barriers to people who have gone through the system and have paid a price and are trying to come back into the community, but there’s still a great deal of resistance to that because some people just don’t feel that if you have violated a law, that you deserve another chance, that you deserve an opportunity, but the impractical side of that is if you’re not given that chance, then you resort to what you know from the very beginning. Then we have a situation where there won’t be enough prisons.

Leonard Sipes: Well there is a validity to a lot of the things that you say, especially in terms of the fact that they’re caught up in an atmosphere where crime is fairly easy. Because crime is all around them, drugs are all around them. I’ve spoken to hundreds of offenders who basically raised themselves, who started drugs early, who started crime early-what we in parole and probation call self-raised issues. I’ve spoken to many female offenders who were sexually assaulted. I mean, there’s a human tragedy going on. There’s a part of society that basically says, ‘we don’t care, you do the crime you do the time. Have yourself a pleasant day,’ but it is again, a human tragedy. There are hundreds of thousands of lives being wasted; I’m not going to disagree with you there. Prisons, and I’ve been into-in the prison system hundreds of times, is a sad affair. You can’t walk through a prison without feeling a sense of being depressed by the total waste of humanity. When you talk to offenders inside the prison system- they’re talking exactly like you and I are talking. They have hopes, they have aspirations, they have dreams. Most of them believe that they are going to go and live crime-free lives. Getting on the outside, they run smack into a reality that they can not deal with in many circumstances.

Darnell Bradford El: The reason that we call ourselves Association of Previously Incarcerated People is because even the terms, the language that’s used, we have issues with. I don’t feel like I’m an offender-have ever been an offender. I don’t feel like I’m an ex-con. I don’t feel like I’m-I think that I can’t deny the fact that I’ve been incarcerated for a crime, but some of the language that is used is sort of gravitates down and keeps down. It creates a reaction, a stereotypical picture in a lot of people’s minds. I’m just reflecting back when we were sitting in the council chamber down at the Wilson Building when the debate was going on about the including us as humans under the Human Rights Act as a class. And it was very clear that those who have economic advantages to us being in prison would support keeping us in prison because we are in prison operating almost as slave labor.

Leonard Sipes: Okay.

Darnell Bradford El: And it’s just how do you make this thing fair? How do you give hope, as you talked about, for those who are the hopeless? You take a man, you put him on the desert and you train him for a swimming meet but he’s surrounded by sand. And then you come out and you ask, ‘why can’t you swim?’ And then when you get out here, the people raise-there’s discrimination in housing, there’s discrimination in employment, there’s limitations in terms of what you can do educationally because of your prison status. When I was in Lawton(ph) we had an opportunity to go to college-went to UDC, why was the program stopped? Because we found that 85% of those went through the college program stayed in the street.

Leonard Sipes: The college program had one of the best success rates of any program. Now when I represented the Maryland prison system, when I was the spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, most of the complaints that we got were the college program. Because what they said was, ‘I can’t afford to send my kid to college, why should somebody who’s done harm get the college education versus my own child who gets no education? So you do something wrong and you get a free college education, you do something right and you don’t get a college education-that’s basically unfair.’ These are the question that we’re wrestling with in terms of previously incarcerated people. This is how society looks at it, but at the same time society needs to give those people who are coming out of the system a break. Its not in their own self-interest of turning tax burdens into taxpayers in terms of keeping society safer-in terms of the betterment of our cities, in terms of the betterment of our schools. That strikes me that regardless of where you stand on this issue, some how some way we’ve got to look again at what we do with offenders before they get into prison-fine, I agree; while they’re in prison-I agree; after they’re out-I agree. But the question becomes, and I’m sort of hoping that people listening to this program today have a better understanding of these issues because of what the two of you are saying. Yvonne.

Yvonne Cooper: You know, that’s the human side is what you just depicted and what Darnell just talked about. But let’s be also realistic here, prisons are big business and it makes sense to those who have a vested interest to keep people in prison because their pockets get fat with the high cost of telephone calls, with the government-to me, I mean, I hate to say this but it appears as though the government is selling out wherein the government might have paid about $25,000 a year for a prisoner at one point, has now acquiesced and allowed the business end of privatization-what is it called? Correctional Corporation of America.

Leonard Sipes: Corrections Corporation of America and there are others.

Yvonne Cooper: Yeah, and others. You know, I think there are about 50 or 51% of folks that are running the prisons.

Leonard Sipes: We only have a couple minutes left.

Yvonne Cooper: Okay.

Leonard Sipes: What can we say to the average person listening to this program, what does that person need to know?

Yvonne Cooper: With respect to-well you know, while in prison, to do what Darnell said initially when he first spoke, use the opportunity while you are in prison to get yourself together. Just get a hold of whatever programs are there, and there may not be many, but whatever programs are there, you need to get into a program and do the best you can to get yourself together so when you come out you can join up with some other programs for people when they come home for reentry. There are a limited number of programs, so it’s not too much that a person can do. And that the government needs to do a little bit more-a whole lot more, I’ll let Darnell speak for the last minute or so.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. What do you want the government to do specifically? And what do you want the average person to do? I mean, when I talk to individuals I do say, ‘look, that person coming out of the prison system, he comes to you for a job unless that person’s ineligible like a sex offender working with kids, obviously that’s not going to work. But that person needs another chance in terms of work and there’s an awful lot of people coming out of the prison who need a job, and please don’t blow off a person because he has a criminal history.’ I mean, that’s one thing that comes from me. Darnell, what are some others?

Darnell Bradford El: I think it’s fairly complex, but then it’s simple. Peace to society depends upon justice. And the challenge is not so much to the public as it is for those of us who understand these issues and are willing to provide some enlightment. That’s one of the reasons why the PIPS were organized so that we can begin to do forums that uplift understanding around these issues. And we are mounting right now. We’re also asking people to get involved and get engaged to help work with the population that’s coming out. And one of the problems in the past has been that the training for that has not been very good so that a lot of people really don’t know how to deal with that. So we are in the process of developing a training module to assist those who are interested in helping deal with this transition so that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, as they say, in order to help somebody. You just need to have the kind of training that is required to understand the dynamics of what you’re dealing with.

Leonard Sipes: And you’re talking about the people who work with people coming out of the prison system as volunteers and mentors.

Darnell Bradford El: Yes, and we see that as going a long way at this time, that there be education and enlightment, there be training and assistance and volunteers of those who want to try to help strike a little bit of equilibrium in a non-just situation.

Leonard Sipes: All right, so we need more people to mentor to offenders coming out of the prison system, we need more opportunities in the prison system for jobs, substance abuse, job training-rather, and when they come out they continue to need services, specifically jobs and substance abuse related issues. And in the District of Columbia-housing. I don’t know if in Topeka, Kansas housing is going to be that much of an issue, but in the super hot D.C. real estate market it is.

Darnell Bradford El: They say one of the fifth richest cities in the world. It’s a challenge. There are some institutional things that’s going to take time, but there’s some things that can happen right now. And just talking with one of your directors here who acknowledged the fact that regardless of the preparation, the critical stage is when they first hit the street. So we’re saying that come and be a part of assisting those in that transitional period through volunteer mentoring.

Leonard Sipes: We’re going to have you back at the microphones, we need to continue this conversation. At our microphones today was-or is Darnell Bradford El, a minister with the Moorish Science Temple of America and Reverend Yvonne Cooper. Again, both coordinators with the Previously Incarcerated Persons program here in the District of Columbia. Both are faith-based mentors and Reverend Cooper is a minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety, I’m your host Len Sipes. Look for us on our website at of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. Thanks and have yourself a very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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