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Reentry from a former offender’s perspective

DC Public Safety Radio

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Leonard Sipes: From the Nation’s Capitol this is DC Public Safety, I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen this is going to be a fun show. Reentry from a former offender’s perspective. We have Randy Kirsch, Randy is a formerly incarcerated person, he is an author, public speaker and a reentry strategist. His website,, Randy Kirsch, welcome back to Public Safety.

Randy Kirsch: Thank you very much Leonard, I appreciate being here again, being able to chime in about reentry and hopefully something that his said in this conversation will help somebody, somewhere.

Leonard Sipes: The criminal justice system doesn’t seem to pay a lot of attention to the very people who are caught up in the criminal justice system so that’s the point of this program, and a series of other programs where we interview people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system. You and I happen to be Facebook friends, and one of the very few professional Facebook friends that I allow onto my personal Facebook world. I love the posts that you do on Facebook. Let’s get down to your background a little bit Randy. You were caught up in the criminal justice system and can I ask why?

Randy Kirsch: I got caught up in the criminal justice system at a early age. Actually from 17 years old I would find myself involved in getting in trouble for different various reasons and it escalated. I found myself at 26 years old caught up in a drug conspiracy, a Federal drug conspiracy that sent me to prison for 15 years. What I tell people is that I actually … August 10th this August 10th is a very profound date for me because it’s the first time in 33 years that I will be free of any type of criminal justice system supervision or anything like that. August 10th my parole ends, they gave me 10 years supervised release when I got released from the Federal system. From the age of 17 to the age of 50 I’ve been under some type of criminal justice, either I was in jail, in prison or on probation, on parole.

Running from the police, going back to [inaudible 00:02:20] court, so August 10th, next Monday I will be officially free from any type of connection to the criminal justice system.

Leonard Sipes: I know that makes you very happy.

Randy Kirsch: Id does, it does, but it’s also a sober reminder that even though I will be free from that context I will still always have the residue, I might say, the past. I will always have a record, I will always be limited to certain things when it comes to, maybe even a job or things like that. Even though I’ll be free, but it will always be there something to remind me.

Leonard Sipes: The criminal record is going to follow you for the rest of your life.

Randy Kirsch: Yes, yes.

Leonard Sipes: Yeah and that has an impact on probably everybody you talk to.

Randy Kirsch: Yes, yes.

Leonard Sipes: Does it have an impact on family and friends?

Randy Kirsch: It does, it does, and I was just at a reentry gathering last Saturday and we talked about how reentry and incarceration impacts the family. Because a lot of times the family is not that well prepared for their loved one to reenter society because they have to now adjust their life and their roles and their well-being to bring this person back into the fold of being a part of the family unit. There’s sometimes a lot unrealistic expectations for people that are coming home. I mean you have a family or a parent or a wife or girlfriend who wants that person to immediately go out and get a job. Sometimes that just doesn’t happen and then that puts pressure on the person as they’re living in that situation and not being able to contribute to the household. It’s a lot. It’s a lot for the family and it’s a lot for the individual who is reentering society.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, we have a short amount of time, 30 minutes, I do want to talk about the book that you’ve written. In fact it’s the 4th book that you’ve written. First I want to talk about the strategies that you have for those of us in the criminal justice system. Right now you’re talking to people, mid-level managers, higher-level managers within the criminal justice system. You’re talking to aides to mayors, aides to congress people. You’re talking to the academic community because the colleges and universities take the radio and television programs that we do and run them verbatim in their classrooms and have class discussions afterwards. You’re talking to a fairly wide audience today. What are the key messages you have for those of us in the criminal justice system?

Randy Kirsch: I would say it’s time to rethink reentry in a way that initiates some bold and innovative type of approaches. What has been the norm or what has been going on in reentry up to this point, a lot of it is good but not enough of it is working. I mean, we see the recidivism rate and it’s pretty much the same from 10 years ago to now. To 20 years ago. Evidently you have to look at it as, what do we need to do to change that. You’ve got to look at it and say, “We’ve got to do some different things.” There are a lot of different good programs out there but they’re not reaching, they’re not impacting enough people to make a dent in the recidivism rate.

What I propose and what I talk about especially to those that are in a position to make some changes and to come up with some new policies is to think about what we can do to reach more of the incarcerated population and in a way that we can have a greater impact on them and a greater success rate for them not to come back. That’s where I come in, in doing the work that I do and coming up with these strategies that I’ve created and I helped create. Because who better to be able to tell someone how not to go back to prison is somebody who didn’t go back to prison. These are the things that I would say, and work with some of the successful people who have come come home from incarceration who are now business owners, who are now entrepreneurs, who are self-sufficient and doing positive things in the community. Work with them, find out what worked for them and then use that, duplicate that all over the system.

Leonard Sipes: You have that opportunity right now. What works? What do we in the criminal justice system, students, aides to congresspeople, aides to mayors. What do we need to understand first of all, about the system of people coming out of the prison system and specifically what can we do to have better outcomes for people who are caught up in the criminal justice system?

Randy Kirsch: I think everybody understands the challenges that a person faces when they come out. I mean that’s first and foremost when it comes to housing and employment and things like that. I think that where we would do a better service for individuals that are coming out is to prepare them while they’re in to get out. Not just say, “Well this person needs a job, this person needs housing.” This person that’s incarcerated, and I know from personal experience, needed a change in thinking, needed a change in behavior, needed a change in the way he sees the world, the perspective. We need to focus on how do we get those people to do that behavioral, cognitive behavioral transition from the mind set that they had prior to going to prison. The mindset that they had in prison. To get them to shift that mindset for when they get out and prepare them for those challenges for when they get out.

Leonard Sipes: We’re talking about more programs in prison?

Randy Kirsch: We’re talking about more programs that will help connect the person who is in prison to the challenges that they’ll face. Honestly and truthfully. I did my research from being incarcerated, some of the programs that are available in the prison really don’t connect the individual that’s going through the experience with the experience that he’s going to face when he get’s out. A lot the stuff that’s out there and the programs that are out there are being developed and created by people who haven’t actually lived that experience. It’s hard to connect someone to an experience if you haven’t actually been through the experience. In theory it sounds good, it really does, I mean I’m sure it’s meant well in intention but it’s not the same. As far as me going into a situation to talk to a formerly incarcerated individual and tell him, “Listen, this is what you need to do. These are the challenges you’re going to face. This is how I was able to face those challenges. This is how I was able to overcome those challenges.” We have to be able to create those types of programs that actually connect the person who’s incarcerated to the actual reality of the challenges they’re going to face when they get out.

Leonard Sipes: Okay, Randy so your bottom line message is an issue of authenticity then. What you’re saying is that what we should do is to get folks like Randy Kirsch and others, put them in a rum and have them design programs.

Randy Kirsch: Yes.

Leonard Sipes: You guys could come up with better programs then the people in the criminological community and the penal community and the criminal justice system. You guys could come up with more authentic programs that are going to be reaching more people. Is that the bottom line?

Randy Kirsch: Yes, yes, I think that would a be great approach. Again, I mean it’s not, to me, which one is better. I guess it is, which one better connects to the individual experience, that’s the whole thing. Because you’re going to have a person, and I’ve seen it, you have a guy come from the outside and he’s teaching this reentry program and he goes home everyday and he can’t make that connection because he never actually understand what … You can tell a person to be patient, but they have to really connect with, “wow he did that. This person did that. He did 20 years and came home and was able to be successful.” It does add an air of authenticity when it comes to actual practice.

Leonard Sipes: Well, quite frankly randy I don’t disagree with you. It’s something that I’ve bee advocating for years, for there to be a think tank of people like yourself to guide the rest of us within the criminal justice system. Job training programs seem to be rather straight forward, teaching a person how to be a carpenter, teaching a person how to be a electrician. Teaching a person how to lay bricks, that’s all pretty much straight forward, you don’t really need to have a background within the system to teach carpentry.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, understanding people, making that connection with people. Drug treatment, these are all pretty straight forward modalities in terms of helping people. It comes from the psychological literature. It comes from the criminal justice literature. What you’re saying drug treatment from a person whose never been in your shoes lacks the authenticity to reach the individuals?

Randy Kirsch: The thing is to, that’s part of it, but you have to teach a person not only a skill in a job sense, you also have to teach him how to keep a job, how to act on a job. What is the relationship between him and his supervisor and how that he can’t allow certain situations to force him or make him think that he has to react in a kind of way. It’s about teaching people life skills. A lot of people who have been incarcerated haven’t been, haven’t had the teachings of how to navigate through life itself on a basis that will keep them out of prison. We’ve been taught this mindset that we have to be aggressive or we can’t take orders or we can’t do certain things because it hurts our pride. It’s a lot of things that we need to teach people on how to actually live life. Life skills that will make them before they decide to get in an argument with their supervisor or their boss to think about they have a family to fee and what the consequences are versus them speaking up or speaking out. Those are the things that make all of those components that you said, with the drug treatment, with the job training and everything like that. Those are components that have to work together in order for someone to stay out of prison.

Leonard Sipes: Okay I want to go to larger criminal justice policy but final question and if I could get a quick answer. Because I did want to start talking about your book at a certain point. Are you talking about psychologists and social workers and treatment specialists who have degrees and years of training in this sort thing. Are they going to be replaced by people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system or are they going to be supplemented by people caught up in the criminal justice system?

Randy Kirsch: I think they should partnership with people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system. That’s what I think.

Leonard Sipes: Larger criminal justice policy, right now there is a huge debate all throughout the United States, the sense that we over incarcerate, the sense that we could release people. Not the people involved in crime and justice issues in the prison system. To cut back significantly on the amount of incarceration that we have. Which means the great bulk of these individuals fall on agencies like mine. I represent the court services and offender supervision agency, a federal parole and probation agency here in the nations capitol. The burden would fall on parole and probation agencies, do you have any thoughts about this larger criminal justice policy discussion that’s been going on throughout the United States?

Randy Kirsch: There’s going to be no quick fix to a problem or situation that has been building for years, and years, and years, until we work with these individuals to show them that there’s a different way to go about living. It’s hard, because we have to be able to show people opportunity, in all facets. Whether incarcerated, or probation or parole. Parole plays a very important role in helping people transition back into society so I think that that is a lot of times impacts a persons decision and causing them to go back sometimes. Because they feel pressurized or pressured from probation or parole. Hiring more supervisors … There’s a compassion issue here too.

Some of the people that work in corrections or parole or probation, they have no real compassion for the people that they’re working for. There’s no feeling of empathy for these people. When you can give a person the sense of dignity I’m going to tell you, a sense of dignity will help build the persons self-esteem to the point that they will really behave in a whole different way. The system has become so cold towards a lot of offenders that sometimes they just give up. They don’t feel like there’s nobody there to help them but if you find someone who has a compassion. For me, the 10 years that I’ve been on parole and probation, I’ve had nothing but support from my parole officers and it helped a lot. It helped a lot. I had nothing but their willingness to work with me and allow me to do the things that I was doing. That made a difference.

Leonard Sipes: We’re half way through the program, more than halfway through the program. Reentry from the offender’s perspective, Randy Kirsch is by our microphones, back at our microphones. Formerly incarcerated person, author, public speaker, reentry strategists,, Randy what’s the name of your book?

Randy Kirsch: The name of this book is “Changing your game plan. How to use incarceration as a stepping stone for success.” It’s not a book per se, it’s a workbook. It’s more of a workbook than a novel or any type of nonfiction book. What makes my workbook so unique, it can be done, it can be used in a group setting, it comes with a facilitators manual, or it can be done as an independent study guide where individuals can go with in his own cell or on his own and actually work through this program.

What I’ve created is a what I like to call a rethinking, readiness, prison reentry, rethinking, readiness program where it actually walks you through the steps you need to be doing while you’re incarcerated to prepare you for getting out. This book, honestly it’s an awesome book. It took me over a year and a half to write, to put together. It’s over 50 thought provoking chapters and after each chapter there’s questions that an individual will have to read and answer. Those questions bring you face to face with your own personal truth. It brings you face to face with the questions that really would hopefully make a person really think about their future. Really think about where they are and how they got there. This book has the potential to really make a difference in people’s lives.

What inspired me to write this book to be totally honest with you is my original book is “Changing your game plan. How I used incarceration as a stepping stone for success.” It chronicles my journey of the lifestyle of being in the streets and dealing drugs and eventually dropping out of school and going to prison and all of the things that led me to where I was doing 15 years. How I was able to change that all the way around. I’ve gotten letters from people all over the country, people who are incarcerated as well as councilors and reentry councilors and stuff like that. They tell me how they were using that book, the original book, “Changing your game plan. How I used incarceration as a steppingstone for success.” As a program, as a way to help people to reenter society and prepare themselves. I always thought this would be a better, have a better impact on people and help people better so I went about creating the book.

It’s a wonderful book, again 50 chapters, there’s also a reading component where in each chapter there are words that are highlighted and there’s a glossary defining the words in the back of the book to help people build their vocabulary. I talk about everything that a person needs to do in order to successfully, not only transition back into society but to stay out here.

Leonard Sipes: Randy what was the key issue that kept you out of prison? You came out of prison, you were under supervision by parole and probation. What was the key issue, the key element where you said to yourself, “No more, I’m going to go straight, I’m going to be using this experience for the better good.” What was your key experience and what do you think is the key experience for most people coming out of the prison system? There are two questions.

Randy Kirsch: My key experience was the fact that I didn’t have ownership pf mu life. That after 15 years people had to tell me what to do, when to do it, how to do it, where I should do it. Having to be powerless, and I felt powerless, when I was incarcerated. I never wanted to ever feel that feeling again, I never wanted that feeling that I couldn’t go somewhere because I was constricted. I didn’t want that feeling ever again. That I think a lot of people who are incarcerated feel, but when they get out they rush, too busy to rush back into life and they don’t pace themselves. Then they wind up finding themselves in the same situation. I’m not going to say since I’ve been out that I’ve made all the right choices. I’ve made some missteps here and there but none have been ever detrimental to send me back and I’ll always tell my elf, “I need to do better, I need to do better, I need to do better.” It’s a constant reminder of where I was at.

I never forget where I came from, I never forget that experience. That experience shaped me, the food alone kept me from going back. Listen the food alone.

Leonard Sipes: [crosstalk 00:22:02] get used to that good food up there in Brooklyn.

Randy Kirsch: Yeah, the food alone was enough to say I’m not going back.

Leonard Sipes: Yeah, all right look. Two thirds are rearrested, a half go back to prison go back within 3 years. Now that figure has been replicated in various studies by the Department of Justice multiple times. There are others that give different figures but the bulk of individuals are rearrested and some where in the ball park or 40 to 50% go back to prison. Failure is a common occurrence of people called up caught up in the criminal justice system. You mentioned a while ago, empathy. I think a lot of people involved in the criminal justice system have seen so much failure and seen so many attempts to help a person get off of drugs. To help a person get the mental health treatment that he or she needs. To help the person reunite with a family. To help a person find jobs and to put a tremendous amount of time and effort, this is the perspective from the other side of the system. Just to see the person fail.

I think there’s a burn out syndrome of those of us that work in the criminal justice system that would be greatly alleviated if so many people caught up in the criminal justice system were not rearrested, did not go back to prison. My first question is, what is the key ingredient, we heard what happened to you. You didn’t like the food, you felt powerless, everybody else, what do you think the key issue is in the fact that so many people do reenter the criminal justice system?

Randy Kirsch: One, a lot of people don’t come home with a plan. That’s is major problem. People don’t actually plan what they’re going to do when they get out. Also they don’t see, all we hear about are those who go back. That’s all of the figure that you just gave me. The 65% and all of these other figures, but nobody is focusing on the other 35% who stay out. That’s where I come in, That’s why I do what I do to show people there are people who actually never go back. Who actually are settled in society. There are people, like I said, they become businessmen, entrepreneurs, people go back to college and they get Master’s degree and they work in these fields and we don’t see enough of those. We don’t hear enough of those stories to resonate with those who are going through that experience, so they feel hopeless. That sense of powerlessness is a constant reminder of where they are.

What I’m doing, and the work that I’m doing is showing not only people giving you a blueprint on what you need to do while you’re there to prepare for your life when you get out, but I’m showing you. We just shot a film series called, “Beyond prison, probation and parole.” I went and talked to various people who have been incarcerated, came home and are doing phenomenal things. We plan to hopefully get that inside the prison system so people can see and hear and be motivated and inspired by other people. That other 35% who don’t go back, and I think that this is the time, especially when we have access to the media avenues, through videos, through books, these innovative, interactive programs on being able to shift and show people what their full potential is, if they decide to embrace a different lifestyle, a different way of thinking. I think it all starts with the way a person thinks about himself, thinks about where they are and thinks about what they can accomplish in the future.

I know … I’m sorry.

Leonard Sipes: No. Pleas, we’re running out of time, if we had all the programs designed by the people caught up in the criminal justice system. If you had the psychologists and the social workers and the criminologists sitting down with folks with your background, putting together the right programs, I heard two themes out of this, dignity, and programs with input from people like yourself. If we had that what percentage improvement would we have if everybody was afforded programs and with significant input from folks like yourself. If the system really provided the dignity to the individuals who are coming out of the prison system or caught up in probation, how much improvement do you think there would be?

Randy Kirsch: I think that, like I said, that’s just one component. When you put it together with the employment and the housing component, I think we could probably. Oh man, we could make a huge difference in people going back and forth to prison.

Leonard Sipes: We’re talking about 600 to 700,000 people coming out of the prison system, you’re talking about their families, you’re talking about the children. You’re talking about every year at least conservatively 1.5 million people.

Randy Kirsch: Yeah, I think that we can make a huge dent if those type of programs were created that really connect people with the real challenges and the real experiences that they are going to face and make their plans. Make them come up with a plan and have a plan for when they get out, coupled with having some housing available for them and having some job opportunities available to them. Teaching them how to reenter society and stay in society. It’s not enough to teach a person how to reenter, we have to teach people how to stay in society.

Leonard Sipes: That’s also going to require a fairly significant mindset on the part of the people of the United States to provide the tax money to allow all that to happen. To provide that sense of dignity, as you put it, to be more accepting of people coming out of the prison system. Giving them say and opportunity for a job, that’s going to require a fundamental mindset of the part of the American population.

Randy Kirsch: I think society is ready, I think society is ready for people to come back to society. One thing I love about America, and people can say all they want to say about this country or whatever the case may be. There are some issues that we have to deal with a a society, as a country, but this is probably one of the only places in the world that you can get a 2nd, 3rd and sometimes a 4th chance. I mean, come on, it doesn’t get any better than that. I think that society as a whole is willing to give people a chance as long as they’re willing to work for that chance and to be able to put in and be productive citizens in society. We have to teach people how to be productive citizens in society and I think that these programs that we just talked about and having people who have had those experiences have an input. They don’t have to have the total control of creating the programs, just be able to have an input would make a lot of difference. [crosstalk 00:29:17]

Leonard Sipes: Randy we need to close the program, “Changing your game plan”, the new book. What is it subtitled?

Randy Kirsch: “How to use incarceration as a steppingstone for success.” It’s a prison reentry readiness program, again it can be used by an individual on his own or it can be used in a group setting and I’m going to be all over the country trying to promote this program.

Leonard Sipes: Our program, our guest today is Randy Kirsch. Formerly incarcerated person, author, public speaker, reentry strategists,, Ladies and Gentlemen this is DC Public Safety, we appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms. We want everybody to have yourselves a very pleasent day.