- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

PUTNAMVILLE, Ind. (AP) - The 21 men in the room, all wearing beige jumpsuits, are at a crucial juncture in their lives.

They are all felons. Most of them are repeat offenders. Most have been in jail for years. And, within the next three months, all of them will be back on the streets of Indianapolis. Statistically speaking, slightly more than half are likely to be back in jail within three years.

That is why a group of police officers and parole agents from Indianapolis made the journey an hour west of the city - to Putnamville Correctional Facility - to try something new in the effort to close the revolving door for repeat offenders.

For the prisoners - seated around a conference room - the last representative of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department they encountered was the officer who put them in jail. Sometimes it was a peaceful encounter, sometimes not. In every case, it was unpleasant.

Yet standing in front of them are officers who are delivering a somewhat unexpected message: We care about you; we want you to be successful; and we don’t want to ever send you back to jail.

“We’re not trying to lock you up and throw away the key,” IMPD officer Jason Brown tells them at one point. “Those days are over. We’re here to help you out.”

It wasn’t just a postcard in tune with the Christmas season. Over the course of three hours last week, a succession of police officers and parole agents took turns expressing variations on the same good tidings. They offered to help the men get jobs on the outside, offered to help them find mentors, pledged to make sure they had a cop’s phone number they could call anytime they needed to talk.

To be certain, the officers threw in some tough love: If you don’t keep your parole appointments, they said, we’ll come looking for you with a warrant; if you don’t get a job, your chances of screwing up again go up dramatically; and there are people and places from your old life that you probably want to avoid if you want to stay out.

Yet the core of the message was clear: The police and the prisons don’t need your repeat business, and both are willing to go further than ever before to help you stay out of trouble.

“We’ve done the same thing over and over again,” IMPD officer Jamin Davis tells them. “We’re trying to do something different.”

To offenders such as Jeffury Golden, who has been to prison five times and is due to be released again just before Christmas, the message was unexpected but welcome. “It seems like they are here to try to help instead of being here to try and hurt you,” said Golden, 37.

“I’ve been on the other side of the law for a long time, but I’m willing to give anybody the chance to help.”

For the past year, IMPD officers and parole agents have been making prison visits such as the one last week to Putnamville. They’ve stood up and made similar pledges, issued similar admonitions. They’ve sat with each offender - two-on-one - taking notes about his goals and likely challenges and working out ways to lower some of his barriers to success.

Sometimes that means helping him - so far, they’ve been doing this only in men’s prisons - get his Social Security card and birth certificate so he can start hunting for a job immediately upon release. Sometimes it means getting his veteran’s health benefits lined up so he will have medication available on his first day out. Often, it means sizing his job skills, so they can help him find a job.

And that is a pledge the officers make - to help find work for the inmate if he can’t find it himself. IMPD Deputy Chief Brian Mahone says this new approach, which he calls the Indianapolis Parole Accountability Team or InPAcT, has had a job placement rate approaching 80 percent.

Parole officers say the approach is a far cry from the traditional approach to prison exits, which they liken almost to releasing an animal into the wild. Men, who in prison had the prescriptions they needed to fight anxiety or mental illness, get turned out with no health insurance. Men with no birth certificate and no Social Security card are told to go get jobs. And the instructions come from a parole officer they’ve never met and probably don’t trust.

“Pretty much they come out day one, they’d be given resources and be told, ‘Go out in the world and prosper,’” said parole agent Grant Peters. Frequently, the parolees run into roadblocks that send them into a tailspin that leads them back to prison.

InPAcT began two years ago, in IMPD’s Northwest District, as a means to rewrite that script. It has since spread to all of IMPD’s policing districts, with the exception of Downtown. In each district, a police officer and a parole agent are paired up to act as something like a welcome wagon for the returning offenders. The pair meet with the offender in prison and, together, meet him on his first day out.

“They’ve got to feel welcome,” Mahone said. “We’ve all been someplace where we didn’t feel welcome, and that feeling of anxiety - especially for a high-risk population - can drive other things.”

The program is just two years old, but already more than 500 offenders have passed through it. The recidivism rate - the percentage who have re-offended and gone back to jail - is less than 10 percent. That compares with a 55 percent recidivism rate after three years for Marion County offenders.

“We know we’re still going to see a couple of guys who are going to fail, because not everybody is ready,” Mahone said.

Because thousands of ex-felons return each year to Marion County, where reducing crime is a top priority, the stakes are high.

Consider Ricky Van Winkle, a Richmond native who, at 36, has been sent to prison five times. After spending most of the past nine years in prison after a string of burglary and drug possession convictions, he’s due to be released today from Putnamville. He plans to return to live with his girlfriend in Indianapolis. Like so many of the others, he vows he has spent his last day in prison. But he knows that pitfalls - such as the temptation of drugs - await. He says this time he has tried to take advantage of prison programs.

Then there’s the fact that most of the men have children and, in many families, prison has become a generational legacy.

Davis, the IMPD officer, said the InPAcT team isn’t likely to make an immediately noticeable difference in the crime stats. But he’s hopeful that future waves of new parolees will return home and teach their children to go a different path than to prison.

“If we get one person right,” Davis said, “maybe he changes two or three generations of people coming up behind him.”

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Source: The Indianapolis Star, http://indy.st/1ITaOJV

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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