- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2015





That is how former inmates and advocates responded to my simple question at a Thursday morning new conference: Are we prepared to receive 6,000 inmates in a historic, four-day federal prisoner release program scheduled to begin Oct. 30?

“No” slid off their tongues frequently and quite easily.

Most of those 6,000 men and women who are in federal prisons will be sent to halfway houses and other such institutions. But not all of them are “returning citizens.” A heads-up to folks who live in a sanctuary city: About one-third of them are noncitizens facing deportation, something else that has made some people nervous Nellies.

But the mere number means we need to rethink how we police ourselves. Instead of thinking community policing, we perhaps should be thinking community crime control.

“The communities, the cities need to able to meet and to sustain the needs of those returning,” explained longtime community activist and no-sayer Tyrone Parker. “They haven’t met or sustained the needs of those already back here. There are no jobs, no housing. We talk to the baggy pants, and we talk to dreadlocks. We even talk to the short skirts. We need to speak to the person inside the person.”

Rhozier Brown, a convicted killer pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1976, painted a picture of a returning citizen that is rarely understood or represented in the media: A man imprisoned for 42 years comes home and finds his grandma’s home is torn down, a club he frequented is torn down. He looks for a public phone booth and finds they are gone too, and then, penniless, tries to bum a bus transfer only to discover they no longer are in use.

Prisons do not prepare inmates for their transitions home, wherever home may be, and our communities and budgets aren’t preparing them either.

Here are a few facts about what we’ve been dealing with in recent years:

With more than 2.3 million inmates being given three hots and a cot, each week more than 10,000 of them are released from prison. The annual total is an estimated 650,000.

The cry to the U.S. Sentencing Commission led to an April 2014 vote to reduce sentencing guidelines for many lower-level drug offenders. Then, in July 2014, the commission added to that list prisoners who were serving “unjustly long” sentences for drug offenses.

Over the course of the next five years, an estimated 40,000 inmates will be eligible for early release.

Now you get the picture, and Mr. Brown, Mr. Parker and a few dozen other men and women say the time to begin the transition is now.

They say change is hard for a lot of people, and transition is more difficult if you broke the law, paid a price (sometimes twice if it concludes financial restitution) and can’t seem to find your way. But for “returning citizens,” those already “out” and those who will begin making their way to a neighborhood near you, the laws of this great country work against them.

At the press conference called by the National Alliance of Returning Citizens, ex-offenders and advocates laid out an agenda that includes pressing local, state and federal governments to reform public school discipline policies, reinstate voting rights, continue the push to ban the criminal arrest box on job applications and “provide immediate employment and training for returning citizens.”

They also want our governments to do something else: “Utilize current prisoners, and the influence they have in communities, to reduce gang violence and assist in gang intervention.”

That issue might be realized if only for the fact that, as we were learning about the early prison releases, the U.S. Justice Department announced October 1 that $53 million in grants was being ginned up to reduce recidivism among youths and adults.

In short, many of those in attendance at the press conference came from a hard place, but they did not make excuses. What they did, which is old-school and very impressive, is discuss community crime control — and it doesn’t mean they are patrolling the streets as gun-toting Bible-thumpers.

It means they arm families, returning citizens and communities with the tools to live with such mediating forces as churches and other faith-based entities, as well as community-based organizations, not merely “community organization.” The focal point: family.

Here again, I turn to Mr. Parker. I first met him in 1991, when he, James Alsobrooks and several other men were forming the Alliance of Concerned Men. At the time, D.C. was in the throes of several crises — chiefly violence, teen pregnancy, terrible public schools and substance abuse epidemics that left young children and teenagers to fend on their own. Things were so murderous, one neighborhood was nicknamed “Simple City.”

The newly formed alliance asked for books, computers, donations, volunteers and mentors to help turn the tide, and my family gave generously. The constants, including prayer and incremental payoffs, included working with other nonfinancial profiteers, such as Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise to reach out to struggling families to bring about gang truces and peaceful solutions.

The truce and community spirit sustained those efforts until bloodletting and other suffering returned, as residents informed the mayor and other officials at a recent come-to-Jesus meeting in not-so-Simple City.

“The devil is on the loose, and we need to lock it back up,” was the warning of one worried mom at that meeting.

When I asked Mr. Parker where the leaders of our faith community stood, he simply said, “They’re straddling the fence.”

So allow my interpretation: They talk the talk in the buildings, but aren’t necessarily opening the doors to the community where they should be walking the walk.

Myrna Lee, founder of the A Family That Prays organization and one of a dozen women in attendance, spoke of the need for spiritual healing as one of the most important ways to meet and sustain the needs of the large influx of prisoners who soon will return home.

“We have to offer the hands-up,” she said. “We just can’t wait for the government.”

For those of you who think I’ve gone soft, that is not the case. I’m still a law-and-order kinda gal.

I’m not really into the slogans “Black Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter,” etc. I’m into action.

And I’m saying this, too: If we don’t prepare ourselves for the tens of thousands of prisoners who are coming home, community crime control will get kicked to the curb.

I’m just saying.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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