- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) - Judy McCarroll is living in what one advocate calls the Twilight Zone.

McCarroll, 62, was released from federal prison Oct. 30 after serving 20 years and nine months for a non-violent drug offense.

She walked out of a Texas federal prison with the clothes she was wearing and enough money to buy food for the day, along with a plane ticket back to Chicago, the Kenosha News (https://bit.ly/1SlwItw ) reported.

Complicating her already fraught situation was the fact that the day after she learned she had won an early release, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather than going to a halfway house to transition from prison, she was sent to a federal prison with a medical facility, where she received the first stage of chemotherapy.

“The only thing they did to help me (with the transition from prison) was the social worker found me a hospital to come to here for my chemotherapy and radiation,” McCarroll said. “And by me having cancer, they couldn’t let me ride a bus, so they gave me a plane ticket.”

While she was in prison her mother, father and brother had died. Her son, who had been sentenced along with her for the drug violation, was still in prison.

At the airport, she was met by her grandson, Antonio Campbell, who was 5 years old when she went to prison. Now she’s living in Kenosha with Campbell.

She arrived sick and weak, with no money, no clothes, no resources and a working knowledge of American life that had come to a full stop in January 1995.

“It reminds me of an episode of the ‘Twilight Zone’ I saw once,” said Wendel Hruska, executive director of Project Return, a faith-based agency in Milwaukee that works with people getting out of prison.

“For those who were in prison for a long time, they come out and everything around them has changed and they were unable to change with it,” Hruska said. “This world around them is alien, and they are plopped down into this environment and not given any resources to navigate it.”

McCarroll was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison for her part in a drug conspiracy case.

According to McCarroll, she was one of eight defendants in the case, which involved the intent to distribute 500 grams of heroin. It was her first criminal charge.

“I never sold drugs. My son did sell drugs, and after I found out that he was selling drugs, like any mother, I tried to stop him. But he didn’t stop,” she said. “What my part in this was that I kept his money for him.”

Her son, who was then 21 and had no criminal record beyond traffic tickets, was sentenced to 33 years. He is still in prison. She hopes to help him earn an early release as well.

McConnell’s sentence was reduced under program that released about 6,000 federal inmates early to ease prison overcrowding and in response to a growing belief that the harsh prison sentences handed out to non-violent drug offenders in the 1980s and ‘90s were a mistake.

The United States has the highest prison population in the world, with about 1.5 million people incarcerated. Wisconsin, which has about 22,000 inmates in state prison, has the highest incarceration rate for black males in the country.

“We spend $1.3 billion every year on corrections - we spend more on corrections than we do on the entire UW system,” Hruska said.

Hruska said there seems to be bipartisan movement toward the idea that long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses may not be a good use of resources. There is also a growing focus on the idea of diversion programs, like Kenosha’s drug treatment court, that would focus on treating drug and mental health problems rather than on prison.

“It wasn’t overnight that mass incarceration became a huge problem in Wisconsin,” Hruska said, noting that the policies developed over more than 30 years. “It’s only been recently that folks have come around to understanding that what we are doing in correction policy is not working.”

But while there is a movement toward changing sentencing rules and releasing some offenders earlier, there is little focus on what to do with prisoners on release.

Hruska said his organization, launched in 1980 by an inner-city Lutheran church, tries to help people getting out of prison through counseling and jobs programs.

“There are huge barriers that individuals face when they return from incarceration,” he said. Those include lack of job skills and problems integrating back into their families.

For older former inmates like McCarroll, the problem is especially acute.

“They have to figure out how to survive in a world that has passed them by, and they have to figure it out with little or no assistance from the state or even nonprofits,” Hruska said. ” They have to have a real strong mental fortitude to navigate the system. And often times they either are revocated” - for violating the terms of their release - “or they fall into addictions. For a lot of individuals it is not terribly long after they are released that they pass on.”

In Kenosha County, there are very few resources for people getting out of prison.

“You exit prison with a few bucks in your hand and you are supposed to rehabilitate yourself,” said Terry Rose, a criminal defense attorney and member of the Kenosha County Board. “It’s a real problem that has absolutely not been addressed. What we have addressed is building prisons.”

The only agency directly serving former inmates in the county is Birds of a Feather. Director Tony Moore, a former inmate himself, launched the agency to help former offenders, but the agency’s mission is focused on drug addiction recovery. There are residential programs, but those, too, focus on drug or alcohol addiction recovery.

Things like prison-transition housing programs and job services are non-existent here, according to Moore, Rose and others, although Moore said he and others are working on ideas for programming. Prison transition programs are lacking everywhere, Moore said.

“We dropped the ball. We dropped the ball in the early ‘90s when the War on Drugs came, but we didn’t do the other side,” Moore said. “We should have had transition programs … we should have had prevention programs set up to train and educate people. But we didn’t do any of that.”

McCarroll said she has found some help in the community. A social worker at the hospital helped her find a charity that gave her a wig when she lost her hair to chemotherapy. The organization Walkin In My Shoes has been working with her as well.

Goodwill gave her some clothing. A food pantry gives her food once a month. She was able to enroll in Medicaid and FoodShare.

And her grandson, Antonio, a 26-year-old retail worker and college student, has let her stay in his Kenosha apartment. He takes her to medical appointments and has bought her clothes.

“I’m just happy to have her here with me,” he said.

But she knows she can’t stay with him forever. “I’m here as a guest. I’m basically homeless,” she said.

She is frightened by some things in the outside world, like crowds of people, loud noises, or even the sound of keys. Seemingly small issues throw up big barriers. Her doctors have told her she should be on vitamins to augment her cancer treatment. But they are not covered by either FoodShare or Medicare, and so she does without.

“The hardest thing is dealing with cancer, with my illness, and not having my own resources, my own money, my own apartment, my own bed.”

But she has hopes for her future.

“I want to have my own place - to have somewhere that I can call home,” McCarroll said. “I want to get out and volunteer. To try to help other people. Definitely to let young people know about what happens with drug laws and using drug, selling drugs, and what it does to families.”

She said she wants people to know what can happen. “I’ve lost so much when I was locked up that I can never get back.”


Information from: Kenosha News, https://www.kenoshanews.com

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