Ind. struggling to reduce prison recidivism

Only a fraction of 20,000 men and women annually released from DOC participate in services due to limited financial support, staffing, space and business cooperation

By Dan Carden
The Times

INDIANAPOLIS — State lawmakers learned Tuesday that Indiana has numerous in-prison and post-prison training and job programs that improve the lives of Hoosier offenders and significantly reduce recidivism, saving taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

However, only a fraction of the 20,000 men and women annually released from the Department of Correction participate in the services due to limited state financial support, staffing, space and business cooperation.

"We are not funding and we're not doing what we should be doing if we are going to be serious about this," said state Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, a member of the General Assembly's study committee on corrections.

That panel is tasked with devising potential legislative solutions to improve the transition from prison to society and reduce the 36.7 percent of felons who end up back in prison within three years of leaving.

While state prison officials told lawmakers there is no single answer, the programs they offer to offenders — including education courses, intensive drug counseling and apprenticeship training — routinely cut recidivism by one-third to one-half for active participants.

"It's one thing to lock somebody up and confine them and make sure they don't get out, but to change who they are from the inside out is a lot tougher thing. That takes the programs you've heard about ... combined with work," said Doug Evans, manager of PEN Products, the state's in-prison manufacturing program.

To that end, the Department of Workforce Development has partnered with hundreds of Indiana companies to find post-prison jobs for 1,451 offenders released this year. Still, many employers are reluctant to hire former inmates — even with a $9,600 federal tax incentive.

"There are plenty of opportunities where offenders could get into jobs if the businesses would open it up," said Doug Wimer of DWD.

But even if an offender is trained for work behind bars and ready to re-enter society, he or she almost immediately must deal with a host of practical problems relating to housing, transportation, health insurance, child care and family life on the outside.

Pam Ferguson, assistant superintendent of Rockville Correctional Facility, said the staff at her women's prison strive to wrap services around female inmates from the day they enter, to prepare them for the day they'll leave, and many times it's still not enough.

She said the state should establish a network of safe houses in major cities where newly released inmates could be reunited with their children and have a free or low-cost place to live while they start work, enroll their kids in school or daycare and just get on their feet.

"If I had a magic wand we'd have a house that was safe for her and her children," Ferguson said.

The committee is set to meet at least two more times before issuing recommendations for the 2016 General Assembly to consider enacting into law.

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