Homeless Triangle Part Two: Home erosion

You can read Part I of this series about homelessness and our prison system here.

Get on the bus

Each year, for 130,000 Californians, the prison door is unlocked one day and the question now becomes – where do you go? And how do you get there? Do you get any money? If so, how much? It is remarkably hard to find an answer to those basic questions, even if you’re a concerned family member trying to find
out.

Nowhere on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) website could I find a description of the release process, or how a destination is chosen, or how much (or little) financial aid or transportation help a prisoner might get upon release. If you are the mother of a son with disabilities, impulse control disorders, and mental illness and you’re trying to find out exactly when he’ll be released – you can’t know. And if you’re trying to find out where he might be headed, or how much money the prison system might give him – you can’t know.

Recently released prisoners often tell me in clinic that they got “nothing.” After 10, or two, or 15 years, the door is unlocked and they take a bus somewhere with no medicine, no appointments, no place to stay and not a penny to their name. After being unable to verify this process on the CDCR website, but finding references in news articles to “$200 and a bus pass,” I decided to call CDCR and find out what was true. Eventually, I spoke to the highly professional and extremely helpful officer Joanne Duroncelet. She was a bit surprised that she couldn’t find the information on the website either. But she proceeded to explain that decisions about what you’re given, and where you can go on release can be highly variable. The maximum someone can get on release is indeed $200 – but you’re
not guaranteed it. And there is no adjustment for length of time behind bars. And, if you need a bus ticket, and/or clothes, those come out of that same amount.

But you may indeed arrive in a neighborhood without a penny. There is something called a “parole hold,” which is when a parole officer decides to keep whatever is left of your potential after-bus-ticket-and-clothes money. A parole officer may choose to do that to encourage you to comply with the conditions of your parole (such as checking in). How does a parole hold decision get made? It depends on the parole officer, I was told.

Officer Duroncelet also later sent me the link to the written policy, which is here:
http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Regulations/Adult_Operations/docs/DOM/Ch_8_Printed_Final_DOM.pdf

When it comes to the choice of destination, many prisoners may have contraindications that prevent them from returning to within 35 miles of the place they previously lived. Reasons can include a stay-away order, history of domestic violence, restraining orders or sometimes as a condition of parole. No data exists on where
those people go, or how many of them become homeless in a different community’s neighborhoods. But generally speaking, most prisoners are expected to return to their county of incarceration. If you have relationships to rely on, that’s where you are expected to go. Back where it all began.

Set up to fail

So you’ve got no food, no place to stay, no money, no pills, no appointment, no health insurance. But you can still work, right?

Unfortunately, many prisoners are released without at least one ingredient crucial to getting hired: an I.D. Forget about skills, or education, or the depressed economy. If you’ve got no driver’s license, no passport and no social security card, you can’t get a job. At least not a legal one.

And if you have nothing to prove who you are, how do you prove who you are?

The bottom-line step that is required to cut through the circular bureaucracy is to obtain a notarized birth certificate. Just being able to figure that out is quite complex – even if you have no issues with literacy, access to technology or a disabling mental illness. Unfortunately, you must go to your county
of birth to obtain it. Even after you’ve figured out what is required, without an address, a vehicle, or money, how are you going to achieve that step, the first one required just to be able to start the process of obtaining I.D.?

At Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco, the line in front of the booth for assistance obtaining an I.D. is consistently huge. Lack of identification is a large barrier that many, many people cannot overcome without assistance – particularly for those living on the street.

If there is any division in the entire state that is in an excellent position to certify a prisoner’s identification, it would be the Department of Corrections. They, more than any other, should be able to issue the same state identification to any and all people being released from prison. Not a correctional I.D. – that is a form of identification that would not be acceptable for employment for many reasons – but the very same state identification that the DMV issues. It’s hard to imagine why this isn’t done prior to release, even if you may not be out for long.

The news is full of the overwhelming difficulty finding a job in our current economy. Even for people with highly marketable skills and extensive contacts, unemployment can be prolonged – and can become a semi-permanent state. Add to that backdrop the reality of a felony conviction. Felony convictions render applicants not only undesirable, but also bar them from many types of work, such as getting a contractor’s license.

Added to that is the well-documented fact that felony convictions don’t occur evenly across populations. If you grew up in an environment with poor educational and employment levels, your chances of being incarcerated are higher. Your chances of being employed at any job, once released, without marketable
skills or education, are quite small. How do you even look for a job without an address, money, a phone, a change of clothes or transportation?

And what are you going to do for food during the time you’re looking for a job?

The brutal fact is, once you’re sent to prison and released, the majority of people don’t stay out of prison. California also has the highest recidivism rate in the nation – 70 percent. Only 25 percent of prison admissions are actually a new prisoner. By far the largest majority of admissions are people sent back to prison for parole violations.

And among the group of people returned to prison for what might be called a “fresh felony,” important differences emerge. The types of crimes committed differ between those who are
sent to prison for the first time, versus those who were in prison before, and are now being incarcerated for a new felony court commitment.

In 2009, of the more than 63,000 first time prisoners sent to prison, about a third committed crimes against people, about a third committed property crimes, and about a third committed drug-related offenses. But of the 18,000-plus former prisoners who were sent to prison for a new court commitment, only 18 percent
committed crimes against people. About 30 percent again were committed for drug offenses. Property crimes rose to approximately 40 percent – of which the largest sub-groups were second-degree burglary and petty theft with a prior. The remaining crimes fell into the category of “other” (12 percent), of which
possession of a weapon was by far the highest subgroup. What do these changing numbers tell us? In a best-case scenario, these numbers might imply that prisoners learn something from their imprisonment – and are much less likely afterward to commit violent crimes against people.

A more cynical view might be that, as a group, after release, as time passes, even if they don’t want to re-commit a violent crime, ex-offenders become increasingly economically desperate.

Although a different state, data from Massachusetts supports that interpretation. Researchers did a random-sample survey of 17,565 prisoners to determine their rates of homelessness in the year prior to incarceration. They found that 9 percent of inmates had been homeless – a rate 4 to 6 times the rate in a comparably matched adult population (matched for age, race/ethnicity and gender). They also found that “In comparison to other inmates, these homeless inmates were more likely to be currently incarcerated for a property crime, but also
to have had previous criminal justice system involvement for both property and violent crimes, to suffer from mental health and/or substance abuse problems, and to be more likely to have been unemployed and with a low income.”

Carried across state lines

Prison erodes and eventually can destroy even the strongest of relationships. Those effects can occur in a relatively short time, but are more likely the longer the term of incarceration. Our recent attempt at cost-cutting the $49,000 per year that California spends on our lowest-level inmates has led to shipping prisoners out of state to private facilities.

Given the fact that people who are incarcerated disproportionately come from economically deprived communities, sending prisoners out of state will most often mean that families, even if they wished to, cannot afford to travel to see inmates. Extended time apart, and extensive geographic distances, fracture already strained relationships.

California may be saving money in the short run, but sending prisoners out of state may mean we are sentencing a higher number of released prisoners to homelessness when they are returned to us after release.

So exactly how many ex-prisoners are on parole on our streets? Find out Thursday.

***

Stay tuned for Part III this Thursday, which reports exclusively the number of homeless prisoners on parole in San Francisco and the Bay Area – which county has the highest proportion of homeless parolees? These three articles were supported by Spot.us. Doc Gurley is a Harvard Medical School graduate and is a practicing board-certified internist, and the creator of the Memoriam app – the first, and only, app to allow disaster-relief workers to speak for the dead. You can follow Doc Gurley on Facebook. You can get more health posts at www.docgurley.com, or jump on the Twitter bandwagon and follow Doc Gurley. Also check out Doc Gurley’s joyhabit and iwellth twitter feeds – so you can get topic-specific, effective, affordable tips on how to nurture your joy and grow your personal wellth.

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