OLYMPIA – Paroled in 2003 after 20 years in prison for murder, Willie Robinson emerged from Pine Lodge Pre-Release clutching a $100 check, some legal papers and hopes of making it in a world he barely recognized.
Cars were tiny – and insanely fast, after his decades of occasional rides in lumbering prison buses. He was befuddled by gas station pumps, stunned at prices, and surprised at how little neighbors talk to each other these days. It took weeks, he said, before he really believed he was free.
“I’d had so many dreams of being free and then woke up and found myself still behind steel,” he said.
Roughly 9,000 inmates are released from Washington prisons each year, after an average incarceration of less than two years. The problem: A lot of them come back. A state study earlier this year found that 42 percent of new prisoners had been there before.
Although hardly unique, Washington’s revolving-door prison system is inefficient and expensive, says new Secretary of Corrections Harold Clarke. And he and state lawmakers are starting to push for reforms with a simple goal: fewer repeat offenders.
“We know how to lock people up, know how to incapacitate,” he said. “But for me, the true measure of public protection is what the individual does after release. Because then the public becomes vulnerable.”
The potential savings to taxpayers is dramatic. Each year, Washington spends about $27,000 to house each of its nearly 18,000 prisoners.
And that figure doesn’t even count the cost of building the prison. The state is now spending $229 million for a 1,792-bed expansion to the prison complex at Connell. On the day it opens in 2009, prison officials predict, the state will still be nearly 1,000 beds short. Within two years, that need will have grown to 2,000 beds. For now, Washington is shipping its prisoners to other states where it rents cells. Idaho, which has about 7,000 inmates but just 6,000 beds, is also shipping prisoners out of state.
Clarke’s answer in Washington: to start revamping prison psychological assessments, education, job-training and treatment programs. By the time people walk out of prison, he says, they’ll have better odds of staying out.
“If we can help prop them up – prepare them – I think most of these folks will choose law-abiding lives,” he said. And quoting a business mantra, he says that prison should “begin with the end in mind.”
Advocates for prisoners and their families say change is desperately needed. Inmates are routinely released with a small check and bus ticket, no ID, the clothes on their back and a cardboard box with their stuff from prison, said Leah Zengage, executive director of the Washington chapter of Justiceworks, a nonprofit advocacy group for prisoners and their families.
“So you don’t have job skills, you don’t have money. You’re hungry. And at all the shelters, there’s drugs,” she said. Offenders, she said, are “set up to fail.”
Clarke says he has no illusions about reforming everyone.
“We fully understand that no matter what we do, there are some offenders who are going to re-offend.” But he’s betting that he can push that number well below 42 percent.
To do it, Clarke is asking legislative budget writers for an additional $26 million over the next two years. The money would be used for intake evaluations, treatment and classes, as well as to build bridges to family, friends and community groups willing to help inmates upon release. (The state has three “re-entry centers”: the prisons at Airway Heights, McNeil Island and the women’s prison at Gig Harbor.)
It’s the first budget request for Clarke, who was formerly the longtime head of corrections in Nebraska.
Clarke’s proposal is the start of what will likely be a larger state effort to change prisoner “re-entry” into society. A legislative task force has been working for months to try to come up with other proposals.
The debate taps a deeper question about the role of incarceration: is it to punish or to reform? But Clarke’s main argument seems to center around a simple statistic: like it or not, about 97 percent of inmates will eventually be released.
“Harold Clarke is actually a blessing,” Zengage said. “He really does believe in supporting people’s rehabilitation. That’s critical.”
In Colville, Nora Callahan has plenty of ideas. She’s the executive director of The November Coalition, a group pressing for lighter sentences for drug offenders. Her brother is serving more than 20 years in federal prison.
“We’ve been focusing on just punishment,” she said. “It’s only when we see community involvement with prisons – they’re not separate – that we’ll see the results society expects and needs.”
Her suggestions: Job-skills classes and tax breaks to encourage employers to hire and train work-release inmates. The state must also separate and treat mentally ill inmates, she said.
“How are you going to rehabilitate insane people?” she said. “We’re using our prisons as drop-off places for mentally sick people. It’s not working and it’s wrong.”
Clarke said the statistics from incoming prisoners paint a clear path for reforms. Nearly three quarters of male prisoners test below a ninth-grade education level. More than half have drug or alcohol problems. And 70 percent were unemployed.
Robinson, after 20 years in prison, eventually found work at a lumber mill, where his muscles were a selling point. He now builds custom cabinets and lives in a Seattle suburb.
He’s deeply skeptical that reforms like Clarke’s will be anything more than window-dressing. Shrinking the number of inmates, he notes, would mean that corrections officials are working themselves out of a job. And he doubts that inmates will buy into any counseling and educational system that’s run by jailers.
“This is something that comes up every five to seven years on their part,” he said of corrections officials. “Nothing’s going to happen.”