A tough transition: Communities help former inmates adjust

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June 14th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Every month, between 200 and 300 men and women enter Nebraska communities from a life few of us will ever know: a life spent behind bars. Because of the dramatic changes between living in prison and living on your own, the transition is not always easy, but community volunteers are lending a helping hand.

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Imagine living on a deserted island for several years. There’s little doubt, coming back to civilization, you’d see the world as a changed place. That’s what former inmates say it’s like when leaving prison – and that’s why the transition back to the community is difficult, said Nick Colangelo. In Nebraska correctional facilities for more than nine years, he remembers the day he was released.

200-300 Nebraskans leave prison every month, returning to communities that may be unfamiliar. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

“The day I got out was pretty exciting, at first, and then it got kind of scary,” he said. “Things were a lot different, things had changed so much.”

Colangelo said his first thought was he needed to get a phone. “So I bought a cell phone and didn’t know how to use it,” he said.

Sitting in his small Lincoln apartment, Colangelo recalled how he quickly learned he wasn’t alone.

“Pastor Dave Larson was at my parole hearing,” Colangelo said. “I got paroled about 9 o’clock in the morning, and I got out at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Pastor Dave Larson sat and waited, and once I got out he took me straight to my parole officer. Pastor Dave Larson asked, ‘Do you want something to eat?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I would like to go to McDonald’s.’ From there, we went to a place called Bridges to Hope.”

Bridges to Hope is a facility were released inmates can go for clothes, household items and other things to help them get started. Larson is a retired Lutheran pastor living in Lincoln; he said his reason for helping former inmates is quite simple.

“I grew up with love and care, a loving community, and I realize that many people in prison didn’t grow up with that,” he said. “They didn’t have a parent, or their parents were addicts or alcoholics or were not able to help them grow up, so I think it’s love and compassion that motivates me.”

Larson is not alone in the effort. He’s part of two community-based groups that provide re-entry programs: Reentry Alliance of Nebraska, or RAN, and Nebraska Aftercare in Action. Those two are both based in Lincoln, but there are many re-entry efforts throughout the state.

Inmates who may benefit from such programs are identified before release, often meeting with the community-based team while still incarcerated. That’s what Larson said he and other team members did with Colangelo.

Bridges to Hope is one facility were released inmates can go for clothes, household items and other things to help them get started on the outside. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

“A lot of people want to be independent and live on their own when they get out of prison, but I think they need to act interdependently to be more mature,” Larson said. “And it’s good to hear people’s stories, and it’s good to try to be a listening ear. People need a lot of encouragement, and they need people who are tolerant.”

“They don’t need a lot of baloney; they need straight talk, and I think I can do that,” he continued. “I don’t have qualms being with prisoners, so I believe I have a disposition that works pretty well.”

When released, Colangelo, who is a diabetic, was given a two weeks’ supply of medication. It took him three weeks to find a supplier for his medical needs. Housing, employment and health care are usually the three things released inmates need assistance with right away, and RAN tries to coordinate meeting these needs. The organization includes representatives from half-way houses, faith-based organizations, job training programs and the Department of Corrections. As deputy director of programs and community services with the Department of Corrections, Larry Wayne is involved, too.

“The first challenge for folks, community service providers, is where do you find the resources to keep up with the demand,” he said. “We have probably way more inmates coming out then they can accommodate. But they have done well.”

Wayne said the faith-based community has helped raise money through grants and private donations. The community also provides mentoring and emotional support, he said, which requires more time than funding.

“It’s huge for people coming out of prison to have someone who is pro-social in their thinking,” Wayne said, adding many former inmates return to a life with minimal support structure. “Where do they go? They go back home. What does home look like? It looks the same, with the same people who have the same problems and same values, substance abuse issues or were engaged in pro-criminal types of lifestyles,” he said.

“And if that’s all you have to go back to, and there’s no one out there in your community or amongst your support that thinks pro-socially and supports that, your chances of being able to maintain a law-abiding lifestyle and productive lifestyle are greatly diminished.”

On average, each inmate costs the state $28,000 a year. (See page 8 of the DOC annual report.) That’s an incentive to keep released inmates from returning. Bill Wakefield, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said community-based programs appear to be working.

“There is an impact and there is an influence on a person’s predilection to commit crime and get back in the system,” he said. “These programs are having an effect, particularly when you look back 25 years (when) the programs weren’t there and we had high recidivism rates. It used to be called the revolving door of the prison, you know: in and out and in and out.”

Rates of former inmates returning to prison aren’t always measured the same in every state, but numbers available show Nebraska’s recidivism around 27% percent, while other states report up to 67% percent. Wayne is interested in increasing re-entry programs but said the state’s corrections department is trying to maintain the status quo due to budget constraints.

Community-based groups are looking for funding sources too. Professor Wakefield sees re-entry assistance impacting the social side of criminal justice.

“The idea that there are people outside the institution that are interested in your well-being and your re-entry into the community to become a functioning, socialized, reintegrated individual, and the fact that this niche exists for the people that are returning to the community” is important, he said. “If there weren’t these resources, it would be very difficult.”

Nick Colangelo served about nine years for forgery, use of a firearm to commit a felony and attempted robbery. He said without Reentry Alliance of Nebraska, and Pastor Larson and his team, he’d be part of that recidivism rate.

“Without all the aftercare programs that I … am involved in, I don’t think, I don’t think that I would still be out, to tell you the truth,” he said.

“Without them I don’t believe … I would have had a real good chance.”

Colangelo said he met with his team once a week, then once a month, then once every couple of months. “I’m on a team now, you know, I’m helping somebody else, and that’s part of the program with Nebraska Aftercare in Action. That’s part of the deal. They help you out and then you help someone else out. So far, I’m on my second team.”

Larson said most former inmates just need compassion and understanding. For him, it’s work with great reward.

“The reward of helping someone getting going in life is just really neat,” he said. “When people get going on their own in life, but still call you for help on things that are really important, when people start to make good decisions… that’s nice to see.”

Larson concluded by saying citizens who are incarcerated aren’t much different than the rest of us.

“Most people that have not been in prison don’t realize how close they are to being in prison,” he said. “Most of us could say, ‘Well, I had a time when I drove drunk,’ and that one time could have resulted in a death,” he said. “Or there are many people who are alcoholics who are not in prison.”

“I believe if we are honest, we can say, ‘You know, I could be there in their shoes.'”

One Response

  1. Elisabeth (harney) Sanders-Park says:

    I am co-author of ‘No One Is Unemployable’ and ‘The 6 Reasons You’ll Get the Job’. I’d love to connect with Dave Larson about how I can support this program.

    Thank you.

    — Elisabeth H. Sanders-Park

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