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Brothers Under Re-Arrest By Sonya Rose

Standing out front of a favorite chicken shack on 125th Street in Harlem on a recent chilly weekday afternoon, *Niki, who has spent more than half her life behind bars, was waiting to pick up a "package" and make a subsequent "drop-off" at a nearby McDonalds. For her, selling marijuana ("S--t, that's natural medicine") is one way to get paid, and send money to her two girls, both of whom live with their maternal grandmother in the Bronx. The 26-year-old is also fully aware that she will likely be sent back Upstate to do more time at a women's correctional facility.

"I gotta handle mine, ain't nobody else looking out for me,' explains Niki, of her illicit drug sales, during a current free stint. The recovering crack addict has been re-incarcerated a total of four times, including a stint served in juvey for participation in a Bronx robbery when she was just 14. This tall, lanky femme represents a modern American tragedy: the incredible re-arrest rates for Blacks in this country, who don't get proper education and life-management tools while locked up, and who are released back into inner - cities with not enough jobs, support apparatus, dire healthcare and high crime.

In fact, according to a study released last year by the Florida Department of Corrections, variables such as race, education levels, and time-served all reflect the likelihood of ex-cons returning to prison. In fact, Black inmates earning GEDs are less likely to be re-arrested. The report did acknowledge, however, that sufficient data is not available to monitor behaviors post-release--like drug and alcohol use, unmet employment needs, and formal and informal supervision -- which may also contribute to high recidivism statistics.

Niki did earn her GED while inside, but claims the so-called counseling she received was rare and ineffective. "Sometimes, every so often, I talked to my counselor or my lawyer, a public defender..but, we didn't talk about nothin' really; just court dates and stuff," she claims. "But, now that I'm out here on these streets, I gotta feed mine. That's that."

Then there's *J, who has been 'free' for one year, and has about a 19% chance of going back inside, according to the FL-corrections report, because after only 18 months of freedom, that startling percentage of inmates return to prison (It also predicted a 22.8% rate of recidivism after 36 months; and, a 22% rate after 60 months). J who is 30, is worried about "going back in the hole" because a third serious offense (his first was for burglary, second for attempted murder) will put him back behind bars for life. Despite this fear, J admits to currently selling marijuana, but "being careful and keeping my head low. I stay away from the cops."

The fact is, poor Black folks whose family ties are loose already and are under-educated when they commit early offenses, and then are imprisoned in a system that merely holds them and doesn't effectively rehabilitate, are more apt to perpetuate crime to survive upon release. In addition, after release, society has no place for ex-cons in terms of jobs or support networks, so they wind up locked within the system for years.

"Unfortunately, it all boils down along lines of race and class," Marc Mauer, assistant director of the DC-based Sentencing Project, told this writer. Having helped develop numerous justice-related reports, including "Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System," Mauer argues that policy-makers' reaction to this dilemma is merely a "quick response, as opposed to a more holistic approach" toward rehabilitation, especially for the poor.

During the interview, Mauer, who also authored Race To Incarcerate, a novel about the implosion within our country's prison system, suggested that-in instances of inmates' drug abuse--it is much more likely for White middle-class ex-felons to enter treatment facilities, than of course, oftentimes poor minorities, whose communities do not offer such care.

Mauer further argues the proper network of vital resources is simply not as available or accessible to poor communities: "What vocational and educational skills are being offered to the individual while incarcerated? What support exists from the family, or parole officers on the outside? It's a stressful time, and they [minorities] need support."

J likely inherited his crime potential from his West Indian-born father who was murdered while serving a life sentence in a New York State prison. Even his younger brother is currently serving a six-year stint ("He'll get parole in 18 months") for selling drugs. But J's time behind bars, where he also earned his GED, brought him closer to God. "I did go to the Church service sometimes. I ain't all believing in God, but I learned some things..."

Yes, God, as is a given of most truths inextricably linked to the upliftment of African descendants, is a key factor in recidivism reduction. Studies show that inmates who participate in Bible study or Church services were less likely to return to criminal activities, hence staving off being re-arrested.

According to recently published comments on made by Sheryl Ramstad Hvass, the Commissioner of the Minn. Dept. of Corrections: "Studies show that recidivism rates drop by 65% for prisoners who regularly participate in religious-based Bible studies and seminars." Ramstad Hvass went on to say that inmates may have heart - and life-changes after learning to walk with God, and thusly allowing that faith-based guidance within our criminal justice potpourri, "...presents the greatest likelihood of keeping people out of that vicious cycle and out of continually a life of crime."

Upon release, brothers and sisters do need God -- and they also need jobs -- to keep them off illicit pathways. In fact, 36% of all inmates weren't working a month prior to arrest for their most recent offence (20% were looking for work; 16% were not looking), according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"The ability to find a stable and adequate source of income upon release from prison is a critically important factor in an individual's transition from prison back to the community," according to Rudy Cypser, chairman, CURE-NY, during a late-2001 Public Hearing on Parole and Post Release Supervision.

In addition to developing employment opportunities for ex-felons, Cypser offered other viable solutions, including early assessment of special education needs; extensive addiction treatment (during incarceration and post-release); and, up overall Department of Correctional Services funding for academic and vocational training.

In the meantime, J says he'll continue to do what he knows best: "I'll sell a little weed 'til I can get my own place--outta my moms house. Then, I'll fill out some [job] applications, and see what happens..."

(*Names have been altered to protect the privacy of interview subjects.)

Sonya Rose is a Harlem - based writer. Ms. Rose can be reached at

Sonya Rose

Thursday, February 21, 2002

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