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Homelessness a Significant Problem for Released Prisoners
On August 8, 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) discharged disabled prisoner Michael R. McHone from FCI Edgefield in South Carolina to spend his first night at a motel. The next day – a Saturday – a prison employee drove McHone to Asheville and dropped him off in front of the Western Carolina Rescue Mission at 10 a.m. The Mission didn’t open until 4 p.m., so the BOP worker pushed McHone two blocks in his wheelchair to A-Hope, a day care program for medically needy indigents. A-Hope is open until noon on Saturdays.
A-Hope personnel observed McHone’s debilitated condition. He was so disabled that he couldn’t move his own wheelchair or speak clearly. “It was pretty easy to take one look at him and know he wasn’t going to be able to take care of himself, even in a shelter,” said A-Hope staffer Bryan Landis. “He was bad. I don’t care what crime he committed. He didn’t deserve to be treated like that,” added John Hairston, another A-Hope employee.
McHone had just finished a four-year sentence for aiding and abetting an escape in 1990. BOP spokesperson Rita Teel said that when prisoners are due for release, the BOP cannot keep them any longer. They are assigned case managers who help them plan for their release and most either go to a halfway house or stay with family. McHone was told to contact his case manager on Monday, but he was too disabled to remain on his own until then.
A-Hope called the Buncombe County Department of Social Services for help. Hours later, however, Social Services still couldn’t decide what to do. When A-Hope closed at noon, Landis called 911 and had McHone taken to Mission Hospitals, where he was reported in fair condition.
Beyond the inhumanity of dumping a severely disabled prisoner at a temporary shelter unable to provide for his medical needs, releasing prisoners who have no place to live increases the likelihood that they will reoffend, which is a disservice both to the ex-prisoners and society.
“If we continue to dump our prisoners into the shelter system simply because it’s a convenient solution, are we not exacerbating the problem?” asked Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.
Consider Mark Anthony Griffin, a homeless man who cycled in and out of jail in Florida due to alcoholism. He accumulated more than 50 charges over the years, mostly misdemeanor offenses that included public intoxication and trespassing. Lacking a place to live, he was released from prison back to the streets. That cycle continued until his most re-cent crime, which was stealing a box of Lucky Charms and a can of milk from a Walgreens; he was then prosecuted as a “prison releasee reoffender” and received a 15-year sentence on September 25, 2009.
“I’ve never seen national statistics,” said Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless. “But we are trying to work with various jurisdictions to change the laws on releasing people to the streets or to shelters.” The fact that most ex-offenders are barred from living in public housing and some state-funded housing programs doesn’t help matters.
According to a 2008 research study by Prof. Stephen Metraux, Caterina G. Roman and Richard S. Cho titled Incarceration and Homelessness, prisons are often situated in rural areas far from the urban locations where prisoners were living before they were incarcerated. “This geographic mismatch renders it difficult to connect returning prisoners to the available housing market or for discharge staff and social workers to even attempt to provide housing assistance, as they are unlikely to have sufficient knowledge of the housing landscape to aid returning prisoners,” the study concluded.
In Ventura County, California, the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness includes a zero-tolerance policy for re-leasing people from jails, hospitals or other institutions when they have no place to live, according to a January 3, 2010 article in the Ventura County Star. The object of the plan is to connect people at risk of becoming homeless with programs designed to serve their needs.
The Returning Home Initiative of the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) in Illinois has a similar goal. The initiative “aims to end the cycle of incarceration and homelessness that thousands of people face by engaging the criminal justice systems and integrating the efforts of housing, human service, corrections and other agencies,” according to the organization’s website.
“We know how to keep people out of jail and keep them healthy,” noted John Fallon, senior program manager for CSH. “But we continue to invest in building more prisons instead of investing in prevention.” Fallon said one priority was ensuring that prisoners are provided with health insurance after they are released, such as Medicaid. “If a person goes to jail disabled, they don’t leave without a disability,” he said. “So they need health insurance to get necessary services.” This is particularly true for mentally ill prisoners, who are at higher risk of becoming homeless after their release.
A 2007 study by the Colorado-based Piton Foundation found that 36.7 percent of prisoners released on parole in the Denver area were homeless or living in temporary housing such as shelters or motels. And even that number may be low. “This statistic is limited because it only takes into consideration people released [on parole] from state prison,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. The Piton study also found that 48 percent of parolees who violated parole said finding a place to live was one of their “biggest problems.”
Bureau of Prisons’ officials should take note and make changes to their release policies before they dump more prisoners like McHone at homeless shelters.
Sources: www.citizen-times.com, http://homelessness.change.org, Ventura County Star, http://news.medill.northwestern.edu, The Ledger, Boston Herald, Denver Voice
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