Dispelling the myth of ex-felons from the head of the DOC

Max Williams, Director of Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC), spoke at the Out4Life Reentry Conference in Portland, in October. I strongly recommend that anyone interested in prison issues, especially the recidivism problems, view the DVD of this event.

The conference included 30 workshops led by 76 presenters and each provided a rich menu of learning opportunities. These workshops provided practical information on how agencies, non-profits, business, and the faith community could work together to provide more effective assistance to returning ex-prisoners.

Max Williams was the first speaker at “An Essential Partnership: Corrections and the Community.” He immediately identified himself as interested in minimizing recidivism and reversing the population boom in prisons. “We can’t afford to continue the present pattern. An essential partnership between the DOC and the community” is needed now, Williams said.

Oregonians should know that 93 percent of Oregon’s incarcerated folks will be released back to the community. The history of a felony conviction is a substantial barrier to successful reentry. Williams said the problems for the released folks begin immediately when they leave the prison system. Solutions to those problems must be handled while folks are still incarcerated.

Williams described a statewide transition program that networks with many organizations on the outside. Cooperation with veteran’s groups work to assure that the 10 percent of recently released folks who are vets will be able to avail themselves to the many veteran benefits.

Also, active work to open federal employment opportunities is going on. Statistics show that only 9 percent of the ex-felons are employed on release, and after 6 months, only 33 percent are employed. Williams went on to emphasize that a key concern is our task to increase job opportunities.

“People want me to just keep people locked up so the streets will be safe,” said Williams, “but my main concern is to reduce recidivism by developing better transition programs.” He pointed out that recidivism costs are far greater than preventative programs. This cannot be tolerated. “Not on my watch.” he said.

In order to develop the essential partnership between the DOC and the community, our challenge is the many who don’t want anything to do with ex-felons.

As Williams says, we must build communities that think differently. That is the only way the barriers of housing, employment, treatment, and — most importantly — a community that will accept the recently released prisoners will make successful reentry programs possible.

Williams frames this in the Biblical story of the prodigal son. The story is about two brothers, one who had “wandered afar and eaten with the swine” and the other who had remained at home working hard and loyal to the family.

“I have 14,000 prodigal sons and daughters,“ Williams told his audience. When the father prepared a feast for the returning son, the other brother stood outside and would not participate. “I haven’t done anything wrong.” he cried and would not forgive the “sinner” brother. But, Williams pointed out, “We need that brother’s help.” Our outreach to the community must reach them. We need to change their attitude, to encourage them to welcome and embrace the folks who have changed themselves from the drug and criminal life and truly want to contribute (and some say “pay back”) the society they wish to reenter.

A pastor recently told Williams, “we don’t want ex-cons in our church.” Williams just raised his hands and his voice and said, “It’s church, man. This is some of the thinking that has to change.”

Oregon statistics show that we are now at the lowest number of violent and property crimes since 1960. Williams said that when he told this at a recent Rotary meeting, he then asked, how many believed it. Very few raised their hands. This is because our perception is that crime is rampid. Williams blames the media for this problem. He pointed to the non-reality shows that fill the airwaves and the news reports that devote the first 20 minutes of their broadcast time to reporting crime. Prison stories and events have become the number one entertainment. The public is being convinced that occasional violent incidents inside the prison walls represent what it is always like. “It is not always like that,” Williams says.

Personally, as a volunteer to the prisons, I must agree with Williams. True, I’ve heard many horror stories about prison events. Also, I certainly agree, that even one incident, especially if it could have been avoided, is one too many. However, I am often told by prisoners that they very much resent the image of prison being a continuous life of danger and horror. There are many more nonviolent, normal folks who are doing their time, trying to change their lives, determined to move on in better directions when they are released, than the mad, violent prisoners depicted in the news, and popular fiction that is available regularly to the public.

“We must demonstrate to the community that thousands of prisoners being released each year in Oregon are normal, nonviolent citizens who will become our neighbors,” Williams says.

The perpetration of the violent image of ex-cons as if it is the stereotype of all prisoners, is destructive to providing a new start instead of a return to crime and drugs. Fear, Williams says, “created by crime reports, is an enemy to faith that the released prisoners are OK and worthy of a chance, and they should be accepted by the community.”

If this sample of the Out4Life convention has aroused your interest, search ROAR’s soon to be operational website: http://www.out4life.com/o41-events/past-out4life-conferences

My good friend, Karen James, the mother of a prisoner, was able to obtain the DVD that included, not only the Max William’s talk, but presentations by Scott Taylor, Director of Multnomah County Community Justice, and Steve Berger, Assistant Director to Washington County Justice. The other session, titled “Paid Mentoring: The Washington County Model,” presented five individuals who each told their story of becoming a mentor after their crime experiences and periods of incarceration.

Karen sent copies to folks at a dozen Oregon prisons, urging them to show these fine programs to as many prisoners as possible. If you belong to an organization or have a group of friends to share this video with, contact the producer, Tualatin Valley Community TV to purchase a copy.

The conference was Co-Sponsored by: ROAR Alliance, Washington County Reentry Council, Prison Fellowship, Oregon Department of Corrections and the Governor’s Re-Entry Council.

The most important point of the Williams presentation was the urgent need to educate the community. Karen and I plan to do whatever we can and we hope you’ll help us.

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