Ex-con points way to closing prison’s revolving door

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Before this past legislative session, legislators were asked to consider building a $100 million prison, but nobody really wanted to do that. The state already housed more than 18,000 inmates, including a backlog of 2,500 in county jails, and a new prison would add only 1,000 beds. Forty-three percent of inmates released from prison return within three years, anyway. As soon as the new prison was finished, another would have to be built.

Other solutions are needed that change behavior, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said, so that prison becomes less of a revolving door. So he proposed, and legislators passed, a legislative package meant to provide a short-term fix, including renting space in Texas, and a more long-term effort that includes creating transitional re-entry centers where prisoners reintegrate into society – rather than just receiving the traditional $100 and a bus ticket back to the life that sent them to prison in the first place.

Hutchinson and legislators also created a criminal justice reform task force that is studying other options. Let’s hope its members talk to Jason Duncan.

Duncan, 33, does not look like an ex-con. He’s 6-5, handsome, and stands with a leader’s confident posture.

At age 18, he was a different person. At that point, he told me he decided “to seek whatever was pleasurable in the moment” and began a life that, a decade later, “found me completely addicted to drugs, a raging alcoholic and starting to develop quite a spectacular rap sheet.”

He was sitting in a concrete jail cell in North Carolina, a fugitive from Arkansas justice, when he opened a Bible out of boredom to Deuteronomy 28, read about curses resulting from disobedience, and saw himself. He decided to become a Christian, got out of jail, and immediately returned to his old life, which led him, finally, to an Arkansas correctional facility.

Duncan’s life began to change when he enrolled in a program offered through Arkansas Community Corrections where inmates are transported to Little Rock’s Arkansas Baptist College to participate in a program managed by Under Grace Ministries. The inmates attend classes in recovery, spiritual discipleship, entrepreneurial thinking and resource management.

The inmates stood out a little. They wore brown uniforms, which was OK because, Duncan said, “most of the students thought we worked for UPS.” Many were white, including Duncan, and they were attending class on a campus serving mostly African-American students that originally was built to educate former slaves.

The program gave Duncan the direction he needed. After leaving state custody, he remained at ABC for two semesters and then transferred to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he’s studying international business and marketing. He’s now the director of international student ministry at Fellowship Bible Church. He’s married and has a son from his previous life.

Last week, he spoke at a ceremony dedicating ABC’s Scott Ford Center for Entrepreneurship & Community Development, which will house an expanded version of the program that changed his life. So far, about 30 inmates have started the program. Next year, 100-120 will be involved.

I asked Duncan what services inmates need to return to society and stay out of prison. He said they need a spiritual foundation along with education and work training because many have never had a job and don’t really know what one is. They need help overcoming their addictions. Also, each one of them should transition to society in a halfway house, a “safe environment with accountability but also a mix of freedom.”

The recently passed legislative package will pay for 500 parolees to be involved in such transitional re-entry centers. The state each year releases 10,000 inmates back into society.

Duncan didn’t say it, but fewer people need to go to prison in the first place. There are two reasons 43 percent of inmates return to prison within three years. One is that they were messed up to begin with, and prison didn’t fix them. The other is that they had merely made mistakes to begin with, and then prison really messed them up.

Let’s hope policymakers wisely consider solutions from every angle – keeping people out of prison who shouldn’t be there, helping parolees avoid returning, and keeping those who should be in prison locked up. Let’s hope the state finds more partners like Under Grace Ministries and ABC. Halfway houses are a good start, but let’s not settle for halfway solutions.

8 thoughts on “Ex-con points way to closing prison’s revolving door

  1. I noticed 2 things when I moved to Arkansas a few years ago. One is the unusually long prison sentences that are handed out even for relatively minor crimes. The other is the old-fashioned stripes in which prisoners are clothed. They look like workers on prison chain gangs in old movies. Nothing like that to really humiliate people and put them in their place! And how about Benton County’s serving only cold meals to prisoners!
    I applaud all of the contemplated reforms. I would love to do literacy tutoring in jails and prisons around here if we could get that figured out.
    Poverty, of course, is the biggest factor in all of this. Since Arkansas appears to be on a socially regressive trajectory, I see no relief for many of our social ills.

  2. As usual, you have “hit the nail on the head.” Years ago I was in a conversation with a high school principal in the hall as the final bell rang for the day and a young man walked by. The principal’s comment was something like this “he doesn’t need to be here” and my reply was “deal with him now or deal with him later.” It is those “don’t need to be here” children that we need to help more than any others. We need child psychologists in every school district, not to test but to help those troubled children. This would show our younger generations that we are serious about helping them. While he/she might recognize troubled children, the average classroom teacher is not trained in psychology and is too busy in the classroom to give individual attention to those children. It is going to be much more expensive if we do this job halfway.

  3. Hi, Sandy. Thanks for commenting. I never responded to your last comment about Common Core, and I apologize for that. I just want us to do whatever works that would reduce crime while putting fewer people in jail. I agree with you that the prison stripes and cold meals don’t serve much of a purpose. If it were up to me, far fewer people would be in prison in the first place. House arrest is a much more effective, efficient and cheaper alternative. For many, prison is just “criminal school” – a place where people who have merely made bad choices learn how to become total lawbreakers. Save prison for the bad guys.

  4. I was released from an Arkansas prison on 9/2/15, my second such trip. I was incarcerated for theft stemming from hydrocodone addiction that started with a major injury and operation. I can openly admit now that I also became addicted to the whole process of theft to generate money to chase pills – all while I worked 50-60 hrs per week. I paid my bills. I didn’t get high anymore, I was scared of withdrawals. It’s like a horrible flu for 8 weeks, which I’ve endured twice at the Pulaski County Jail, which is worse than prison. I’m a big advocate of prison reform, but not jail reform. That’s only a holding station – prison is not.

    A staggering observation I observed over 3 years – I feel the biggest reason most people are in prison, at its core, is a lack of education. Most inmates were “too cool for school” and in some cases, educators wrote them off early. What’s scarier than that is that most of the inmates I encountered were smarter than the majority of guards. I’m fortunate to have advanced degrees, but these guys were average joes. I literally had to spell check and act as a thesaurus for a few guards written reports. We joke that to work there you need to have a G.E.D and count to 100. We think it’s been modified to No G.E.D. Required and counting optional. With my own eyes I have seen a guard come in to do a rack count of 63 inmates and it takes them 15-20 minutes – we timed them with a stopwatch. Within 60 seconds of count starting, an inmate will always call out the accurate count and say the names of who isn’t there and where they are currently. 60 seconds. See, we respect count time because it’s more important than safety. No lie. We understand this. The guards don’t police us per se – we police ourselves. Fights happen, and if it’s 2 races fighting we would jump up and keep it a one on one fight. Because a different race than us like to steal punches on one of the fighters. I’m a very large man, and I can take on 2 people usually. I can’t take on 3 or 4 coming from different directions swinging wildly at me. Just the way it is. The best I’ve ever seen a guard try to break a fight up was a 40yr old 5’2″ black female Sergeant. She took some shots because she got involved but several of us stood there to make sure she couldn’t get jumped. That’s all we could protect her from because had I jumped in the original altercation to help her I would have lost my class, good time, and spent 30 days in the whole. Now, I’ve NEVER hit a woman in my life, but there are some female guards that if they got jump I will admit I would turn around and walk away without any remorse. We police ourselves, but some of the women introduce conflict to alleviate boredom. 63 men in a cramped space with a lady stirring the pot, usually along racial lines, can lead to a painful or deadly situation. I saw a man pass out from the heat and another inmate, a combat medic in the first gulf war ran over to help. He asked for water, wanted to move the hurt inmate out of the sun and put his own shirt over the man on the ground to help cool him off. That female sergeant told the ex-soldier to move away. He tried to explain, she kept screaming at him, and the ex-soldier continued to help the other man. His reward for doing the right thing? Loss of class, loss of good time, and 30 days in the hole. All of us who were there wrote witness statements, yet the disciplinary judge still found him guilty of disobeying a direct order. So what did we do? We paid certain people to get coffee and snacks to him in the hole. That’s only a snapshot of my experience.

    I’ve also learned the public perception of prison is far different than reality. I won’t gripe about food because it is prison, not a steakhouse. But they post a menu online of our meals yet what they serve us isn’t very close to what they state. They just lie. It’s their fiefdom and they don’t want anyone interfering. They play bootleg movies at times on weekends, a federal violation, even though inmates donate money to buy movies to be shown as a privilege. So they download pirated movies…. And where some of that money went is beyond us.

    There is NO rehabilitation in prison. They say there is, but their only program requires you to drag your butt across the floor in front of all the other inmates to get comfortable speaking in front of the group. WTF??? You also must write fellow inmates up, a certain number each week for ANY rule violation such as talking at dinner, talking in the hallway, farting, etc. Failure to submit the minimum number of write ups and you’re held back in the program, which delays your release. It’s called SATP/TC which they receive federal money for. It’s a JOKE. Finally, the GED program. They make everyone attend who have no diploma. I literally aced the TABE test which is a placement exam and they still tried to make me go until my proof of education arrived. My college transcript wouldn’t work – had to be a high school diploma. Huh??? The principal finally relented right before my diploma arrived. So…..what’s my point? Graduation rates do not matter, uts attendance. I know one inmate who was in his 19th year of the G.E.D. Program – he won’t graduate because school breaks up his day a few months out of the year. Why doesn’t ADC care. They get money for number enrolled, not graduated. And there is no tangible benefit to graduating except for pride, 10 days good time, and some cookies at a ceremony. Most don’t care. That’s the 2 types of rehabilitation our tax dollars, both state and federal, pay for in Arkansas prisons. The only program I feel is of any merit is work release. I went and it saved me because when I got out I had $1500 which helped me put my life back together. Most inmates can’t attend due to crime, etc. I’m sorry for the length of this post, but I’m passionate about the subject. Much can be done to evoke change, but is the old guard willing to turn a battleship in a bathtub? Most of the old school ADC employees are so jaded and cynical it would shock you, but in their defense, they do time like we do and are subjected to a lot of idiotic policies like the inmates. Finally, I was told I would have trouble adapting to prison because it’s the most illogical place on Earth. It is. And ADC is designed to burn money. But that’s another massive post for another time.

  5. Hi my name is Mona Peach I have a young son (Bradley Peach) that has spent most of his a young adult life incarcerated I just got word last night that he is being transferred to a reentry program in West Little Rock off of Markham his story sounds a lot like this young man’s When Brad was a young man he injured himself severely and had to have surgery that started him on prescription painkillers at the age of 14 he went on to develop quite a bad habit at the age of 26 everyone except me and God has turned their back on him without dedicated people I see why most of them return to prison within three years the parole fees fines and other court costs plus being a felon limits them almost crippling them and bringing themselves out without the support and prayers of family friends and strangers they can’t make it so they revert back to their old ways most people will say it’s all about choices and I totally agree but when you’re on the very bottom you have to have a life line I pray that this reentry program is his Lifeline along with his family support I just want to say God bless everyone who tries to help these young felons turn their lives around be blessed

  6. Jason Duncan hit the nail on the head when asked about prisoners entering society. The first thing he said was they need a spiritual foundation. You can educate a person, get them a place to stay, a job, a meal and even people that care about their welfare all around them, but without the spiritual foundation they will lose the spiritual battle and have a very high recidivist rate. There are some prisons that have made huge strides in their return rate and it stems from dealing with the spiritual foundation. I know…I spent 37 years in prison and have been free in more than one way for many years thanks be to the spiritual foundation I chose and was given through GOD’S power.

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