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.