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10 February 2010

Back to the World

Ex-prisoner trying to start an honest life

MPRI is a relatively new program that aims to help those released from prison become a functioning member of society. It also tries to reduce the state corrections budget and make our cities safer.
Posted: 4:32 PM Feb 10, 2010
Reporter: Ryan Famuliner
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It's no secret Michigan has some serious issues with money and crime.

That's why the Wolverine State has launched a program that aims to address both of those problems in a way that might surprise you.

The Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative (MPRI) is a program designed to put prisoners back in the workforce.

For years, Michigan's jails were filled to the brim.

“We went through that whole period of being tough on crime and we locked people up so Michigan ended up with one of the largest prison populations in the nation,” said Marvin Austin, Regional Director of the Heartland Alliance at the Opportunity Center in Benton Harbor.

That large prison population was often a burden budget-wise. Michigan's cost of housing a prisoner is well above the national average of about $23,000, closer to $29,000 a year per prisoner.

“But the reality is most of the people that go to prison are going to come home sometime. So if you're just locking people up you just wait until their sentence is done, you send them home, what you find is the cycle back into prison,” Austin said.

That's why the state created the MPRI, which helps place ex- convicts who have served their time.

MPRI is administered through local sites like the Opportunity Center.

The Michigan Department of Corrections says that when MPRI started on a limited basis in 2005, 5 out of 10 prisoners returned to jail for new crimes within 3 years of being released.

Since then, that's decreased to less than 4 out of 10.

So, the one-time cost of less than $2,000 Michigan spends on the re-entry program per prisoner at places like the Opportunity Center can help offset nearly $29,000 dollars annually; if it's the difference between making a successful life outside of jail and recidivism.

“So literally everyone wins,” Austin said.

Those with the most to gain are the prisoners trying to re-invent their lives, which is no small task.

“The effort for them is probably double what it would be for someone else. But those that put the time in they do find that they can be successful,” said Rose Hunt, Director of the Opportunity Center.

Once they get out of jail, participants go through an intense program that helps them focus on the steps they need to take to again become a functioning member of society.

“They come in with the odds against them. They know they've made mistakes and I think in a lot of cases they're really sorry that they've created such a negative situation for themselves,” Hunt said.

For many, it is tough to stay away from the behaviors that landed them in jail in the first place.

“If they make an error we don't judge them right way and throw them out of the program. We say these are the 3 options you have to pick which one you think is best for you. Or we have them take the problem to a group of their peers and help them decide what option is best,” Hunt said.

But it's also tough to move back into a regular life. Just finding a job creates some blatant obstacles.

“They have to check that box that says they do have a felony, and so we try to help them draft (cover) letters that kind of put a human element a face to who they are,” said Syrina Butler, the senior employment counselor for MPRI in Benton Harbor.

“I think it's hypocritical and contradictory for society to say you've done your time and now they want you to get out and make a success and they not embrace you and help you make that success. If they don't, then what do they expect you to do?” said Virgil Hatcher, a peer counselor at the Opportunity Center.

The Michigan DOC says there's been some major progress since 2005, thanks in part to MPRI.

Corrections spending has been cut by $400 million dollars, and other efficiency measures have also contributed to the state closing 12 prison facilities in 7 years.

The state is working on expanding this program, which the Opportunity Center is rooting for.

“We're going to help people get back on their feet and be successful. They're the parents of the next generation and once they're being productive you're really going to see the change in the communities,” Austin said.

For a report on the progress of MPRI from the 1st quarter of 2009, click on the link to the .pdf above. To visit the DOC's website for MPRI, follow the link below.

Coming up Wednesday in part two of this three part series; we'll introduce you to a man who just got out of prison and is using the program to help turn his life around.

Last night we started telling you about the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative (MPRI).

It's a relatively new program that aims to help those released from prison become a functioning member of society.

At the same time, it also tries to reduce the state corrections budget and make our cities safer.

In part 2 of this series, you’ll meet a man who is just starting the program with hopes to turn his life around.

“Seven years didn't seem to me to be that long of a period of time, but when I came out the changes were just… astronomical,” Ronald Hill said.

Hill knows finding a job is going to take some time.

“Coming from prison, I understand that you know some trust issues were broken… Some people are just not going to accept you. Some people are going to close doors and you're going to be eliminated from some possibilities,” Hill said.

But that's not going to keep him from trying.

“I don't look at that. I don't need 100 opportunities, all I need is one; and I’m going to make good on the one opportunity that I’m given. The one opportunity that someone says, ‘I’m going to take a chance on this young man.’” Hill said.

That's why he decided to take part in the optional MPRI program as part of his parole.

The process started about 6 months before his release; preparing him for programs he'd start once he was out and helping him compile simple documents he'd need but lost track of since he'd been in jail. Things like a driver’s license, social security card, and birth certificate.

When he got out, he continued the program at the Opportunity Center in Benton Harbor.

“I treat everybody until they prove me wrong when you come to us you come with a clean slate,” said Syrina Butler, senior employment counselor at the Opportunity Center.

There, MPRI participants meet regularly in small groups.

“They learn not only to be more comfortable with themselves, but with their neighbor because they have to talk with them, plan with that person. They have to do projects together; they find out its not difficult to get re-acclimated to what it means to be community,” said Rose Hunt, director of the Opportunity Center.

They're also offered workforce training in things like culinary arts and customer service.

“We then place them (in jobs). We have a 75% percent retainment rate as far as employment, which is great for us,” Hunt said.

Because they're also the participant's strongest advocate to potential employers; and they only recommend them to a company if they truly believe they’re ready.

“It’s not as if the participant has to go to bat for himself or herself. We are kind of like the liaison and the agencies know that we're going to support that person with transportation needs, whatever they need,” Hunt said.

For instance, they were able to give Hill dial-a-ride tokens to get him around town for job interviews; and of course they helped him get his resume together.

They also pay for his first few months’ living expenses at a hotel downtown.

Because when he got out, like many others, everything he knew from his life before prison was gone.

“There's money set aside for my stay here and during that time I’m able to go out and have a job search that doesn't leave me wondering where I’m going to go, at least for a short period of time,” Hill said.

But the Opportunity Center says more than any of that; it's the support system they provide that really makes a difference.

“They understand that it's not just about them; that everyone's involved and rooting for them,” Hunt said.

“They seem to know how difficult it is, but on top of that the things that they do to help to them doesn't seem like it's a job to them. It’s part of who they are,” Hill said.

Now they say the task is changing the mindset of the community, and many who have a pre-conceived opinion about who an ex-con is.

“The (state’s) investment in MPRI; it's not just an investment in a program, it’s an investment in people. People are not disposable. Unfortunately there are some people like myself who have made some very poor decisions in the past. But over time, when you realize the things that you've done, you have an eagerness to make things right,” Hill said.

Hill says he will make things right

“It will be difficult, but they give me a sense of courage that I can do this,” Hill said.

The Opportunity Center says the recession has made these job searching efforts even more difficult for MPRI participants.

In many cases, they direct participants into volunteering opportunities in the community, where they get a chance to earn trust back from area organizations and churches. In some cases, that will lead to someone noticing the volunteer's efforts, and may lead to a job somewhere else. If not, they still get volunteer experience they can add to their resume.

Thursday in part three of this series we'll introduce you to two men who have graduated from the program and are now doing their part to pay forward the support they received when the left prison.

We'll take you inside the program and show you how the Opportunity Center helps people break through barriers.

Tune in Wednesday, for the ‘Just Before 6:00 Report’.

Posted via email from the Un-Official Southwestern PA Re-Entry Coalition Blog

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