Felons are the nation's most discriminated class, facing blatant job, housing and personal discrimination everywhere they go, barred from higher education and loans -- and the discrimination is legal because they were convicted of a crime.
"A lot of people I meet in Cincinnati have a sort of reflexive repulsion to people in the criminal justice system," says attorney David Singleton. "They say that they did the crime. If there are collateral consequences, they made their bed, that's what they lie in."
More than 25,000 men and women are released from Ohio prisons every year, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC). Supporting these prisoners in their re-entry to society are the ranks of professionals and volunteers in Ohio who work in grassroots prisoner outreach and activism. They work to stop the system's revolving door and help felons make a go of life on the outside.
Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, a prisoners' rights organization based in Cincinnati, says the prison population has skyrocketed to more than four times what it was in the 1970s.
Singleton and other attorneys involved with the center assist felons both in and out of prison. They file suits on behalf of prisoners, provide representation, assist when felons are denied public housing and operate two legal clinics in Cincinnati.
"When you have a system that's bursting at its seams with inmates, there are problems," Singleton says.
Victims behind bars
The barriers to rehabilitation are numerous, Singleton says.
· Poor access to the electoral process: Felons have the right to vote but last year were told they couldn't by some boards of elections in Ohio.
· An absence of proper medical care: Singleton says some of his clients have suffered advanced cancers, and one even died due to physical exams that amounted to little more than "checking for a pulse." Happily, Singleton says, this will change as the result of an agreement with ODRC (see Porkopolis, issue of Oct.
"Before we launched on the path of this lawsuit, the system was a mess," Singleton says. "The state has done a remarkable job in working with us to fix the problems."
· Limited access to housing, particularly among sex offenders: Singleton says his organization is challenging an Ohio law that prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school. He says the law does nothing to protect communities because children live everywhere, and it only serves to make it very hard for sex offenders to obtain any housing at all.
"It provides the illusion of safety," Singleton says.
· Drugs in prison and corrupt guards: "It gets in there somehow," Singleton says. "In general, the prison system is rife with corruption."
Singleton says inmates' doing sexual favors for guards is a particular problem in women's institutions.
Despite the overall rise in the numbers of Ohioans incarcerated over the past 30 years, the numbers have been dropping since 1998. At that time the inmate numbers peaked at more than 49,000. This drop occurred during the tenure of ODRC Director Reginald Wilkinson, who, Singleton says, "is committed to re-entry issues."
Wilkinson insists Ohio prisons aren't corrupt and the overwhelming majority of officers are committed to their jobs.
"We do not tolerate any violations of our policies," he says.
Like the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, ODRC is committed to a holistic approach to re-entry that begins in the prison, according to Wilkinson. He says correctional programming -- educational, vocational and life-skills training -- begins on the first day a prisoner enters the system.
Wilkinson says he is committed to a step-by-step approach to reform that includes addressing an offender's specific needs, promoting family involvement, helping prisoners develop job skills and utilizing faith-based prisoner outreach organizations in rehabilitation.
Feeling like Frankenstein
Michael Howard, executive director of Justice Watch, a local organization that offers ex-cons housing, knows the prison system well. He spent 13 years in Ohio prisons for crimes such as aggravated robbery and felonious assault. Now a minister, he works to give back to the neighborhood he grew up in -- the West End -- and to offer a sense of family and stability to men coming back to society.
"Prison is dehumanizing," Howard says.
Ex-cons often grow up feeling worthless.
"Poverty does that to you," he says. "You have a natural gravitation to the community of the streets."
He says he used to be convinced he was a convict.
"Once you're arrested, there's a certain identity," he says. "You are the leper of society. It's Frankenstein's syndrome -- you feel inside like a monster."
Howard, whose organization depends on volunteer labor, says he wants the most difficult clients to come to Garden Street Transitional Home, a group home operated by Justice Watch. Howard says he wants people to come to his program of their own free will, working toward personal resolution and freedom from their addiction to the street.
He says human touch, love and kindness are key and that Garden Street serves men seeking to reform by providing them with a family and a home.
Steve Costin, 54, has been a member of Garden House for two months and, even though he hasn't been incarcerated since 1990, admitted his past kept hold of him as it did when he was in trouble with the law.
"The last 15 years have been a roller coaster," Costin says.
He says he would spend some time clean and then go right back to cocaine or heroin. It went on like that until Costin hit his brick wall, something he says every person involved in crime hits sooner or later. Costin was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1999 and, although he beat it, he had to have half a lung removed last year. Costin also was hit by a car, and his girlfriend died while he was in the hospital.
After he hit the wall he became homeless but was found on the street by Howard, who he'd known since his youth. Costin, who describes himself as having grown up in the penitentiary, says Garden Street has given him new hope that he can remake his life.
Ariel Miller, director of the Episcopal Community Services Foundation, says finding hope for prisoners is the goal of her organization. Miller has assembled a first-ever Ohio conference on prison ministry in September. She brought re-entry volunteers together from around the state, many who were themselves once incarcerated, to brainstorm and network on how they can better serve prisoners and help them transform their lives.
"The issue of incarceration is a silent plague," Miller says. "They don't need to be made into victims. They need our compassion." ©