Reform Done Right

Christopher Mixen, 23, looks very much like a college student in baggy cargo jeans, clean white sneakers and an oversized navy sweatshirt. His blond hair is cropped close, and his sharp, blue eyes gaze out from behind wire-framed glasses. But clipped to Mixen's shirt is a photo ID badge that sums up his adulthood thus far: ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, INMATE. His mug shot stares out from beneath the shiny plastic.

Mixen is a felon serving a four-year sentence for two counts of burglary. He is one of more than 600,000 inmates -- more than the population of Washington, D.C. -- who will be released from state and federal prisons this year. For newly released prisoners, the smallest logistical details can make or break their reintegration into life on the outside. In the Urban Institute monograph "From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry," researchers Jeremy Travis, Amy Solomon and Michelle Waul identify the "moment of release" from prison as one that has been underestimated in its importance both for individuals and for policy.

This is where Mixen comes in. Unlike most prisoners, he will spend his final eight months of incarceration in a building that more closely resembles a high school than a jail. When interviewed for this story, he had been a resident at the Safer Foundation's North Lawndale Adult Transition Center (ATC) on the west side of Chicago for 12 days. Safer is the nation's largest community-based organization serving current and former offenders exclusively. The center is located in a formerly middle-class neighborhood that by the late 1980s had become infested with drug and gang activity. For a time, it seemed like the only people moving to Lawndale were the men returning from prison.

Today the prisoners are still coming here, but something better awaits them. On the corner of Filmore Street and California Avenue, a stately, wrought-iron fence surrounds a new two-story building made of gray stone. Panels of brushed steel and glass adorn its front entrance. A smooth asphalt driveway wends its way past a basketball court and between newly planted trees and flowers. This is the North Lawndale ATC, one of two residential work-release facilities operated by Safer for the Illinois Department of Corrections. Mixen lives here with 199 other nonviolent male offenders, all of whom are working their way out of prison. If all goes well, Mixen will leave prison in June of 2004 with a GED, a job and some savings. And if the Safer Foundation fulfills its mission, he will never return to prison. As states around the country face huge budget shortfalls, transition programs for inmates take on importance beyond rehabilitation: Reducing recidivism results in millions of dollars saved.

An only child, Mixen was raised by his mother, Janna, a secretary; he never knew his father. He and his mother lived in Dixon, Ill., a small city of 16,000 located about two hours west of Chicago where one of the main attractions is Ronald Reagan's boyhood home. Mixen dropped out of high school during his freshman year and went to work as a busboy, dishwasher and line cook in various restaurants around town. Not satisfied with those opportunities, he enrolled in a vocational program and earned his Certified Nurse Assistant credentials. He worked for nine months in a local nursing home, and even received an award for his efforts in the Alzheimer's ward. "It basically said that I was the best person they had working in that unit," he explained. But Mixen's stint as a nurses aide did not last long: By his account, his employer accused him of doing drugs on the job and demanded he take a drug test. Although the test came out clean, his boss was not convinced. Mixen was fired.

In 2000, Mixen, then 20 years old and unemployed, attempted to steal a car from a local auto dealership. He was arrested for the first time and sentenced to two years' probation. Six months later, in June 2001, Mixen had another run-in with the law. "I wasn't working at the time," he says. "I was drinking, doing drugs and all that. I got a crazy little idea in my head that I would go out and get some money. I decided to break into a bar with a buddy of mine." Neither knew that the tavern was outfitted with a silent alarm. Both were arrested; his friend was placed on probation for a year and a half, while Mixen's second felony earned him a four-year sentence.

Remembering his first impressions of prison life, he tilts his chair back on two legs, looks out the window and pauses. He speaks slowly, his accent revealing his midwestern roots. "The first day, man. Getting out of that bus, [the guards] took the shackles off my feet and walked us through the [receiving entrance]. ... I'll always remember that. Above us was a guard on a catwalk with a shotgun. And the lieutenant out there in the yard with us yelled up: 'If they move, shoot 'em.' I didn't move one muscle. ... I was scared."

Mixen bounced around Illinois during the first 14 months of his sentence, doing time in five separate correctional facilities. He signed up for GED courses upon arriving at each location, but waiting lists were long, and often by the time he made it into a classroom it was time for another transfer. Mixen's luck changed when he drew within two years of release and became eligible to apply to a work-release program for nonviolent offenders. Competition for ATC placement is fierce: In Illinois, only 3 percent of ex-offenders have had the benefit of a work-release program. Mixen was among them. Because his hometown is located near Chicago, he was assigned to the North Lawndale ATC. On Oct. 3, he arrived at the front gates of 2839 West Filmore St. in a Department of Corrections van. "I was just happy to be here," he remembers.

According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States has the highest incarceration level in the world: Today, more than 2 million people are doing time in America. During the past 30 years, there "has been a four-fold increase in the per capita rate of imprisonment" in the United States, explained Jeremy Travis, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and former director of the National Institute of Justice during the Clinton administration. The boom was caused by, among other factors, a dramatic toughening of sentencing policies -- including determinate sentencing, the abolition of parole boards, and "three strikes and you're out" laws -- combined with an increase in crime, particularly drug offenses. And that boom led to another one: in the numbers of former prisoners struggling with the transition to life outside.

Making things worse for ex-cons, the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and '90s also corroded many prisons rehabilitative capacities. Various interventions -- including drug treatment, vocational training and basic education -- have been shown to reduce recidivism, but such programs have been cut over the past decade nonetheless. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 6 percent of the nearly $22 billion spent on state penitentiaries in 1996 (the most recent numbers available) went toward rehabilitative in-prison programs.

Now social scientists, politicians and the media are slowly awakening to the challenges facing these massive numbers of released prisoners, as well as the families and communities that receive them. Ex-offenders are mostly male, minorities and low-income. The majority of them are nonviolent criminals who served time for drug offenses and property crimes. Most have a history of substance abuse, and are without a high-school diploma or extensive employment experience. And prisoners today are spending more time behind bars than they used to, meaning they are further estranged from the families, jobs and communities to which they return.

Many prisoners are liberated with only nominal spending money and bus fare to the county of their sentencing. Often they are released at odd hours of the night. And prisoners released during the day may travel a long distance and arrive at their destinations late at night. These scenarios make establishing early connections with family and social-service agencies difficult. What's more, prison officials do not always provide inmates with proper identification, such as Social Security cards and birth certificates, rendering job and housing applications worthless. And responding to their sudden change in status and the loss of structure, former inmates frequently experience what is known as "gate fever," a condition characterized by extreme anxiety and irritability upon release. According to the Urban Institute's study, "Released offenders tend to cope with everyday problems in ineffective and sometimes destructive ways ... leading to increased stress levels and rash, often criminal reactions."

Recidivism studies conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the highest rate of rearrest occurs in the first six months after release. Two-thirds of ex-cons will commit new crimes within three years. Because of this, Travis and his colleagues argue that states should "front-load" existing support services to the weeks immediately prior to and following release, when inmates need them the most. Obtaining proper identification and linking people to social services outside of prison are not labor-intensive tasks, but these simple steps often make all the difference, not only for the individuals involved but for the community as well. Less recidivism means fewer crime victims. And when implemented correctly, such efforts can save cash-strapped states hundreds of millions of dollars by eventually reducing the numbers of people in prison.

These days even some conservatives are seeing the value of this "softer" approach to criminals. In a 2001 National Review Online editorial, conservative commentator Eli Lehrer, then a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, reviewed findings from the Urban Institute study. Convinced by what he read, Lehrer called on conservative thinkers to get tough on crime by supporting re-entry policies. "America's burgeoning prison system has done a poor job insuring that convicts leave the prison gates ready to lead productive lives," he wrote.

" ... This situation needs to change. ... [C]onservatives should support four policies: improved follow-up, better drug treatment, in-prison work programs, and faith-based rehabilitation."

The Safer Foundation was started in 1972 by two Chicago priests to help ex-offenders secure employment upon release from prison. Today, Safer's 284 staff members assist more than 5,000 men, women and 16-to-21-year-old youthful offenders each year in the Chicago area, Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa. According to the foundation's president, B. Diane Williams, "What is necessary is to understand the need set of the individual." Some only need a foot in the door. Others need basic education or substance-abuse treatment before they will be ready to work. To accommodate the diverse needs of its clientele, Safer offers basic education courses, job-readiness classes, and an array of services in partnerships with various public and private social-service providers across the city. Job counselors make referrals for clients and help negotiate interactions with other agencies, such as welfare or housing.

The organization also cultivates relationships with private-sector employers. "We really look at our employers as the second half of our customer base," notes Safer Vice President Joy Dawson. And employers appreciate the service. Mark Henke, plant manager of the 34th Street Sorting Center for Allied Waste in Chicago, has hired at least 500 employees through the Safer Foundation atcs. In return, he receives a steady stream of prescreened employees. If he ever has a problem with any of the employees, he simply calls his contact at Safer. A replacement arrives the next day. "We don't ask our employers to do good deeds," says Williams. "We ask them to make a business decision. That decision is to hire people who are desirous and capable of doing the job. And those people should, in fact, have a positive impact on the bottom line for the company that hires them."

Of Safer's $17.4 million annual budget, 91 percent comes from government contracts. Although the amount of funding it has received has stayed fairly constant during recent Illinois budget cuts, Williams had to fight the closing of one of her two work-release programs in the Illinois Legislature. "We were threatened with the closing of Crossroads, our largest program, earlier in this budget crisis," she explains. "And the way that we were able to continue funding for that program was that we could show those people who care about dollars and cents, as well as the people who care about the quality of lives, that we were working well in both arenas." She was able to illustrate, for instance, that Safer's most expensive program, the residential ATC, still costs $2,000 less per year than regular incarceration. The eventual savings of reduced recidivism were even more compelling. "The liberal folks though are the ones that continue to carry the water. But the conservative thinkers can hear the numbers," Williams says.

Christopher Mixen's first 30 days at Safer will be filled with logistical tasks, such as securing multiple forms of identification, as well as a number of cognitive and behavioral tests to gauge whether he is ready for work. After that, with the help of an employment counselor, he will head out into the city and find a job. (Because Illinois law bars ex-felons from working as Certified Nurse Assistants, his former occupation, Mixen is hoping for work as an auto detailer.) Once he finds work, his job counselor at Safer will call his employer every day to check on his attendance. Mixen will receive market wages, and he will pay all taxes. Twenty percent of his earnings will be paid back to the state to offset the expense of housing him. An additional 20 percent will be automatically diverted to a mandatory savings account that he can access upon release. Many use this money as a down payment on an apartment or car. As he continues to work, he will earn free time in the form of a pass that can be used away from the center on evenings and weekends. By the time he is released, he will be spending more time outside the center than inside.

Still, Mixen is anxious about the day he has to leave prison. "To be honest with you, I'm scared to go out there," he says. "I've been locked up for 14 months; this is what I'm used to." He motions out the window. "I keep telling myself, 'That's where I'm supposed to be -- out there. Some guys, they go out there and within two weeks to three months they're right back in prison. ... This is their life. This is what they were born for. This ain't me. I'm ready to go out there, but I'm scared."