Archive for Humane Exposures

“Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes” Exposes Women’s Prisons

Susan Madden Lankford wrote a profound book about female incarceration in 2008 that still resonates today. The product of more than two years’ photographing and interviewing in a typical women’s jail, the book combines 326 powerful black-and-white photographs with theMaggots In My Sweet Potatoes by Susan Madden Lankford frank and graphic voices of both the jailed and the jailers, presenting us with a cogent portrait of diffused lives, and a reflective glimpse of emotional and physical imprisonment. Quotes from experts in the fields of justice, rehab, and mental health add depth to the picture, building the case that changes in American society, including neglect and abuse of our youth, contribute to the overloading of our detention system and the brutal cycle of institutionalization. well as the consequences of homelessness, to examine a system that offers no viable safety net for the denizens of our streets, and to seek solutions that will create a better future for society as a whole.

In selecting the book as Web Pick of the Week, Pulisher’s Weekly wrote:

Through photographs, interviews, statistics and other exhaustive research, photographer and author Susan Madden Lankford captured from all angles the experience of women inmates confined to a typical jail in San Diego County. Interviews with jail officials, from deputies to counselors to directors, revealing exhausted, often jaded individuals who lack the resources to do their jobs properly.One deputy says that “”98 percent of inmates have drug histories,”" but funding levels barely keep inmates in food and housing, much less rehab programs. As such, California’s “”three strikes”" law sends women to jail for life without ever offering them a chance at getting clean.

Kristina Edwards came to jail pregnant on charges ranging from kidnapping to attempted murder, crimes she claimed she was too high to recall even being involved with. Lankford follows her progress, like other inmates’, with care and compassion. Delivering her baby chained to a hospital bed, Edwards becomes a symbol of the cycle in which she’s trapped, a fate often presaged by parental abandonment and neglect. Informative, frank, relentless and disturbing, the book’s strong voices and stark format-black and white photos, transcribed Q&As, pull-quotes from subjects and experts-are completely absorbing, raising important questions about why women end up in jail and, too often, keep coming back.

The book garnered several honors, including: the Eric Hoffer Book Awards grand prize, DIY Book Festival’s “Best Book of the Year,” Independent Publisher Book Awards’ gold medal/women’s issues and ForeWord Magazine’s silveraward/social Science and bronze award/women’s issues.

Richard Rhodes, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB wrote:

Our prison systems are fortresses of involuntary servitude, jails their revolving doors. Susan Lankford has sought out the invisible human beings caught in those doors, made them visible, and allowed us to hear their stories and begin to know them. MAGGOTS IN MY SWEET POTATOES is a work of profound humanity. May it also be a harbinger of change.


Susan Madden Lankford Wins InCytes’ Spotlight Award

dtusaInCytes, a public healthcare e-magazine has awarded author and Humane Exposures founder Susan Madden Lankford its 2016 Spotlight Award.

It wrote:

In the early 1990s, Susan Madden Lankford began photographing—and befriending—the homeless on the streets of downtown San Diego. Compelled to learn more, she gained access to a women’s detention center and soon was shooting within its walls, speaking with candor with inmates and staff. Next, pursuing the link between crime and childhood neglect, she met with young people in juvenile hall, challenging them to face their hopes and fears through artwork and the written word.

Lankford’s award-winning books on homelessness, incarceration, and juvenile justice are testament to many years of commitment to complex social issues. Her venture in the realm of documentary film continues this work.

Susan Lankford grew up in the Midwest and holds a BS degree from the University of Nebraska. She attended Ansel Adams’ prestigious workshops, studied under such photographic masters as Richard Misrach and Ruth Bernhard, and spent many years as a successful wildlife photographer and portraitist. The parents of three adult daughters, Susan and Rob Lankford live in San Diego.

.The magazine asked Lankford the most rewarding aspects of her work:

My work includes three books of photojournalism, a documentary film, and a small nonprofit, all focused on the interlinking social issues of homelessness, incarceration, juvenile justice, and child development.

On a national level, I find it very gratifying to see the dialogue changing on the subject of criminal justice—a recognition that we must address the causes of crime, and not just focus on punishment. My documentary It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing is currently used by the FBI in their training. College educators use the books of Humane Exposures as well as the film in their classes, which pleases me deeply.

On a local level, there’s nothing more rewarding than learning that an individual I met on the streets or in women’s detention is now clean, employed, and living a healthier life.

On a personal level, I’ve learned so much from the interesting and often challenging individuals I’ve met, interviewed, and come to know in the course of each project. Phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages from so many on a new path are all particularly rewarding.

Lankford was then asked the most challenging aspect of her work?

One of the biggest challenges I faced when working with the homeless and with incarcerated women and juveniles was gaining their trust, dealing with the suspicions and manipulations of my interview subjects as they came to understand the purpose of my work. Particularly difficult was bearing witness to the trauma so many of the juveniles have experienced in their short lives.

Dealing with red tape and regulations was challenging as well, gaining access to prisoners, negotiating with staff. I was even required to take a self-defense class before entering juvenile hall.

After the solitary creative process of photography and photojournalism, documentary filmmaking brought a new set of challenges—collaborating with a director, cameraman, and other film professionals while maintaining the message I wanted to deliver.

But in all cases the rewards outweigh the challenges.

Finally she was asked what message she has for her readers?

The greatest lesson I have learned in my work is that crucial social issues cycle through generations. If we don’t address the trauma and neglect experienced by so many of our young people, before long we will see them on our streets, in our hospitals, and enmeshed in our criminal justice system. These issues aren’t just social issues—they’re economic issues. The economic burden on society is lessened when we examine the lives of society’s disenfranchised with compassion and common sense, then take the necessary steps to effect change.

My current focus is on underserved youth, primarily through my nonprofit Humane Smarts and our urban garden SMARTS Farm. Here, young people can dig in dirt, learn about bugs, express themselves through photography, and grow, harvest, prepare, and enjoy healthy food, all while interacting with community gardeners and compassionate educators.

Four Keys to Preventing or Replacing Incarceration of Children

This is an article by the founder of this blog, SUSAN MADDEN LANKFORD:

The path of children into prison begins in the home, the school and the community. Therein lies the keys to diverting this path or paving a way out.

Most of the 2.3 million Americans in prison today

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

have children in the juvenile justice system (500,000) or in foster care (550,000). The majority of these kids don’t have to be there. There are four essential things we can do reduce or eliminate the at-risk behavior that sends them into juvenile halls or paid parenting.

Very often these children have been abused, traumatized and/or abandoned, and their education has been denied or neglected. Frequently, the parents of these children mistreat them through ignorance, immaturity-induced rage, their inability to love and/or the lack of secure boundaries. Angry, unhappy youths erupt with incomprehensible levels of acting out and self-destruction, often belonging to gangs and experiencing early teen pregnancy, which only exacerbate the problems.

Youth incarceration is supposed to be geared toward rehabilitation, not punishment. But because America instinctively chooses to lock these troubled youths up and forget them, and because most jurisdictions lack statutorily mandated recovery and remediation programs, there is a shocking 75% recidivism rate over two years among these youngsters.

Non-violent youths would be much better off learning a trade and developing positive work ethics, performing community service, helping others, caring for animals in Humane Society settings and belatedly developing reading and math skills that earn them diplomas or GEDs.

I recently published a book, BORN, NOT RAISED: VOICES FROM JUVENILE HALL, based on interviews with pediatric psychiatrists, neurobiologists, judges, probation officers and other professionals—as well as discussions my daughter and I conducted with more than 120 incarcerated teenagers—eight of them weekly. This research yielded highly useful insights into ways to end or prevent youth incarceration and keep more kids out of foster homes.

A first key is proper early childhood development. In my book I present a timeline by Dr. Diane Campbell, a leading specialist in child development, in which she marks the critical stages for successful development or for the derailments that push forward to the next critical marker. For instance, the two-year old tantrums that are not resolved by age five are disruptive in the kindergarten classroom, causing havoc for the teacher and the other children who are vulnerable. If the parent is defensive, this disruptive child will not receive help or resolution for his or her issues. Most parents do not receive with positive affirmation essential messages from teachers that pertain to their child’s emotional well-being.

At age five, a level of guilt awareness needs to have been achieved. Age seven to nine tends to be an inappropriate and unsociable stage, where kids do a lot of acting out, sometimes with violence. By teenage years, youths who have not been properly educated and imbued with self-soothing social skills, confidence and curiosity, are headed for trouble.

Secondly, one of the main things I learned, which I stress in my book, is that there is a critical need for a family with a good-enough, consistent, loving and nurturing figure who helps children through the developmental stages so as to produce an empathic, responsible youth, capable of resilience, adjustment and impulse control.

I also indict today’s educational system for its failure to respond to the critical needs of students. I detail terrific programs which have discovered how to motivate kids who can’t meet classroom demands.

A third major point of my book is that we need to start teaching parenting early. Fourteen-year-olds in juvenile detention often have kids but lack any ideas on how to parent properly. Drug abuse and gang membership are growing exponentially today, so we need to teach the reasons and means to avoid these traps.

Fourth, every community should insist on and offer programs that rehabilitate incarcerated children, teaching them useful skills and helping them develop positive, life-affirming attitudes. In my community of San Diego, many fine programs of this type have been offered, until a recent economic crisis forced the reduction or curtailment of many of them. In California, we spend $14 billion on locking folks up, without mandating improvement before release. We are also having early releases from state facilities, to save state expenditures.

In the media we constantly hear that the United States is the greatest country in the world. Yet we rank low in quality of education. And we are number one in the world for the most incarcerated.

Homeless Student Problem Growing Nationwide

Student homelessness is on the rise, with more than 1.3 million homeless students identified during the 2013-14 school year, according to a recent report. This is a 7 percent increase from the previous year and more than double the number of homeless students in 2006-07. As high as these numbers seem, they are almost certainly undercounts. Despite increasing numbers, these students – as well as the school liaisons and state coordinators who support them – report that student homelessness remains an invisible and extremely disruptive problem.

Students experiencing homelessness struggle to stay in school, to perform well, and to form meaningful connections with peers and adults. Ultimately, they are much more likely to fall off track and eventually drop out of school more often than their non-homeless peers.

Students who experience homelessness are more likely than their non-homeless peers to be held back from grade to grade, have poor attendance or be chronically absent from school, fail courses, have more disciplinary issues and drop out of school. These negative effects are amplified the longer a student remains homeless.

Students who experience homelessness are disproportionately minorities, and LGBTQ students are heavily over-represented in the unaccompanied youth population.

The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that 75 percent of homeless elementary school students performed below grade level in reading and math. That number rose to 85 percent for high school students.

Students who are homeless struggle with learning disabilities and emotional difficulties at higher rates than their housed peers. Homeless students also face the challenge of being both over- and under-identified for special education.

hps-graduation-rateOnly five states – CO, KS, VA, WA, WY – now report high school graduation rates for homeless students. In all five, rates lag well behind grad rates for all students, even other low-income students. The gap between all students and homeless students in Washington State, for example, was 31 percentage points in 2014.

In the study 82 percent say being homeless had a big impact on their life overall, 72 percent on their ability to feel safe and secure, 71 percent on their mental and emotional health, 62 percent on their physical health, and 69 percent on their self-confidence. 60 percent say it was hard to stay in school while they were homeless; 42 percent say they dropped out of school at least once.

Half say they had to change schools during their homelessness, and many did so multiple times. 62 percent say the process was difficult to navigate, citing proof of residency requirements (62 percent), lack of cooperation between their old and new schools (56 percent), the need for medical records (50 percent), being behind on academic credits (48 percent), needing a parent or guardian to sign forms (48 percent) and transportation to and from school (48 percent).

One of the most significant challenges to meeting the needs of homeless youth is simply identifying them. Two thirds of the youth participating in this study (67 percent) say they were uncomfortable talking with people at their school about their housing situation and related challenges. Parents may not want to report their living situation for fear of losing custody of their children. And unaccompanied youth fear being placed into the foster care system.

The fluidity of youth homelessness further compounds the difficulties of identifying homeless students. Young people frequently drift between different living arrangements, or fall in and out of stable housing repeatedly.

78 percent of youth surveyed for this report say homelessness was something they experienced more than once. 94 percent say they stayed with other people rather than in one consistent place; 50 percent say they slept in a car, park, abandoned building, bus station or other public place. 47 percent say they were homeless both with a parent and alone.

When students were asked what they needed, they cited as very or fairly important having someone to talk to or check in with for emotional support (86 percent), connecting with peers or maintaining friendships (86 percent), participating in school activities including sports, music, art, and clubs (82 percent).

58 percent say their schools did only a fair or poor job or should have done more to help them stay in and succeed in school. Just 25 percent say their schools did a good job helping them find them housing.

61 percent say they were never connected with any outside organization while homeless; 87 percent of those who were connected found the help valuable.

The report recommends that to help homeless students, people at the school, community, state and national level must:

1) Ensure that the Every Student Succeeds Act amendments on identifying and serving homeless students in the McKinney-Vento Act and Title I part A are fully implemented in states, schools, and districts;
2) Expand outreach efforts to inform homeless students and families of their rights and to raise community awareness;
3) Ensure that schools have the resources to actively engage with homeless students to help them stay in school;
4) Build connections between community organizations and schools, then connect homeless students to those outside supports;
5) Set community and national goals around outcomes and graduation rates for homeless students, and use data to drive progress; and
6) Increase efforts to provide more affordable housing.

Our Book Explores Family Origins of Delinquent Behavior

If all children are born pure and innocent, how do they end up in in detention? Are they genetically predisposed, does their environment play a factor, is society responsible and what can be done to prevent their incarceration? These are the tough questions Susan Lankford tackles in her book, Born, Not Raised: Voices From Juvenile Hall.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photojournalist and anthropologist, Lankford became aware of America’s disenfranchised in our streets, the emotionally and physically incarcerated, children in juvenile hall and in unsettled homes and began to turn her camera lens and energy on their lives and challenges.

Born, Not Raised is the third part of a trilogy exposing the lives of America’s downtrodden. Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time and downTown U.S.A.: A Personal Journey with the Homeless are the first two books in the award-winning series. Her executive-produced film, It’s More Expensive to Do Nothing takes an in-depth look at a central crisis in the American criminal justice system, stressing the social and economic value of remediation.

In the final volume of her trilogy on interlinked social issues, Lankford explores the troubled psyches of young people incarcerated in San Diego’s Juvenile Hall. The perspectives of psychiatrists, neuroscientists and experts in the field of juvenile justice—combined with striking contributions elicited from the youths themselves—underscore the social and neurobiological impacts of childhood trauma.

Born, Not Raised aims to have a dramatic impact on social policy with its powerful call to action for educators, social workers, psychologists, criminal justice and corrections professionals, as well as parents and parents-to-be.

Lankford says:

I am convinced that early education and youth development are the most effective strategies for breaking the cycle of at-risk behavior and helping our country’s youth thrive.

Born, Not Raised explores: 1) Early childhood development as a determinant for young people turning, or not turning, into at-risk youths; 2) teen pregnancy and gang membership as markers for far more serious and pervasive social issues; 3)
the need for stronger public education and charter schools; 4) programs that work to initiate and excite at-risk youths about learning, discovering and finding their strengths and talents and 5) the critical need for a good-enough, consistent, loving and nurturing figure in the life of a child – especially for children in foster care, and single parent homes.

Lankford adds:

As a society, we can’t afford to ignore those who are marginalized, stuck in the emptiness of poverty, family violence, abuse, or addiction. Together we must search for solutions so that a beautiful life is possible for all the children who are born into and, when necessary, raised by a caring larger society.

Kansas Legislature Permits Early Release of Some Inmates to Become Parents in Communities

The Kansas Department of Corrections now has authority to release some inmates from prison up to a year early to go home and be parents. A Senate conference committee added language into a substitute House bill during the Legislature’s veto session in late April creating “community parenting release.”

The release is for low- or moderate-risk

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

offenders, said Adam Pfannenstiel, Kansas Department of Corrections communications director. They will likely primarily use it for female inmates, though it is not restricted to woman, he said.

Pfannenstiel said:

Prior to this bill, we actually had a statute in place allowing certain groups of inmates to serve their sentences in the community,” “We wanted to expand it so those who complete appropriate parenting classes and have guardianship over minor children at home might be considered for finishing their sentences in the community.

The DOC has not actually used the previous early release mechanism, though it has been in place more than a yea. Still, they proposed the expansion after learning of a similar program in the state of Washington. “It this point, we have the policy in place,” Pfannenstiel said. “As we carry it out, we’ll look to see who fits it.”

The Senate conference committee amended the original proposal to restrict it to those serving sentences for severity level 4 or lower crimes on the state sentencing grid, or severity level 3 to 5 drug crimes. To qualify, offenders can have no convictions for sex offenses or an “inherently dangerous felony.”

The committee, however, also removed a requirement for GPS tracking and allowed parole officers, as opposed to Community Corrections officers, to supervise the offenders.

The law requires participating inmates complete a parenting class, but it does not specify any specific program.

“It will depend on what their needs are,” Pfannenstiel said, noting the DOC offers some classes, but it may include programs taught by volunteers or others within the community.

Prior to a determination for release, the KDOC will seek information from the Department of Children and Families about any civil Child in Need of Care cases filed on the offender “to determine the best interests of the child.”

The state must also approve the offender’s residence and living arrangements prior to a transfer.

“DCF’s input would be provided on a case-by-case basis, and would be determined by the facts and circumstances of individual cases,” said DCF spokesperson Theresa Freed. The agency declined to offer additional comment on the program.

The Secretary of Corrections retains authority to return an offender to prison if they fail to comply with requirements of the release.

Why Close Women’s Prisons and Treat Their Crimes More Fairly

Women almost never scare us, commit random acts of serious violence, violate our sexual integrity, or form organized crime networks and yet their prisons numbers are now the highest in recorded history. The homogeneity of the human species breaks down when it comes to criminal behavior. Women, who constitute slightly more than 50% of population, commit only about 20% of all crime. They commit even a lower portion of all serious crime.

Episode of fFoxtel Australia's thrilling, dark drama "Wentworth"

Episode of fFoxtel Australia’s thrilling, dark drama “Wentworth”

The sentencing system should be reformed to reduce the growing number of female prisoners but the changes should go much further than has been suggested. We should implement concrete targets to remove the stains on our landscape and societal ethic that are women’s prisons.

Professor Mirko Bagaric, Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Sentencing at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, says:

There are remarkably similar patterns of female offending and incarceration in the United States and Australia. In the United States women commit only 17% of felonies, while in Australia they commit about 13% of the crimes dealt with in the higher courts.

Moreover, when it comes to sexual offences, rounded off to the nearest whole number, women constitute 0% of all offenders. The crimes they most commonly commit are drug and property offenses. Thus, in the US, approximately 30% of female prisoners are incarcerated for property offenses, and a further 26% for drug offenses.

Women do of course commit homicide offenses, but nearly always the victim is a relative and the crime was committed against the backdrop of an abusive relationship or depressive mindset. All homicides are heinous crimes but the types of homicides committed by women rarely involve random victims and hence do not engender community fear.

Despite this, the rate of female incarceration in both the United States and Australia is on the increase – far outstripping the increase in male incarceration levels. Women now comprise 8% of prisoners in the United States and Australia, which amounts to more than 200,000 incarcerated inmates in the US and 3,000 in Australia.

Bagaric aontinues:

Nearly every one of these incarcerated women is the victim of a perverse and lazy policy disfigurement that fails to acknowledge the marked differences between female and male offenders. The differences are so stark that not only should women be treated more leniently because they commit less serious crime but they should also be treated more leniently when they commit the same crime as a man.

There are four major differences between male and female offenders. First, women are much less likely to reoffend than men. Their recidivism levels are at least 10% lower in both the US and Australia.

Second, when women are imprisoned they suffer more. They have higher rates of mental illness, making it more difficult for them to adapt to and cope with the prison setting. And US studies show that when in prison they are three times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than male prisoners.

Third, society suffers more when we remove a female from it and place her behind a prison wall. More than 50% of incarcerated women are single parents and even in two-parent households, female prisoners typically assume the main child nurturing role. In relation to non-parental dependency, the majority of carers (60%) are females.

Finally, women are often less culpable when they commit crime. There is a profoundly devastating link between child sexual and violent victimization and female offending. US studies show that 23% to 37% of female prisoners reported that they had been physically or sexually abused prior to the age of 18. The rate is even higher in Australia. Incarcerating females is often simply a lamentable case of victimizing the victimized.

The sentencing system should be reformed radically to deal more fairly with female offending. The starting position is that no female offender should be imprisoned. In relation to most forms of crime, they should be dealt with by way of intermediate sanctions including the greater use of electronic monitoring.
Orange is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan: ‘Women tend to be forgotten when they get locked up’

In the rare instances that women commit heinous crimes, community protection and the need to impose proportionate penalties requires a prison term, but this should be the exception, not the increasing norm. The exception is so rare that the utopia of closing prisons would readily become a reality.

Bagaric concludes:

Implementing these changes will not prejudice male offenders. In fact, it is likely that the opposite will occur. It will encourage a normatively sound and empirically grounded assessment of sentencing law and policy. This would result in a bifurcated sentencing system, whereby imprisonment was largely reserved for only serious sexual and violent offenders. This approach would greatly benefit the approximately 50% of male US and Australian inmates who are imprisoned for other types of crimes, such as drug and property offenses.

The approach would save the community billions of dollars annually and go a long way to correcting the unfathomable public policy misstep which has resulted in 10 American states spending more on prisons than higher education. Best of all, it would not cause the slightest reduction to community safety.


One Opinion: A ‘Housing First’ Solution Could Actually Stimulate Homelessness

Ralph da Costa Nunez, PhD
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness:

Recent weeks have brought devastating news for many of the shelters coping with a surge of homelessness in cities across the country: The federal funding they have relied on to house, feed, and care for some of the very neediest Americans is going away.

In New York City, well-established and respected shelter operators such as the Bowery Residents Committee, the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, and the Doe Fund are seeing their grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) slashed or zeroed out. The same is happening to Camillus House in Miami, Florida; to Vincent Village in Fort Wayne, Indiana; to the Center for Women and Families in Louisville, Kentucky, and to the Institute for Human Services in Honolulu, Hawaii.

What could explain HUD’s actions? It’s not that the problem of homelessness has gone away. To the contrary, it’s worse than ever in some places—with tent cities springing up in places like Los Angeles and Seattle, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, declaring a state of emergency, and New York City’s shelter population hovers near an all-time high.

Nor is there a sudden cash crisis in Washington. The grants were awarded through HUD’s $2.3 billion Continuum of Care program, which actually got a 5 percent boost in 2016.


Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

No, what changed was the minds of HUD policymakers. They have become believers in the philosophy know as “Housing First,” which holds that moving people into permanent, independent housing as quickly as possible is the best solution for homelessness. So they’re dramatically ramping up funding for programs that follow that approach, and cutting support for traditional shelters.

“The government is now just giving vouchers out, which puts people in homes and the government pays their rent,” Denise Andorfer of the Vincent Villages told the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. “But the behavior doesn’t change and most end up homeless again.”

“While transitional housing programs play an important temporary role for people experiencing homelessness, permanent supportive housing has demonstrably better outcomes at a lower cost,” HUD spokesman Charles McNally told Politico New York.

But prioritizing what he called “evidence-based interventions like permanent supportive housing,” this year’s grants “should help New York serve more people experiencing homelessness, and with better results,” McNally said.

He acknowledged that shifting priorities could put some shelters out of business. “McNally said HUD would provide guidance to projects that weren’t funded, to help them wind down and determine how to move their clients from transitional housing into permanent housing,” Politico reported.

The apparent basis for calling the money shift “evidence-based” is HUD’s Family Options Study. Following more than 2,000 families in 12 communities over three years, it has been described as the largest-ever research project comparing the effectiveness of different approaches to homelessness. An interim report based on the first 20 months’ experience was published in July 2015.

But the study is only half-finished. And its complex methodology—which focused on what programs families were offered, as opposed to what they actually used—makes its findings difficult to interpret. Certainly they do not come close justifying HUD’s robbing-Peter-to-pay Paul policy.

The solution that came out looking best based on the study’s preliminary—repeat, preliminary—results was permanently subsidized housing, i.e., an open-ended commitment that government will pay a portion of families’ rent. Of course, that approach gets steadily costlier over time, meaning the cost-benefit analysis at 20 months could look very different at 36 months or 10 years.

Nor is a large-scale expansion of permanent housing subsidies realistically on the table. Federal funding for public housing and Section 8 vouchers has been effectively flat for years. The Housing First programs to which HUD is giving grants provide temporary rent support, typically for two years or less. The Family Options Study’s interim report determined that temporary rent subsidies failed to significantly improve the lives of families who were offered them. They appeared less expensive than some alternatives, but the savings diminished over time as families lost their apartments and slipped back into homelessness.

Here’s more evidence HUD should be considering: Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New York City experimented with an aggressive housing-first approach from 2005 to 2011, using rent subsidies to move 33,000 people out of shelters.

But two things happened: families who were not equipped to maintain a stable housing situation began to bounce back into shelter (the return to shelter rate climbed to 60%) and instead of going down, the city’s shelter census actually increased. Officials found that families who had been living doubled up with relatives or in substandard apartments saw what they believed was an opportunity to improve their housing, and entered the shelter system to secure their place in line.

If the Housing First approach had that effect in New York, could HUD’s increasing emphasis on the policy in recent years help explain the current surge in shelter populations across the U.S.?

HUD needs to remember that one size does not fit all. A rent voucher might well be the best solution for an otherwise self-supporting family that has suffered a temporary setback, such as an illness or lost job. But what drives most families into shelters are deeper-seated issues, such as a lack of education and employment skills, mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

A rent voucher by itself will not make those issues go away. Some families need the support, education, therapy, training, and safety that only transitional shelters can provide. Yet thanks to HUD’s policy, many of those safety-net organizations must now scramble for alternative funding or contemplate the unthinkable.

When will we understand that there never was—or ever will be—one simple path to ending homelessness? Its causes remain multifaceted, requiring a combination of permanent housing, transitional housing, and emergency shelters with requisite services to fight that battle.

Miami’s Camillus House stands as an example of a torn safety net. Shed Boren, Camillus’ executive director, is stunned:

I don’t know what we’re going to do to find the money to make up for this loss’ he told the paper’s editorial board. Camillus alone will lose 75 percent of funding for its Day Center, that represents $346,000 of the center’s $461,000 annual budget. The center is an oasis for those without a roof over their heads, a place where they can shower, find counseling and a mail center, in addition to finding a meal — more than 300 are served each day. The loss of HUD money, will derail the county’s master plan to do away with homelessness by December 2017. I don’t think HUD realizes how impactful this cut will be for Miami-Dade.

With examples such as this it is fair to say that HUD—in the name of housing the homeless—has paradoxically adopted a policy that could stimulate homelessness. By withdrawing the very funding that supports this nation’s homeless safety net, HUD is leading the nation down a perilous path.

Despite Four Supreme Court Rulings, Politics Determines if Juvenile Lifers Get Parole Chances

Almost everyone serving life in prison for

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

crimes they committed as juveniles deserves a shot at going home is the thrust of a series of Supreme Court rulings, the fourth and most recent of which was decided this year. Taken together, the high court’s message in these cases is that children are different than adults when it comes to crime and punishment—less culpable for their actions and more amenable to change. As such, court rulings have determined all but the rarest of juvenile lifers are entitled to “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

The court left it up to states how to handle this year’s new ruling but suggested parole boards were a good choice. “Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in January, gives states a way to identify “juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured.” Most states have taken this option, changing juvenile lifers’ sentences en masse from life without to life with the possibility of parole.

But prisoner’s rights advocates and attorneys have begun to argue that parole boards, as they usually operate, may not be capable of providing a meaningful opportunity for release. A handful of courts have agreed.

Last month, a New York state appeals court judge ruled that the state’s parole board had not “met its constitutional obligation” when it denied parole to a man who had killed his girlfriend when he was 16. Dempsey Hawkins is now 54 and has been denied parole nine times in hearings that, the court said, did not adequately weigh what role his youth and immaturity had played in his crime.

Also last month, a group of juvenile lifers in Maryland filed suit, arguing that not a single juvenile lifer had received parole in that state in the last 20 years.

The lawsuit says:

Rather than affording youth a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release…grants of release are exceptionally rare, are governed by no substantive, enforceable standards, and are masked from view by blanket assertions of executive privilege.

Similar suits are proceeding in Iowa, Michigan, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, where a judge heard oral arguments in mid May.

Sarah French Russell, a Quinnipiac University law professor who studies juvenile justice, said:

There are just two relevant kinds of sentences: those that provide a meaningful opportunity for release and those that don’t. Sentences that are not technically labeled life without parole can deny a meaningful opportunity for release because of the procedures or criteria used by the parole board.

In almost every state, parole board members are political appointees with little incentive to release prisoners who committed violent crimes. Boards operate with wide discretion to make decisions for almost any reason, and in many states, their decisionmaking is shielded from public view and not subject to appeal. A recent analysis by the University of Minnesota law school found that parole release rates in many states remain stuck under 10%, even as the country searches for solutions to mass incarceration. In Ohio, 7% of hearings result in parole being granted. In Florida, the 2014 grant rate was 2%.

One common basis for parole denial is the seriousness of the crime. This may be an allowable metric for adult offenders, these lawsuits argue, but in light of the Supreme Court’s rulings, juvenile lifers must be judged by a different standard.

“No meaningful opportunity [to prove rehabilitation] can be granted where the only consideration at a parole hearing is the severity of the offense,” wrote attorneys for Blair Greiman, who was sentenced as a teenager in Iowa to life without parole for kidnapping and rape, then re-sentenced after the Supreme Court’s rulings.

At 16, high on horse tranquilizers he had stolen from the veterinary supply at his family’s farm, Greiman raped a woman, stabbed her, and left her for dead. Now 50, Greiman says he has a “simple desire to live a decent life and not be defined by the worst act of my life.” In prison, he has earned a degree, become a master woodworker, participated in counseling and treatment and published a novel, the lawsuit says. Yet, repeatedly denied parole because of the seriousness of his crime, Greiman “is effectively placed in the same situation as he was previously—a juvenile offender serving life sentences without eligibility for parole,” his lawyers argue. Fred Scaletta, assistant director of Iowa’s corrections department, said the board cannot comment on pending litigation. Since Greiman filed suit, the board has approved him for placement in minimum security, a step towards work release, and will review him again next year, Scaletta said.

A handful of states have implemented special parole board procedures for juvenile lifers. Massachusetts and Connecticut provide funding for attorneys to represent juvenile lifers before the board. The Massachusetts Supreme Court also said juvenile lifers were entitled to fees for expert witnesses and to appeal the outcome to a judge—all protections that adult offenders do not enjoy.

“In the case of a juvenile homicide offender—at least at the initial parole hearing—the task is probably far more complex than in the case of an adult offender,” the Massachusetts court wrote. Juvenile lifers must be given the chance to prove that their crime was committed, at least in part, because they were young—immature, impressionable, dependent on adults—but to do that requires gathering educational, medical, and legal paperwork, sometimes decades old, from behind bars. “An unrepresented, indigent juvenile homicide offender will likely lack the skills and resources to gather, analyze, and present this evidence adequately,” the court wrote.

California, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Nebraska have all passed laws providing new rules and procedures for parole boards to follow in cases of juvenile lifers.

In New York, attorneys for Mr. Hawkins are lobbying the governor to widen the scope of the court’s ruling in his case and put protections in place for all juvenile lifers facing the state’s parole board.

Even with special protections, lawyers and advocates say, whether juvenile lifers get parole is still largely dependent on the political atmosphere and whims of the board members. From 2013 until last year, half of juvenile lifers who went before the Massachusetts board were granted parole; that rate dropped to zero when a new board chair took over last September. Lawyers for the last 14 juvenile lifers to go before the board—all of whom were denied parole—say they plan to begin filing lawsuits.

New York Should Reinstate Successful “Work Release” Program

According to the American Bar Association, nycthere are upwards of 47,000 laws or local ordinances that penalize those with criminal justice involvement and restrict their full reintegration into civic and social life. The sheer volume of these restrictions may seem paralyzing to reformers – the Kafkaesque “re-entry” maze is certainly confounding to many people leaving prison – but we must take action.

Today, the two greatest challenges facing returning residents are affordable housing and lack of employment experience and marketable skills. For this reason, many state prisoners are released directly into New York City’s shelter system each week, and eventually come to rely on public assistance because of an inability to secure employment.

To that end, New York State must step up and do something substantial to increase reentry success. Reinstituting the work release program – one that has already been tested, and requires no additional research to justify – would address both issues simultaneously. By allowing people to acquire work experience and accumulate some savings to use toward housing expenses, we can provide them with the basis for successful re-entry.

Prior to the late 90’s, all New York State prisoners were work release eligible. If a person was within 24 months of parole eligibility, they could apply for work release. No distinction was drawn between violent versus non-violent charges. According to a March 28, 1994 New York Times article, citing New York State Correctional figures, there were 24,200 work release participants in 1993. By 2010, that number had declined to 1,910. During the 1990s-era hysteria around crime and punishment, then Governor George Pataki, greatly restricted eligibility to the program, by eliminating access to people charged with violent crimes. Ironically, those who may benefit most from the work release experience became excluded—long termers and lifers (people who are parole eligible but have a maximum sentence of life). Subsequently, Governors Eliot Spitzer, David Patterson and Andrew Cuomo have failed to undo these restrictions. This oversight betrays the recent rhetoric around reentry and second chances. National Reentry Week offers an opportunity for Cuomo, and the State Legislature to revisit these decisions and to afford more New York State prisoners access to this valuable, socially responsible program.

How it worked: A person within 24 months of parole eligibility would apply to the Temporary Release Committee at his/her facility seeking admittance into the program. If accepted, they would be relocated to one of various correctional facilities in the community in which they will be eventually paroled and would be required to seek local employment. Once employment was attained, they would report to work each day and return to the facility in the evenings to sleep. Often participants were allowed to stay with pre-approved family members three to four days per week, thus strengthening essential familial and community ties.

Wesley Caines, Re-Entry Coordinator at Brooklyn Defender Services, said:

This program was important prior to its restriction and can be again. First, it served as an opportunity for people, many of whom lacked full-time employment prior to going to prison, to gain practical experience in the workforce; it also allowed for the opportunity to save moneys which could go towards housing costs. It provided a transitional, supervised, landing back into society for men and women some of whom having been away for decades. Currently work release is available only to people convicted of non-violent crimes, most of whom are doing much shorter sentences and presumably are removed from the work force and family contact for a shorter period than those charged with crimes of violence.

While it is true that some prisons offer “programs” (required activities such as, vocational, therapeutic, educational mandates) that might seem at first glance to be job-readying, few of these actually foster marketable skills. Couple that with the average pay of 12 cents per hour, and, after basic commissary purchases, the average state prisoner has little or nothing left for savings. Most will be released back into society with little more than $40.00 (an amount extracted from any source of income a prisoner receives) and a bus or train ticket back to their home county. Those returning to New York City arrive at Port Authority—one block from the heart of Times Square. Housing options for people returning to their communities after prison are abysmal at best and nonexistent at worst. A criminal record restricts some people from residing in public housing, even with family.

Caines continues:

Recidivism is expensive financially and in human cost as well. In 2011, 23,710 people were released from state prison. Of that number, 10,007 eventually returned, or 42.2% (2,041 or 8.6% with new crimes, 7,966 or 33.6% for parole violations). Those of us in the reentry field are well aware that access to adequate housing and gainful employment represent the two strongest indicators for recidivism. It’s far cheaper, more efficient and moral to provide true rehabilitative opportunities for current marketplace job experience. Even with low numbers of participants, work release has shown to be beneficial to people seeking reentry and to local economies. From 1995 to 2010, prisoners participating in work release have earned $148,079,927.73, paid $40,856,515.59 in Federal, State and Local taxes, and inmates have been forced to save $48,277,965.01.

Work release then represents a clear, sensible opportunity for New York State to address two challenges to successful reentry. Let’s not forget that National Reentry Week represents people, our people who have paid us a debt and now must to be made whole. There are ample opportunities for local, state and the national government to be of the people and for the people—47,000 opportunities.