Freed To Fail

Being in prison isn’t easy, but leaving it can be even harder.  The stereotypes aren’t far from the truth.  You walk out of prison after years of having everything you need provided at state expense with $100, a bus ticket, and a parole officer to call.  You also have an expensive parole regime to comply with at your own expense, and have to find a place to live and a job, despite your status as a recently released ex-felon.  The state also imposes its own Catch-22 requirements upon you.

Several specific bureaucratic hurdles facing released inmates, that make leaving a life of crime much harder, but would be inexpensive to fix, were discussed by Governor Ritter’s new division of criminal justice director at a public forum on Friday.Identification

When you enter prison, the state cancels your driver’s license or state ID, and you must reapply for one from scratch after you get out.

Governor Ritter vetoed a bill passed last session that would have allowed inmates to get new identification based upon a Department of Corrections identification, claiming that setting ID requirements for state IDs this was a state agency perogative.  Supporters of the current policy have argued that this is appropriate because some inmates enter prison having used many aliases.  But, there are no statistics to back up how common a problem that is, other than the fact that a very large percentage of inmates are either repeat offenders whose identities where matched to prior offenses, or offenders whose offenses typically don’t involve false identities.

The problem is excacerbated by the fact that under the Congressional enacted “Real ID” law which has produced a mind numbing succession of interpretations and court rulings when applied in Colorado at the local level, which also has its own anti-illegal immigrant laws to contend with, it is often necessary to obtain original documents like birth certificates or social security cards to get a state ID.

But, most inmates don’t have all their essentially paperwork well filed away in a desk drawn at a home that they plan to return to, and they must often go, in person, to try to obtain original documents.  Neither certified copies of the documents, nor the transportation, nor the ID itself, are free.  And, time spent on paperwork is also time spent not working at or looking for a job.

Then again, Colorado and federal law don’t allow employers to hire anyone if they don’t have ID, so missing work isn’t always a problem, except that not working is usually a “technical” parole violation, and working without a legally required ID is also probably a parole violation.

Prescription Drugs

One in six Colorado inmates has a serious mental illness.  Fortunately, we live in a day and age when prescription drugs make it possible for people with mental illnesses to function passably well in society.  But, these drugs only work if you buy them and take them.

Another collateral effect of incarceration is that any eligibility you have for Medicaid is cancelled.  Most inmates are eligible for Medicaid upon release, however.  Usually, they have no assets and no income, so, unlikely many slightly more affluent members of the working poor, they can get Medicaid coverage which will cover psychiatric drugs and the appointments with psychiatrists needed to get a prescription to buy those drugs.

Mentally ill inmates are even released with a month’s supply of drugs.

This would all be good and well, except for the fact that it takes a minimum of five to six months for Medicaid to act on an application of Medicaid benefits according to Ms. Smith at the Division of Criminal Justice, and most inmates who apply have their applications rejected the first time around for bureaucratic reasons.  The high rejection rate isn’t too surprising.  Parolees receive no help in applying for Medicaid.  But, the average Colorado inmate dropped out before making it to his or her junior year in high school.

The result: even when Colorado’s system is working as designed, indigent mentally ill felons are virtually guaranteed to spend four to five months without access to the psychiatric drugs necessary to prevent them from being threats to others and themselves.


State Representative Terrance Carroll (D-Denver) touted one of the few bright spots in Colorado’s efforts to transition inmates to successful lives.

The program trains inmates to operate heavy equipment.  It is a skill that even inmates without extensive education can acquire, it is a field that historically hasn’t been particularly careful about excluding people with prior criminal records, and it meets an economic need.  Jokes about the first job being to learn how to tunnel out of prison notwithstanding, it works.

But, there are long waiting lists for almost every service offered to prisoners in the state.  Everyone agrees that Colorado has inadequate training and education programs in its prisons.  Few states as affluent as Colorado provide so little.

Other Basics

Paroles are required to show up to meetings with their parole officer, take drug tests, and participate in treatment sessions (mostly at their own expense).  But, there is no system in place to make sure that people on parole have access to food (you can’t even get food stamps until you get an ID).  And, a large percentage on inmates likewise leave prison to become homeless.

According to Ms. Smith, lack of access to food and housing contribute in Colorado to lack of success on parole, and by implication, recidivism.

Bottom Line

Given all this, is it any wonder that a large percentage of inmates released on parole end up violating their conditions of parole, either technically or by returning to a life of crime?

Even the officials charged with running the system know that the process of transitioning inmates to the community is broken. 

At the federal level, re-entry legislation has bipartisan support.  Similar bipartisan efforts look likely to come out of Terrance Carroll’s HB 1358 commission in the near future.

But, until then, parolees, their families and their friends might be best advised to turn to another source.  Christie Donner, who heads the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and previously authored the book Parenting From Prison, has a new title coming out in the next month.  It is titled Getting On After Getting Out.  It can’t solve the Catch-22 problems that are currently part of the system by design, but it can, at least, provide some guidance to those who would like the navigate a path to freedom that doesn’t fail.