Reentry program aims to keep released inmates out of prison

SOUTH MISSISSIPPI (WLOX) - It is a nation-wide problem, prison overcrowding and inmates returning to the system almost immediately after they are released. Mississippi's prison population has increased 455 percent since the 1980s and the Department of Corrections' budget has increased 1,255 percent. The problem is growing.

Mississippi criminal justice, religious and civil liberties leaders met last week to discuss a plan to help former inmates become productive members of society and prevent them returning to the prison system. U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., U.S. Attorney Greg Davis and Attorney General Jim Hood met with more than 50 other judges, city leaders, prosecutors and public defenders to move toward organizing a Reentry Council.

Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) Commissioner Christopher Epps said each year more than 9,500 people are released from MDOC each year. More than 77 percent of those released have drug or alcohol problems and 15 percent have mental health issues. People leave prison with few life skills, no resources and a felony record. Epps said these factors, combined with a low education level, sets released inmates up for failure.

"It is a very difficult time. A bus ticket and $50 and an admonition to do right will not turn someone's life around," said Judge Starrett.

"We are sending people home without the tools and without the resources they need to succeed as law abiding citizens. We are setting them up for failure."

Greg Davis, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, said about 95 percent of people who are incarcerated will get out someday.

"When people get out...they need help with housing, they need help with transportation, they need help with employment," said Davis.

The proposed Reentry Council would work towards evaluating and providing prisoners with proper rehabilitation when they enter the prison system, and connecting them with resources that can assist them after they are released. Judge Starrett said an inmate's reentry to the community has to start the moment they are released and that a plan must be tailored to each individual, the solution is not "cookie cutter."

Jeremy Sherer, Reentry Coordinator for the Northern District of Alabama told the meeting that the growing prison population and cost to the state is unsustainable.

"Alabama prisons were strangling every other general fund institution," said Sherer.

Records show that Alabama has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country. Mississippi is second with 40 percent of state prison inmates being repeat offenders.

"With every crime, there is a victim. We were allowing a perpetually escalating cycle of victims. We are in the process of implementing better practices."

Judge Starrett is hopeful of the reentry program, but said it will be a tough road that will require funding and culture change.

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