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Nov. 5 2008 12:00 AM

Overhauling the state prisoner reentry system is daunting, especially for the neighborhoods they’re reentering.

No one ever thought that changing an entire statewide corrections culture would be easy.

One of many plans to overhaul what most dub a dysfunctional system is the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative.

Its goal: to aid parolees with housing, jobs, drug treatment and other services. But parolee integration into the neighborhood requires a cooperative community, and that’s been hard to come by in Ingham County.

It’s becoming clear to the Michigan Department of Corrections that agencies contracted to implement the re-entry program are slow to share information and even worse at working with local governments and citizens, according to an April evaluation of the program. In the works for five years, the program went statewide a year ago. There’s a description of the program at www.michpri.com.

Even so, some early signs are hopeful. Statewide, preliminary estimates show a 26 percent reduction in returns to prison, said Paul Elam, the state program spokesman. Capital Area Michigan Works!, contracted to implement the re-entry program here, however, has not kept data, said Nancy Oliver, community coordinator for Michigan Works.

The lack of numbers became an issue when Oliver and three people representing the Department of Corrections attended the Oct. 2 meeting of the Genesee Neighborhood Association, the area just west of downtown Lansing.

At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood, a neighborhood resident and treasurer of the neighborhood association, said Department of Corrections representatives asked, “Will you help us persuade another neighborhood to welcome a MPRI halfway house?”

“No we will not,” Wood said was the association’s response. “You have no data to convince us this program is working.”

“The statewide folks don’t understand the principles of collaboration and coalition building,” Elam said. The agencies contracted to carry out the program know little better.

Michigan Works is paid $730,000 annually to implement the prisoner reentry program in Clinton, Eaton and Ingham counties. It hires the community coordinator, and pays subcontractors to do drug counseling, job preparation, locate housing and more for 300 men. The parolees who returned to prison and have been discharged are placed in unsupervised houses for special assistance. One halfway house is in the Fabulous Acres neighborhood, and two were in the Genesee neighborhood. But neither neighborhood was forewarned or given guidance about the new program. Neighbors in both areas were upset.

Now, the small West Shiawassee Street house that two months ago lodged six — whom some say are unlikely to succeed — prison parolees is vacant. It is unknown where the men who had lived there are now because Michigan Works did not respond to inquiries. A second house, two blocks away on North Lapeer Street, continues to harbor men enrolled in the state’s program, but the sign that formerly identified the building as a Department of Corrections property now simply reads “No Trespassing.”

But change is coming. On Oct. 20, program officials directed all its contractors to convene advisory councils “to create a strong base for community support and to act as a vehicle for public education.”

Further, a small group of people in the neighborhood is taking the issue into its own hands, doing the work that Michigan
Works is paid to do. The NorthWest Initiative and Advocacy Re-entry
Resources Outreach two weeks ago hosted what the groups call “a
coalition-building forum.” ARRO is dedicated to easing transition for
men and women returning from prison, financed with grants from
Morehouse School of Medicine and Ingham County.

The Power of
We Consortium, a countywide collection of organizations assisting with
social needs, will be asked to include prison re-entry in its
priorities and a coalition will be formed in December to begin working
from the bottom up, Maria Zavala, director of ARRO, said. Meanwhile,
Wood and Council President Brian Jeffries are planning a November (date-to-be-determined) citywide evening neighborhood meeting to begin
discussing the issue of keeping the community safe while saving the
estimated $30,000 the state pays yearly when a parolee fails and is
returned to prison, the case with half of all Michigan
parolees in the year 2000, Elam said.

Wood has a list of changes she
wants made dealing with halfway houses and those who oversee them:
implement license requirements; make regular reports to the
neighborhoods and to the city about the number of police calls; stop
clustering houses in one neighborhood; avoid putting prisoner re-entry
houses in already fragile neighborhoods; and place full-time monitors
in the houses. She also wants to hear the success stories.

sure there are some,” she said.

But the re-entry advocates’ group has a
list too, much broader in context: stop stereotyping all parolees as
bad people; allow felons to qualify for low-income housing; give
parolees identification when they leave prison; stop sending parolees
to the communities where they committed crimes; establish a telephone
hotline for people just returning from prison who need help; and stop
labeling 18 year-yearold boys who had sex with 15-year-old girlfriends
as sexual predators.

Since the grassroots work was never done
in Ingham County, the views of the parolee advocates and the
neighborhood associations reflect the schism between those wanting to
keep the community safe and those striving to salvage human capital.
Some neighbors are angry that the public continues to be left out of
the massive overhaul. Others believe the system is stacked against
people who have taken their punishment and are now trying to get
straight with their lives.“These are good people. Just give them a
chance,” Monica Jahner, released a year ago from a 28-year prison
sentence, and working with the re-entry advocates, said.

But Wood had
other thoughts.

Wood’s mother, Genesee Neighborhood activist
Ruth Hallman, and two other women are suspected of having been killed
by Mathew Macon, now in prison for killing two other women a year ago.
Macon was enrolled in the re-entry program.

Why is it our
responsibility to love and embrace these people?” she added, “Our life
experience colors how we see things. I can’t help that.”

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