When I write short stories and novels, I like to feature characters who live on the fringes of society
and have problems most of us have never faced, or perhaps even considered.
And I try to help them out when it makes sense to do so.
Right now, I’m trying to lend a hand to a friend, Smiley. He’s a long-term prison inmate who, two years ago, got a delayed parole date for this November. The parole board requested he be given work release for the maximum time available so he would have some money saved up to get a start on life outside prison.
Over the years I’ve known him, I’ve turned to him numerous times with very specific questions about how the prison and parole system work. It often takes a few weeks from the time I write a letter to ask something before I get an answer back in the mail, but I know time means very little to someone who’s been locked up for years.
A bit of background—there’s no doubt Smiley is a “career criminal.” He is in his mid-fifties, but has spent fewer than 60 months “on the street”—not locked up—since he was a young teenager. He got his start as a burglar when his father boosted him through small window openings so he could go around and unlock the doors. The last he heard, his father was incarcerated in another state.
Smiley has a history of substance abuse, and admits he turned to drugs and alcohol when things got rough. He doesn’t even remember all of the crimes he committed, or attempted to commit, while under the influence. His present incarceration began seventeen years ago, in 2000, and he claims he has been drug- and alcohol-free the entire time.
The whole delayed release on parole process has been a mindless nightmare. It took a few months after the hearing, but he was transferred from a medium security prison to a minimum security one with a pre-release unit. He tried to get an appointment with his classification counselor to be assigned a job (inmates make around $1 a day, and for many of them, it’s their only source of income) until he could be transferred to work release and begin the difficult task of finding a job.
Several more months went by before he could get an appointment. At that meeting, he was offered a “road crew” job (think the inmates you sometimes see picking up trash by the highways) and of course accepted it. Not only did it pay, it was something to occupy his time, and it was outside in the fresh air, or as fresh as the air next to a major highway can be.
He came under a lot of pressure from fellow inmates who wanted him to try to bring contraband into the prison. Cell phones left in strategic places by the road, drugs left in the port-a-potties the crew used, etc. Smiley refused, citing his need to remain infraction-free if he was going to keep his delayed release date.
That didn’t make him very popular with many of the other inmates.
His request for work-release status went nowhere, but being minimum security and working a job outside “the fence” did indicate that he was willing to work and was not going to walk away from the prison. As the weather got colder and the roadside trash pickups cut back, he was assigned to a cleaning crew in a state facility. Once again, it was an “outside” job, where he was not within the secure perimeter of the prison. The crew returned to the prison every night.
On this job, disaster struck. Smiley says he’s not entirely sure what happened, but he was written up for trying to access a computer in one of the offices.
He’s never used a computer, and I don’t think he has any real notion of how computers work. The ones in the state facility would have multiple layers of security. As far as he can determine, someone must have seen him trying to clean the computer. The monitor would often come on as he dusted the keyboard, but he never worried about that.
He was immediately reclassified to a higher security status and transferred to a maximum security prison to await a hearing on the “ticket,” or infraction notice.
Much to his relief, he was not found guilty of the infractions, so his delayed release date was not revoked. However, higher security level prisons tend to hold re-classification hearings annually for each inmate. He was told he had to wait a year for a reclassification hearing, so he’s stuck at a maximum security prison.
Absolutely no possibility of work release or outside work details.
But so far, at least, the November release date stands.
“Going home” is the term usually used, but some people, like Smiley, have no home to go to. He needs a home plan. His mother is dead, his father and brother are incarcerated elsewhere, and his sister wants nothing to do with him (which he understands).
Since he was not able to get work release, he has no money to pay for a place to stay or for any other aspect of living.
Given that and his history of drug and alcohol abuse, his best bet is probably a transitional house for recovering addicts that accepts released prison inmates.
Resources to find that type of information are not readily available, especially at a maximum security prison, which handles very few releases. I could be of some help here, doing the research on available facilities and sending him the information to write to them. Telephone calls are difficult and expensive, often over $20 for a three minute call. Stamps, paper, envelopes and writing implements are in short supply, and he has no job, so no funds to purchase what he needs. He managed to scrounge paper up, fashioned some homemade envelopes, borrowed pens, and somehow obtained stamps.
Out of 24 letters he sent out, he’s gotten three replies, all negative. It’s impossible to tell whether the others are ignoring his letters or taking a long time to reply.
I spoke to a chaplain at the minimum security prison where he’d been until he hit the computer problem, and was able to forward some information about a sober house that is willing to take his application.
Of course, he has no money. Here’s another place I can help out—I will pay his first month’s fees. Supposedly a loan, but in the back of my mind, I will consider it a gift, because there’s a distinct possibility he will never be able to pay it back. If he does, great. I have money to help someone else. If he doesn’t, I didn’t really expect it back anyhow.
If this all works out, he will be released with the clothes on his back and “gate money,” probably $50.
Fortunately, this system is one that sends people out dressed reasonably appropriately. Some correctional systems release inmates in the clothes they were wearing when they were arrested. Which may be shorts, flip flops and a tee shirt, even if it’s now the dead of winter. I remember seeing a situation where a judge was quite upset because a woman was sent into his courtroom without pants. She had not been wearing pants when she was arrested, so she had none to wear to court.
I have a basic “release kit” that I have assembled several times for friends in similar situations. I visit thrift shops, especially on their season’s end “bagful for five dollars” sales. I can usually stuff several shirts and pants plus a warm jacket in the bag. If the prison supplies a jacket, it will be woefully inadequate. The jackets they issue are deliberately skimpy, just warm enough to keep inmates from freezing going between buildings, but not warm enough to be useful in a cold-weather escape attempt.
Some placements supply things like bedding and kitchen ware. If not, I will look in thrift shops for bedding and basic items, like a coffee mug, a bowl and a set of cutlery. I’ll watch for sales of underwear, socks, and hygiene items.
Will Smiley’s release date remain the same? There’s a good chance it will, if for no other reason than the system is sluggish and no one is likely to review the release order.
Will Smiley beat the recidivism odds? Avoid drugs and alcohol so he doesn’t lose his housing before he finds himself a job and is able to move on from the sober house? I don’t know.
But I think it’s worth the effort to give him a little bit of a helping hand. Because we’ll never know if he can be successful until he’s given a chance, and as a member of society and a taxpayer, I want to see people out of prison, which costs in the neighborhood of $35,000 a year per inmate, and joining the tax-paying workforce. It's better for all of us.