What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Getting prisoners life-ready to prevent a return to crime

How do you make sure prisoners who are released back into society won't commit more crimes? Meet three people living behind bars who are part of a pilot program that tries to prevent recidivism. William Brangham reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There's perhaps no greater bipartisan push today than the effort to reform the American criminal justice system. One of those reforms is trying to cut back on recidivism, where criminals serve their time, but then wind up back behind bars soon after their release.

    For the past few months, the NewsHour was granted rare access to a maximum security prison in Maryland where a unique pilot program is trying to stop the revolving door from spinning.

    William Brangham has the story.

  • CARLOS COLON:

    Mostly, I'm a thief. I'm a car thief. I mean, I'm not 100 percent proud, but at the same time, I had a good run, I mean, pretty decent.

  • ASHLEY WILSON:

    I was arrested for prostitution, possession of paraphernalia, possession of heroin, possession of marijuana, issuing false documents, felony theft, misdemeanor theft and forgery.

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    Conspiracy to commit robbery, wrong place, wrong time, so I got conspiracy for it.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    These three prisoners are among the more than 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S. That's more people locked up than in any other country.

    And like most prisoners, they will be released back into society, so making sure they're ready and that they won't commit more crimes has become a hugely important public policy issue. Over the last few months, we followed these three prisoners, Jordan Taylor, Carlos Colon, and Ashley Wilson, to see whether one pilot program can defy the odds, and stop them from ending up right back in jail.

    ROBERT GREEN, Montgomery Co. Dept. of Correction and Rehabilitation: In this facility today, we have 500 or so individuals. It could be a lower-level misdemeanor crime, driving while intoxicated, something of that level, to individuals who have allegedly killed multiple or allegedly killed multiple people.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Robert Green is the director of the Montgomery County maximum security facility in rural Maryland. He's been in corrections over half his life, and he's the driving force behind the program to try and stop prisoners from going right back to a life of crime.

  • ROBERT GREEN:

    This idea that solely, solely taking someone's freedom away changes behavior, in many cases, it changes it for the worse. And that's not what America's correctional facilities were founded on.

    Why would you not want to put people back on the streets in your community better than they came in the door?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    He oversees a program in the jail called the American Jobs Center. It's received some pilot federal funding. It's based on research that shows that one of the best ways to reduce recidivism is to help prisoners find legitimate work immediately upon their release. So, they're taught how to write an effective resume and how to handle a job interview.

  • WOMAN:

    So tell me what job you're looking to interview for today.

  • MAN:

    Well, buddy, you got the job.

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    All right, thanks.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    In this program, inmates are called customers, and the program leaders are called coaches.

  • CARLOS COLON:

    These people, they actually care, but — and they show it. And that's the reason I'm even trying to work it 100 percent.

  • DONNA ROJAS, American Jobs Center:

    We're helping them to go from job-ready to life-ready, because getting the job is not the most difficult part. The hard part is the life-ready piece. How do I live my life when I go back into the same community where I may have been selling drugs and making $1,000 a week, and now you're sending me out there to make $8.25 an hour?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The grim details of Ashley Wilson's life give you a sense of the huge challenges she's going to face when she gets out.

  • ASHLEY WILSON:

    I was like a really good student and all that. So, perfect poster child, right? But I had some traumas in my childhood and some problems within me.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Like three out of four incarcerated adults, Ashley has a history of substance abuse. She was 10 when she started stealing her parents' vodka. She left home at 15. A year later, she was shooting heroin.

  • ASHLEY WILSON:

    First time, I had someone inject it to me. And from there, it was just off to the races.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    She began having sex for money to pay for her habit, and then she overdosed, twice, in between stints in rehab. Pregnant at 18, she tried to stay clean for the baby, but she relapsed again.

  • ASHLEY WILSON:

    I had a young infant, no job, behind on rent, very little support.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Police caught her in a sting at 19 and a judge sentenced her to 18 months in jail. Ashley's incarceration was part of the nation's war on drugs, an unprecedented 10-fold increase in arrests and prosecutions for nonviolent drug crimes.

    But now, because of good behavior, Ashley will soon be transferred to a halfway house, where she will serve the remainder of her sentence.

    What plans do you have?

  • ASHLEY WILSON:

    I need to get a job. I need to maintain that job. I need to maintain my sobriety. I need to get a good, sober support system to help me. But along with that comes the fear, the fear of the unknown, the fear of inadequacy, that I can't do it.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Staffing a jobs center, educating prisoners, treating their addictions, it's labor-intensive work. And while there's a growing bipartisan support for these types of programs, getting prisoners ready for life after prison is not cheap.

    I have got to imagine that there are plenty of people outside these walls who look at the services you offer here and think, I would love that in my community college, I would love that in my public school, and yet you're here giving it to people who have done real harm in the community.

    What do you say to that?

  • ROBERT GREEN:

    If we lessen the burden of the criminal justice system, doesn't that give us more money to put into our schools? Doesn't that give us more money to put into education and our community?

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    I consider myself a normal person, just played sports when I was growing up. Went to school, just like everybody else did. I got into some trouble, just like everyone else did.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Jordan Taylor is near the end of his one-year sentence. He violated probation after serving time for conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Two-thirds of young black men who don't finish high school will serve time in jail. And Jordan became another one of those statistics. He was arrested just three weeks before his high school graduation.

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    You realize who you are when you're in the cell, because you have no — nothing but time, time to think about what you're going to do when you get out, time to think about anything. There's nothing but time.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Jordan's been part of the jobs program for two months. His release date is just days away. He says he wants to get his GED, a job on day one, and, long term, study to become an electrician like his grandfather.

    Unlike a lot of prisoners, Jordan has two loving parents and a home to live in when he gets out.

  • CARLOS COLON:

    Some people don't have nowhere to go who leave here, especially my case, if you look at it, right? So I have to depend on me to take care of what I got to do.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Carlos Colon has been in and out of correctional systems since he was 9 years old. He's now serving a three-year sentence for second-degree assault and burglary. He was a car thief. He says he was a good one.

    But those are skills that, along with his long rap sheet, don't make him very appealing to possible employers. Carlos works in the jail's kitchen and housing units, doling out meals to inmates. It's unpaid work, but he can put it on his resume.

    One of the key things this jobs program does is get inmates interviews with companies even before they're released.

  • MAN:

    Hey. How you doing, sir?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The company interviewing Carlos today is a national firm most of us have heard of, but they would only let us film if we didn't name them. They don't want their brand publicly associated with convicts.

  • MAN:

    Do you want to do it?

  • CARLOS COLON:

    I definitely want to do it. I would love to do it. Like, I do need it. I normally don't get these types of opportunities.

  • ROBERT GREEN:

    We realize, and the data tells us and the research tells us, for every day of employment we lose with that individual, that the opportunity for recidivism and returning to bad choices and bad behaviors is increased.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    For Carlos, Ashley and Jordan, the odds aren't in their favor. More than two-thirds of prisoners are back behind bars within three years of their release. Carlos isn't sure where he will go when he gets out. Several halfway houses rejected him because of a prior prison escape. Plus, he's also broke.

    Do you worry that if you get out and you can't find a job, you know you have these criminal skills — you're a good car thief?

  • CARLOS COLON:

    Yes, I already thought about that. Yes, I already thought about that.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    How are you going to resist that?

  • CARLOS COLON:

    I'm going to resist it for as long as I can, but it's not guaranteed, because the time comes and I'm struggling, I'm not going to be, like — you know, I'm not going to be struggling for long. So, if I have to steal a car, then that's what it's going to have to be.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Tomorrow, we will show you what happened to these prisoners when they got out.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Montgomery County, Maryland.

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    You all right, mom? You knew I was going to home. You knew I was going to home.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For an early look at what happened next, go to our Web site. Our multimedia project has additional video and an in-depth look at Ashley, Carlos and Jordan's stories.

    Find that on our home page, PBS.org/NewsHour.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest