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Can a pilot program keep prisoners from going back to jail?

In the second part of our series looking at how prison recidivism can be reduced, NewsHour follows three inmates, Jordan Taylor, Carlos Colon and Ashley Wilson as they move from prison back to everyday life, in our series “Broken Justice.” William Brangham reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But, first, last night, we introduced you to three inmates serving time at a maximum security jail in Southern Maryland. All three were part of a pilot jobs program aimed at teaching them the skills to stay out of prison after their release.

    Tonight, a look at their struggles and successes as they try to do just that.

    William Brangham continues our report.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Twenty-year-old Jordan Taylor is about to be a free man. He changes out of his county-issued jumpsuit, and back into the clothes he was wearing the day he got locked up over a year ago for violating probation on an armed robbery charge

  • MAN:

    What's your name sir?

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    Jordan Taylor.

  • MAN:

    Good luck to you.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    And with that, he's done, and he heads out to the open arms of his parents and older brother.

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    Are you all right, mom? You know I was coming home, mom.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    For the past several months, we have been following Jordan and two other prisoners, Carlos Colon and Ashley Wilson, as they transition from a life behind bars to a life outside them. Will they fall back into a life of crime, or will they manage to start over?

    This isn't an idle question, because, as the number of people behind bars in the U.S. has skyrocketed from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.2 million today, so has the cost of incarcerating them. It now costs taxpayers roughly $80 billion a year.

    Now there's a strong bipartisan push to do something about this trend. And one of the key efforts is to reduce recidivism. Right now, two-thirds of convicts end up getting rearrested within three years of their release. So the goal is to somehow stop that revolving prison door from spinning.

    Unlike a lot of newly-released prisoners, Jordan Taylor has a pretty big welcome mat laid out for him. He's back at home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with his mom and dad. They have been married 26 years. His longtime girlfriend, Shawna, also is thrilled to have him back.

    Ex-prisoners with strong support systems do better, lower rates of drug use, higher employment, and less criminal activity.

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    I'm applying everywhere I can apply, really, not really being picky at all.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But, still, three months after his release, Jordan hasn't been able to find a job.

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    I tried mostly fast food. I tried warehouse jobs. And I applied there, at the Aldi's. Right there is a supermarket. But I don't know what's going on with them.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The unemployment rate for blacks is twice that of whites, and so for a young black man with no high school diploma and a criminal record, it's particularly hard to find entry-level work.

    Now, Maryland, where Jordan lives, is one of 17 states that has a so-called ban the box law, where you don't have to check a box on a job application indicating if you have got a criminal record. But Jordan says he still gets asked the question, and he tells the truth.

  • JORDAN TAYLOR:

    Their whole demeanor changes. No matter how good your first impression was, or how you talk, how articulate you are, every time, they immediately change, every single time.

  • CARLOS COLON:

    I'm just hoping that something works out. I'm just hoping a miracle and something happens. That's what I'm going with.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    As his release date approaches, Carlos Colon has a different problem than Jordan Taylor. He has nowhere to go when he gets out.

    This 32-year-old car thief has been turned down by multiple halfway houses because of a prior prison escape. He has no family or friends to go to, and he's broke.

  • CARLOS COLON:

    Hopefully, I never see you again.

  • WOMAN:

    Yes, good luck.

  • CARLOS COLON:

    I know, right?

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But just before his release, he's accepted into this group home, one that's not easy to get into.

  • CINDY COOK, Great Compassion Ministries:

    This is the living room, TV, socialize. We get a dog. I have a dog. But he comes to visit a lot.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, why did you pick him?

  • CINDY COOK:

    It was really just his attitude, just his upbeat spirit. You know, he has that spirit of where he's just excited about life and is not giving up.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Cindy Cook started Great Compassion Ministries in 2008. It's a faith-based program that houses seven residents at a time in this tree-lined suburban Maryland neighborhood.

  • CINDY COOK:

    I'm just going to go over some of the rules and your expectations that I have of you and expectations that you may have of me.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    There are house rules, and a 10:00 p.m. curfew, but, tonight, for the first time in three years, Carlos is a free man and one who gets to sleep in a real bed.

    So, if you hadn't found this place, where would you have ended up? Where would you go?

  • CARLOS COLON:

    I probably would have stole me a car.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    First night?

  • CARLOS COLON:

    First night, I would have had to take my chances. I know it sounds crazy and I know it sounds insanity that you're doing the same thing over, but that's just what I do. That's what I know how to do.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Thanks to a pilot jobs program in the Montgomery County jail where he served time, Carlos might have a better shot at finding legitimate work.

    Several weeks ago, back in jail, he was interviewed by a national company. They didn't want us to say their name, but they want to help convicts find work when they get out.

  • CARLOS COLON:

    I'm a hard worker. Like, the jobs that I had before, the only reason I lost them is because they find out that I have a criminal record, and that's the reason I lost them.

    So, with this guy, he actually said, you know, he knows my record. He came in understanding that you came to a jail to interview me. You gave me the break or the chance.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Yes, there's no kidding this guy.

  • CARLOS COLON:

    Yes, there's no, oh, dude, you know, I just — I forgot to tell you I'm a car thief or I stole a car or…

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Carlos also got to visit this nonprofit, which provides free business clothes to low-income individuals. But these kinds of resources and opportunities resources are pretty rare. Ex-convicts are blocked from up to 800 different occupations nationwide.

    In many states, they're also ineligible for food stamps, public assistance and educational loans. And their job prospects do suffer. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners like Carlos are released every year, and more than half remain unemployed a year after getting out. And for those who don't find work, they're three times more likely to wind up back behind bars.

  • CARLOS COLON:

    I'm like really fortunate that I found this place. Now I just got to get on my feet and make some money and start paying my own rent. Then hopefully, maybe within six months, eight months, I can move on.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Ten miles away, 20-year-old Ashley Wilson's first taste of freedom has given her a headache.

  • ASHLEY WILSON:

    Because my eyes are just not used to sunlight. You don't get any sunlight at all in the jail. It's completely closed in, except for the windows are open bars.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Today is Ashley's first full day at what's called a pre-release center. It's a county-run transitional home. This is where she will serve the remainder of her 18-month sentence for prostitution, possession of heroin and check fraud.

    On the surface, it's a far cry from jail. You get regular clothes instead of a jumpsuit. There's no barbed wire, and you can have your own cell phone, which, experts argue, is crucial for getting a job these days. But residents are still not free. They get Breathalyzed each time they come and go from the center, and leaving without permission is a first-degree felony, which could get them an additional five to 10 years on their sentences.

  • WOMAN:

    So, we can do your intake.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Each resident gets a case manager to help them craft a plan, and to help find a job. But for Ashley, who struggled with heroin addiction for much of her young life, staying clean and sober will be the biggest challenge.

  • WOMAN:

    Right now, you have a clean slate. You're in the program. You're sober. So how can I help you to get past those difficulties you have had with your lifestyle choices?

  • ASHLEY WILSON:

    I think I really, really need help building that foundation, having something to work towards, to have things that I don't want to lose, to get back to being a responsible citizen in society and being a responsible parent and an active parent.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    It's been six months since Ashley last saw her 2-year-old daughter, Talia. Talia's father has sole custody, and he's under no obligation to bring her here for visits. And today is particularly rough because it's Talia's birthday.

  • ASHLEY WILSON:

    I'm really excited, but pretty sad about that, because I don't get to — I don't get to see her or talk to her today.

    Having a child is a wonderful thing. You know, she's not like, mommy, you have all these flaws, or you look ugly to me. She thinks I'm beautiful, and she thinks I'm strong. And I want to nurture that.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Long-term, Ashley hopes to get custody of her daughter and earn a college degree. But in the short-term, she just wants to finish her time at the center and stay out of jail.

    She says her fellow inmates back in jail used to take bets on how quickly she'd end up back there.

  • ASHLEY WILSON:

    Let's say they gave me two weeks. I'm going to be like OK, I'm going to count down until the end of those two weeks, and at the end of those two weeks, regardless if I'm ever going to see that person again, I'm like, ha-ha. That's just me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    At first, Ashley seemed like she was proving the doubters wrong. She got to see her daughter and she landed a day job at Panera, which the center encouraged. But it only lasted one day. Ashley was caught using synthetic drugs, and she was expelled from the center and sent back to jail for the rest of her sentence. She won't get out until at least next spring.

    For all prisoners, putting the past behind them won't be easy. Recidivism is the norm for most ex-convicts. We will continue following these three to see what they do with their second chance. For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Montgomery County, Maryland.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    On our Web site, you can catch up on part one of this series, and take an in-depth look at Carlos, Jordan and Ashley's lives. That's at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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