On average, 350 prisoners are released from the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) every month to join the ranks of an estimated 25,811 that come under jurisdiction of the system as being on parole or on probation. And with the exception of 31 men sentenced to life without parole, all of the 3,200 inmates at the state institution will someday be back in the community.
In the case of Providence, those totals represent one out of every 11 men and, as Mayor Angel Taveras told a conference held Tuesday at the Crowne Plaza, as high a concentration as one in four men in some neighborhoods. In Warwick and Cranston, one in 33 men are on parole, or on probation.
Taveras and a panel that included Mayors Scott Avedisian and Allan Fung, of Warwick and Cranston, respectively, and Police Chiefs Paul King of Pawtucket and Thomas Carey of Woonsocket told what they are doing to accommodate the re-entry of those who have served their time into the community and what can, and needs to, be done to ensure the cycle isn’t repeated.
The remarks of the mayors and police chiefs capped a daylong Rhode Island Re-entry Summit run by the Department of Corrections and funded by a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation. More than 300 people who deal with prisoners re-entering the community ranging from police departments to community action, substance abuse and mental health agencies were in attendance. Also present were members from local councils comprised of law enforcement, non-profits and support group representatives who review each person being released and place them in a plan for re-entry.
“They are realists,” A. T. Wall, director of the Department of Corrections, said as he introduced the panel. “They do what they can to ease the risk of re-entry into the community.”
It’s not a matter of ignoring the situation as the three mayors made clear. That doesn’t work.
“If you don’t address the issues, you have to understand what the consequences will be,” Taveras said. He targeted housing and jobs as key elements to successful re-entry, which are not easy under ordinary circumstances and all the more difficult in this economy. And he spoke of a need “to change the conversation in our state, to address the stigma and be able to accept [those who have served their time] back into society.”
That acceptance, as Avedisian and Fung related, can be traumatic.
Fung recalled how identification of a number of sex offenders at the Harrington Hall shelter resulted in a neighborhood uproar more than a year ago. In response, Keep Cranston Safe, a community-based group, was formed and Cranston Police stepped up its community-policing program.
Avedisian cited a similar occurrence where a Warwick neighborhood reacted to the numbers of sex offenders in their midst.
“What do you do so you don’t divide the neighborhood?” Avedisian asked.
In the case of Warwick, he said, the city adopted a system where all those on parole or probation are called to a meeting at least twice a year at the police community room. Initially, these meetings were greeted with suspicion and distrust. This changed, he said, as those re-entering the community learned of resources and became willing to ask for help. The meetings also helped to foster relationships between parole officers and agencies that can assist.
Fung described how he grew up in Providence and saw firsthand violence in the streets – one of his school friends was shot in the back of the head, a murder that has never been solved. He also talked of how he went on to law school, working in criminal prosecution and completing an internship at the Department of Corrections.
“I’ve seen it from a lot of perspectives,” he said, adding that as the host of the ACI, Cranston faces challenges but is also afforded opportunities.
“The goal is making a safe community, otherwise the fear factor takes over,” he said. He said the only way to overcome fear “is to have a frank and honest discussion with the residents.”
Fung doesn’t expect residents to be happy about having re-entries in their neighborhoods, but if there is a plan in place they know what to expect.
“There is always going to be that NIMBY [not in my backyard] attitude,” he said.
Chief King talked of Pawtucket’s negative reaction when plans were announced for the Anchor Recovery Center in the city. That has changed. “Once people start talking, the rest is easy,” he said.