Prisoners Need Resources & Opportunities After Release

Before working in corrections, I worked for a truck accessories company. I wasn’t enjoying my work and needed change. I remember calling my wife in the middle of the day and saying, “I can’t do this anymore. Find me something.” She found a food service supervisor position at the prison here in my hometown. After holding that position for a while, I wanted to pursue something more meaningful, so I transferred to work as a correctional officer and did that for about five years. That work inspired me to complete my criminal justice degree, which I did in December. Since then, I’ve been involved with release and parole plans that help formerly incarcerated men reintegrate back into the community.

With our program, I am able to sit down with guys one-on-one and work through why they committed a crime and how they can learn from the experience. Part of this structure is a treatment group, “Thinking for Change,” facilitated by case managers. In one exercise, we have the participants think of different scenarios, like problematic drug use, and get them to think about what may be going through their heads. What are the positive and negative outcomes? Will the negatives outweigh the positives? We have them think of that same situation that resulted in their crime and challenge them to think about how they can do differently next time. We also address their attitudes, values, and beliefs, which are some of the top criminogenic factors. We encounter men that hold ideas that their parole officers are out to get them, but we try to change that attitude and help them see the bigger picture.

When guys come into our office, we see a pattern. They usually have relatives who’ve been incarcerated or had a problematic relationship with drugs. They aren’t taught many life skills. What makes my job rewarding is seeing a person’s progress in a treatment group or in GED classes after learning new skills from our program. Every victory deserves praise. As they progress, we continue to push them to think about what’s next and how to keep improving.

It’s important for many of our criminal justice laws to change, too. The hardest part of my job is when guys do well in my program, but I see them come back through our doors. Many employers do not hire people with felony convictions. There are countless other barriers to employment, housing, and education for people returning home from prison. Returning citizens see that they can make more money in one day selling drugs than working a tax-paying job for a month, and my job is to help them see that the consequences aren’t worth it. Public housing is also usually poorly managed and run-down, leading to a loss of pride in their home, which can contribute to depression and hopelessness. These struggles continue the cycle of recidivism.

People need to stop viewing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people as outcasts. Public perception needs to change if our laws are going to change. People in my family have felony convictions, and I see how they are treated. It’s hard for the men I work with to reintegrate when there is a lack of public understanding.

People need to take responsibility to learn and get to know these individuals and the laws that affect all of us. I feel this shift will also allow for a better sense of community for people with felony convictions upon release, which would help continue the change in beliefs we work towards with them in our program. This is why I am looking forward to policy reforms, such as the legalization and regulation of marijuana.

Many men in my program have proven themselves to be capable of growth and shouldn’t be denied the chance to continue. A meaningful reduction in incarceration, especially for drug-related crimes, will not happen without systems and people treating individuals with convictions fairly after they’re released.

Officer Michael P. Weatherly works with the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP).

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