Monday, June 27, 2011

Kids With Incarcerated Parents

CHARLOTTE (MCT) -- Jarrisha Rorie of Charlotte says she married a good man, but his past caught up with him.

Now he's in prison and she's raising three boys who can't understand what happened to dad and why mom works all the time.

Rorie thought it would all work out, until her 7-year-old began having problems in school and was diagnosed with a stress disorder.

That's when she discovered a little-known, school-based program that helps kids deal with the stress and embarrassment of having a parent in jail or prison.

Unfortunately, it's also one of a handful of local initiatives that will suffer significant cuts on July 1, due to a loss of government money.

Rorie says it would be devastating to see a program shrink that offers training for both families and school staff.

"My children thought their dad was Superman, and they don't have a full understanding of how to cope with the separation," she says. "There's really nowhere else children can feel comfortable talking about their dads being locked up, and not feel shame."

The program, called Empowering Kids With Incarcerated Parents, is offered by the Center for Community Transitions at a time when the county has 5,000 kids with parents behind bars.

Statistics show those children are at greater risk of dropping out, and up to 70 percent will end up in trouble with the law.

The county provided $25,000 for the program last year but has since changed its priorities for nonprofit support. As a result, the money will be refocused on other initiatives at the center for transitions.

Meanwhile, the program is also losing another $80,000 because of state budget cuts.

The result: Instead of running programs for inmates' kids in up to seven schools a year, the center will cut back to no more than three schools. That means helping only 35 to 40 students, a third the number of the current school year.

The result could be more discipline problems in schools, including children acting violently, says Adeola Fearon, the family care coordinator with the program.

"We've had situations where one parent was incarcerated, and then the other parent became incarcerated," Fearon says.

"The siblings end up being taken in by different relatives, which means new school, new neighborhood and new home with new rules. These children end up feeling everyone is against them."

Michael Searcy of Charlotte can attest to what happens as a result: Two of his children went to prison while he was incarcerated for 17 years.

Searcy, 62, is volunteering for the program while waiting to be released from a federal halfway house on July 26.

"When you go to prison, you think it's not going to affect anybody but you, but it affects the entire family," he says.

"My two sons ended up incarcerated because of me not being there to help them make better choices."

Jarrisha Rorie says she believes the program will help keep her three boys in line until her husband is released next March.

In the meantime, the family has already taken the first step.

"My boys know their dad made a mistake, and we can forgive him."

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Support for reforms that benefit the public and prisoners

Solitary confinement in prison can be a harrowing, punishing experience, which can be the point. For almost every hour of the day, seven days a week, often for more than a year, inmates in solitary have no human contact at all.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of the state`s inmate population being held in solitary confinement suffers from mental illness. On Friday, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a new law that will hopefully increase the chances that an inmate will get the mental health services he needs, while reducing the costs and overall number of inmates in what is appropriately nicknamed "the hole."

There are about 1,400 people in solitary confinement in Colorado today. They will spend 23 hours a day there, for an average of 16 months, according to the department.

According to the Colorado Department of Corrections, in 1999, 15 percent of inmates in solitary were mentally ill or developmentally disabled. In 2008, it was 37 percent.

The new law requires regular mental health evaluations for inmates in solitary confinement, and allows inmates to receive "earned time" for good behavior after 90 days in solitary. It also restricts the practice of releasing prisoners directly from long-term solitary confinement right into the community, instead of transitioning to the general prison population.

Currently, 41 percent of prisoners released from solitary confinement are really released: Their entire prison time has been served.

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora sponsored the bill, which garnered support from a coalition including state branches of the ACLU, Mental Health America and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

"Solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates isn`t useful or productive for the safety of the inmate or the prison. This legislation will increase prison and prisoner safety," said Rep. Levy.

The most important thing is that the new law is just, and humane. The upshot is that it could potentially save taxpayers` money. A single prisoner in solitary confinement costs a conservatively estimated $15,000 more than a prisoner in the general population.

Speaking of prisoners and money, a conference held this week holds out some promise. A national conference regarding pre-trial release was held in Washington D.C. to review laws set almost 50 years ago regarding non-violent offenders filling up local jails. An estimated 500,000 people, charged with non-violent offenses, are jailed each day in the United States because they can`t afford the bail.

The cost to the public is $9 billion a year. And these aren`t criminals a judge wouldn`t want to risk losing sight of: These are non-violent offenders for whom bail has already been set. They just can`t afford it.

Earlier this year, Boulder County Chief Judge Roxanne Bailin, with support from the district attorney`s office and the sheriff`s department, rolled out a reduced bond schedules for our local suspects to address this very issue. Talking about it at the national level is smart.

Read more: Prison and jail reforms - Boulder Daily Camera