“There is no rehabilitation in prison”: Ex-cons and their advocates call for reform

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It’s been over a month since David Lindsey was released from prison and returned to his Minneapolis home. After serving a 19-year sentence for felony assault, Lindsey was overwhelmed upon reentering a community he had not been a part of since 1990. Completely unprepared by the justice system for life outside of prison, Lindsey now relies on his own determination and the fellowship of ex-cons for support and guidance. “There is no rehabilitation in prison any more,” says Lindsey. “It’s a business, and men like myself are the product.”

Lindsey spoke alongside three panelists at the April 24th “Breakfast with Gary” meeting facilitated by Minneapolis alderman Gary Schiff (Ward 9). A handful of community members gathered at the Mercado Central on Lake Street to enjoy a tamale breakfast and listen to a panel discussion on offender recidivism in Minnesota.

According to Hillary Freeman, a crime prevention specialist officer for Hennepin County, 95% of offenders in Minnesota eventually leave prison, and 45% will return within a year after their release. Freeman says that in order for recidivism rates to decrease, change must start within the judicial system. “You cannot arrest away crime,” she said at the breakfast. “We have to deal with the reality that offenders come home. It’s not about being tough on crime or soft on crime, it’s about being smart on crime. Who are our offenders? Look in the mirror.”

Freeman added that the out of the 7,000 re-offenders that her Hennepin County department sees each year, 52% are sent to the workhouse for violating the terms of their probation, which can be anything from failing a drug test to not gaining employment. Workhouse inmates either live there full-time or come in on a schedule to work off their sentence through manual labor.

Mark Haase, director of the Minneapolis Council on Crime and Justice, largely attributes recidivism to the difficulty for ex-cons to attain employment, which is usually a mandatory requirement for offenders released on parole or probation. Haase is working to secure a policy in which city employers omit questions on employment applications regarding criminal history, providing a fair chance for offenders to find work. “We need to find a way for people to move past their mistakes,” he said on April 24. “We can’t create policies based on fear and assumption.”

Freeman explained what she sees as the formula for an offender to succeed outside of prison. “Housing, employment, and a positive support group,” she said. “They need to change people, places, and things.” Freeman mentors men and women in reentry programs that help offenders who want to achieve these goals, but “don’t know how.”

Reentry programs significantly lower the risk of an ex-con ever re offending, according to Freeman and reentry program Men of Rafiki associate Haywood Kemp. Men of Rafiki teaches accountability and responsibility, and has claims the lowest re-offender group of any other reentry program in Minnesota. “I like to tell the guys that it’s about giving back now,” said Kemp. “If you want a second chance, you got to show society you deserve a second chance.”

Kemp, an ex-con who has been out of prison for twelve years, said that offenders and society must promote awareness in order to lower recidivism rates in Minnesota. “If we can give offenders a chance,” he said, “then we can change things around. We need to break down myths. Going back to prison cannot be an option.”

Since his release from prison, David Lindsey works with Kemp through Men of Rafiki and now advocates for prison reform. He credited Men of Rafiki for giving him the awareness to change his life and attitude, and show him things about life that he “never knew.” He says that “now, I’m 100% part of the solution, never ever part of the problem. And that, you can take to the bank.”

Lindsey added that though reentry programs help offenders to get their lives back on track, the burden ultimately falls on society to make lasting changes. “The public needs to be educated to what’s really going on,” he concluded. “Don’t believe everything you read or see on TV. Find out for yourself.”

Jaclyn Evert is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota.

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