Eldon Mackintosh has been arrested dozens of times. After two prison sentences and countless trips to jail, he is determined never to go back. How, though, after spending over a third of his life in prison, can he make that a reality?
According to the Department of Corrections, over 7,000 people are released from Washington State prisons annually. Of that number, nearly 32% will return to prison within three years.
Barriers to housing and employment
Citizens returning to the community after incarceration face countless barriers. Housing and employment are “by far the biggest barriers,” Jesse Randall, Community Corrections Officer for Washington State Department of Corrections, said.
There are few housing options available to the formerly incarcerated. “There is a pretty good sized homeless population [among returning citizens] because sometimes housing just can’t be found,” said Randall. Lack of adequate housing can also lead to further criminality. Mackintosh lives in one of two “second-chance” rental properties—where a felony does not automatically exclude an individual from consideration—available in the Olympia area. “Housing is one of the biggest things. A lot of people feel that they don’t have a place to go, so what’s the point?” said Mackintosh.
Breakdown in support for chemical dependency
Drug addiction is also a major concern for those returning to the community. “Sobriety,” Mackintosh said, “is the only reason I’m doing good.” Sandra Kozlowski, a chemical dependency counsellor for Northwest Resources, estimates that 60% of her caseload consists of formerly incarcerated individuals whose “unique needs” she has not been trained to meet.
This number has risen significantly in the last five or six years, Kozlowski said, because there is no longer a contracted chemical dependency provider for the Department of Corrections, nor is there communication, education or understanding between DOC and the treatment community. “What about supporting the support systems with education?” she asked. One of the greatest challenges in treating formerly incarcerated people is a “lack of trust because of a fear of retribution,” Kozlowski said. The guarding behaviors present in these individuals makes it virtually impossible to treat the underlying causes of addiction, she said.
Successful reentry relies on continuing support
That sentiment was echoed by Community Corrections Officer Randall, who said that the biggest misconception about community corrections is that they are seen as cops—just “vests and guns” trying to catch violators and send them back to prison. “Our job is to keep them out of jail,” Randall said.
Accepting help has been the key to Mackintosh’s success. While in prison, he participated in a program called “Strength in Families,” which he said he had to “fight” to gain access to. The program prepared him for a successful reentry and did not stop when he released from prison. Mackintosh said he feels supported by DOC. Now in his third quarter at South Puget Sound Community College, Mackintosh describes being walked onto campus for the first time by Mary Captain, a former Community Corrections Officer who ran the “Strength in Families” program. Captain continues to be a source of support for Mackintosh.
Individualized support appears to be key to helping the formerly incarcerated reenter our communities successfully. Randall said that DOC is moving in that direction. He sees “the department as a whole going to better case management practices built on conversations with those on supervision,” he said.
“I have to work harder than everyone else to prove myself,” Mackintosh said. He hopes that the community, including property owners and employers, will begin to “see each one of us as an individual.”
Melissa McKee is a formerly incarcerated student and community member. She hopes to bring awareness to issues surrounding mass incarceration, and to amplify the voices of those being silenced by the prison-industrial complex.