Boyle County must become more ‘recovery-friendly’ for former inmates

Published 4:42 pm Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Guest columnist

Last month, some members of Boyle County ASAP spent a few hours at Northpoint Training Center, at the invitation of Warden Adams and re-entry program staff. You might call it a field trip, but that doesn’t really describe the depth of learning we experienced on that Friday. Through a simulation exercise designed for participants to “walk a mile” in the shoes of people leaving prison, we were given various scenarios to experience for the first four weeks of a person’s life outside prison walls. At the end of the simulation, we reflected on what it was like to manage job searches, transportation, parole appointments, housing and family life, without being rearrested.     

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Why, some might ask, would our particular group be invited to have this experience? The answer primarily lies in research on contributing factors to people breaking the law and being sentenced to prisons, and local jails as well. Substance use disorders (alcohol and drug problems), mental illness and poverty have always been tightly woven into the life stories of large numbers of current and past inmates in our American criminal justice system.

The United States has become the world leader in rates of incarceration, fueled to a great extent by beliefs about how to fight “The War on Drugs.” And, the opioid crisis specifically has contributed significantly to the rise in incarceration rates. Today, around 2.3 million men, women and juveniles are locked up in America. Kentucky is in the top tier of states in the mass incarceration movement, and today, there are about 24,000 inmates in Kentucky jails and prisons. The Kentucky Department of Corrections estimates that approximately three-fourths of those have substance use disorders. 

Under the leadership of Secretary John Tilley, the Department of Corrections is working hard to move from an incarceration-only approach to a rehabilitation, education, treatment and recovery approach.  They are also paying attention to what needs to be in place for a person to successfully transition back into a community and remain free of further offenses. Kentucky re-entry programs emphasize supports for inmate reintegration into being productive citizens — not free rides.

So, what did we learn from our time at Northpoint, as our community plans to be “recovery friendly,” and as we strive to increase our workforce to meet our economic development needs? First, it must be said that our hosts — Northpoint staff and inmates — were gracious, kind, and informative. They helped us feel comfortable enough to learn from them. 

In the scenarios given to us, we experienced how really difficult the first few days out of prison are, and we learned that transportation alone can be pretty overwhelming when you don’t own a vehicle. We learned that the tiny bit of money we had as we left prison did not stretch for basic needs, and some of us literally forgot to even buy any food, given our limited resources. Obtaining and maintaining affordable housing was a big stumbling block for some of us, and homeless shelters sometimes became the only option. We found it was easy to give up on thinking we were going to make it through the first four weeks out, and some of us were reduced to a despondency we will not forget. 

It was impossible to look around the room of inmates without wondering about the family stories of all of them. What we know from the research on “adverse childhood experiences” is that having a parent incarcerated at any time during childhood, along with other experiences which accompany that situation, places a child at serious lifetime risk of physical and mental health issues, substance use disorders, adult incarceration, and lowered life expectancy. We also know that crime is rampant in some families, as reflected in the fact that about half of those in jails and prisons today have at least one close relative who has been incarcerated. 

We drove out through the front gate of Northpoint with a stronger sense of the importance of community resources and support for those leaving prison. It’s obvious that communities have to work in partnership with prisons and jails. 

Boyle County must have transitional housing opportunities — particularly for those whose families and neighborhoods are not healthy or conducive to recovery.

We need more public transportation. More employers should be encouraged to hire folks with criminal records. We must continue to focus on treatment and recovery resources and mentors for those with substance use and mental health disorders. And we must not stray from prevention. Our adults of the future include the current children of incarcerated parents.

There’s work to be done, and we have a better understanding of that work now. In a time when the word “wall” is an important one across our country, the folks at Northpoint opened up their walls for us, and we are better because of it.

Kathy L. Miles is coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy Inc.