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Labor of Compassion

January 14, 2008

The first female federal prison warden in the U.S., Mary Belle Harris, said, “We must remember always that the doors of prison swing both ways.”

This quote is printed on the cover of a new book, “Getting on after getting out: a re-entry guide for Colorado,” by former Salidan Carol Peeples and Christie Donner, published by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

The authors’ advice on how to use this guide says: “The book is not designed to be read cover to cover.” However, I nearly did.

“Why?” Although I have no intention of getting in, the details of getting out are fascinating, even startling.

Rebuilding a life on the outside is difficult. Nevertheless, this book is filled with hope. The authors meticulously detail the steps and include much practical advice in a thoughtful presentation that’s easy to use.

The first chapter is “Getting started while you’re inside.” There’s a lot to do, but if you’re inside, you have the time.

Special tips are highlighted in green boxes. Some are reminders and encouragement: keep records, be patient, keep records. Others are facts you would never guess at …

“You have almost no chance of getting a parole officer other than the one assigned to you.”

“If you’re not eligible to live in public housing and you stay with a family member or friend living in public housing, even for one night, that person could be evicted.”

“… ask for a copy of your TB test results. Most shelters require proof of a tuberculosis test.” Makes sense, but it is hard to imagine many street people opening a wallet and producing documentation of any kind. That world might be more bizarre than I imagine.

I was surprised by the extent of the advice about being released homeless, simply because I hadn’t thought about it. The details of building a life again, whether on parole or not, are many; they seem extraordinarily difficult to manage if one is homeless.

By law, the DOC is not responsible for transporting people upon their release. They are usually left at bus stations or “on Smith Road in Denver.” Curious; on a map, Smith Road seems convenient to nothing but I-70 and railroad tracks.

Even if you have connections, “by policy, the DOC can’t tell you your travel plans ahead of time, so it’s hard to let your family and friends know when to pick you up. You probably won’t be able to call them until after you’re released.”

This book is a clear exposition of the issues one will face getting out of prison in Colorado. Compiling it was a labor of compassion. Even with many bridges burned, there are still paths open to people coming out of prison.

The book is explicit and encouraging about the many tasks one can accomplish from within prison to make crossing the threshold easier. I found the chapters on parole fascinating, as well as “The first days out” and “A roof over your head.”

Several chapters have extensive lists of community resources for all manner of help. The book ends with “Continuing your education …,” “Managing your money,” and “The importance of voting.”

Whether you see corrections as properly punitive or rehabilitative, the fact remains that 95% of the people in prison will eventually get out. But then, 65% of those released on mandatory parole return to prison within three years.

For inmates inclined to help themselves, this book is a gift of tools for staying out of the last category.


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