By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Commission on Reentry heard presentations on Tuesday about the need for expanding housing assistance for those leaving prison as a way to reduce recidivism.
The state currently provides no housing assistance for the majority of people who are leaving prison at the end of their sentences.
The group homes or halfway houses that do exist in the state typically require payments immediately and costs can range from $500 to $650 per month. Those just released from prison often do not have bank accounts, employment, or even IDs making it impossible to pay upfront.
Carla Crowder, the executive director for Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, presented her findings to the commission on what reentry housing is already available in the state and how it can be improved.
She said housing is one of the biggest factors of whether or not a person is sent back to prison.
“It’s created a crisis for people who really have prepared themselves inside as best they can,” Crowder said. “They’ve taken classes, they’ve stayed out of trouble, they have a chance to be released and then unless you have family or several thousand dollars, and most people do not, it’s almost impossible to find a safe place to live.”
The commission is tasked with identifying, implementing and promoting policies and strategies to support the successful reentry of state inmates into society. Tuesday’s meeting was its fifth meeting of the year and members have agreed to hold more meetings beyond their originally planned conclusion early next year.
Crowder said there were around 3,500 individuals released from state prisons in 2020 because they reached their end of sentence and were given no support or supervision.
There are only a handful of places around the state that provide transitional housing services like Shepherd’s Fold in Birmingham and Renascence in Montgomery. Services at the facilities vary but usually include housing, food and transportation to jobs.
Community based transitional housing was another suggested method that the state could implement which typically consists of released individuals living in furnished apartments with their basic necessities paid for by the program.
Georgia has implemented a similar program within its department of community affairs and provides six months of housing to those leaving prison. Service providers are reimbursed $750 per month.
Brandon Johnson, the director of policy for the Birmingham Mayor’s office, helps run a reentry program and told the commission of scenarios of unregulated halfway houses that abuse their occupants financially, physically and sexually.
“You have individuals who are trying to stay free, trying to stay on the right path, but the day-to-day exploitation and demeaning circumstances of not having a stable home, forced them on the wrong path,” Johnson said.
He asked that the commission consider housing as a cornerstone of their strategies for reentry and rehabilitation.
Ronald McKeithen was incarcerated in various Alabama prisons for 37 years and told the commission about his own difficult experiences of reentering society, saying that everyday skills like driving are something he had to relearn.
“When guys come out of prison with not that much education, not used to dealing with people, they are so lost,” McKeithen said.
In her report, Crowder suggests using about $20 million from the state’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funding to start building more reentry housing services.
She said that the funding could potentially help provide housing for 3,000 to 4,000 people being released in a two-year period. Crowder also said the immediate funding would help as the state prepares for possibly more releases in the coming year after the passage of a new parole bill during the special session on prison construction.
The bill passed by the legislature last month would increase the number of inmates who could be released prior to the end of their sentences and placed under the supervision of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. It includes an electronic monitoring requirement.
Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Deputy Director of Parolee Rehabilitation Rebecca Bensema also told the commission that work is still continuing on creating a universal intake portal that each state agency that works with inmates can input data about needed services.
“So that we could all benefit from the data that’s being collected from those systems and recognize where our hotspots are throughout this state, where our needs are for food or housing, for the different things that make the biggest impact on recidivism,” Bensema said.
The next meeting for the commission is scheduled for Dec. 7.