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Montgomery program gives men on parole a chance for rebirth

By MARTY RONEY, Montgomery Advertiser

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Dylan Payne considers himself one of the lucky ones. He weighed 215 pounds before “he started cooking dope, bad,” in his home state of Indiana. Years later he bonded himself out of the Chilton County Jail and got a second chance.

He was in jail for about a year on drug charges. He says he lost about 100 pounds when he was using drugs regularly. He’s now a resident of Renascence, a transition home for men paroled for nonviolent offenses. The name means rebirth. Renascence is the only program of its kind in the state. And it is key to helping men such as Payne ease back into society after a hitch inside.

“I’m lucky to be here,” the 24-year-old said recently while giving a tour of the home on Clayton Street in downtown Montgomery. “It’s very hard to get into this program. I feel like I have a chance now.

“I know it will be hard, but at least I have a chance.”

The Program

A full house at Renascence is 14 men. Numbers fluctuate as people rotate in and out. The men stay six months to a year. It’s not a cakewalk. They have to get jobs, and keep them while they are in the house, They have to clean their rooms, attend weekly AA or NA meetings. Do daily chores to keep the home and yard tidy. Stay away from drugs and alcohol and generally stay out of trouble.

Dereck Wise is there to see they toe the line. He’s the house manager.

“I have no problem being the bad guy,” he said, only half-joking. “Structure is important. These men come from an environment in prison where everything they did was heavily structured. Someone tells them when to eat. Someone tells them when to take a shower, when to go to bed.

“So, they are used to having structure. Here at Renascence, the level of control is not as punishing, but it is strict. The men need to get accustomed to making decisions for themselves again. The right decisions.”

Wise says about 11 out of a group of 14 men make it to the end of the program successfully.

The majority of the men who come through these doors have some kind of addiction issues. Wise knows what they are going through. This month he will have been clean and sober for 19 years.

“It’s a constant battle, staying off the dope, the alcohol,” he said. “Earlier in your recovery it’s even harder. These men are here, mostly because of their addictions. That’s what landed them in trouble in the first place.

“It’s easy to fall back into those old habits of using. I tell them that to make it, they have to give up some things. They have to give up the old ‘hood. That’s where the buddies they used to get high with live. That’s where the dope house they used to get high in is. They have to give up the old ways, the old habits. Hopefully, they look at me and see that it can be done. It’s a struggle, but it’s worth it. To get a real life back, it’s worth it.”

Calvin Moore knows it’s worth it. He completed the program after spending “a dozen years or so, off and on,” in the state prison system. He’s engaged now. For the past five years he’s worked at the Big Lots distribution center, where he’s worked his way up to floor leader. On weekends he works at Renascence. He serves as a janitor at 2 Cities Church in downtown Montgomery. For him, the key is keeping busy.

“Man, they know where I come from, and they give me the keys to this place?” Moore, 60, said of the church, where he has converted a small room into an art studio. “I really appreciate what everyone has done for me. No one wants to hire an ex-con, I realize that. But I’ve had a lot of support. A lot of help to make this new life.”

Having that help with the transition is a big reason why Moore has been able to stay out.

“A lot of folks, when they get out, they go back to the old neighborhoods,” Moore said. “Some may go back to their families, if they have families. If their families haven’t thrown them away through all the trouble they have caused. But you go back to the old places, you can fall right back into troubles again.

“With Renascence, you can make that break. I still see some of my old friends from Montgomery. I’m not ashamed of where I came from. But now, I can’t spend time with those old friends. We talk when we meet, but we don’t hang out. I had to get away from all that.”

Renascence is a private, tax exempt program, operating from donations. Their motto is “RECLAIM. REBUILD. REINTEGRATE.” Through March 22, 2017, the program has served 266 men, saving taxpayers in the state about $17,406.85 per year for each man taken in, the program’s data say.

The Need

Recidivism. It’s a fancy word for people returning to a life of crime after release from jail or prison. In more cases than not, it means convictions and more time inside. For some, it becomes a way of life.

The study “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 states in 2005: Patterns from 2005-2010” released on April 22, 2014, shows that about two-thirds, or 67.8 percent, of prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years. Five years out, three-quarters, or 76.6 percent, were arrested. More than a third, 36.8 percent, of all prisoners who were arrested within five years of release were arrested within the first six months after release, with more than half, 56.7 percent, arrested by the end of the first year.

Within five years of release, “. 82.1 percent of property offenders were arrested for a new crime, compared to 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.3 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders,” the study shows.

That’s why programs such as Renascence are so important, said Guy Renfro, an assistant professor of behavioral science at Faulkner University. Early in his career Renfro worked with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, reviewing parole applications among other duties.

“People forget the divisive impacts being institutionalized can have,” he said. “For a long time, inmates have not had to make decisions. So, it takes time upon release for them to get back to making decisions for themselves, the proper decisions.”

The old cliché, Hollywood image of an inmate leaving the Big House with a new suit and a $20 bill in their pocket just doesn’t get it, he said.

“Many of these former inmates are homeless upon release,” he said. “They don’t have that safety net that is so vital for those initial months after release. They may not have a driver’s license or identification, they likely don’t have a job or a bank account. The things we take granted every day can be foreign to a person who has just been released from a lengthy prison sentence.”

And there are more inmates in the states’ prisons systems than ever before. According to the Sentencing Project, the United States leads the world in incarceration. There are an estimated 2.2 million people in the country’s prisons and jails, a 500 percent increase over the past four decades, the project shows.

The “War on Drugs” and mandatory minimum sentences are major causes for the burgeoning population of the incarcerated, the project’s data reflect. In 1980, the number of people sentenced on drug offenses in this nation was 40,900 compared to 469,545 in 2015, the group’s data show. There are more people behind bars now for drug offenses than who were in jail or prison for any crime in 1980, according to the group’s research.

According to the National Research Council, about 50 percent of the more than 200 percent growth in state prison populations between 1980 and 2010 was due to increase in time served for all offenses.

At the federal level, the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2014 voted to reduce “excessive” sentences for up to 46,000 people serving time in federal prison on drug crimes, The Associated Press reported then. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the differences between sentences for crack and powder cocaine convictions. The Sentencing Project holds that to get a handle on the burgeoning prison population nationwide that mandatory minimum sentences be eliminated or cut back, and that resources should be shifted to community-based prevention programs and treatment for substance abuse.

Alabama has struggled with overpopulation in its prison system for decades. No real effort at prison reform can be successful unless recidivism is addressed, Renfro said.

“The idea of lock them up and throw away the key is short-sighted,” he said. “With the exception of the most violent crimes, most prisoners are going to be released, either at the end of their sentence or through parole. The revolving door of recidivism has to end.

“That’s why groups like Renascence and what they are doing is so important.”

For Payne, it’s been a long and circuitous road to get to the house on Clayton Street. The construction trade took him from Indiana to Florida, then to Shelby County. He lost his job and went back to the old ways. He got back on the dope, he said. Now he’s busy building something else.

“I’m 24-years-old,” he said. “I have a life ahead of me. I’ve got to make it this time.”

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