Andre Willis reminds me of several of the friends I've made over the past eleven years here in the city. New York Times reporter Kate Zernike shares his story in her recent front page article ["Helping Inmates Kick Drugs (and the Prison Habit)," Sunday, June 26, 2005].
Mr. Willis got into the drug trade and habit in Chicago when he was 14-years-old. By the time he turned 25, he had been to prison four times.
Like some of my friends, he vowed to go straight each time he was released. His problem was no one wanted to hire him. Unable to find legal employment, he returned to selling and using drugs.
But during his last incarceration, something different happened. The court sentenced him to one year in a new kind of state prison. The facility and all of its programs were designed to deliver treatment to the addicts sent there.
Willis received employment training and counseling for his addiction. Once out on parole, these services continued for him. The state helped him find a half-way house to transition back into the community. His parole director stuck with him during the three months it took for him to find a job.
The goal of the Sheridan Correctional Center, where Willis received this new kind of imprisonment, is to reduce the high recidivism rates in the Illinois prison system. Amazingly, 69% of all inmates are locked up for drug-related offenses.
According to Zernike, of the over 600,000 prisoners released annually from prisons across the country, approximately 2/3 are locked up again within three years. Seven of 10 are jailed for drug offenses and 40% of those who return do so thanks to their problems with narcotics.
The national "get tough on crime" approach has failed. In the process it is taxing the budgets of state governments who see few positive outcomes from the current system.
Because of the escalating costs with no good result to report, Illinois state officials are taking this new approach in an attempt to cut into the real problem: addiction and drug abuse.
Think about it for a moment. Well over half a million people are released from prison annually. Most have serious drug-related issues. They are coming back into our cities and towns. To continue the "prison only" approach is lunacy for all of us.
Inside this new kind of prison, inmates "begin preparing to leave the day they arrive at prison." Now there is a novel strategy!
Prison officials have crafted creative partnerships with corporations and trade associations to insure that upon release their inmates will be ready to work.
In addition, the state is working with local groups to make sure those released can find, not only housing, but supportive community groups to help with maintaining sobriety and building new lives.
Results have been promising so far. Of the first 150 "graduates" of the program, only 27% were arrested within the first nine months of release, compared to 46% of a group of inmates in a more conventional setting but with the same background and criminal records.
Other states are reported to be watching Illinois carefully. Sounds smart to me.
When will Texas take a look?