November 12, 2007

Beyond Bus Tickets

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

About a month ago, a man walked into my office after being released from prison earlier that day.  Explaining that he didn’t know where else to go, he sat down looking beleaguered and frustrated.  He explained that upon leaving the institution, correction officials gave him a bus ticket to Milwaukee and sent him on his way.  No one talked with him about housing or where he planned to live.  There was no plan for employment, a lead on a job, or any conversation about how he would take care of himself.  Nobody inquired about whether he had enough money to get a meal somewhere.  Fresh out of prison, told to make a fresh start, he wasn’t provided with even enough resources to make it through his first night of freedom. 

Thankfully, my office was able to find shelter for the man that night.  If we hadn’t been there, though, there’s no telling what could have happened.  Without food, money, and a place to lay his head, desperation may have easily set in.  His first steps towards rebuilding his life were marred by missteps prior to release.  Bottom line, anytime someone is released from prison, there must be a viable plan developed for them to re-enter society.  

Our state has a vested interest in assisting former offenders in returning to the community in a manner that will best help them to succeed.  This is why recent steps taken by the Department of Corrections (DOC) are so encouraging.  Current DOC Secretary Rick Raemisch has begun the process of implementing a comprehensive re-entry program, dedicated to giving inmates the tools they need to effectively transition back into the community.  The program is scheduled for implementation by May 2008.

The new program will assist recently released inmates in several key areas. By providing information and access to health and hygiene resources, the program ensures that inmates will be physically prepared to return to the community.  Giving inmates access to education, job training, and employment opportunities, the new DOC initiative will give inmates the tools to be contributing members of societies.  Finally, by emphasizing areas like family support, financial preparedness, housing, and transportation, DOC can work to ensure that people leaving prison have a solid, supportive base and resources to truly make a fresh beginning.  Coupled with new provisions that help inmates obtain documents like birth certificates, résumés, educational diplomas, and drivers’ licenses, the plan has many of the components necessary to end the days of being released with no more than a bus ticket.

The Reentry Program is a giant step in the right direction, and the Legislature must support it.  That means making the administrative and regulatory changes necessary to make the program work.  It also means being proactive in investigating other ways that re-entry can be made more practical for inmates.  I’m confident that, with cooperation between the Legislature and DOC, the new program, and uniformity across institutions, Wisconsin’s re-entry program can move beyond just bus tickets.