Homelessness, Prison, and Probation

I’ve blogged a lot about the relationship between our medical system and homelessness. Another societal institution with deep and perverse ties to homelessness is our criminal justice system.  Chris Hedges writes about his experience working with a prison support group in New Jersey:

Big Frankie, Little Frankie and Al, three black men who spent a lot of time in prison and have put their lives back together in the face of joblessness, crushing poverty and the violence of city streets, abruptly stopped appearing at the prison support group I help run at the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, N.J. This happens in poor neighborhoods. You see people. You make plans to see them again. And then without explanation they vanish. They get arrested for something, often trivial, after the police randomly stop them, run a check and find they owe fines, missed a court date or a meeting with a probation officer, owe child support, violated probation or have a couple of ounces of pot. The big mechanical jaw of the legal system gulps them down. And since they are poor and cannot afford bail they stay locked up. And that appears to be what happened to Big Frankie, Little Frankie and Al.

In fact, just that happened this morning on Capitol Square. We had asked a couple of guys to help us with some work at Grace. Overnight, after someone else on the square was picked up for marijuana possession, the police ran the ids of everyone else in the area, and the guy who was going to help us got picked up for a probation violation.

Noah Phillips wrote a wonderful, and heartbreaking story about the criminal justice system and homelessness from in Madison just last week. It points out some of the struggles people have in negotiating the system after they’ve done their time:

But in this shelter system, Brooks ultimately ran afoul of his probation conditions — twice. The first time was for using his truck, without his parole officer’s permission, to ferry people and food back and forth to the night and day shelters. For that, he ended up in jail for another 66 days. When he got out, he was placed in a halfway house and found a full-time job at Home Depot.

But he lost that job when he got sent back to jail after clashing with his case manager. Miller is not surprised that Brooks has had a tough time meeting the conditions of his probation in the shelter system. Those being paroled simply need more help readjusting and getting their lives back together.

Richard Beck puts some additional background behind these stories. The US incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country on earth (including Cuba, North Korea, China, and Russia).

Madison Area Urban Ministry does remarkable work in this area.