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Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Kansas rethinks its prison policies

Prison fence

Rising prison numbers and shrinking budgets are prompting a new look at criminal justice policies in the US, which has the biggest prison population in the world.

Lucy Ash reports from Kansas for BBC Radio 4's Law in Action.

Raphael Frazier has spent most of his twenties behind bars. He served five years in prison for aggravated robbery and when he got out he felt immediately antagonised by his suspicious parole officer.

"He just didn't want to give me a chance. On my first day out he snapped an ankle bracelet on me. It was like caging a dog up," Raphael says.

Before long Raphael was back in prison for violating his parole conditions. Then he was convicted again - this time for forging pay roll cheques. That was a skill he picked up behind bars from more experienced inmates.

"I went in at 17 just as a dumb kid and when I came out I had tools to do whatever bad things I wanted to do," he says.

Raphael was caught in a downward spiral like many other inmates in the US.

raphael
Raphael Frazier hopes the new approach will keep him out of prison
The US accounts for just 5% of the world's population but a quarter of prisoners.

More than one in 100 adults are behind bars and last year, more than seven million or one in 32 Americans, were either locked up, on probation or on parole.

Reoffending rates are high - more than half of former prisoners are back inside within three years of their release.

But this time things could turn out better for Raphael.

He has a different parole officer who is actively trying to help him find work, and the US's most innovative prisoner re-entry programme is being rolled out in his state.

New thinking

But why here, in the heart of the traditionally conservative Corn Belt? Well, it's mainly down to cash.

In Kansas, as in many other states, prisons are draining the state budget. The number of people locked up increased by 25% in just a decade and two years ago the state was faced with building an additional 1,800 prison beds at a cost of $500m.

Roger Werholtz
We have to think long-term and stop arguing about what criminals deserve. Instead we need to focus on what we deserve as citizens and that leads us to a very different set of interventions
Roger Werholtz

Roger Werholtz, the secretary of corrections, was forced to examine how to spend criminal justice dollars more effectively. For decades, he says, policy in the US has been driven by the public's emotional response to criminals.

"We are mad at them, frightened by them, frustrated by them, and so our typical response has been very punitive," he says.

But Mr Werholtz argues locking people up is only a temporary solution since more than 95% of prisoners will eventually be released into the community.

"We have to think long-term and stop arguing about what criminals deserve. Instead we need to focus on what we deserve as citizens and that leads us to a very different set of interventions."

To avoid building expensive new prisons, Mr Werholtz revolutionised his parole service. In the past, officers routinely locked electronic tags on their clients, inspected urine samples for traces of illegal drugs and kept a sharp eye out for other violations.

As a result, says Kent Sisson, parole director for southern Kansas, many ex-cons gave his office a wide berth.

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"It was like a game - they would get out of prison and do whatever they liked until we finally tracked them down, arrested them and sent them back inside," Mr Sisson says.

Breaking the cycle

Two-thirds of the offenders entering Kansas prisons in 2006 were guilty of parole violations - 90% of them technicalities like missing meetings with counsellors.

Now parole officers are told to act less like cops and more like social workers.

Sally Frey heads a team of re-entry specialists who focus on the high-risk offenders.

At first some people accused us of being too soft - of wanting to 'hug-a-thug'
Sally Frey, Re-Entry Specialist
The programme starts inside prison where inmates are encouraged to enrol for job training.

On release day parole officers and re-entry staff will often be waiting for their client outside the prison gate.

"At first some people accused us of being too soft - of wanting to 'hug-a-thug'," says Ms Frey.

"But you know the old 'trail em', nail 'em and jail 'em stuff doesn't work. We want people to come out and stay out and become responsible tax-paying citizens."

She says many ex-cons have learned their lesson and don't want to go back to prison but others have so little to lose that they lack motivation.

Now her job is to give people like Lorelei, who has spent most of her life struggling with crack addiction and drifting in and out of penal institutions, fresh incentives.

"They help with housing, clothing, with jobs," says Lorelei.

"They help if you don't have ID - they help with almost anything you can think of because when you come out of prison you have nothing."

Roger Werholtz admits some parole officers still think the new approach is a terrible mistake but says most are now enthusiastic.

Mike Lentz, a parole officer at the Wichita office, says he finds his job more rewarding now.

He encourages Raphael to keep sending out job applications and to rebuild relations with his familty.

"Before you kept on seeing the same people coming back time and again - it was demoralising for us and for them," he says.

Another ex-offender Paul Dixon, is sitting in the parole office with his wife.

paul dixon in salvage yard
Paul worked through the issues which led to his addiction and criminality

Paul's parents were alcoholics, he started using cocaine aged 13 and his eldest brother died of an overdose.

Although Paul later managed to hold down a job and get married, tragedy struck again.

He was looking after his baby daughter and woke up in the morning to find her lying dead in the bed besides him.

After that Paul got mixed up with crime again - drugs, guns and pimping. He was in prison in 2006 when he heard about the re-entry programme and initially he was cynical about it.

"I was going to try and play the system but these people, they actually try to help you," he says, his eyes filling with tears.

"One day my case manager Rita and my drug and alcohol counsellor, Gloria, made me sit down and go back through my life and face everything I have done and one thing I never worked through was my daughter's death.

"I felt such terrible guilt about that, I always stayed high or drunk so I didn't have to face it."

Talking proved cathartic and Paul says he is now capable of acting responsibly and looking after his family.

Paul's wife, Rebecca, admits that at first she wasn't sure if she wanted her husband to come out of prison.

"I was scared because he used to be a scary person. I waited for him and every weekend I took the kids to see him but I didn't know if he had really changed.

"And you know the re-entry team, they would talk to me and just help me through those anxieties."

Re-entry here clearly goes beyond the practicalities of housing, employment and drug treatment. It's also about psychological therapy even marriage guidance.

Success

The new strategy seems to be working: five years ago around 203 parolees returned to Kansas prisons each month but by 2007, the number reduced by 100 per month and the number of new crimes - felony convictions that people pick up while they are on parole supervision- also nearly halved.

Darell and Laurie
Darell and Laurie had faith in the system offered ex-offender Paul a job
But long-term success depends not just on bipartisan support from state politicians, or the commitment of the ex-offenders and the re- entry staff but also on support from the wider public - landlords, neighbours and employers.

Darell Rankin and Laurie Belk run an auto salvage yard on the south side of Wichita. It is where Paul Dixon has worked since his release from prison.

"We liked him as soon as he walked in here," says Laurie. "He was honest about his past and he is a good worker."

"Kansas has a website," adds Darell. "So I could look and see what his criminal background was and I had the telephone number for his case worker.

"So I called her and she said he needed a job and he was really trying. So we thought let's give him a chance - if he is trying, we'll try."


Tune in to BBC Radio 4at 16.00GMT on Tuesday, 3 February 2009 to hear Lucy Ash's full report for Law in Action.

You can also listen to Law in Action on the BBC iPlayeror subscribe to the podcast.

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