From Prison to Shelters

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  12/02/2002

A week ago, after serving two years at South Bay for assault and battery, Earl Brown walked out the prison's front door a free man. But with his old clothes his only possessions, a few dollars to his name, and friends and family saying they had no room for him, the 39-year-old from Roxbury experienced an immediate downside to his new freedom:

Like many recently released inmates, he had nowhere to go.

"No one ever offered me any help," said Brown, after lunch last week at a Boston soup kitchen. "I was on my own and I only had one choice - the street or a shelter."

State officials say they're doing everything they can to prevent inmates from going directly to homeless shelters, including recently assigning 20 employees and establishing five community centers around the state to assist inmates ready for release.

But at least 1,000 inmates - and possibly four times that number - will leave a prison or jail this year and instantly become homeless.

The numbers, based on shelter interviews with former prisoners, have climbed considerably since 1992, when the state Department of Correction began reducing prerelease programs and counties eliminated many of their halfway houses.

About 16,000 men and women this year will "wrap" their sentences - meaning they will leave the state's prisons and jails without probation or parole. Of those, 4,000 inmates surveyed before leaving custody said they have nowhere to go, according to the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

"Despite a new consciousness of the problem, there's nowhere close to the resources in place to turn the numbers around," said Mary Ellen Hombs, the shelter alliance's executive director. Ex-convicts often require special services, she said, adding that shelters are the worst possible environment for those trying to readjust to mainstream life.

Inmates who return to society without the benefit of a prerelease program are up to 50 percent more likely to find themselves behind bars again, criminologists say. And those benefits have fallen off significantly: Between 1992 and 2001, the number of Correction Department prerelease beds dropped from 688 to 116.

Ever since the furloughed prisoner William R. Horton Jr. raped a Maryland woman and helped doom Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential bid, few politicians have lobbied for programs that allow criminals to live outside prison walls before their sentences are completed. With officials preferring to keep inmates locked up, the number of state-supported halfway-house beds declined in the past decade from 240 to 30 and state funds for halfway houses have plummeted from $6 million in 1993 to $710,000 last year. The number of inmates granted parole dropped by more than a third since 1992.

"Our number one job is to protect the public," said Justin Lantini, a Correction Department spokesman, noting that only five prisoners escaped from prerelease programs this year, compared with 162 in 1990. "If an inmate is suitable to be in a prerelease program, they would be there. If they're not, they won't."

The problem with the state's approach, critics say, is that many inmates deemed unfit are ultimately released - without any period of readjustment.

"If they aren't suitable for one of these programs, they shouldn't be put on the streets," said Dan LeClair, chairman of the criminal justice department at Boston University and author of reports on state recidivism rates. "But that's not happening. Basically, state officials are saying it's OK for people to recidivate, as long as it's not on their watch."

Still, in recent years the state has made an effort to address the lack of postrelease support.

The Department of Correction has assigned 20 employees to help some 10,000 inmates find housing, seek counseling, and prepare to market themselves for jobs. The state opened five community resource centers around Massachusetts - in Fall River, Worcester, Lowell, Springfield, and Boston - to help ex-convicts do everything from sharpening their resumes to receiving substance-abuse treatment. And this summer, the state received $2 million to provide a variety of prerelease programs, for inmates and juvenile offenders.

Despite those efforts, the numbers of inmates going directly to homeless shelters hasn't declined, and in some cases, the numbers are climbing: The Pine Street Inn, the region's largest shelter, has had 38 ex-convicts so far this year who said they came directly from a prison or jail, up from 34 in all of last year.

"The community resource centers are a fabulous idea," said Lyn Levy, executive director of SPAN, an inmate-advocacy group that runs the Boston community resource center, whose clients have an 11 percent recidivist rate compared with a 40 percent rate statewide. "It's just that they are understaffed and underfunded. This is an urgent problem now, and if more action isn't taken, things will get worse."

Consider the case of Reuben Lacefield. Released last month after serving 22 years in California for homicide, the 45-year-old Jamaica Plain native had no one to turn to for help. The shelters, he said, had no beds left. When he spent the night on street corners, police threatened to arrest him for loitering.

So he has found more remote places to sleep - behind cars in parking lots, beneath a tree on Boston Common, and beside his mother's grave at a local cemetery.

"In the last 22 years, these have been the hardest four weeks of my life," he said. "This is a very hard time, but I keep holding out the hope it will get better."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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