It was 5 a.m., and Topaz was released with no money in an unfamiliar town: Sunnyside, Washington, about 30 miles southeast of Yakima. He was returning home home to Seattle, a 14-hour bus ride away.
He was forced to acclimate to life on the outside like this, at 5 a.m. in a small town with nothing but a $4 check and the clothes on his back. It was not how Topaz wanted to be released to the public.
This game of forced re-entry, being found in a situation just as raw and isolating as it was being inside jail, happened to Topaz, and it happens to many others post-release.
He wandered to Safeway for food and then waited for the bank to open, hoping to at least get $4 from his check, which was money he was given because it is what he had on him at the time of arrest. However, the bank wouldn’t take the ID to cash the check because it had no expiration date. Luckily enough, he found a local church where someone gave him $20.
He used a free bus service to get from Sunnyside to Yakima, but once in Yakima he could use that $20 to pay for part of his ticket to Seattle. The man issuing tickets at the Greyhound station took Topaz’s food stamps for the remaining payment for a ticket home.
People who are released from jail and prison meet endless barriers trying to get back to their old life. The stigma of previously being an inmate and having an arrest record make finding a new job and housing nearly impossible without outside help. On a day-to-day basis, with little to no money, people have to choose what basic needs to meet, and on top of that they may have accumulating jail costs.
Topaz started serving his sentence at the King County Correctional Facility in Seattle. But after five weeks, King County transferred him to Sunnyside with no given reason, Topaz said. When he was released from Sunnyside in February, he was given no assistance or resources to help him find his way back home to Seattle.
Sunnyside Jail will buy some inmates without any outstanding warrants bus tickets to get closer to where they need to go, but not always all the way to their desired destination.
The free commuter bus line that Topaz rode from Sunnyside to Yakima was called People for People, which gives multiple free rides daily throughout the lower Yakima Valley. However, Topaz said he was made aware of this service only by fellow inmates, not by the jail itself.
SCORE jail — a facility in Des Moines, Washington, that serves seven Washington counties and works with various other contract agencies — has a similarly isolating process. If inmates have no family to meet them upon release, a bus will drop them off at a location in one of the six cities: Auburn, Burien, Des Moines, Federal Way, Renton, SeaTac or Tukwila. The inmate gets to choose their drop-off point, but that autonomy is essentially the only resource they are given post-release.
The SeaTac drop-off point, at International Boulevard and South 176th Street, is right near a bus stop located across the street from the Sea-Tac International Airport light rail station. Ironically marked by its location next to an airport, which will take you anywhere you want to go, there’s little nearby the bus stop except hotels. Unless the person getting dropped off came with money and identification, there are few resources near to help them adjust. There are some fast-food chains and a library about a 30-minute walk away, but for the most part, isolation sets in.
Those released from prison similarly struggle in finding a support network. Statewide, those released from prison are given $40 and one set of clothing and medication to last two weeks only if they are mentally ill. With no job, no housing and only enough money to make them choose what basic needs to prioritize, they are once again isolated.
Even those who can get a light rail or bus ticket back to downtown Seattle, they will still find scant resources available.
Columbia Legal Services offers help post-release to a wide range of previously incarcerated people.
From struggling to find housing to finding employment, the concerns of all its clients are very similar, but most often Columbia Legal Services assists people by helping them sort through, pay off or cut down the amount of their Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs), one of the biggest barriers to successful re-entry.
LFOs are costs that are incurred while an inmate is serving time or once a person is convicted, which include fees, fines and restitution. The amount and the process of notifying people of these LFOs varies based on the level of the court, such as municipal, county or superior.
Columbia Legal Services helps people with retroactive forgiveness of their discretionary court costs. An example of these costs would be a judge ordering payment to contribute to a defendant’s public defender. Because this cost is a discretionary decision by the judge, past inmates can be granted relief.
“Mostly anyone is available for financial relief, and we help with the legal process for requesting relief,” said Alex Bergstrom, a legal assistant for the Institutions Project, a key project of Columbia Legal Services’ focus.
As of June 7, 2018, the interest rate for these LFOs was 12 percent, and it begins at the time of conviction and continues at that rate each year until the amount is paid off, making the total even more out of reach. However, thanks to a new law, this rate now applies only to those who have to pay back damage they caused to the state or the victim(s) of a crime, also known as restitution.
“Restitution has and will continue to accrue interest at a rate of 12%, from the date of conviction,” said Bergstrom. “Up until June 7, 2018, non-restitution accrued interest the same way.”
Columbia Legal Services most commonly assists clients with waiving the 12 percent interest fee for those who are unable to pay off the amount.
As of 2014, according to research conducted by the ACLU in tandem with Columbia Legal Services, $2,540 is the cost of an average LFO imposed in a felony case. This is a major barrier for bounce-back post-release.
The costs not only obstruct their ability to pay rent, buy food and meet basic financial needs, but courts nationwide have a practice of arresting those who cannot pay off their LFOs, leading them right back into the downward spiral where they started. In Washington a new law just passed establishing that a person cannot be arrested unless they are purposefully not paying off their debt, rather than if they do not have the funds to do so. Those who are mentally ill and homeless can no longer be arrested for an inability to pay.
For those looking to clear up their record, they cannot do so until they’ve paid off their debt.
“A person could have low-level misdemeanor that’s 20 years old and they can’t close their case or clean up their record because they can’t find a job and interest has caused it to grow at a greater rate than they can pay,” said Bergstrom. “It’s really an issue of haves versus have-nots.”
These big-picture problems tend to be just the beginning, as the only way people can pay off these debts is if they have stability in all other parts of their lives, like housing and employment.
The housing program for the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) serves mostly people who are chronically homeless, which includes “the most vulnerable people ... with severe and persistent mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction,” said Del Lausa, the senior program manager for DESC.
Once there’s a unit available and DESC finds a person fitting that criteria of extreme vulnerability, they are given housing with no restrictions or requirements for entry, such as sobriety or psychiatric or substance abuse treatment compliance.
“A large part of the population that we serve [is prisoners] … because often people come out of jail or prison with very few resources and they are often homeless,” said Lausa. “We are one of the few places in the city where people with prison records, often extensive prison records, can qualify for housing.”
This housing provides 24/7 staff support, giving them anything from a person to talk with to someone who can unlock the door if they forget their key.
“In that way, some of the just daily living stress is mitigated by our staff and that also makes it easier for people to feel safe and secure and stable and ready to work on whatever they want to work on,” said Lausa.
For prisoners and inmates who have been released and struggle to readjust to a new life, housing provides a stable environment in which people can more easily stay medication compliant (before, there would be no place to keep that medication) in a place for recovery and support. DESC also gives tenants the option to choose the housing location they’d like to be a part of, often giving them autonomy they haven’t had in years.
“Housing does provide stability,” said Lausa. “We think of it as treatment.”
However, just like most resources in this city, you’re lucky if you can find and qualify for this stability, and without it, previously incarcerated people run a greater risk of recidivism.
In the nation, 72 percent of those who end up back in prison do so in the first year following release, and of those, 43 percent will return to prison in the first three months.
Post Prison Education Project works to help people avoid becoming that statistic. It is a Seattle organization that works to establish resources for those just released from prison, through education.
“You need a roof over your head; we’re doing that. You need groceries; you can’t go hungry. Getting tuition books, laptops, bus passes, whatever you need. If it’s a legitimate frugal need that we meet that, that’s the key to this,” said Ari Kohn, founder and president of the Post Prison Education Program. “So like really blanketing people there the first three months where they’re most vulnerable and then just meeting the legitimate needs.”
Unfortunately, work like Kohn’s is rare. And a lot of the reason people just released face walls on every side has to do with stigma.
“There’s not much data out there backing the way we seem to treat people with criminal records in our society. People look at the recidivism rate and use those numbers [to determine] where and when someone might desire to have a basic human need met. … But there’s not any specific statistical data backing up those decisions,” said Bergstrom. “People who aren’t connected ... really have a hard time finding those kind of resources.”
From working on bills that never pass to attempting to expand safety nets with limited access to accumulating LFOs, the issue is rarely prioritized. And barriers to re-entry run wide, from immediate worries of not being able to pay for tonight’s dinner to having the long-term concerns of paying off accumulating debt and being reincarcerated. The continuous work that creates stability and partnership and reduces stigma is key.
Columbia Legal Services worked on passing the Certificate of Restoration and Opportunities (CROP) Act giving previously incarcerated people the ability to acquire professional licenses. Kohn has partnered community businesses like Farestart to the Washington Technology Industry Association to create “second chance employment,” a website showcasing resources to connect previous inmates with the community.
Allowing past inmates to get back on their feet, immediately upon release and in the longer term, allows people to recreate a belief in a life and resiliency in themselves that jail made them believe never existed.
People like Topaz often find themselves isolated in two very different extremes, being stigmatized, left out and unable to return to their old life, like being a refugee in the country they were raised in. Without outside help, adjusting from jail or prison to daily life is a difficult feat.
“It’s a completely different world,” said Topaz.
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