After doing hard time, former inmates of Nevada prisons find tough times on the outside

Photo By David Robert

You can paint anything you want on the sides of the empty clay pots, the women are told. Anything positive. Anything that has to do with recovery. Slogans are good.

One woman paints, “The past is now my potential.”

Another writes, “I can,” in thick, bold strokes.

Halfway house director Diane Brokaw paints a longer quote, “I’m not afraid of tomorrow because I’ve seen yesterday, and I love today.”

Someone suggests the words of that renowned recovery poem that has to do with changing the things you can change. Two women who were, until recently, inmates of Nevada State Prison discuss this.

“But we don’t know how to spell ‘serenity,'” one tells Brokaw.

Several women reply in unison: “S-E-R … E-N … I-T-Y.”

The word represents a dream these women share, the idea of a new life that’s possible—if their plans come together.

There are many things to think about when a person gets out of prison. On your own, you have to find a job and a place to live. You have to make new friends and stay out of trouble. No drugs. No booze. No hanging out with the old gang.

While she paints her recovery pot, a young woman who asked to be called Carol describes the experience as “terrifying.”

“I was totally freaked out,” Carol says. “I’d been in for two years, and it was my second time in. … While I was there, I was working in their work crew, fighting fires. There was always an officer behind me, telling me what to do. Now there’s no officer behind me.”

When she got out of Nevada State Prison in Carson City a few weeks ago, Carol had decided to make a new start.

“I came here with my mind made up about what I’m going to do,” she says. “Diane came down and picked me up.”

Carol will spend seven weeks in the residential treatment center at Ridge House in Reno. She’s learning how to be responsible for her choices. She’s getting substance abuse counseling and support from her housemates. She has a job, though finding it wasn’t exactly easy.

“You go to temp agencies, and some will work with felons and some don’t,” Brokaw says. “Some will give you a break. By the time a woman gets here, she needs a break.”

Carol says she received no real job training while in prison.

“It was called ‘honor camp’ because it was supposed to be an honor to get there,” she says. “But there was no honor about it. No programs. No education. No job training. They had Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, but nothing to educate you as far as being out here.”

Every year, Nevada’s prisons release about 4,000 inmates into society. Often, they’re dropped at bus stops in Reno or Las Vegas still dressed in their prison clothes. The Department of Corrections gives them the grand sum of $21.94, a gift to start their new, crime-free lives.

Within three years of their release, about two-thirds—or more, depending on which study you look at—won’t make it on the outside. They’ll break the law or the terms of their parole and head back through the revolving prison door.

The odds are better for those released into licensed residential treatment centers such as Ridge House, which is operated by the Kairos Prison Ministry. In Reno, Ridge House has three homes and room for 21 individuals. There’s a long waiting list to get in.

Some inmates eligible for parole are released to family members. Some, though eligible for release, have no place to go. When this occurs, the individual may decide to remain incarcerated for his or her entire sentence, says Jackie Crawford, director of Nevada’s Department of Corrections. That costs the taxpayers plenty.

“We’ve discovered that people who have no money, no job just stay in prison,” Crawford says.

Also, research has shown that if offenders—especially first-time offenders—remain more than three or four years in prison, their mindset begins to adapt to the environment.

Richard Eaton, a former inmate of the Northern Nevada Restitution Center, jokingly says, “I came to Reno on a stroll, and I’m leaving on parole.” <br>

Photo By David Robert

“They become institutionalized,” Crawford says, “and are less likely to be successful when they re-enter [society].”

Thus was born the idea of building a re-entry center in southern Nevada. The center would offer transitional housing and job-hunting services for offenders leaving prison. Dubbed “Casa Grande” by Crawford, the center would allow inmates to find jobs in the community and save up money for their release days. It would offer the kind of substance abuse treatment that most inmates need, since about 96 percent of those in prison are there for drug- or alcohol-related crimes.

Gov. Guinn’s budget included $2.7 million for the center, and if the state Legislature comes through with the money, the center could open in October. It will eventually have beds for up to 400 transitioning inmates.

“People have complained that ‘Casa Grande’ sounds like ‘the big house,’ but I think it has a nice ring,” Crawford says.

A re-entry center like Casa Grande in southern Nevada could save $3 million annually in operating costs, after the initial investment is recouped. Building fewer “hard,” or maximum-security, prisons saves an estimated $96,000 per bed. “We feel that money could be put to better use,” Crawford says.

Would such a facility combat the problem of recidivism—inmates returning to prison within a few years of release time?

The program is already working, Crawford says, albeit on a much smaller scale, at the Northern Nevada Restitution Center in Reno, a small complex that used to be a prison for women.

“It’s an old facility, but the concept is there,” Crawford says. “The enthusiasm sets the tone for what we want to do. … I’m very proud. At the restitution center, inmates get a job and have money when they leave. And, quite frankly, they’ve done a good job with rehabilitation.”

At first glance, the Northern Nevada Restitution Center looks less than inviting. Small, squat buildings are surrounded by high cyclone fence topped with rolls of barbed wire. Inside, heavy doors date back to the time of the buildings’ use as a high-security prison.

But on this weekday morning, the gates are open and inmates freely walk around the complex, doing laundry, watching TV, making themselves bologna and cheese sandwiches at lunchtime or using one of the facility’s two computers to look for work and create resumes.

“If they have time, we have a couple of games on the computers,” says Steve Suwe, restitution center manager, as he walks past the two computers. On one of the PCs, a tall man with tattooed arms plays “Serious Sam,” a first-person role-playing game in which he’s wandering around “somewhere in Egypt.”

“It makes you feel like you’re 13 or 14 again,” the man says.

Make no mistake. The atmosphere is pure institution—far from plush. The buildings are clean and freshly painted but ancient. The flooring is old, worn. A smattering of weight-lifting equipment behind the housing unit is rusted. The weight benches sport cracked and decaying foam pads.

“But it’s tidy,” Suwe says brightly. “And we feel fortunate to have this. There’s not a whole lot of money to replace stuff.”

As far as upgrades go, a few cans of paint can go a long way, and Suwe recently encouraged the inmates to “spruce things up a bit” by giving each block of rooms a little personality. Oakland fans painted one wing in Raiders colors with the words: “Silver and Black Attack.” Red and orange flames lick up the sides of F-wing, while C-wing features patriotic colors with a flag, eagle and a silhouette of the Twin Towers.

“That’s all freehand,” Suwe boasts. “These guys are very artistic—at least, some are.”

One wing is painted with a mural of tropical fish.

“It started with just one fish and it turned into this,” he says, with a sweeping hand. “I call this the fish tank, but they don’t like that. A fish is someone new to prison, they say, and they aren’t new. It’s almost a negative.”

The facility can house up to 106 inmates, and it’s almost always at capacity. There’s a waiting list of prison inmates (no violent or sex offenders) who qualify for “community trusty” status and want to be accepted into the center.

“Right now, there are about 70 inmates who’ve been approved through the system, and they’re just waiting for a bed,” Suwe says.

An inmate can stay at the center for up to one year. Suwe prefers that they stay a minimum of six months or so. That’s how long it takes to get back on your feet, he says.

Shortly after arriving, an inmate is expected to get a “regular, real, on-the-street job,” Suwe says. “We point ’em out the door, say, ‘Here’s the want ads, and we’re here to support you.'”

They work as dishwashers, cooks or in another trade. One resident worked his way up to construction foreman, Suwe says.

“Companies like us,” Suwe says. “They know we’ll handle any problems that come up. They know we do frequent random drug checks, so our guys are going to be clean. Employers know that we’re going to be on time and we’re going to be there.”

Recovery takes the form of a potted plant at Ridge House in Reno. <br>

Photo By David Robert

And they pay rent. The inmates’ paychecks go directly to the restitution center, which takes out up to 50 percent of each check for rent—"$16 a day, the best rate in town for three squares and a bed,” Suwe says. The center also deducts up to 20 percent for victim-specific restitution, 5 percent for the Victims of Crime fund and 1 percent for fees, fines, child support or other assessments ordered by the court. Whatever remains goes into an account for the inmate, who can request an allowance of up to $60 every two weeks.

The upside of this is that an inmate can both pay back financial debts and start saving for an apartment.

“A lot of guys are afraid when they come here, tentative,” Suwe says. “Then they get a job, and they get confidence. These guys want to be here. They know it’ll give them a good head up when they get out.”

About a month before an inmate’s release, he’s given time to go apartment hunting and get a driver’s license.

“Then, on the day they leave, they go from here to home,” Suwe says. “And they already have a job. It’s been real successful. These guys are not coming back.”

Some guys, though, can’t handle the requirements of the restitution center. In the 14 months that Suwe’s worked there, four men have walked off, risking new felony charges for their escapes. One left in early April, after having been at the center for about a week.

Considering the freedom they’re given to come and go, Suwe says the number of escapes isn’t bad. Most of the center’s residents are eager to complete their sentences and get back to a legit life.

“These guys appreciate it here,” Suwe says. “They understand the consequences of their actions.”

When a person who’s been in prison makes a successful transition back into the community, taxpayer money is saved. And with the person in the work force, paying taxes, the community is even better off. But you can’t put a monetary value on a life that’s been turned around, says Gary Meneley, interim director of the Ridge House.

“The statistics don’t reflect helping one person with his life,” Meneley says. “Recidivism is just a number. … [Helping people] is why most of us do this, I think.”

Take Sandy Finelli, Ridge House’s financial administrator, for example.

While incarcerated, Finelli took advantage of every available educational opportunity. She finished high school at age 29 and went on to receive two college degrees. She graduated with honors.

“A teacher there believed I could do it,” she says. “I never knew I could do it.”

Her life was turned around, she says, by the folks from the Kairos ministry. The word kairos, Meneley explains, means “in God’s time” in Greek.

“Those people came in from the outside and offered me unconditional love,” Finelli says. “They opened their arms and their hearts to me. They showed me that I wasn’t disposable, that we’re all redeemable.”

It was a turning point. When Finelli left prison, Ridge House needed a part-time receptionist. The education she’d received gave her the confidence she needed.

“I told them I could make their computers do everything but the dishes,” Finelli says, laughing. “And they believed me.”

The transition wasn’t simple. At first, Finelli found herself with too much time on her hands. She took a job with a maid service and ending up scrubbing toilets. Life on the outside was full of little challenges, like going to the grocery store.

“I had never successfully lived outside,” Finelli says, launching into a story about being sent to buy a condiment. “They have this whole aisle dedicated to mustard. You have to make a choice. It overwhelmed me, and I ran out in tears. It was so big and huge. …”

Now she chuckles at the memory. She feels in control of her life. She’s married, with a 12-year-old stepson “who loves me a lot.” She likes to camp and fish.

“Before, I didn’t know how to do anything,” she says. “I didn’t know how to do anything but get loaded—and do time.”

When he first walked out the prison gate on Jan. 16 in Carson City, Cornell Wilkins, 36, was on cloud nine.

“My parents picked me up and brought me to Ridge House,” he says. “When I got there I felt lucky. I didn’t know anybody else in Reno. They welcomed me with open arms, and it was nice to be around people who aren’t using drugs and alcohol. I felt like I was blessed with a good opportunity.”

The feeling didn’t last long. After a couple of days, reality set in. He had to get a job. He had to walk around the city on foot or learn to ride the bus. The only job he could find was at a car wash.

Inmates work at a computer in the halls of Northern Nevada Restitution Center.

Photo By David Robert

“I started working there, and I hated it,” he says. “But I had to be willing to do what it takes.”

Life at Ridge House was also more rigid than he’d expected. Residents needed to sign in and out. Wilkins would forget and get called on the carpet.

“The first week, I was telling these guys, ‘I’m not going to make it,'” he says. “I wasn’t used to following those types of rules.”

But he did make it. Wilkins now works as a cook at a local casino, a job he enjoys. He’s a sharp dresser, wearing a crisply pressed white shirt, dressy slacks and stylish dress shoes.

“I still feel like I’m dreaming sometimes,” he says. “I got a job I like. I work. I’m honest, not using drugs and alcohol. To me, it’s unreal.”

A person like Wilkins who’s been through the Ridge House program is several times less likely to end up back in prison. While the statewide recidivism rate lingers around 68 percent, only about 24 percent of Ridge House graduates go back.

Transitional programs work.

And a reformed felon who’s hard at work in the community saves taxpayers money.

So what stands in the way of a better corrections system?

Well, it takes money to get re-entry programs off the ground. Nevada’s pinned under a serious budget deficit. Few would argue to raise taxes on behalf of bettering the state’s prison system. That would be absurd. Especially around election time.

That’s why prison reform isn’t exactly the most pressing issue on many legislators’ minds.

Crawford credits Sen. Sandra Tiffany (R-Henderson) for her support of the re-entry reform and Assemblywomen Chris Guinchigliani (D-Las Vegas) and Sheila Leslie (D-Reno) for supporting restored rights in the areas of voting and licensing and other reforms.

Still, with so many social programs on the line—with Nevada’s public schools facing a potentially dismal future—corrections reform could easily take a back seat.

“Prisons are not a popular topic,” Crawford says. “It’s not warm and fuzzy. But they have a tremendous impact financially and emotionally on communities.”

“Have you seen the movie 28 Days with Sandra Bullock?” Diane Brokaw asks. In the movie, patients at a 28-day substance abuse treatment center are given plants to care for. If the plant lives for a year, the recovering addict can get a pet. If the pet lives for a year, the patient can start a relationship.

Brokaw is a mild-mannered woman wearing a navy blue sweatshirt sporting Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too. She lives and works with the women in recovery at Ridge House’s group house for women. Brokaw’s also a graduate of the program—after seven felony convictions and three rounds of prison. She enjoys watching women make it on the outside.

“The only thing they have to change is everything,” she says.

Seven women can stay in the program at any given time, and the spots are usually reserved for women getting out of state prison. If any opening comes up and a need arises, the facility opens itself to women getting out of the Washoe County Jail.

Carol finishes painting her clay pot and sprays it with a clear fixative. She takes the pot outside, fills it with dirt and gently inserts a few green plants.

She tells a story about riding home on the bus earlier that day, sitting near some young kids who were wearing red bandannas.

“They asked me for a cigarette, and I said, ‘Where’s your mother at?’ I gang-banged, and I’m still a Blood because the only way to get out is to get killed. Now I just stay away from [gang members]. I’ve been to prison twice, both gang related, for selling drugs.”

The boy seemed to be bragging when he mentioned to her that he’d just been released from juvenile hall. She went off.

"'You just got out of juvie and you’re proud of that?!’ I found myself preaching to this kid!” Carol puts the side of her hand to her mouth. “I’m in shock!”

She looks around at the women, who listen attentively.

“Maybe I would like to work with kids,” she says.

“Nip it in the bud,” adds another woman.

“I’d say, ‘Get your ass outta the streets!'"