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LINCOLN, NE (NET RADIO) - Imagine living on a deserted island for several years. There's little doubt, coming back to civilization, you'd see the world as a changed place. That's what former inmates say it's like when leaving prison - and that's why the transition back to the community is difficult, said Nick Colangelo. In Nebraska correctional facilities for more than nine years, he remembers the day he was released.
"The day I got out was pretty exciting, at first, and then it got kind of scary - you know, things were a lot different, things had changed so much," he said. "I think the first thing that was worrying me was, I needed a phone, so I bought a cell phone and didn't know how to use it."
Sitting in his small Lincoln apartment, Colangelo recalled how he quickly learned he wasn't alone.
"Pastor Dave Larson was at my parole hearing," Colangelo said. "I got paroled about 9 o'clock in the morning, and I got out at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. Pastor Dave Larson sat and waited, and once I got out he took me straight to my parole officer. Pastor Dave Larson asked, Do you want something to eat?' and I said, Yeah, I would like to go to McDonald's.' From there, we went to a place called Bridges to Hope."
Bridges to Hope is a facility where released inmates can go for clothes, household items and other things to help them get started. Larson is a retired Lutheran pastor living in Lincoln; he said his reason for helping former inmates is quite simple.
"I grew up with love and care, a loving community, and I realize that many people in prison didn't grow up with that," he said. "They didn't have a parent, or their parents were addicts or alcoholics or were not able to help them grow up, so I think its love and compassion that motivates me."
Larson is not alone in the effort. He's part of two community-based groups that provide re-entry programs: Reentry Alliance of Nebraska, or RAN, and Nebraska Aftercare in Action. Those two are both based in Lincoln, but there are many re-entry efforts throughout the state.
Inmates who may benefit from such programs are identified before release, often meeting with the community-based team while still incarcerated. That's what Larson said he and other team members did with Colangelo.
"A lot of people want to be independent and live on their own when they get out of prison, but I think they need to act interdependently to be more mature," Larson said. "And it's good to hear people's stories, and it's good to try to be a listening ear. People need a lot of encouragement, and they need people who are tolerant - and yet people who try to act wisely and talk wisely.”
"And they don't need a lot of baloney; they need straight talk, and I think I can do that," he continued. "I don't have qualms being with prisoners, so I believe I have a disposition that works pretty well."
When released, diabetic Colangelo was given a two weeks' supply of medication. It took him three weeks to find a supplier for medical needs. Housing, employment and health care are usually the three things released inmates need assistance with right away, and RAN tries to coordinate meeting these needs. The organization includes representatives from halfway houses, faith-based organizations, job training programs and the Department of Corrections. As deputy director of programs and community services with the Department of Corrections, Larry Wayne is involved, too.
"The first challenge for folks, community service providers, is where do you find the resources to keep up with the demand," he said. "For those who do, we have probably way more inmates coming out then they can accommodate. But they have done well. The faith-based community in particular has been huge from trying to raise money, grant and trust funding, as well as private donations from members of the congregation and so forth.” he said. "It's huge for people coming out of prison to have someone who is pro-social in their thinking and who supports the decisions that an inmate or ex-inmate is trying to make, in terms of leading a law-abiding lifestyle, because that for a lot of folks has been absent when they come out of prison," he continued. "Where do they go? They go back home. What does home look like? It looks the same, with the same people who have the same problems and same values, substance abuse issues or were engaged in pro-criminal types of lifestyles. And if that's all you have to go back to, and there's no one out there in your community or amongst your support that thinks pro-socially and supports that, your chances of being able to maintain a law-abiding lifestyle and productive lifestyle are greatly diminished. So we get a lot of mentoring, a lot of emotional support from the faith-based community, which takes time more than money."
On average, each inmate costs the state $28,000 a year. (See page 8 of the DOC annual report.) That's an incentive to keep released inmates from returning. Bill Wakefield is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He said community-based programs appear to be working.
"There is an impact and there is an influence on a person's predilection to commit crime and get back in the system and further incarceration," he said, otherwise known as recidivism. "These programs are having an effect, particularly when you look back 25 years and the programs weren't there and we had high recidivism rates. It used to be called the revolving door of the prison, you know: in and out and in and out."
Rates of former inmates returning to prison aren't always measured the same in every state, but numbers available show Nebraska's recidivism around 27% percent, while other states report up to 67% percent. Wayne is interested in increasing re-entry programs but said the state's corrections department is trying to maintain the status quo due to budget constraints.
Community-based groups are looking for funding sources, too. Professor Wakefield sees re-entry assistance impacting the social side of criminal justice.
"The idea that there are people outside the institution that are interested in your well-being and your re-entry into the community to become a functioning, socialized, reintegrated individual, and the fact that this niche exists for the people that are returning to the community" is important, he said. "If there weren't these resources, it would be very difficult. The recidivism rate would be even higher than it is, and recidivism I'm talking about their return to prison for the commission of another crime or violation of parole." (I put this definition up higher)
Nick Colangelo served about nine years for forgery, use of a firearm to commit a felony and attempted robbery. He said without Reentry Alliance of Nebraska, and Pastor Larson and his team, he'd be part of that recidivism rate; the recidivism rate would be higher.
"Without all the aftercare programs that I was involved in or that I am involved in, I don't think, I don't think that I would still be out, to tell you the truth. Without them I don't believe, I don't believe I would have had a real good chance," he said. "I was meeting with my team once a week, and later on it went to once a month, and then once every couple of months, and now I talk to them every couple months. I'm on a team now, you know, I'm helping somebody else, and that's part of the program with Nebraska Aftercare in Action. That's part of the deal: they help you out and then you help someone else out. So far, I'm on my second team."
Larson said most former inmates just need compassion and understanding. For him, it's work with great reward.
"The reward of helping someone getting going in life is just really neat," he said. "When people get going on their own in life but still call you for help on things that are really important; when people start to make good decisions and that's nice to see."
Larson concluded by saying citizens who are incarcerated aren't much different than the rest of us.
"Another thing that I think is, most people that have not been in prison don't realize how close they are to being in prison. I mean, most of us could say, Well, I had a time when I drove drunk,' and that one time could have resulted in a death," he said. "Or there are many people who are alcoholics who are not in prison. I believe if we are honest, we can say, ‘You know, I could be there in their shoes.'
"So compassion and trying to understand other people, and the satisfaction of other people getting going and being productive in the community, is pretty neat."
Once released inmates are doing well, regular meetings with the re-entry team are less frequent. But both Larson and Colangelo say the communication between the two continues.