Prison overcrowding has increasingly become part of the national conversation. Meanwhile, states are trying to do more to keep ex-offenders from going back to jail after completing their sentences.
Recidivism has several negative consequences, including state spending on housing inmates and the fact that potential members of the workforce are unavailable.
This is the first story in a four-part series of reports about efforts to combat the trend in our region.
Every month or so, a group known as the Resource Responders gathers at the Barren County Jail to speak to inmates within a few weeks of their release. They hand out a list of contacts who can aid in a variety of situations, ranging from drug and alcohol relapse, to help getting a car.
During a recent presentation, the vast majority of the audience raised their hand when asked who had been to jail more than once. East coast native Julio Alonso was among them.
He said he grew up with little parental presence and, "the Boys and Girls Club, and corrections, and Juvenile [and] NAFI (the North American Family Institute)."
A few of the speakers from Resource Responders singled out Alonso for his untapped potential. When people do get out of jail, however, there are several factors that can hold them back.
Factors Working Against Those Rejoining Society
Lieutenant Doug Miles works at the Barren County Jail and with another group trying to reduce recidivism, the Southern Kentucky Reentry Council.
"I think a lot of people might think that they go out of jail, go get a job, [and] start paying their bills. Well, if you don't have transportation to go to the job, you can't keep the job. If you don't have proper housing for hygiene to keep yourself clean and get a good night's rest, it's going to be hard to keep that job," he said.
Kentucky Department of Corrections data from 2017 estimates more than 40% of people re-offend within two years of release.
Probation and Parole officers say it's their job to help lower that number. Hannah Keiffer, a reentry coordinator for the Kentucky Division of Probation and Parole, says, the department swtiched up its tactics a few years ago to be more supportive.
"Really, I meet with people who have a need. That's basically my day-to-day," Keiffer said.
Her office offers classes inside of the state's jails, makes sure people have a place to stay post-release, and connects ex-offenders with resources.
Support Groups Provide Helping Hands
Kentucky has 11 reentry councils to coordinate those pieces. They help with expungement, getting documents like ID cards and birth certificates, and work with treatment centers and other groups.
Ricky Wooten, with the Resource Responders, says that first helping hand is vital.
"If you have substance abuse and you just can't get it going... you can't find somebody to give you that hand and you don't know where to go, you don't know what to do to get a job, you don't know any of that...well, it's easy to get back with your buddies," Wooten said.
That story is a familiar one that some of the repeat offenders at the Barren County Jail could probably relate to.
Jail: A Source of GED Candidates
A handful of inmates there didn't have high school diplomas. Some of the speakers, however, are working to change that.
Adult Education Coordinator Joda Johnson say most of the county's GEDs come from the detention center.
"In Barren County, there are probably 900 or more people that don't have a GED. When I tell you...the best output and the most people who are just already ready when they start? It's here in the Barren County Jail," Johnson said.
Johnson said Kentucky's community and technical schools don't currently offer post-secondary education insdie of the jails.
Margaret diZerega is a project director with the non-profit criminal justice group, Vera Institute of Justice. She said she would like to see access to Pell education grants reinstated to prison populations to help make higher learning more available.
"Incarcerated people who participated in post-secondary education and training programs are 48% less likely to recidivate than those who do not, so it's a significant improvement," diZerega said.
So far, a lot of the reentry programs are relatively new, meaning there's not a substantial amount of data on recidivism for them yet.
The Kentucky Department of Corrections data appears to show inmates who complete some pre-release classes commit a new offense between 2% and 5% of the time less than those who haven't.
Part two of our series on combatting recidivism in Kentucky will feature, in their own words, Barren County Jail inmates who reveal what led them to incarceration, and why a re-entry program at the facility is one of the best things to ever happen to them.