Experts discuss helping ex-prisoners cope with society
Feb 17, 2014 at 1:02 PM
Kenneth Bonner understands the mindset of an incarcerated man.
Since 1992, he has worked to help prisoners cope with easing themselves back into society upon their release through his organization, REACH (Restoring Excellence And Community Harmony) Empowerment Ministry.
While his work with prisoners may have given him some additional insight into an inmate’s mind, Bonner has another experience that helps him identify with the incarcerated — he used to be one.
“I went to prison when I was 21; I’m 53 now,” Bonner said. “I’ve been an incarcerated man longer than I’ve been free.”
For 19 years, through REACH and its predecessor, CAUSE (Creative Attitudes Undertaking Self-Education), Bonner tried to prepare inmates for the outside world while he was an inmate himself. Upon his release on Nov. 18, 2011, however, he wasn’t ready to stop his efforts to help prisoners and former prisoners re-integrate themselves into society.
Since his release, Bonner has continued that work, both as the CEO of REACH and as the chairman of the Johnson City/Washington County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s committee on prison reform. So, when the NAACP hosted a forum on recidivism and prisoners re-integrating themselves into society, Bonner served as the keynote speaker.
During this forum Saturday at the Carver Recreation Center, Bonner began by describing his own situation to the audience.
“I was charged with murder, grand larceny (and) forgery,” Bonner said. “But I’m responsible for my charges. I have no ill feelings toward the system.”
While Bonner said it can be difficult to discuss his past with strangers, he said an honest approach is the best way to convey the passion for his cause.
“I feel the first step to being able to get people interested in even trying to address this issue is by first being honest about my own situation, and the changes I’ve made in my life,” Bonner said after the forum had ended. “There are some places I probably wouldn’t be easily accepted, but I always said the only thing I can do is be honest about it.”
Bonner is also honest about the reason he ended up in jail — an act of aggression. That aggression was not curbed, he added, by the prison environment.
“A prison environment is not a normal environment; it’s very abnormal,” Bonner said. “The values are self-destructive. The more violent you are in prison, the more respect you get.”
That aggression, perpetuated by the prison lifestyle, also went ignored by the prison-sponsored programs aimed at rehabilitating and reforming inmates, he said.
“The mindset of the system was to sit us down and teach us job interview skills (and) vocational skills,” Bonner said. “But nobody was addressing our aggression. Ninety percent of the people in prison are in there for some form of aggression.”
If left untempered, Bonner said that aggression can easily spill over into society when a prisoner is released.
“Prison is not an experience you turn off and on,” Bonner said. “The longer we stay in that environment, we take it in, and we bring that junk back out here. That’s why it’s so easy for guys coming out of that system to turn to violence out here.”
For Bonner, his aggression was curbed when a volunteer minister visited him while he was at Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City. After a series of conversations with the minister — and a few portions of real-world food — Bonner said he recognized the value that relationships can play in helping to ease aggression, particularly from people who volunteer their time to deal with inmates.
“Volunteers coming into prison can reach a person the way a prison administrator can’t,” Bonner said. “When we go into prison, we adopt an ‘us against them’ mentality. When volunteers come in, they can reach us.”
In 1992, Bonner founded CAUSE, which later became REACH, as a way to try to reach his fellow inmates. He has continued that work even after his release.
“What I hope to accomplish is to help people understand what they’re dealing with when people are coming out of prison,” Bonner said. “I also want to get business owners a little more opening to hiring them.”
To that extent, Bonner said he was in favor of measures like “ban-the-box” legislation — which limits or removes questions about a job applicant’s criminal background either altogether or until a face-to-face interview — that has been adopted by nine states and several municipalities throughout the U.S.
“In this society, we automatically assume that, if you’re coming out of prison, you are not trustworthy,” Bonner said. “We’ve got all these people piling up on the edge of society, and they can’t get into the job market. Don’t assume that everybody coming out of prison is a bad person.
“If a man or a woman is in prison or jail and is striving to get themselves together, then we, as a society, should make sure we provide them with the resources necessary to help them get started.”
Though he advocates assistance for newly released prisoners, Bonner said not everyone will respond positively to those resources, or that society should be responsible for those who don’t make the most of those resources.
“If they screw up after that, then it’s on them,” Bonner said. “Always hold people coming out of prison accountable.”
Bonner said that while relationships between prisoners and friends, family, or volunteers are important, those friends, family members and volunteers need to show them “tough love,” and stress the importance of staying out of jail.
“Tough love and holding people accountable for their actions does work,” Bonner said. “Don’t excuse criminal behavior, because it sends the wrong message.”
Other speakers offered suggestions and ideas as to how volunteers can help ease prisoners back into society and help reduce recidivism.
“Meeting with people when they first get out of prison and not really knowing them is a difficult thing to do,” said David Lovelace, volunteer director for Emmanuel Prison Ministries. “My objective has always been to try to get to know the men I’m going to be working with when they get out. I would try to start (visiting) as early as six months prior to the end of their sentence, or their parole hearing, and helping them to plan ahead.”
Along with meeting with prisoners before their release, Allen DeJoode, team leader for the Northeast Tennessee region of the Knoxville-based FOCUS (Following Our Choices Under Success) Group Ministries, said the families of prisoners are also, at times, in need of assistance.
“We talk a lot about the victim of the crime, but we don’t always talk about that man’s wife, or that man’s mother, and the impact it has on them,” DeJoode said. “We’re going to start working on that.”
Another crucial role in reducing recidivism, and crime in general, is education. Lynn Bachman, who works with the Coalition for Christ Prison Ministry, said future crimes could be prevented by keeping future criminals out of jail.
“One of the things we need to do in our community is not just look at the guys getting out, but provide an opportunity to teach young people to keep them from going,” Bachman said. “If you’re out here and you’re involved ... in any type of mentoring program, you’re preventing people from going to prison. You’re keeping that problem from having to deal with them coming out. We need to start working on it before they go in.”
Johnson City Police Department Chief Mark Sirois, who was also present for the meeting, expanded on Bachman’s notion, adding that educating prisoners should also become a priority.
“It’s very critical for those people who are trying to break this cycle of crime in their lives ... to get the skills they need to become employable, and to be employable at a good, living wage,” Sirois said. “With that, you have less tendency, studies show, to get tied into criminal activity.”
Whether one, or all, of these ideas could work to reduce recidivism — or the general prison population — Bonner said all those ideas, and others, needed to be discussed to address flaws in the prison system.
“Right now, all we’re doing is taking people off the street, putting them in the system, letting them languish and then putting them back out here,” Bonner said. “That’s not working. I just think we need to become more aware of how it operates in order to change it.”