Reentering society after a prison sentence can be a difficult task. That's because former prisoners can come up against barriers. While Arkansas corrections officials try to find ways to ease those barriers, obstacles might still come in the search for housing or employment, or getting mental health and addiction treatment.
43-year old Nyle Daniels of Little Rock was raised by a single mother, but, he says she was often absent, so at an early age he started drinking, using drugs and got involved with gangs.
“I think at one point I was one of the worst individuals on the street. My understanding about life was zero. At that point I didn't give a value on human life,” he says.
After a near six-year stay in prison in the 90's, he says he had hopes steering clear of crime, but it was hard to avoid old connections.
“[When I] got out, [I] started hanging with the same older crowd thinking I was going to get new results. But I eventually I started going back into that same pattern.”
In 2002, he was charged with attempted murder and later sentenced to 33 years. During his second stay in prison he could see that a lot of his fellow inmates were much younger than he.
“After talking to a lot of them, most of them had like 60 years or more, starting from the ages 16 on up. And I was wondering about their condition mentally.”
Around that time Daniels says he received a pivotal phone call. His 10-year old son had cancer. Daniels refocused his attention.
“Over the years of my life, I spent it on terrorizing families. I made my mind up I wanted to start helping families, rebuilding families, changing the direction of the youth.”
Daniels was released on parole in February 2012. It took him about two years to find a job with a regular paycheck. In the meantime, he pursued a degree in psychology at Pulaski Technical College with an emphasis in behavioral modification and also started a mentoring service to help youth stay out of prison.
During a July legislative hearing, Arkansas Department of Correction Director Ray Hobbs said almost 70 percent of the state's prison population—which now numbers more than 17,000—will likely be released from prison in their lifetimes. This includes a mix of violent and non-violent offenders. And one of the biggest obstacles to transitioning back to society for these former inmates is finding employment.
“They have an idea in their head as to how things are going to go once they get out, but when they get out, things don't always go the way they expect them to go,” says Kizmet Johnson, a reentry officer at the Little Rock Area Parole and Probation Office. She leads classes on career education.
Finding work, housing and staying on top of a 35 dollar a month parole fee is often a struggle for parolees. She says many of her clients have never had a job, ever.
“They always wanted a job, but were never able to attain a job, either because they didn't know how to go out and look for one, they didn't know what to say on the interview, they...didn't know how to put a resume together,” she says.
Johnson says she has seen the office do a “360” during her three years there. Before, turnover was high. Supervision officers struggled with large caseloads. Now, more positions have been filled, allowing officers to better devote their attention to medium and high-risk offenders, while also collecting that 35 dollar a month fee from every parolee.
“But if you don't have a job, how can you do that?” asks Darlene Lewis, director of Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders, a Little Rock-based non-profit. Former inmates can come to her at no cost to them and she'll help them find work.
“If [as a parolee] I'm so stressed about finding a job, with my fines and fees, it's going to be harder for me to get a job, because I'm stressed. All that's on my mind is that I got to get a job, got to pay these fines. Because if not, I'm going back to jail,” she says.
Parolees who can't pay their fines sometimes stop reporting to their supervisory officer out of fear of sanction. Not reporting can get a parolee sent to a Technical Violator Center, where they would undergo residential confinement and counseling. But not reporting can also lead to absconder status, which may in turn lead to parole revocation hearing and imprisonment.
Lewis thinks the state should give parolees 45 days before they have to start paying their fees. She says this would allow them time to find a job.
While a grace period before the state starts collecting parole fees would be a help, Nyle Daniels says resistant employers and a changed world lead many ex-offenders to easily lose grasp of life on the outside.
“A lot of individuals been locked up 20, 30 years. If they was to go to Kroger's or Wal Mart and see the self check out, mentally, that could throw a person off.”
Daniels says that's why, through his mentoring, he hopes to prevent others from the same repetitive course he took in life.
“It's all critical thinking,” he says. “Everything starts with a thought. Before I decided to pick that gun up, I thought about it; before I decided to smoke weed, I thought about. I want to change the way they think. Get out of their minds that 'I have to do this be cool. I have to do this to fit in. I have to do this, you know, to be accepted.”
Arkansas Community Correction says more than 52,000 people are on probation and parole in the state and the Department of Correction says more than 17,000 are in prison. Daniels and others say that with this reality, communities in the state still need to do more to reach out to both at-risk youth and to those who have a criminal past.