There are currently about 2,500 people in Maine’s prison system, and the majority of those who are incarcerated will eventually be released. Each individual is then tasked with looking for a job, finding a place to live and finding health care, all on a truncated timeline. Several factors—like the case worker assigned to an ex-prisoner, family and resources on the outside—impact whether or not someone may be successful. Individuals who lived through this process joined Maine Calling to talk about their experiences, innovative programs to help prisoners get a fresh start and about how the system needs to improve.
Joseph Jackson is the coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and a program facilitator for Maine Inside Out. He served a 19-year sentence and was released from prison in 2014. He says that when he was released he had to start life over from scratch.
“I had nothing–I lost everything,” says Jackson. “My wife had passed away. I didn’t have a job. [Upon release] I got $50 and 30 days of medications.”
While starting over would be tough for most anyone, his status as an ex-prisoner presented additional challenges.
“It’s really difficult to find appropriate housing. There’s no continuity when finding health care, and it’s really hard to get a job when you check a box saying you’re a felon, because they throw that application out.”
Unfortunately, Jackson’s experience is not an uncommon one.
“I was a teenager when I went in, a 21-year-old man when released,” says Jeremy Hiltz. “No one teaching me how to balance a checkbook, go grocery shopping, pay my bills.”
Hiltz is now the owner of Recovery Connections of Maine, and he is a substance abuse counselor. He served four years in prison, and says when he was released he was “given $50 at the gate and released into the world with nothing.”
Margo Walsh is the founder and CEO of the employment company Maine Works, which helps individuals who have served time to re-enter the workforce. She says that, “there’s no such thing as an ‘ex-felon’—a felon is for life, and that burden carries so many implications for a productive outcome.”
Maine Works is one company that is seeking to change the conversation about workplace re-entry for those released from prison. She says that many of the people she has worked with have substance-use disorder, and often drugs or alcohol are a part of reason they have been incarcerated. She told Mainebiz that “if you take drugs and alcohol out [of the equation], you have a huge group of people who are relatively high functioning.”
For many ex-prisoners, addiction is the a central part of why they go to prison. And, as Hiltz says, the reason for this likely starts early. Hiltz attributes much of his incarceration to trauma he experienced as a child.
“I was trying to cope with that trauma, and I started getting in trouble at school,” he says “I started using substances as a result of that.”
From there, Hiltz says, it can become easier to identify with others in prison, making it more difficult to stay out.
“I was released from prison three, four times,” he says. “I started to feel like I fit inside of that society in prison—it’s easier for me to relate to people in the cell with me.” Hiltz also says, “If I didn’t go to treatment, I [wouldn’t have] realized trauma was a part of my story, and if I hadn’t dealt with those issues, I wouldn’t be here now.”
In addition to learning to cope with trauma that may have occurred before prison, many prisoners find additional trauma inside of prison walls.
“We have state-sanctioned trauma,” says Jackson. “No one enters that system without being traumatized, and then to come out, transitioning, there’s a lot of trauma coming back into the world that a lot of people don’t realize they have.”
Jackson says that when he was released, he had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but was not able to recognize them as such. Now, he says, he is able to recognize symptoms, but still has to deal with the trauma he faced while incarcerated.
“There are certain crowds I get very anxious in. I had to have a lot of support.”
Hiltz agrees, and says that mental health treatment to deal with these symptoms is a vital part of re-entry.
“Any kind of treatment should be a part of transitioning back into society. I used to have so much anxiety that I couldn’t order a meal. People don’t even know they have PTSD or are withdrawing from trauma," says Hiltz. "In prison, we had a PlayStation, TV, stuff like that—but I also witnessed someone get cut by a razor blade. I witnessed someone get hit with a cue ball, with padlocks, and my job was to act like nothing was happening. I could go see the mental health counselor, but the last thing I wanted to do was appear weak,” Hiltz says. As a result, his recovery was slowed, because he had not learned to cope with the trauma from these experiences.
Today both Hiltz and Jackson are working to help others who are facing obstacles like the ones they have overcome. They, along with many others, are working to find solutions to the problems that have individuals going in and out of jail.
One solution, Hiltz says, is to deal with both substance-use to disorder and mental health struggles.
“I was very, very fortunate that, during my last incarceration, there was a 40-bed residential facility inside the correctional facility,” he says. “The stars really have to align to get a bed there. There are only 40 treatment beds, but there are 5 to 600 inmates, and most are there for substance use, and, at the end of the day, most of them are self-medicating.”
For those who are unable to get treatment in prison, there are a growing number of organizations working to help people once they are released. Jackie McBurnie has benefited from that help.
“I have support from the Center for Wisdom’s Women, and without that—I don’t know.”
McBurnie now works for the Center for Wisdom’s Women in Lewiston, where she received support after her release from prison. Like Hiltz, McBurnie turned to substance-use after facing trauma and abuse early in her life.
“The center is a drop-in for women and only women,” she says. “We support basic needs for women. We’re opening a sober house in 2019, and it will be the only one in Lewiston, and I help them by giving them an addict’s perspective.”
McBurnie says that even when she was using, she wanted to be sober. The doctor and therapist at the center helped her with her sobriety, and she says “the thought of me using makes me sick to my stomach now.”
The soon-to-open sober house will also offer job training, housing and other support for women in the community.
There are a growing number of organizations that are seeking to understand the problems these ex-prisoners face and working to help address them. Jackson says a key to having a program that is equipped to help people is one that listens to ex-prisoners.
“We need to have people with lived experience,” he says. “They’re the experts on what’s going on inside this broken system.”
Those who have been released from prison face many obstacles. As one Maine Calling listner who called in to the show said: “Success looks different for each person. Success may just be a place to live, that they have a job, that they’re safe. For other people it may take more resources to get to the finish line, but success just means not re-entering prison and jail.”
Hiltz agrees. “Success looks like not going back.”
The full Maine Calling program and additional resources for those seeking help with re-entry can be found here.