Back From Behind Bars

Wendell Poole counsels ex-offenders, including Harold Martin, 27, left, Daniel Wilkenson, 38, a man who asked not to be named and William Norwood, 50.
Wendell Poole counsels ex-offenders, including Harold Martin, 27, left, Daniel Wilkenson, 38, a man who asked not to be named and William Norwood, 50. (Photos By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Few people understand the criminal justice system like Wendell Poole. He spent 21 years, four months, 16 days and three hours in prison for assault with the intent to kill two people during an argument. He arrived home middle-aged and paranoid, flinching at the sound of passing cars. He needed a job, a place to stay, a plan.

He slept on sofas, convinced a friend to give him a job and now, four years later, counsels just-released prisoners, nudging them toward a fresh start.

Staying out, Poole tells them, is simple: Change your clothes, your friends and your frame of reference. Don't expect handouts or even much help. As a small first step, Poole decided before leaving prison to wear a necktie in his new life.

"You have to reinvent yourself," he said.

But reinvention requires help. For many ex-cons, help can be hard to come by. The reentry system is overwhelmed, and the pipeline of people returning from prison gets replenished daily.

About 2,000 prisoners come back to the District every year -- an average of five a day. As many as 60,000 D.C. residents -- one in 10 -- are felons, 15,000 of them under court supervision.

They arrive at the homes of relatives, at halfway houses and shelters. One-third end up homeless or close to it. Seven out of 10 have abused drugs. Half don't have a high school diploma. Employers, landlords and even family members often avoid them.

Most emerge ill-equipped to stay out of prison. Two-thirds are re-arrested within three years. Forty percent are sent back to prison. This means more crime, more victims and more money spent to send them through the justice system again and again.

The District is the only jurisdiction in the country where the federal government has direct authority for supervising its felons, a legacy of the city's bankrupt '90s under Mayor Marion Barry (D).

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) says too many inmates are not getting the services they need in prison or after their release.

"These people are out of sight, out of mind," Norton said. "There's been no oversight, not one hearing. The whole notion of what role this population plays in crime is not part of the crime-prevention strategy."

The federal agency overseeing ex-offenders in the District spends $135 million a year, but former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. said more needs to be spent to ensure that residents get homes and training that will lead to jobs. Allowing people to be idle, he said, is dangerous.

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