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Koch network project gears up to help inmates reenter society after prison

An inmate looks out from his cell at Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, Calif., in October 2013. (Reuters)

A new project funded by the network aligned with billionaire industrialist Charles Koch is tracking and monitoring 1,100 inmates in four states after they are released from prison starting Aug. 1 to help them successfully reintegrate into society.

Through the project, called Safe Streets and Second Chances, a team of researchers from Florida State University will evaluate former inmates for 15 months after their release — a volatile period that often leads to rearrest. The project is in its $4 million pilot phase, as researchers prepare to test the effectiveness of a reentry model that focuses on individualized plans to help inmates find healthy coping and thinking patterns, the right employment opportunities and positive social engagement.

For the past six months, the researchers have been interviewing the men and women in the program, who are housed in 48 prisons in rural and urban areas in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

They will present the early findings today in Colorado, at the twice-annual meeting of the network’s largest donors.

Overhauling the criminal justice system is one of the top priorities of the network, which leans libertarian with a small-government, free-market agenda.

The network is advocating a shift in the criminal justice system toward prioritizing rehabilitation and reducing recidivism, rather than focusing on punishment. For years, the network has pushed for bipartisan support for overhauling the criminal justice system and has teamed up with Van Jones, a former Obama administration official and CNN political commentator, for the cause.

Among their efforts, Koch network leaders have pushed to roll back mandatory minimum sentencing laws and stiffen the burden of proof for the government to put people in prison. They support the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill aimed at lowering the recidivism rate by funding educational and vocational training, mental health treatment and rehabilitation programs for inmates. The measure passed the House on a 360-to-59 vote, but its fate remains uncertain in the Senate.

“Rehabilitation programs are so important for people who are in the federal prison systems, to come out of prison less troubled, less traumatized, more skilled, educated and able to successfully reintegrate into society so they don’t go back to prison,” said Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries who was once a correctional officer.

With the research conducted through Safe Streets and Second Chances, network officials say, they want to transform the way reentry programs are run in communities across the country.

“What we’re trying to do is to prepare prisoners to reenter society and become productive members and taxpaying citizens, hopefully living productive lives and taking care of their families,” said Doug Deason, a Dallas businessman and Koch network donor who is on the advisory council of Safe Streets and Second Chances.

After interviewing the inmates preparing for release, researchers found these prisoners overwhelmingly felt optimistic about their chances of rehabilitation in life outside prison but generally had high levels of trauma. Nearly 70 percent of people in the program reported seeing someone seriously injured or killed. Half the inmates had seen or handled dead bodies — more than a dozen times for some male prisoners.

The majority of them reported having a close friend or family member who was murdered, and 58 percent reported having a drug use disorder.

People with untreated trauma symptoms are more likely to become impulsive and incorrectly perceive threats to themselves and others, which could lead to an act of crime and recidivism, according to Carrie Pettus-Davis, a Florida State University professor and the lead researcher. It also could affect their ability to navigate the laws restricting felons from employment, housing and education opportunities, she said.

“Despite all of the positive orientations and aspirations, this population also is really dealing with some very challenging circumstances,” Pettus-Davis said. “There’s an enormous amount of trauma represented for both men and women. … Once people become incarcerated, we need to make sure we’re appropriately responding to experiences of psychological trauma.”