A behind-the-scenes look at John Buntin's August 2009 feature, Job Freedom. Story Behind the Story will appear on the 13th Floor each Tuesday.
Governing doesn't have a formal beat system, but I tend to be the person on staff who writes most of our stories about policing or crime. So when Editor Alan Ehrenhalt asked me if I'd be interested in writing something about prisoner reentry, I leapt at the opportunity. Four years ago, I'd written a piece about how prisoner reentry was affecting the Druid Heights neighborhood of Baltimore (a neighborhood just up the street from "The Corner" of David Simon and Ed Burns fame.)
Spending a week in Druid Heights was a fascinating (if somewhat scary) experience, and I wanted to do something similar with this piece. There are lots of cities with interesting reentry initiatives -- Newark, New York, Chicago and Seattle come instantly to mind -- and it would have been easy to go visit one of these places for a few days. But I wanted to do something that I hoped would be more revealing: I wanted to follow inmates from entry into the system to employment (or to the frustrations surrounding employment, for those who didn't make it).
That would require extraordinary access to a correctional facility or jail, though. It also meant that I needed to find some place local. With young kids, relocating to Chicago for a month wasn't going to happen! Fortunately, I came across a paper by a wonderful economist at Rutgers, Anne Piehl, which described an innovative program in Rockville, Maryland.
When I approached the program director about enrolling with an incoming class of "residents" and following them through the system, he agreed at once. And so on a Monday morning, I reported for class. I spent a total of about three weeks with this group of nine. By day two, most were friendly and cooperative -- if anything, more friendly and cooperative than the story might suggest. Most really did seem like nice guys and, as I got to hear their stories, it was hard not to start rooting for them. Virtually everyone was battling an addiction. Virtually everyone had grown up in really tough neighborhoods. Circumstances -- and impulse control -- seemed to be big problems with everyone.
The pre-release center was controlled; mandatory random drug testing meant that people (for the most part) stayed clean. But you could still see things happen. Sex with another resident in an off-limits staff area. Getting fired for cause, even though that means being sent back to jail or prison. It was the same mantra I talk about in the story, "circumstances, people and things."
But most people (though maybe not everyone) really did seem to be trying to turn things around. You had to wonder: If your circumstances were tougher, if you'd never seen anyone keep a regular job, if softness in your neighborhood led to assault, how would you do?