More than 1/3 third of the inmates who are released from prisons every year return. According to information from the Department of Corrections, they often get out and go back to the same life they had before they went in. Maybe experiencing what happens to an inmate once he leaves prison will help us better understand what to do to make our neighborhoods and communities safer.
This is the first in a four part series of reports on what life is like for one inmate "Beyond the Walls."
It's a happy day at Tutwiler prison. Just about all of approximately 100 inmates at a job fair expect to be released from prison within a couple of months - either on parole or at the end of their sentence. It's programs like this that are designed to help them cope once they're out. As former inmate Kate Richardson told them "We can not afford to return to this institution."
Richardson works with an organization called AIM, Aid to Inmate Mothers, that sponsors the job fairs and speakers to help the inmates face the worst of their fears. "I've got to make decisions now for myself when the state (usually) makes decisions for when I eat, what I eat, when I sleep, when I shower. I don't have to pay bills right now. So, all those decisions - that's scary to me because I never did it before I came to prison."
And that fear is often twice as scary for women who have spent most of their lives behind bars. Take 40-year old Tammy Cooper. She has been in and out of jails and prisons since she was nine years old. In a month though, she will be free and on her own again when she's released on parole.
Everything she owns she's carrying under her arm but she's not leaving those iron gates alone. She has support from groups like AIM that are helping her adjust to her new freedom and her new life. It has helped her enroll in college, find a job and a temporary place to live. Tammy says, "More than anything I just want to sit down and realize that it's really true, because this has been the hardest year that I have ever done. It's like every single day led up to this day."
And eager to get settled in, she soon learns that life does not always go according to our plans. Tammy ran into her first hurdle just an hour after her release. It was around 10:00 when the Salvation Army told her she would have to wait. "We're here to check in," an AIM volunteer says. But those in the group didn't get the response they were hoping for. "You won't be able to check in until 4:00. Nobody's here today."
And so she stores her belongs and her gifts from AIM and prepares to wait. She uses the extra time to think about what lies ahead. "Before, I have always been afraid to ask for help and right now I need help and I'm going to ask for it. Maybe I won't get it and maybe I'll get some doors slammed in my face, but I'm not willing to give up this time. Last time I gave up and slept behind the church for four days and I won't do that this time."
Obviously, this is not Tammy's first time on parole. Both in 1990 and 1997 her parole was revoked because, as she put it, the adjustment to life on her own was just too tough. There were too many hurdles she says she just couldn't overcome, but this time she says it will be different. "Something's changed inside. I'm tired of that life. I'm tired of all of that. It's just time for a different Tammy."
Coming up Tuesday, Tammy faces the scariest moment of all - meeting her parole officer. "I want to make a good impression. I want him to know how hard I'm trying. So, that makes me nervous."