Reducing Recidivism: The Revolving Prison Door

Healthy Oakland staff and members

Healthy Oakland staff and members, photo by Micky Duxbury

David Shivers is a 34-year-old Oakland native who has been in and out of prison a half dozen times. His life of crime started when he was 13.

“We were homeless and my mother was doing drugs,” Shivers said in a recent interview.

David Shivers

After a 20-year run of repeated offenses, Oakland native David Shivers is finally on the right track.

“She had a Section 8 housing voucher, but not enough money to move in, so I decided I was going to make some money on the street.”

After serving four months in juvenile hall, Shivers had a series of foster placements, but by then he was angry, lost and overwhelmed.

“I was eventually placed in a group home, but I kept running away to get back to my mom,” he said. “No one at school even noticed that I was having a hard time. I just figured that doing crime was the only way I could survive.”

These experiences started Shivers on a 20-year run of repeated offenses.

Shivers’ experience of the revolving prison door is more the norm than the exception in California. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that 67 percent of California state parolees return to prison within the first year after release. Within the first three years after release, it goes up to 76 percent. Professionals in the field, from parole to probation to sheriff departments, want to reduce those numbers. But the question they all ask is “What is most effective in reducing recidivism? “

There are dozens of programs serving the formerly incarcerated in Alameda County – each with a somewhat different approach to addressing criminal behavior. New monies from realignment will allow the probation department to award contracts to selected programs, but which ones actually work? Over the last 20 years, there is a large body of research that point to fundamental principles about what reduces recidivism.

“We know what doesn’t work: military type boot camps or talk therapy,” writes Edward Latessa, head of the Division of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati and a national expert in evidence based corrections. “We know that community-based behavioral programs that address anti-social attitudes and behaviors work far better than incarceration to lessen recidivism.”

According to Latessa, these basic principles should guide programs: “Focus treatment and intervention on the highest risk offenders; don’t place low risk offenders in intensive programs – it actually disrupts their positive social networks and adds negative ones; target ‘criminogenic factors’ that are highly related to criminal conduct such as anti-social peer associations, lack of self control, minimal problem solving capability, and lack of empathy.”

Most importantly, says Latessa, behavioral-based programs must teach the formerly incarcerated new skills and strategies, not just talk about them. For behavior to change, it has to be rehearsed and modeled.

Alameda County’s Probation Department is just beginning to develop systems to track and record, which of the programs they fund are most effective. According to Chief of Adult Services’ John Keene: “The Probation Department has not tracked recidivism rates, but a program to do that is in the works.”

Also in the works is a new assessment tool that will look at everything from anti-social thinking and peers, education, mental health, substance abuse, relationships, to job training needs.

“This will help the county focus on the areas that are most needed by the offenders and drive future funding opportunities and partnerships,” Keene said.

One of Oakland’s programs that has been shown to significantly reduce recidivism is Project Choice, which focuses on young adults ages 18-35 leaving San Quentin State Prison. Dan Simmons is the program officer for all Measure Y reentry programs, which includes Project Choice.

“We work with guys up to six months prior to release and up to six months post-release,” Simmons said. “It is more than assessment and case planning – it is relationship building and mentoring.”

An independent evaluation by Hatchuel Tabernik and Associates found that Project Choice significantly reduced recidivism. Over a 30-month period, the overall recidivism rate for adults enrolled in Project Choice was 52.2 percent compared to 69 percent for the state. The juvenile rate of recidivism was reduced even further: from 75 percent for the state to 41 percent for youth who participated in Project Choice. The program served 60 clients per year at a per client cost of $3,700. But since only 25 Project Choice clients were returned to prison, Project Choice saved approximately $1.1 million in court costs, incarceration and other expenses.

What does it cost communities to have such a high rate of re-incarceration? Plenty, according to Michael Shaw, director of the Office of Urban Male Health within the Public Health Department.

“The impact on Oakland of having so many men going in and out of prison is tremendous,” Shaw said. “You see a lot of violence in black families who have been impacted by incarceration. The high level of incarceration rate in parts of East and West Oakland is both a result of instability in the African-American community and it is also a cause of that very same instability.”

Shivers said that he experienced that instability firsthand while growing up in West Oakland.

“When crack hit, it was like a black cloud swept over everything. Everybody I looked up to was on the street, in prison, or dead,” he said. “I saw so much violence that it became a normal thing.” Having a positive male role model would have made a big difference in his life, he said. “I didn’t have one man in my life that encouraged me.”

Shaw said he believes that changing the role models that young men of color have is vital to interrupting the cycle of the revolving prison door.

“Rape, domestic violence, and drugs – all of these negative behaviors are learned,” Shaw said. “Most men in prison have grown up in a neighborhood where there are few healthy male role models. Their role models are drug pushers and criminals.”

Experts and formers prisoners agree that the support of family members is a critical factor in reducing recidivism. Shivers has been out of prison since last July after serving almost 53 months. He attributes his commitment to stay away from crime to one thing.

“I wouldn’t be here today if my wife hadn’t stayed by my side the whole time,” he said

Shivers has made a second home for himself within the re-entry community at Healthy Oakland – a full service program that offers everything from medical care, mental health and drug treatment, to benefits enrollment. Shivers first volunteered at the program and is now a paid employee.

When he began serving his last sentence, Shivers’ children were 10, 8, 7 and 5. Now they are 15, 13, 12 and 10.

“I need to do what is right for my kids,” Shivers said. “I like taking them to their games. I like getting up and looking at my wife. I like coming to work. I even like going to the bus stop – all the normal things in life. I don’t want to lose any of this again.”


Follow this 10-part series from the Index Page: Lessening the impact of incarceration in Oakland

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