ATLANTIC CITY — Kiongozi Lumumba had enough as he sat in his Atlantic County jail cell facing the possibility of a third stint in state prison at age 59 in 2018.
Lumumba made up his mind that he had to abstain from cocaine and heroin. Fortunately for him, the jail started partnering with the John Brooks Recovery Center in 2017. The program provided counseling and linkage to continued treatment for inmate recidivists with an opioid use disorder. The Brooks Center provided inmates with assessment and other benefits.
“The easiest thing for the state or courts is to send someone back to prison,” said Lumumba, who added it was important that the jail offered the program when it did. “It’s a lot harder, tougher for all sides. ... It is really hard to determine who is ready for treatment and who is the best fit.”
When former President Donald Trump signed the criminal justice bill known as the First Step Act into law in December 2018, most of the attention was focused on the reform of sentencing laws to decrease the federal inmate population.
But, for some people who were formerly incarcerated, the transition back into society can be as traumatic, if not more so, than being locked up in the first place.
The New Jersey Department of Corrections and some South Jersey county governments are working to make that transition smoother.
After doing 25 years in prison for armed robberies, Lumumba returned to Atlantic City in 2003 as a 45-year-old man with a felony on his record. At the time, the casinos were not as open to hiring ex-cons as they are now. The state’s unemployment rate was 5.8%, compared with 3.7% in 2000.
Lumumba started doing cocaine and heroin at that time. His last stint in jail helped him quit drugs for good. He now drives a taxi and does tax preparation and paralegal work.
“It definitely works the way they have it set up,” said Lumumba about the jail’s substance abuse diversion program. “I see basically some of the guys (from jail). I see the men on the streets. The guys who went through the program are now stable.”
Each inmate is screened and provided education regarding community resources and services, said Atlantic County jail Warden David Kelsey. These services are related to issues that include homelessness, substance abuse, mental health, unemployment and medical support.
The basic goals of the county jail’s reentry and discharge planning program include ensuring that proper community supports are in place before the release of county-sentenced inmates, Kelsey said.
“We provide as many resources and linkages as possible prior to discharge,” he said.
In Atlantic County, besides the Brooks Center for substance use disorders, there is also a Mental Health Justice Involved Services case management program for community-based services upon discharge, Kelsey said.
Inmates do more time in the state prison system, but people in the county jail system are more likely from the community and will be released back into it.
The Ocean County jail offers its inmates access to Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, English as a second language classes, high school equivalency prep, vocational school and religious programming, said Nina Hagen, director of rehabilitation for the Ocean County Department of Corrections.
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People who enter the Ocean County jail have access to mental health and substance abuse treatment even though the average length of stay is 15 to 28 days, said Warden Sandra J. Mueller.
“It is a very fast turnover at a traditional county jail. You never know when they are going to be released,” said Mueller, who added an individual can enter the jail at 11 a.m. and be released by 3 p.m.
One of the problems of inmates transitioning back into society is if they are locked up for a long enough period of time and don’t have a stable place for their possessions, they may lose such important identification papers as birth certificates, Social Security cards and driver’s licenses.
These pieces of identification are needed to take advantage of most government programs.
The New Jersey Department of Corrections gives everyone exiting the system a NJDOC ID, which is legally recognized by state, county and municipal governments and all state-based nonprofits and is accepted for services, said Liz Velez, the DOC spokesperson, who added duplicate birth certificates or Social Security cards can be obtained for federal programs.
A similar initiative was started last year in Michigan.
The state started providing people returning home from prison with a driver’s license or state identification upon release.
“We have employment counselors, resumes lined up for the jobs process,” said Chris Gautz, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, who added it costs between $100,000 and $200,000 to run the program. “The big things, the driver’s license and the state identification, they are the last piece. Everything else has to be in place.”
The state DOC implemented its own venture two years ago in partnership with the Department of Labor. Called the Providing Access to Community Employment initiative, it is designed to help eliminate socioeconomic inequalities often encountered by those released from custody, Velez said.
“The initiative helps with job hunting and preparing for interviews by obtaining pre-employment paperwork and bringing employers behind the walls to interview those nearing release for job opportunities,” Velez said. In the state prison system, eligible individuals can sign up for a vocational program including, but not limited to, cosmetology, forklift, green technology, landscaping, mechanics and metalwork.
The DOC tries to create an incentive to have people enroll in these programs by allowing credits to be used to take time off their sentence, Velez said.
“This positive reinforcement tool serves to provide personal and professional development opportunities while reducing time in prison,” she said.
Patrick McManimon, an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Public Administration at Kean University in Union County, has worked with criminal offenders and ex-offenders for more than 25 years.
There needs to be more public-private partnerships and stable housing for ex-offenders, and instead of looking at a problem from the backward end when a person is already in trouble with the law, more problems need to be addressed on the front end with education, role models and other positive elements, McManimon said.
“The parole board of the state of New Jersey has done a very good job of managing parolees,” said McManimon. “We’re moving in the right direction here in (New Jersey) in regards to the offender population.”
Contact Vincent Jackson: 609-272-7202