Running Interference for Change
The Apollo 13 Project aims to help reduce crime, save tax dollars, and improve the life chances of released prisoners by helping Americans rethink the problem and its solutions. A13 is not a boots-on-the-ground program, nor does it develop policies. Instead, it serves as a “blocker” for these “ball carriers.” It broadens active support for prisoner reentry and incarceration policy reform by collecting stories that focus and humanize the problem.
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A Project With A Notable Namesake
The Apollo 13 Project takes its name from a near disaster that became a triumph, when NASA’s April, 1970 lunar landing was canceled after equipment failures in space. Three astronauts were stranded on their way to the moon, with damaged equipment, dwindling fuel, oxygen, food, and water. The bottom line is this: When the odds were slim, and no one was sure how to overcome them, the crew on earth worked sleepless days and nights to clear the hurdles and bring the travelers home. The story of the effort to bring the astronauts home was brought to life on film in 1995 by Ron Howard and Tom Hanks. This live BBC footage is perhaps even more powerful, if you can indulge a brief, slightly-hokey musical interlude:
ARVE Error: no video IDThe parallel, while not perfect, is poignant, and it helps clarify the stakes. With 40% of released prisoners in the U.S. returning to prison within three years, the costs of crime, incarceration, and lost productivity are high. Less measurable is the human cost to communities and the families of the incarcerated. The Apollo 13 Project mission is to develop the ground support necessary to help prisoners accomplish a challenging reentry into society, with odds stacked against them in such areas as employment, housing, and addictions, and mental health.
U.S. Leads the World in Incarceration
The U.S. leads the world by such an order of magnitude that it’s absurd. Note in particular the company we keep. Not the best of neighborhoods. To get beyond semi-developed police states, you have to scroll quite a ways. Source: The World Factbook.
Focusing Scarce Capital Where it Counts
We recently had lunch with a very sharp and forward-thinking business executive. He was very receptive to our message on prisoner reentry, and walked the walk in his own life. Once a month, he and his family work at a local shelter serving meals.
When we got to the question of employing released prisoners, he said “I have done it four times.” “Great,” we said.” And then he added, “And I’ll never do it again.” We gulped. Turns out, he had picked up all four of his hires at the homeless shelter. One was a sex-offender, who breached their firewall and got his parole revoked on a porn expedition. Another was a drug conviction, who was using company time and equipment to deal drugs on the premises.
Like a traveler marching to the Amazon without a guide or a machete, this employer’s well-intended foray into the prisoner reentry swamp ended badly, creating another data point for the legions of employers even more risk averse than he.
The triage model in the adjacent image is an antidote to this kind of experience. Not all ex-offenders fit a single mold. Some got in trouble by fluke. Others transformed themselves while inside, and are now model employees. Many do require varying levels of social and professional support, but with the proper resources can overcome hurdles.
What’s needed is a thicker, healthier network of communication, where sympathetic and informed parole officers work with community leaders, employers, clergy, and NGOs to distinguish good bets from those who simply cannot function in certain environments yet. It sounds harsh, but if we are going to help those we can, we need to make distinctions.