7 former inmates find hope in new program
  • Monday, May 20, 2019
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Hawaii News

7 former inmates find hope in new program


Seven former prisoners who struggled with methamphetamine and heroin abuse will graduate from a new federal court program after staying sober and out of trouble for a year.

The four men and three women who served federal prison terms for mostly drug convictions enrolled in the federal Court Re-Entry Program, which is aimed at helping ex-prisoners reintegrate into the community.

"It kept me on the right pattern," said a 32-year-old woman who signed away her parental rights to six children, served a 3 1/2 -year prison sentence for a cocaine conviction and never held a job for more than three days.

She is now a full-time tour van driver.

Felix Mata, head of the U.S. Probation Office here that oversees felons released from prison, called the program "outstanding."

The seven will graduate during ceremonies at the federal courthouse today.

The program was considered enough of a success that it will be adopted and will continue with more ex-prisoners next year.

Court Re-Entry Programs started about three years ago and are now in about 20 federal districts around the country. The goal is to help ex-inmates avoid returning to a life of crime.

In Hawaii, Chief U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway kick-started the program by getting the cooperation of prosecutors, the public defender’s office and probation officials.

About 800 federal ex-prisoners here are on the supervisory release, which is similar to parole in the state system. If they violate the terms of their release, such as committing crimes or testing positive for drugs, they can be sent back to prison.

The Re-Entry Program here enrolled eight felons convicted of nonviolent offenses, but considered high risks to return to crime, for the one-year pilot. The eighth felon was kicked out after she associated with felons and lied about looking for work.

When the seven graduate, each will get a year knocked off their supervisory release terms.

One significant feature is that the seven met biweekly through the year with a team composed of a federal judge, a prosecutor, a federal public defender and a probation officer.

They engaged in informal discussions with the seven on their progress and issues they faced.

"Overall, I have been astounded by the personal growth of these people," said federal Magistrate Judge Leslie Kobayashi, the pilot program’s judge.

The seven asked that their identities not be disclosed because the stigma of their criminal histories can it make it more difficult to gain community acceptance. All struggled with "ice" abuse, except for one alcoholic who was a heroin user.

They range in ages from 32 to 58. Six were convicted of drug offenses, and a seventh, on a firearm violation. Their federal prison terms ranged from 18 months to 10 years.

They all must serve more time on supervisory release, even though a year will be dropped from their terms.

A 54-YEAR-OLD Kalihi man was considered to have made the most progress. He served a 10-year federal prison term for cocaine distribution and had a history of ice abuse and state drug convictions.

During the program he worked two simultaneous full-time jobs as a dishwasher at a Waikiki restaurant and a janitor at a shopping center and enrolled in two community college classes. On his own he volunteered at a Kakaako homeless shelter.

Four others have full-time jobs, and another, a part-time job. One is disabled.

In what could be called part therapy and part counseling sessions to get the enrollees to break out of criminal, self-centered and manipulative attitudes, the seven discuss challenges in finding or keeping jobs, reconnecting with family, and health issues.

At one meeting in July, the heroin abuser who spent most of his adult life behind bars talked about depression and lying in his bed for days.

"I spend plenty time in my own head," he said. "I lay there and feel not good about myself."

He was encouraged to adjust his medication and try to reconnect with his psychologist.

When they made progress — finding a job, paying off traffic fines, dealing with waking up at 3 a.m. in Waianae to catch a bus to be on time for work downtown, calling a mother a woman had not spoken to in a dozen years — they got encouragement.

"I’m so proud of you," Kobayashi told one woman. "It’s huge. You see the growth that you’ve made?"

"I’m proud of myself," the woman replied.

ALTHOUGH the program will enroll only a small fraction of the felons on supervisory release, the promise is that keeping them from committing more crimes will protect the public and save the nearly $25,000 a year to house a federal prison inmate.

The program also opened the eyes of team members to an impoverished world of abuse and crime that was foreign to their backgrounds of law schools, legal arguments and courtrooms.

It is the first time they have had long-term dealings on a personal level with convicted felons.

"It’s really changed me," Kobayashi said, now knowing some of the issues the felons face and the progress of the seven. "I was amazed at the sort of the miracle of human redemption."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Beverly Sameshima, the team member representing prosecutors, said she can now see the personal lives of the felons beyond their crimes. "I think it’s taught me to look more at both sides, to view the defendant on a more human level," she said.

Senior Probation Officer Robin DeMello, who represented the Probation Office, will continue with a new group of enrollees next year with a new judge, prosecutor and defense representative. "I have way more hope for them," DeMello said. "I think they’ve been given the tools they need to change their lives."


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