Starting over

April 26, 2016

The numbers are staggering. More than 2.2 million people in America are behind bars and $80 million in taxpayer dollars spent each year. Over 600,000 of those offenders will be released from prisons and more than 11 million released from local jails each year. Their transition is complex, riddled with hurdles and has profound effects on public safety.

As part of the effort to build a fairer and more effective criminal justice system, the Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice are recognizing April 24-30 as National Reentry Week. At Multnomah County, the Department of Community Justice is doing its part.

“Over time what we’ve learned is that we have to do a lot more upfront work. We have to connect with services prior to release,” says Department of Community Justice Manager Liv Jenssen.   

The Mead building is located in downtown Portland. The Department of Community Justice Assessment and Referral Center is on the 3rd floor.
The Mead building is located in downtown Portland. The Department of Community Justice Assessment and Referral Center is on the 3rd floor.

On the third floor of the Mead Building in downtown Portland, nearly four dozen people with the county’s Assessment and Referral Center, known as ARC are working. They’re parole and probation officers; corrections counselors; community health workers; community health nurses; records technicians; corrections technicians; and workers with community providers like LifeWorks Northwest and Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare

The ARC is the first stop for adults coming out of prison or jail. They receive evaluations to determine what their supervision needs are and where to best place them as they begin life outside of prison walls.

Employees at ARC have desks, but their work often goes beyond the office environment with staff reaching into prisons or jails to prepare those coming out for what lies ahead. Ninety to 120 days ahead of the release of inmates from prison and jail, members of ARC and the more recently formed Health Assessment and Treatment team meet with inmates and begin the process of their reentry into society.

The teams work to find everything from subsidized housing, transportation and job opportunities to specialized physicians, food stamps, snack packs, hygiene kits and clothing.

The challenges can be daunting. A criminal record, even for the most well-intentioned and motivated offender, can prevent opportunities in housing, employment and credit.

At ARC, many clients also have special needs, mental health issues, physical or developmental disabilities, or substance abuse problems. Some have spent decades behind bars and are re-entering as senior citizens with disabilities.

Corrections counselor David Riley, who specializes in work with clients with medical and developmental disabilities, says the reach in helps make the difficult transition easier. The team gathers as much information as possible, even the details that may not be noted on Department of Corrections release packets.


Assessment and Referral Center staff and the Health, Assessment and Treatment team members take a short break for a group photo. Corrections counselor David Riley sits in front.

“So finding out that, ‘Oh wow, this person may be diabetic’ or ‘This person may be legally blind…’” Riley says. “Or the prison may release them with 30 days medication but a lot of times it’s very hard to get in to see a doctor within those 30 days, so we want to make sure they get that done.”

The ARC team is strengthened with the county Health Department’s HAT team by its side. The HAT program, which formed about two years ago, has already had an impact on health goals for those who are re-entering society. The majority of people who come through receive medical attention through a doctor's visit, as opposed to an emergency room.

Ahead of release, the groundwork is being laid to get former inmates health insurance. HAT corrections counselors navigate that public system, which can be a challenge for the average citizen. They print out temporary health insurance cards and set up mental health evaluations. HAT community health nurses, who work on the same floor perform medical consultations on the spot and make referrals.

Each member of the team specializes in a specific need from mental health to chronic health to cognitive disabilities. They create customized plans and provide input on the details : a place to live, an escort to the social security office and other providers.

Jenssen says before the HAT team was established, clients were connected to services but re-entry plans were not as detailed. Now, anxiety-ridden offenders who are destitute and struggling with health conditions have a better understanding of what will happen as they leave prison. “There’s no doubt it’s much better, because they understand and have a much better sense of where they’re going to go,” she says.

The re-entry work goes much deeper than mental and physical health. The team often serves as the closest thing to family for offenders who may have never had a visitor during their entire prison stay.

Riley recounts a person who recently visited ARC who described his biggest struggle as being alone. “He said, ‘My dad died the first time I was in prison and my mom is significantly disabled,’ so I think he’s concerned about a lot of different things.”

Parole & Probation Officer Peter Roberg leads a Friends & Family Orientation, which is designed to help the friends and family members of offenders understand goals of re-entry.

“What I try to tell clients that I work with is that you’re not alone,” Riley says. “We can do this as a team and what I want you to know is that I’ll be here for you. Here’s my name, I’m going to meet you.”

Department of Community Justice director Scott Taylor says with a mission of public safety, holding offenders accountable and assisting them to develop skills for success, the work at ARC is critical for success.

“What we do up front, connecting people to resources, helps prepare them as they launch into the community, “ says Taylor. “The partnerships we have been able to develop with other county departments and our community partners has strengthened our ability to serve adults coming under our supervision.”