State visitation program works to reduce inmate recidivism

Greeting an inmate
Amicus Senior Vice President Russel Balenger, right, greets inmates Charles Yang, center, and Christopher Cabrera before a Stillwater Connections Group meeting at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn. Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. Amicus is a non-profit group that builds relationships with inmates and ex-offenders.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Corrections are studying how they can keep former inmates from returning to prison after completing their sentences.

More than 9,040 inmates are serving time Minnesota prisons, and 95 percent will eventually be released. New data from the department suggest inmates who have visitors can reduce their chances of committing crimes that land them back in jail after they leave by as much as 13 percent.

Department of Corrections researchers found visits from siblings, in-laws, fathers and clergy made the most difference in keeping inmates from committing new crimes. But 40 percent of Minnesota offenders receive no visitors at all.

For those prisoners, a 45-year-old non-profit organization called Amicus — Latin for "friend" — pairs them with volunteers who make regular visits. For the inmates, many of whom will be imprisoned for decades, being in contact with someone from the outside is a welcome break from the stark realities of prison life.

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"I'm kind of like with the lot of guys in here, I don't have a lot of contact with my family," said Mike Ebinger, 42, who is serving time for murder. "I mean I talk to them, but everything's sort of like generic and they push things under the rug.

Ebinger, who is scheduled to be released in 2039, has come to rely on his Amicus friend, who visits every couple of weeks.

"He goes 80 miles out of his way just to come here," Ebinger said. "Having that outside contact sort of makes you feel like you know, like you're important."

Amicus also holds a monthly group session for men in the Stillwater prison, run by senior vice president Russel Balenger and Steve Linney, a long-time Amicus volunteer.

The education room where the Connections group meets could be a college seminar room, except there's a window to a guard booth next door. But the vibe is surprisingly relaxed.

Within minutes, 15 men in T-shirts and jeans file in. All but two of them are in for murder. Of different races, they range in age from 27 to 50. For the men who attend, the need to feel like they are more than their worst acts is a recurring theme.

They talk about their desire not to become "institutionalized" — people who can't function when they're eventually let out.

Stillwater Connections Group
Jon Quick, center, other inmates and an Amicus volunteer listen during a Stillwater Connections Group meeting at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn. Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"I just pray I don't get to the point where I'd just be like 'just forget it. I'm so sick of this, I'm so sick of the reality,' said Chris Cabrera, a 31-year-old serving time for murder. "You see cats go crazy in here. You see cats really shell up. 'I don't want to talk to no one, see nobody. This is my world. I'm never getting out,' "

Cabrera is set to be released in 2030, but the possibility of an eventual departure isn't enough to stay connected to people outside the prison's walls.

"There ain't nothing guaranteed — no guarantee that you'll reach out and someone's going to reach back," he said. "But for me it's necessary to keep on trying."

Jon Quick, who is serving a life sentence for killing the boyfriend of his estranged wife in Ada, Minn., finds this time of year difficult, as it approaches the 11th anniversary of his arrival at the prison. But sometimes, his effort to stay connected to the outside world does pay off, as it did a couple of years ago, when he sent a small check to a homeless woman he read about, and his donation made his hometown paper.

"I was put in a front page article," said Quick, 44. "I was so relieved they didn't sensationalize my crime. They briefly mentioned it and I think mentioning the facts is good; it gives a person perspective on who we are, without all the additional sensationalism."

Others lament the effect their crimes have had on their families. Charles Yang was locked up at age 22 for murder. His role in a gang shooting was dramatized on a TV show that now makes him cringe.

Preparing to transition out of prison
Terencio Safford speaks with Russel Balenger during a Stillwater Connections Group meeting at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn. Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. Safford was recently released from prison after more than a year behind bars. He said the Amicus meetings and the relationships he developed will help him transition back into the community.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"People [in prison] were giving me high fives, and I'm looking at them like, 'That's nothing to be proud about,' " said Yang, 27, who went to prison when his children were just 2 months old. "And it isn't. Maybe when I was younger I might have taken something out of that but now I'm just ashamed watching this. It's pathetic. I don't want my kids to see it. I don't want them growing up thinking, 'Oh yeah, that's my dad.' "

Yang's children are third graders now. He tries to stay connected to them by having them read him books over the phone.

Most of the men in the Amicus support group men have years to go on their sentences. Tim Cavanaugh is serving time for assault. He got out once, and is disgusted with himself that he's back inside for several more months.

"When I was out there the first time I had everybody — even people in here calling me, pulling for me," said Cavanaugh, 40. "And I started using again."

Balenger wants Cavanaugh to know that he's still in the Amicus family.

"We'll look for you when you're back out," he said.

Amicus runs a Reconnect program to help ex-offenders find jobs and housing and social support.

Returning to prison is a distant worry for prisoners who face years before they're eligible for release. The lifers talk about the struggle to remain positive in a place that can be corrosive.

Among them is 49-year-old Sarith Peou, who survived the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and has spent 15 years in Stillwater.

"When I came here, the first thing I thought was, "I must stay in contact with outside world; I must not let myself be isolated and be a hateful person,' " Peou said. "And the only thing I find is I could be helpful to other inmates who get out, so I feel a piece of me is getting out every day."

Receiving guidance
Terencio Safford talks with an Amicus staff member in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, Sept 27, 2011, just days after being released from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn. Safford was considering writing a blog about his experiences and transition back into the community for Amicus, a nonprofit that befriends inmates and ex-offenders.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A few days later, that happened. Terencio Safford, a 28-year-old inmate Peou had taken under his wing, was released after serving a year and a half on a domestic violence charge.

Eight days after his release, Safford was in the Amicus office in downtown Minneapolis, wearing a suit and carrying a three-ring binder. He has been to three job interviews, but the felony on his record ended the interview process at two of the companies.

Safford knows many are hungry to follow his progress — both the inmates at Stillwater and those around him now.

"I wouldn't call it pressure, but there's a level of expectation and people are trusting me with new ideas and that's what helps drive me," he said.

Originally from Alabama, Safford didn't have any visitors when he was in prison. That put him at higher risk for ending up back in prison. With support from Amicus and transitional housing, he thinks he has the support he needs to be one of the ones who makes it on the outside.

Correction: (July 25, 2016): An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Chris Cabrera's release date. The story has been updated.