Returning Home

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John Szakal figured the tailgater behind him was upset about something. But, he didn't expect to be attacked with a hammer.

John Szakal: The guy had a masonry chipping hammer. He ran into us. We got out to see what was going on, and before anything, he hit me in the head with a hammer. And it just escalated.

Szakal did a twenty-year-bid for murdering the guy with the hammer. Ohio law doesn't recognize a self-defense plea, unless you are trapped with no other options. The judge said Szakal could have run from his attacker, but because he didn't, the Elyria native ended up doing time in several state lock-ups before being released two years ago. But, he wasn't quite ready to re-enter society, because society had changed since 1984 when he went to prison. And he says what little vocational education he got hardly prepared him for the new world of work.

John Szakal: Like, the machine shop they teach you was a joke, because they're still using primitive tools. You get a basic knowledge of that trade, but nothing that's going on in the real world.

The post-prison life of guys like John Szakal has been under the microscope for the past five years. The Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute is in the midst of a multi-year study covering Ohio and four other states called Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prison Re-Entry.

The study focuses on the experiences of men during the first few months of release. Results from Cuyahoga County were released this month to a gathering of Northeast Ohio community leaders. Researchers note that about 6,000 ex-offenders return to Cuyahoga County every year. The current study reveals that only 39% of those surveyed had found any work since release, most had extensive substance abuse issues, and many had no alternative but to return to disadvantaged neighborhoods, limiting their future prospects. Christy Visher is one of the study's co-authors.

Christy Visher: Men typically don't seek out counseling. But, what we found out is that they want someone to talk to. They actually want some counseling. And they're not going to talk about their problems to their mothers or their sisters. They need a broader support group.

Michael Randle of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction agrees more attention and money needs to be spent on preparing ex-offenders for life outside prison.

Michael Randle: Either we focus on making them tax payers, or they become tax burdens. It's not being soft on crime, it's being smart on crime.

County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones says lack of aid to newly released inmates only compounds the problem of neglect during incarceration.

Peter Lawson Jones: Because what we're doing is sending more people to jail, many of whom ought to be receiving drug and alcohol interdiction, as opposed to prison sentences.

John Szakal: Basically, you've got to help yourself.

Former inmate John Szakal finally found work doing construction, because contractors are more interested in his skills than his record. Szakal says he's lucky that he's never had heavy substance abuse issues. But, over the course of twenty years in prison, he saw a lot of guys with drug and alcohol problems released and then re-incarcerated.

John Szakal: I know guys with five, six, seven, eight, nine numbers. Keep coming back, keep coming back.

From his perspective, that revolving door affects more than the lives of prisoners, and the authors of the Urban Institute study agree. They say the evidence strongly indicates that training inmates for real jobs while in prison and providing more help after release will cut crime and reduce recidivism, which for now, continues to grow. David C. Barnett, 90.3.

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