Prisoner reentry house debate offers lessons all around

By The Courier-Gazette Editorial Board | Jul 18, 2019

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems all parties involved could have handled the proposal for a transitional house for former prisoners on Rockland's Talbot Avenue a little better.

Kathryn Matlack of Freedom Path LLC wants to use the house as a place where former inmates can safely transition from their life as prisoners to surviving outside that system. It would provide a safe, sober environment for them.

Neighbors of the proposed reentry house went to City Council with concerns about what this would mean for their neighborhood's safety and property values.

Every person sent to the Maine State Prison in Warren or the Knox County Jail here in Rockland is not the same, and cannot be painted with the same brush. Many who are being released from the prison are transitioning through the Bolduc Correctional Facility, which is the minimum security farm in Warren. Those inmates participate in work release programs and have received training to prepare them for the transition back to society, and they earn their place in that program through good behavior and making an effort to improve themselves. Many who are violent or refuse to work well with others end up with further charges and are not released.

Among the group that is released, those entering a special program -- a reentry house like the one being proposed or the existing L.I.F.E. Ministries house in Rockland -- are voluntarily choosing to live by strict rules and in a structured manner.

We would argue that programs like these are better for the community than simply releasing prisoners with no clear plan for their future.

For more than a century, because of the presence of the Maine State Prison in Knox County, prisoners have been our neighbors, like it or not. And even if there were no reentry houses like this one, you could very well end up with a former prisoner next door.

So perhaps we could all adopt a better attitude toward former prisoners.

As for property values, those are likely affected more by perception than reality in this situation. The more negative publicity is kicked up around this issue, the more property values are potentially impacted. However, sending the message that a property is located in an inclusive and diverse community where people know and help each other could improve those values.

In this case, we would also argue that the City Council acted too hastily in bringing forth ordinance changes to deal with these neighbors' complaints. Suddenly the council is redefining what constitutes a family, with requirements being issued about people having to cook together and share food expenses for it to be a single-family home versus a boarding house and so on. Some in the community are now concerned that the rule changes might make it harder for those looking to share expenses as roommates.

Again, we have the benefit of a few weeks of hindsight here, but it might have been better for the council to be less reactionary, to take a breath and say, "We will talk about this and think about it for a while."

In addition, in the midst of this, Code Enforcement Officer John Root resigned after a councilor criticized him publicly. Elected councilors should not throw city employees under the bus in public meetings.

To be fair to the neighbors, Matlack should have been more transparent in notifying them about her plan earlier in the process. Waiting until something is a done deal is never a good way to inform neighbors. She should also have been more upfront in answering questions from the local press and at meetings.

The positive outcome has been that it has led to a community conversation about prisoner reentry and rehabilitation that is long overdue.

One of Rockland's strengths has been its strong sense of community and the willingness of residents here to help each other out. A good example of that is Jake and Tanja Barbour with L.I.F.E. Ministries, who help prisoners reenter society. We have a story on the front page about one of the former prisoners in their program.

It is a good reminder that we do not get to choose our neighbors, but we can befriend them.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Jul 18, 2019 09:24

Jake and Tanja Barbour set a powerful example of what can be done working together. Great marshals for some future Lobster Festival parade. Also, excellent, uplifting article from the editorial board.

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