Rockland can do more to support reintegrating former prisoners

By Steve Merriam | Jul 20, 2019

I attended the City Council meeting June 24, my first, since my wife, Kathy, and I just moved to Rockland from a large city (my family has lived in the Midcoast for at least six generations).

We don’t live on Talbot Avenue, but are very happy that residents of Rockland care enough about the city to make their voices heard; I have enjoyed learning about both sides of the issue concerning the proposed reentry house for former prisoners.

First, I’m concerned about how Talbot Avenue residents are being portrayed, by implication, in some of the comments on Village Soup. For example, during the June 24 meeting, I did not hear one Talbot resident use the term “those people,” a term that came up in the July 1 City Council agenda meeting to suggest that Talbot residents might look down upon reintegrating prisoners. A minister and his wife who run a structured, successful faith-based reentry program did use that term in their public comment before the council. I couldn’t tell if the two were suggesting that Talbot residents have, or would, call former prisoners “those people” (probably not), but the comment in the July 2 Village Soup article “Rockland council makes proposed law on group homes retroactive” implies that Talbot residents would.

It’s important to set the record straight on that point, especially when successive articles and comments suggest that concerned community members are not living up to Rockland’s excellent Diversity Resolution, or are undermining the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. I don’t see how they are. To invoke that resolution and that clause selectively seems misplaced when other community members feel slighted by a homebuyer’s lack of transparency. I trust we all want what’s best for the community, including Talbot residents.

But there are many issues here, including the process of Rockland’s Code Enforcement Office, proximity of returning prisoners to small children and the elderly, roommate arrangements, frustration with the City Council, etc. All of them deserve a fair hearing, of course.

I’m interested in the relationships between the community and marginalized and vulnerable people. I have worked on the periphery of reintegration programs most of my professional life (people who are homeless, and veterans living with PTSD and TBI who have been in custody). My wife, Kathy, has written reintegration workbooks for international human rights organizations, the State Department and the U.N. Today, these workbooks are helping local officials in 25 countries accept ostracized and misguided foreign fighters back into their communities; most have fought in Syria or with ISIS.

To succeed, former prisoners must not only receive help reintegrating while in custody, but must also enter supportive communities that have planned for their return and can help them transition. At the June 24 meeting, the minister said that the recidivism rate for his program is 30 percent (very good). He and his wife have provided those men and women with a supportive structure based on Christian faith. Successful reentry programs like theirs help marginalized people knit themselves back into caring communities that share responsibility among all members. If you’re interested in learning about a very successful program on the inside (20 percent recidivism), Google Norway’s Halden Prison. That program may not work here, but at least preparing for reintegration does work.

One regional organization addressing reentry is the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast. (rjpmidcoast.org/). I read about it before moving here, and I visited its office on our first trip back to Belfast shortly after we arrived in Maine. RJP's response to crime is to “seek renewal and safety for the community, support and healing for victims and accountability and reintegration of the offender.” The first two words of the motto at the top of their website: “Engaging Community.”

And Nate Davis’ observations about mass incarceration and a permanent underclass quoted in a July 2 Village Soup article are right on. Restorative justice, alternative sentencing and prisoner reentry programs, properly developed and based in a community, address issues associated with the cycle of incarceration (ask the minister).

However, I would not characterize community planning and engagement for those programs as an “any obstacle,” as I think he suggests, but as a requirement. Helping an opioid or other addicted person takes time, professional skill and a supportive community (ask an NA member about the 12 Traditions). The same commitment goes for former prisoners reentering a community.

Here is what I learned at the June 24 meeting: (1) the person who bought the home on Talbot did not notify the neighborhood community or the city about the potential tenants, denying them (at least) the opportunity to help the returning prisoners integrate; (2) the buyer paid cash for the property, which may limit oversight by a bank that holds a mortgage; (3) the homeowner did not engage Talbot Avenue neighbors in any meaningful dialog after the sale; (4) the homeowner did not seek help from, or even use, Rockland’s Prisoner Reentry Task force; (5) the Maine Department of Corrections is not affiliated in any way with the residence (despite having worked with the Restorative Justice Project); (6) the homeowner apparently attended the June 24 meeting, but chose not to reach out to the residents during public comment (that may have been inappropriate, anyway); (7) in official meetings with elected officials, the owner either could not or refused to answer detailed questions about programs to be offered at the residence, except to say that a house manager would be working with former prisoners on job readiness, resume building and financial literacy. (Great, but in my experience, prisoners have access to those programs -- and education, anger management, job training, and art and music therapy -- while incarcerated. What they need besides that is community-based support out of custody.)

Finally, is this residence modeled after the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast (rjpmidcoast.org/community-reentry-program.html)? If so, how did that center engage the community when it started?

Again, there are many issues here, and I have no real stake, except that I’m a new member of the community, am interested in reintegration and want to be informed. I’m happy to be corrected about my observations at the meeting, and about this issue in general. I would love to see Rockland continue developing and empowering a community-based process for reintegrating former prisoners. Using Rockland’s Prisoner Reentry Task Force seems like a good place for that; I am willing to support that group with my time, if needed, and I encourage other community members to get involved too. With compassion and respect for all community needs, we could create, or replicate, a model program.

Returning former prisoners need our support and engagement, as do all members of our community, including the residents of Talbot Avenue. Sadly, as a result of no engaged community planning and despite all good intentions, I believe the homeowner on Talbot Avenue has not served returning former prisoners well and has, in fact, jeopardized their success.

I believe we can do better.

Steve Merriam is a resident of Rockland.

Comments (4)
Posted by: STEVE MERRIAM | Jul 23, 2019 14:29

Ira--Thank you for your comment. It doesn’t surprise me that people in Rockland and Camden support recovery pathways, and having had some experience with sober-living residences like those you run, I know how important they are to those living with addiction, their families and the communities that support them. It turns out that the City Council is having a workshop on the ordinance and (I believe) on reentry houses tomorrow night (Wednesday) at 5:30 at City Hall. If you’re there, I hope to meet you. Personally, I’d really like to hear more about Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition. Thanks again.

Amy—Thank you too for your response. Clearly, you and I share a passion for justice and equality, even though sometimes we may not agree about how to get there. I think the points I made in the letter speak for themselves, and I stand by them, but It would be wonderful if we—you and I—could channel our passion toward constructive ends. I hope you will join local and state officials and all members of the community like Kathy and me at the City Council workshop tomorrow night. If so, I’ll make a point of introducing myself and hopefully we can talk further. Thanks again.



Posted by: Amy Files | Jul 23, 2019 12:35

In response to Steve's article(?) or opinion piece(?) -- 1) It would appear that your statement about "setting the record straight" is hypocritical when you then go on to publish a handful of misinformed comments -- to suggest that the reference to "those people" didn't happen simply because "you did not hear it" is not factual or definitive. There were multiple meetings and unless you listened to all of the public comments and can attest it wasn't said -- your statement is misleading and misinformative. I personally did listen to many of the public comments and heard over and over negative and dergatory comments made in reference to a class of people who are-- and you should be more clear about this -- otherwise free peopel just like you and I and free to live in any home, in any neighborhood in our City; 2) to state that the buyer did not notify neighbors ignores the fact that they have no legal requirement to do so -- again, the peopel who would live within this home are legally free to live wherever they like in the City -- it is not a landlord's duty to notify neighbors and provide them with personal informaton about their tenants; 3) you also ignore and neglect to provide information about how the owner did try and reach out to the neighbors -- but it was neighbors who refused to meet with the owner -- as I have heard it the owner made both a private space and moderator available in order to meet with neighbors and answer their questions, but it was the neighbors who refused to meet with the owner; so your statement that the owner did not "engage" the neighbors in any meaningful dialogue would appear to be false and unfairly portrays the owner in an negative light; 4) referring to the tenants as "returning prisoners" is also misleading -- these people are not prisoners at all -- they are free people who happen to have served time recently -- referring to them in any way as "prisoners" only furthers their discrimination and contributes to people's confusion about this home. Ultimately, per John Root's ruling (and upheld unanimously by the Zoning Board of Appeals) -- the owner followed the law, reached out to City officials in advance, and did in fact reach out to neighbors -- it may not have been along their preferred timeline -- but if I were that owner, I would also be hesitant to engage with what has come across as an angry mob of people without setting up the proper space, time and mediator. As to the timeline -- there is no time for a potential owner to first knock on doors before deciding to purchase a property. Any reasonably priced, affordable property in our City is on the market for about 1 to 3 days before an offer is on it. The suggestion by neighbors that they should have been approached before a sale was made is not a reasonable one. And unfortunately it sounds like they heard about the project in a very unethical way -- by way of the realtor alarming them -- and then panic, anger and fear ensued -- not creating any kind of climate that would make it easy for the owner to engage with them on her own.

Lastly -- you reference the Diversity Resolution -- were you involved in its passage? Did you live here when it was advocated for? Have you read it? The whole concept of that resolution is to stay that Rockland's value is be an inclusive and welcoming community to all people -- particularly those most vulnerable to discrimination. It absolutely applies here when a group of neighbors are essentially saying that they don't want people who have served time living next door to them. Your suggestion that this is just about a lack of "transparency" ignores all of the inflammatory and fear-based statements made targeting a particular class of people. Lastly, if I understand correctly this home will also serve as "recovery" home. I don't believe you mentioned that -- did you read the Zoning Board of Appeals packet before you wrote an article covering the subject? In that packet you would find a good deal more information about the nature of the neighbor's appeal as well as details provided by the owner of the property.



Posted by: Ira Mandel | Jul 22, 2019 09:13

Steve - Thank you for your spot on comments and observations.  I am the founder and board chairman of the Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition which runs two Maine Association of Recovery Residence certified recovery residences in Knox County (one for men in Rockland and the other in Camden for women).  The men we serve are essentially the same as the intended residents as the Talbot House and The Freedom House.  Prior to purchasing both of our houses, we notified the public via all media outlets and held public meetings.  While there was a small amount of concern and opposition, both houses are running with virtually no controversy and we are serving those in need very well.

It is understandable that people will feel threatened by the unknown, particularly when answers seem evasive.  It is then that people say "Not in My Backyard"!  I am encouraged that most of the local population does support recovery residences and was manifest by a huge show of public support to help the Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition purchase the Camden property in December.  Also, both Rockland and Camden town governments were helpful and supportive with our openness and working closely with them.  Even with the acquisition of the Camden property, our goal was much more to engage the public in a discussion about this issue than actually successfully purchasing and opening the house.  As you said, each action needs to be linked to the other for better outcomes.  Thank you for your comments.

 



Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jul 20, 2019 13:58

Well said! And hopefully we WILL do better. Thanks for the information.



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