A van pulls up outside the homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix and disgorges its occupants. They are clad in the jumpsuits of the Arizona Department of Corrections. The tags on their breasts bearing their identifications have been blacked out. One carries a TV he purchased while in prison. You can't miss a prison-issue television -- the cabinet is transparent plastic.
The DOC has given each inmate $50 -- survival money.
Before the van even disappears, denizens of the neighborhood have already begun to stalk the newcomers. The predators scent fresh meat. The hustlers know these guys have a little money, and they know they've been denied certain illicit pleasures. There are no female crack whores where these men have been. Cheap drugs are not so plentiful as they are on West Madison Street.
Outside the homeless shelter, these temptations exist in abundance.
And if the parolees are not in a buying mood, perhaps the rabble will just take their survival money from them.
The DOC used to pay to get parolees into halfway houses. Today, it uses a half-assed drop-off program instead.
Draconian mandatory-sentencing statutes are the law of the realm. So the state's focus has been on building new and bigger prisons to house a burgeoning inmate population. What happens when they get out has become an afterthought.
Do your sentence. Here's a little cash. Now get the hell back out on the street, where you got into trouble in the first place.
This is the state's ingenious method of transitioning paroled convicts back into society. More than 12,000 will be sprung from jail this year alone. Some will emerge with the good fortune of a street address, a place to get their bearings, get a decent meal, a night's sleep, a shower and, preferably, a job.
Those who lack the luxury of family or some support structure on the outside will commune with the habitués in and around the Central Arizona Shelter Services facility.
"It definitely happens, every day," says John Wall, CASS's program director.
His boss, CASS chief executive officer Mark Holleran, believes people of influence are beginning to recognize that simply abandoning ex-cons is a costly and short-sighted exercise. Understandably, he'd rather not ruffle any feathers at the DOC.
"You can say that they get dumped off here, or you can say they don't get dumped off here, but either way, they end up at CASS," Holleran says.
Louisa Stark, director of the Community Housing partnership, calls the state's approach "a recipe for disaster. . . . We're setting these people up to go back to prison."
State Representative Mark Anderson wants to do something about it. The Mesa Republican and chair of the House Human Services Committee introduced a bill this session to turn the revolving door into a more bona fide prison exit.
His Community Transition Program would employ private contractors to begin working with inmates a year before their release. Case managers would assess an inmate's skills and try to help make arrangements that would assure them a stable living environment and a job. Mentors would track the parolees in an effort to keep them out of trouble and out of prison.
The bill easily passed both houses of the Legislature.
Unfortunately, Governor Jane Dee Hull vetoed Anderson's bill on Monday night, largely because DOC director Terry Stewart is not enamored of it.
"[Stewart] is the only person in the state opposing that bill," Anderson grouses. "He doesn't quite have a clear explanation. He's saying we may need it for drug and alcohol treatment, but that money isn't being spent. It doesn't really make any sense."
Stewart was not available for comment.
Anderson notes that even Texas, notorious for transitioning inmates into the hereafter, has an ambitious program to support those who do happen to leave the pen with a pulse.
Anderson says Stewart initially told him that he had no problem with the bill as long as it didn't siphon any money from a pet pot of cash.
"He said, 'I'm okay with these three funds as long as you don't touch the Arizona Correctional Industries Fund,'" Anderson says.
Within days, however, Stewart had changed his mind. He began campaigning against Anderson's bill.
The measure would take $1.2 million from two line items that were in the current budget, but for which money was never appropriated. The money is just sitting there.
"It has no impact on the general fund of the state," Anderson says of his bill. "Even if this bill is signed by the governor and goes into effect, those two funds will have an excess."
In her veto message, Hull called a transition program "a worthy goal." But she said "it is not prudent to finance a new program by taking funds from existing programs that work."
She did not address why these fabulous "existing programs" didn't "exist" in the current budget year.
"I'm disappointed that apparently the governor cares more about one bureaucrat and his little budget than she cares about the issue: What are we going to do with these 12,000 guys who are coming out of prison?
"Because we just drop them off and say 'Good luck,' they make the choice to just go back."
The people who try to clean up the mess created by the state are eager to see Anderson's bill become law.
Margie Frost, director of the East Valley Transitional Training and Living Center, has more than 200 letters from soon-to-be-freed inmates who are desperately seeking a place to live -- and start over.
"It's not pretty," Frost says.
She calls Anderson's bill "long overdue."
"You should see some of the letters that we get from guys who say they have no place to go," she says. "A number of them are saying they're not getting any kind of information on what to do or where to go before they're released."
She takes these men in, provided she has the space. Frost's 84-bed center has been full, with a long waiting list, since January. Residents can stay up to two years, but they must work, and save 85 percent of their income to reestablish themselves once they leave.
She says many of those she can't take in will wind up back behind bars, being fed by the taxpayers, contributing nothing to society, consuming taxes rather than paying any.
"In prison, he knows he's going to get three squares a day, and he knows he'll have a place to lay down," Frost says.
My job frequently makes me the bearer of disconcerting news. So it was exhilarating to inform Evelyn Patterson that the State of Arizona no longer considers her to be a criminal.
"I'm just so grateful," she says in a breathless tone.
Unfortunately, what is good news for Patterson will undoubtedly mean bad news for Maricopa County taxpayers. Once again, our collective wallets will be lightened because of the behavior of one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's finest.
Patterson, 65, and her aunt, Ann Priestly, 72, were convicted of disorderly conduct last year in a case that stemmed from their November 1999 detention by a security guard outside a Dillard's department store at Arrowhead Towne Center ("Eyes on the Reprisal," February 22). The guard was sheriff's detective Jeff Manka, who was working off-duty for Dillard's.
Manka accused the women, who are African American, of shoplifting. He was dressed in a tee shirt, sneakers and cut-off trousers. Uncertain of whom exactly was confronting them, the women resisted Manka's aggression. He responded by dragging them through the store. They grasped onto clothing displays in an attempt to halt his progress. He had the women searched. When he discovered a receipt for the items in the Dillard's shopping bag they carried, he called another department store to see whether they had stolen anything there.
The women were clean, but Manka had manhandled them in a most public and humiliating fashion. So he compounded his flagrancy by citing them for disorderly conduct and telling them they would be charged with trespassing if they ever set foot in another Dillard's store. The suspects demanded a trial.
A year ago, Peoria Justice of the Peace Lex Anderson listened to the evidence and perfunctorily convicted both Priestly and Patterson of disorderly conduct. He fined each $305.
The women -- both had spotless, even exemplary, records -- would have none of that. They appealed their convictions to Maricopa County Superior Court.
Last week, Judge Michael Wilkinson vindicated the two. In his terse order dismissing the charges, Wilkinson wrote that "the information that Deputy Manka possessed was woefully deficient to confront and detain the Appellants . . ."
"Therefore, because the detention lacked even 'reasonable suspicion,' the detention was illegal and the disorderly conduct that flowed from it must be dismissed."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Patterson, reached by phone at her Milwaukee home, was ecstatic.
"Here you are walking around innocently and somebody comes up and starts treating you like that -- like dirt -- it's just unbelievable," she says. "Although we ran up against the first judge, someone higher than him saw that this was unjust."
Wilkinson's ruling adds gravity to the civil complaint Patterson and Priestly have filed against the county, the Sheriff's Office and Dillard's. The taxpayer tab for the brutal and illegal actions of Arpaio's troops continues to soar. The sheriff is a walking, talking liability claim.
And the retailer's sordid history of harassment of people of color continues to make headlines -- and hefty civil settlements for the aggrieved -- across the nation.