Stir Crazy

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."