Offender Alumni Association: Protecting and Empowering Previously Incarcerated People

by Mariana Orozco, UAB student

During the Fall 2019 Semester at UAB, Dena Dickerson, the program Director at the Offender Alumni Association, and one of her mentees visited Beth Shelburne’s honors seminar. During their visit, they shared testimonials with students, talked about an organization that they are part of, and closed the session with the man singing to the students. This was a a very emotional class, leaving many students with tears. Furthermore, many of these students were also moved to advocate for those who are in prison or who have been released. Dena, being the program director, has contacted students who have volunteered with the Offender Alumni Association (OAA) and spread the word about it on campus. A couple of students sold Pura Vida bracelets to their peers and were able to raise $150. 

Photo of Dena Dickerson and students in class
Dena Dickerson speaks to students at UAB. Source: the author.

Background

OAA is an organization that helps those who have been previously incarcerated. Since its founding date, in 2014, they have impacted over 500 former offenders and their family members. They have been officially named a 501(c)3 nonprofit and launched several support forums in some of Alabama’s and Georgia’s major prisons. The main goals of this organization are to reduce recidivism rates, develop healthy relationships within communities, and provide opportunities for social, economic, and civic empowerment for people coming out of prison.  

The Effect of OAA for People

Similarly to the commonly known Alcoholics Anonymous program, OAA offers peer to peer support to help those who are seeking encouragement and support once they are released from prison. An organization like OAA is significant in providing help to people who have been in the same situation as those seeking it. OAA allows a place of honesty without any judgement. Not only are formerly incarcerated people benefiting from this, but OAA is also a place for their families to get resources and network with others who understand their situation. Many times, the focus of the people affected by the prison system is only on those who are incarcerated. However, there are many cases where the most affected is the family. OAA provides a space for these conversations and relationships to occur. 

The Effect of OAA in the Community 

Mass incarceration is everybody’s issue. Tax payers have to pay and communities have to suffer. As 2020 has brought attention to many people, there are many problems within the prison system. Alabama prisons are overpopulated, understaffed, and underfunded. The 2019 Department of Justice report described Alabama Prisons for Men as unconstitutional because of the guards’ abuse of the people in prison. OAA’s goal is to help reduce the number of people in prison through reducing recidivism rates. Through education and mentorship, they work towards reducing recidivism rates.  Although this does not necessarily mean the environment inside prisons will suddenly be good, it would create more living space and reduce the number of people being negatively affected by the system. OAA bridges the gap between “them” and “us” to help bring everyone together and treat people as human beings. 

An image of two young boys getting haircuts in a barber shop
OAA takes students from “Heroes in the Hood” to get haircuts. Source: the author

Future Programs

In efforts to further decrease the number of people in prison, OAA is opening a Youth Program. “Heroes in the Hood” took off in the middle of this pandemic. Currently, there are eight students, ages 14 to 18, who are mentored about work ethic and community pride. Dr. Stacy Moak, a Social Work professor at  UAB endorsed this program, saying that-“mentoring programs have shown promise in improving the opportunities for these youths to see new possibilities, complete high school, become job ready, and become productive members of society.” This Youth Program hopes to help good students who have been in jail because they do not have resources to help them be successful. 

How You Can Help 

In order for the new Youth Program to be successful, OAA is working on raising money. This money will be used to provide the students with computers and other school supplies. There are also plans on having engaging events with the student’s mentors to build trust with each other. They are selling OAA colors Pura Vida bracelets for $6. Any other donations can be done through their website. You can also help by educating those around you, sharing this article, or volunteering with this organization. 

Photo of Pura Vida bracelets
Green, white, and yellow PuraVida bracelets for the Offender Alumni Association. Source: OAA

The First Step Act: A Step Towards Criminal Justice Reform

A slightly open jail cell door.
Untitled. Source: Neil Conway, Creative Commons

On December 21 of 2018, Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law.  This piece of legislation has been marked by some as a massive breakthrough in criminal justice reform.  The bill is intended to “ensure people are prepared to come home from prison job-ready and have major incentives to pursue the life-changing classes that will help them succeed on the outside and includes changes that will potentially lower the cost of upkeep for correctional facilities. 

Improving Experiences of Time in Prison and Their Outcomes 

Many of the aspects of the First Step Act are geared towards decreasing recidivism (people returning to criminal behavior after being released from prison) through opportunities and resources that help prepare people for their lives after incarceration.  For example, the bill creates strong incentives to encourage prisoners to participate in preparative programs that are available to them.  For every 30 days of “successful participation,” individuals can receive 10 days of prerelease custody, where they are transferred to halfway houses or home confinement.  Incentives can also include increased phone and visitation privileges, access to email, increased commissary spending, and other requested incentives. 

The bill also designates $250 million to be used over five years by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to expand and develop skill-building classes and vocational training opportunities.  It also allows the BOP to work with outside organizations that can provide such classes.  According to the First Step Act, prisoners who are at a medium or high risk of recidivism are to be prioritized for receiving these opportunities, as well as counseling and treatment.  Before leaving federal prison, all are to receive their ID, allowing people to re-enter society more quickly and avoid “collateral consequences of incarceration.” 

In order to make it less difficult for families to visit, the bill states that people should not be placed in prisons that are more than “500 driving miles” away from their families.  This improves their ability to maintain ties with their relatives, which can improve their quality of life while incarcerated and make the process of reintegration into society easier afterwards. With the help of a strong support system and the tools needed to find work, released prisoners have a better chance of finding their place in their communities and not being reincarcerated later. 

Decreasing the Population Actually in Prison 

There are some aspects of the First Step Act that help to decrease the population of people in prison.  Increases the number of days of good time credit, which is earned through good behavior, from 47 to 54 days per year.  This change also applies to everyone in federal prisons who has already earned good time credit.  It is estimated that this change will save $40 million in the first year.  Additionally, the bill required the BOP to transfer prisoners that are considered low/minimum risk to prerelease custody and expanded compassion release.  Eligibility for the elderly offender program of compassion release now starts at age 60 instead of 65, the minimum portion of one’s sentence that must be served has been decreased from 75% to 66.7%, and the program is now available in all prisons. 

Views of the Purpose of Prison 

One’s understanding of the importance of legislation like the First Step Act can be significantly impacted by their perspective on the purposes of prisons.  Some people believe that prisons should be used to achieve retributive justice, where the main purpose is to punish criminals for their wrong-doings and to have them suffer for their action.  For someone who believes in retributive justice, the changes made by the First Step Act may not seem so important.   

Alternatively, other people believe that the incarceration system should be used to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them to re-enter society as individuals who can make more positive contributions to their community and avoid taking actions that would lead them back to imprisonment.  When you look at the First Step Act from this point of view, it is easy to see why the bill’s intended impacts are so significant.  It gives people a chance to learn from their mistakes and helps them become more productive members of society. 

Three prison windows.
p1000578.jpg. Source: David Johnson, Creative Commons

Why It Matters 

As of 2016, there were 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States.  That year, $57.7 billion were spent in state expenses for the upkeep of correctional facilities.   

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Chronic illnesses go untreated, emergencies are ignored, and patients with serious mental illness fail to receive necessary care,” which, in some cases, has led to the deaths of incarcerated individuals.  This violates Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that everyone has the right to a living standard that is sufficient to support their health and well-being and specifically includes things like medical care and vital social services.  Prison authorities are legally responsible for providing prisoners with their medical needs, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Estelle v. Gamble.  The ruling recognizes the potential of ignoring these needs to “amount to cruel and unusual punishment” due to the pain and suffering they can cause.  However, overcrowding in prisons and a lack in resources makes giving prisoners the care they need a challenge. 

The intended outcomes of the First Step Act can improve the access to human rights of people who have been incarcerated.  As it is said in the UN’s Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, prisoners are entitled to all the rights that are declared in the UDHR and other human rights documents and should have access to resources that can aid their ability to successfully rejoin society.  Decreasing rates of recidivism, as the actions of the First Step Act hopefully will, helps to lower the number of people in prison overall.  This allows for a change in the allocation of funds to take better care of people living in prisons, giving them greater access to their human rights.  People living in prisons are human beings just like everyone else and should not be treated as anything less.