BOISE — Jeremy Cunningham didn’t know who was picking him up from prison, but he certainly wasn’t expecting a familiar face.
“Wait, I know you,” he said, shaking an older man’s hand with a broad smile on his face. “It’s a small world.”
Cunningham, 43, was handed a small paper bag of his belongings in the detention center lobby in south Ada County and followed Mark Renick out into the drizzly Monday morning air. For the second time, he climbed into the passenger seat of Renick’s car, and they set off for Boise to help get his feet back under him after four months behind bars at the Idaho Correctional Alternative Placement Program facility in Kuna.
Renick is the state coordinator for re-entry services for St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic volunteer organization. With a team of almost a dozen volunteers, he assists 12 to 17 people a week in the first hours after their release from prison. Most often it starts with a simple car ride from prison and a hot breakfast immediately after being released but can go as far as rental assistance, help finding employment and support from others looking to get back on track after serving time.
“We don’t know who they are; all we know is they need a ride,” Renick said. “It doesn’t matter if they’ve been in two years or 10 years, a lot of things are changing for them very quickly.”
The struggle of making the transition from being incarcerated back into society is not unfamiliar to Renick. He was convicted of robbery in 2004, went to prison, was released in 2011 and then went to Northwest Nazarene University for a graduate degree in social work. While he was on the inside, he formed a network of other older prisoners with whom he now works at St. Vincent de Paul to help other people who were in their shoes transition to a stable way of life.
The first time Renick picked up Cunningham, he had just been released from prison and was looking at miles of walking ahead of him from the probation and parole office on the western side of Boise to a shelter in downtown where he was going to stay the night. Instead of making the trek in just the clothes he was given upon his release, someone handed Cunningham Renick’s card, and within 20 minutes, he had a ride and connections to help him find transitional housing later.
“Mark saved me,” Cunningham said. “He really did.”
Renick wears several hats, including his work with St. Vincent de Paul’s re-entry program, running the nonprofit IMSI Hope Community Phase II he founded right out of prison to give faith-based support to those returning from incarceration, and he hosts a radio show called Victory Over Sin related to issues around re-entry and recovery.
Although the Idaho Department of Correction has recently added new programming to help those coming out of incarceration and is working on ways to help reduce recidivism, the work of nonprofits like Renick’s are helping fill in the gaps to get people the services they need to succeed.
MORE HELP ON THE OUTSIDE
Between its booming population and strict mandatory minimum laws for drug trafficking charges, Idaho’s prison population has exploded in recent years leaving more and more people like Cunningham facing the difficulties of transitioning to life on the outside. Currently, there are 8,816 people behind bars, with an estimated population of 10,000 by 2021. Another 15,892 were on parole as of August 2018.
And just like Cunningham and his recent stint in prison, many of them are not incarcerated for the first time. Idaho Department of Correction Director Josh Tewalt estimated to a committee at the Legislature earlier this year that over 70 percent of the people walking into prison in Idaho are failed probationers or failed parolees. In order to head off the possibility of a $500 million prison expansion and to combat recidivism, the state has changed strategies and is instead investing in more minimum security and work-release beds along with increased supervision in the community.
Part of that new playbook includes IDOC’s One-Stop Reentry Center that opened in December, which is staffed by six re-entry specialists who work with mostly high- or medium-risk and sex offenders to transition back into the community. This office is on Emerald Street in Boise, next door to the office that houses Renick and his staff, which is definitely not a coincidence.
“As soon as we announced the new center (Renick) said, ‘I’m moving right next door,’” IDOC re-entry manager Tim Leigh said. “Our people go back and forth all the time. If there’s something we can’t help (clients) with, like if they need money for a driver’s license, (Renick’s) team is able to help with things like that.”
Both centers serve a similar purpose, which is a central location for those who have been recently released to get assistance with health care, finding a job, using computers to fill out online applications, looking for housing or even a place to borrow a bike to get around. IDOC’s One-Stop Center also has three parole officers based there who can meet with parolees.
Each of the re-entry specialists has a caseload of 60 people at a time, but they also assist any walk-ins who come in looking for help. Leigh said when the One-Stop first opened, they had only 21 people come in search of help, but in March the center had 222.
For Renick, giving people rides and helping them find their footing soon after being released can make a world of difference, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem.
“If you want to go where all the money goes in this state, look right here,” he said, while driving past several state prison facilities in Kuna on the way to pick up Cunningham. “Locking people up is a big business in this state.”
Instead, Renick said he and St. Vincent de Paul’s re-entry activist arm Systemic Change of Idaho have been working with other organizations to lobby in the Legislature to try to make changes so there are fewer people going to prison and their transition to living in the community is smoother. Some things he hopes to see changed in Idaho include legislation that would ban employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history and getting rid of mandatory minimums that require a fixed sentence for drug trafficking with no option for parole.
Something Renick is also critical of is Idaho’s indeterminate sentencing system. Under the system, each sentence includes a fixed term and an additional indeterminate term, during which the inmate may or may not be released on parole. This affected Cunningham, who was originally sentenced to between one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years in prison starting in 2014 and was released in 2016. However, because of two parole violations for trace amounts of meth that landed him back in prison for two brief times, he ended up serving a total of five years.
Cunningham said that while he was in prison, he went through several programs to help him with his drug addiction, but he ended up relapsing anyway. Now that he’s out, he said he hopes he can use Renick’s resources, get back to work in construction, find a permanent place to live and pay off the debt he’s accrued while incarcerated. However, he fears that because of Boise’s tight housing market, skyrocketing rents and the difficulty of finding a place that will rent to felons, it might not be that easy.
“It takes so much longer (to reintegrate) when you’re in high-risk situations where relapsing can be a real thing,” he said. “The fact that there’s a lot of drug use is not getting any better, so if you’re having to be forced to be in those situations where you’re around people that are using, it’s much harder to stay clean.”
Idaho Press reporters Tommy Simmons and Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.