Re-entry nonprofit focuses on criminal justice problems



By Cynthia Price

It has only been recently that the term “mass incarceration” became a part of the popular conversation, but then it has only been within approximately the past twenty years that so many people have been in prison such a term was needed.

Though the numbers are shocking, the 2.3 million or so people in prison and jail, and the additional 4.75 million involved with the criminal justice system (on probation, parole, and in other ways), are actually a slight decrease from the peak in 2008-2009.

Current figures still represent a 700% increase since 1970. And the United States, with slightly less than 5% of the world’s population, makes up almost 25% of the people incar-
cerated in the world.

And crime? There was a big increase from the 1960s until approximately 1990, but since then rates of serious crime have continued to decline.

So it is clear to most analysts that the two things, crime and incarceration for crimes, are not tracking.

Two factors complicate the situation further: first, people of color are much more likely to be incarcerated, percentage-wise, than their numbers in the general population; and second, people who have been in prison have a tough time even after they have paid their debt to society.

This is what the non-profit Fresh Coast Alliance seeks to address. Initially called 70 x 7 Recovery as part of a group of organizations originating in Holland, Fresh Coast Alliance has expanded its mission to include prisoner re-entry.

“70 x 7 Recovery had a model down there in Holland that was great, and it was a good start for us,” says Nate Johnson, Fresh Coast Alliance’s reentry and outreach direction. “But then we were growing into different services, and it took on a different form here in Muskegon.”

On Saturday, Feb. 9, Fresh Coast Alliance joined other groups nationwide in hosting a “Locked in Solidarity” event. Locked in Solidarity is a campaign of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), with which Fresh Coast Alliance is affiliated, to raise awareness of and direct action toward the plight of those who have gone to prison.

Locked in Solidarity is particularly aimed at people in the Christian church. The keynote speaker, Heather Garretson, included in her address the biblical call to work on behalf of the imprisoned. Garretson, Michigan Coordinator of the Smart Justice campaign of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), noted that despite the political trend to remain “tough on crime,” Jesus Christ called for His disciples to extend compassion, love, and assistance to incarcerated people.

She quoted the Bible passage where Christ reads words from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free...”

The goals of the Smart Justice campaign, which Garretson joined about a year and a half ago, are to reduce the prison population by 50% and to eliminate racism in the system.

“We’re attacking this three ways: one is to end cash bail, which is a big driver of incarceration; second, to reform sentencing policies in Michigan; and lastly to educate the public about prosecutorial election and make what prosecutors do more transparent,” Garretson explains. The last includes talking about the potential injustice of plea bargaining, and determining how decisions are made on who will go into diversion programs such as drug court rather than to jail or prison.

Garretson met Johnson, who was formerly incarcerated for dealing drugs, at a CCDA conference, and they discovered that they had grown up a couple of blocks apart, near Muskegon High School. She commented about the Feb. 9 event, “I thought it was great. I particularly enjoy it when there are people who have been impacted present; I think it’s really important to hear from them. It was really a nice mix. Nate does a good job.”

And Johnson returns the compliment. “Heather’s a great person and her passion for what she does is real. She was definitely the right person for this event.”

In addition to Garretson’s keynote, there were morning breakout sessions. One dealt with welcoming returning citizens with Criminal Sexual Conduct charges, which everyone agreed is a very challenging situation. The other was about trauma and incarceration, and included a very informative slide show by Dr. Donna Lamar depicting the negative impact on the physical brain of severe stress and abuse, as well as a talk by Richard Speck, also of the ACLU Smart Justice campaign, about his direct experience of trauma upon his release from prison.

Following lunch, there was a panel discussion with Johnson and other returning citizens, and further breakout sessions regarding service opportunities.

Fresh Coast Alliance has a number of programs to help people returning from prison survive and thrive. Hope, learn, work, heal and dream are the organizational pillars. Services include the Impact employment program, mentoring groups, a “thinking for a change” group, and customized services.

“We also raise awareness, particularly about the paradigms of how we think about and treat prisoners. There’s this punitive perspective - lock them up and throw away the key. But we want people to think about the fact that if not for the grace of God that could happen to them. We try, especially through events like Locked in Solidary, to raise awareness about the injustices within the criminal justice system,” Johnson says.

Nor has the organization pulled back from helping people in recovery from addiction. They have incorporated Alcohol and Chemical Abuse Consultants so there is a strong counseling arm, and there is an on-staff Recovery and Housing Director, Terry Johnson.

Programs in both re-entry and recovery are individualized and customized.

Says (Nate) Johnson, “There are three factors concerning people who go to prison: they lack education, the majority don’t even have a GED; almost all of them come from poverty; and many suffer from mental health problems. I think that just about 100% of prisoners have one of the three, and most have more than one. In order to reduce recidivism, we have to start reducing or resolving those.”

The executive director of Fresh Coast Alliance, whose staff has grown to 21 people, is Joe Whalen.

Fresh Coast Alliance has a training center donated to them by Kingdom Life Church on Roberts Street, and a nearby office on Apple Avenue. Their web page is