The Second Chance Club:  Hardship and Hope After Prison, by Jason Hardy

              Many of the people reading this review or Jason Hardy’s book have no idea what goes on the minds of parole officers—if anything.  This well-written, compelling book can fill that void.  Lots goes on in the mind of Hardy as he learns to ropes of his new job as New Orleans parole officer (P&P), as he visits the neighborhoods and houses of his parolees, and as he finally leaves the profession.

              I read many books about prisons—from inmate memoir to policy books by academics.  Hardy’s book is neither;  it reads like a journal of an idealistic college graduate who hopes to make a difference in a messed-up system in New Orleans. 

              To help us understand both the optimism and exasperation of the job, Hardy offers his reactions to about 7 clients—some stories of moderate success, some out-and-out failures, and some, well, as good as it’s going to get for those clients. 

              His empathy for his clients resounds on each page, even when he intermingles the depressing statistics in this new world he has entered:

“Forty-three percent of parolees in Louisiana would be back in prison within five years.  Nationally, the parole revocation was closer to 25 percent…. These numbers didn’t include people who died of drug overdoses and people who completed their community supervision sentences as poor and addicted as they were when they got out of jail.” 

They return to literally the scene of the crimes—where else can they go?  Convictions deprive them of housing, social support, and jobs.  One of his female clients finds yet another ‘don’ to support her, and she is positive that this one will treat her differently.  (In a raid, the female steps up and pleads guilty so her man can go free.)

If they are fortunate enough to get into the city therapy program, they are told that 1) Your prior circumstances weren’t all your fault, and 2)  You still have the power to change them.  Hardy did look at the dismal surroundings, did investigate opportunities and family support, did try to get his clients into the few open slots of social services.  What power did these formerly-incarcerated people supposed to have? 

Hardy joined P&P when New Orleans officials were optimistic:  “You’re coming abroad at an historic moment… prison is in the past.  Community supervision is the new model for corrections in America.” 

Part of that optimism came from the unprecedented national focus on criminal justice from the Black Lives Matter wave, and partly from the publicity on “rash of police shootings”: 

“Intense public scrutiny of American law enforcement had opened it up to hosts of new ideas, some of which had produced very strange bedfellows.  Left-wing anti-incarceration activists suddenly found themselves allied with libertarian think tanks on the topic of reducing public spending on imprisoning drug addicts.  So far, that sea change that the P&P academy director predicted at my graduation was more a matter of theory than practice, but the theory was worth getting excited about.”

As he left:  “Most of the gang members and the dons couldn’t break the lifestyle addiction, even after we applied the new forms of assistance made available by NOLA for Life.  Overdoses weren’t slowing down, and the supply of drugs in New Orleans appeared as plentiful as ever.  We were still a poor city with failing schools and few opportunities for upward mobility in our most violent neighborhoods. “

His epilogue is a short list of what he wishes could happen to change parole into the Second Chance Club it could actually be.

  1.  Shorten the standard community supervision period of 5 years to 2. Most clients would be sentenced to serve between two and five years on probation or parole and released about completing appx 40% of it. 
  • Use savings from shortened sentences to expand access to treatment courts.  A seminar lesson:  “If we spent the money allotted to five-year probation in two, we could offer everybody an intensive rehabilitation program like drug court or mental health court of the DRC.  We could check in on every client monthly and get to know him well enough to make informed referrals. We could offer more treatment and put ourselves in a better position to get the referral right.  One of the seminar givers put it like this:  “If a person isn’t worth supervising all the way, he isn’t worth supervising at all.” 
  • Establish a “transition year” for parolees by rolling parole dates for eligible inmates forward six months.  (early release–use saved money for rental help, etc.)

I read Hardy’s book in one sitting.  He’s a terrific writer with a compelling story.  He made me root for the clients—especially those with such sad homes, such temptations to return to the easier and richer life of drug dealing. 

One take-away for me was that if someone who really wanted to leave The Life could get partnered with someone like P&P Hardy, then the chances for success would increase exponentially.  So how do we accomplish that?  In my inmate correspondence, I find two disparate groups:  those taking business entrepreneurship classes to make a positive change once they are released, and those who watch TV all day and find a way to smoke K2 until they can leave.

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