Jason Hardy was working as a parole and probation officer in New Orleans, with a caseload so large it was literally unmanageable. That didn’t seem to faze the mother of one of his clients, who kept calling him to try to track down her son, a runaway who had gotten busted for heroin possession and put on probation.
Hardy had seen the boy only once before, and when he went to an address the kid had given him, it turned out to be an abandoned building in the French Quarter. Hardy realized the boy just didn’t want to be found, but the mother kept calling, insisting that the probation officer keep looking for him. Finally, frustrated, Hardy told her, “Look, I have 220 people on my caseload. I can’t drop everything and send out a search party for your kid, if he doesn’t want help.”
It wasn’t exactly the most polite response, but it was definitely the most honest one. “I had to spend what few resources I had on the people who stood the best chance of making use of them,” says Hardy today, explaining his reaction.
Hardy’s new book The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison, is exactly about that tension between trying to keep people from becoming recidivists, and the meager resources available to make that happen. It’s the sobering tale of working with drug abusers, drug dealers, and the mentally ill in one of America’s poorest, most crime-ridden cities. Told partially through the stories of seven of Hardy’s clients, it’s a wake-up call that zeroes in on one simple, but important, question: if we as a society sincerely want to cut down on crime and recidivism, do we want to spend our money on more prisons, or programs that will give ex-cons the ability to stay off drugs and out of jail?
“I think the main day-in, day-out frustration was that we didn’t have the tools to do the job,” says Hardy. “The only real resource at our disposal was the jail. It was a constant struggle to get funding for any alternative to incarceration.”
The statistics Hardy provides to show what a difficult job he had during his four years as a P.O. are particularly edifying: African-Americans are 60 percent of NOLA’s population, 80 percent of the offender population; 43 percent of the parolees in Louisiana will be back in jail within five years, compared to 25 percent nationwide; 10 percent of parolees are homeless when they get out of prison; the mentally ill make up anywhere from 1/5 to 1/3 of the U.S. jail population; and as of 2016, black employment in NOLA was only 52 percent.
Hardy admits that The City That Care Forgot and the state of Louisiana are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to help for their post-prison constituencies, that “in general, states with deeper pockets [he mentions New Jersey and Oregon as examples] have offered a far wider array of services to probationers and parolees. [But] I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with a state-level P.O. who felt like he had the resources he needed to do the job.”
This frustration really comes through in the individual cases Hardy chooses to talk about in The Second Chance Club (the title comes from a parolee who says probation and parole wouldn’t be called “the second chance club if they didn’t expect you to fuck up.”):
· There’s Sheila, who’s big on smoking weed, and is attracted to drug dealers. She manages to get a job at Subway, but still yearns for the wild life. At the end of the book, she’s managed to get mental health medication, but her future is still up in the air.
· Then there’s Travis, who’s on probation for heroin, and has problems at work. He gets little respect in the outside world, so feels the need to demand it from bosses, who see no reason to tolerate people like him. Because of this, Travis eventually loses not only a job at Wal-Mart but a lucrative gig working on an oil rig.
· Hard Head is a sixty-something military vet who uses crack, drinks, and lives mostly in a homeless encampment, but eventually gets his act together and finds a home and health care. He’s one of the few success stories.
· Kendrick is a mentally ill drug user who can only get professional help if his parole is revoked and he’s sent back to prison. “Prison for mental health,” says Hardy in the book, “you can’t make this up.”
· And Javaron, a hardcore career criminal, who shoots and kills a teenager in a dispute over a woman and is sentenced to 32 years in prison.
They’re all different, and yet in many ways, they’re all the same. Poor, badly educated, drug users, often with mental problems. “When I worked at probation and parole, one way that we would try to keep each other’s spirits up was to remind each other that changing human behavior is hard under any circumstances,” says Hardy. “People with every advantage sometimes struggle to shake a bad habit, make good choices. People coming through our doors after a lifetime of neglect—obviously, starting treatment or going back to school was going to be a hard sell for them.”
Which brings us to the question of drug legalization. Hardy mentions “the Portuguese thing,” a drug policy that country instituted in 2001 which essentially decriminalized drug possession and usage and has led to a significant decrease in overdoses, HIV infection, and drug-related crime. It has also led to an uptick in services—treatment, housing, etc.—to serve the addiction community.
Yet although Hardy says he is in favor of making possession of personal-use quantities of drugs a non-felony offense, he’s still conflicted about full-out legalization. He feels it’s difficult for people who have worked with addicts and seen overdoses up close to get behind the legalization movement. He is not convinced legalization will wipe out the black market in drugs and is concerned that it would be hard to regulate toxic pharmaceuticals like fentanyl, which “isn’t safe for human consumption in any form.”
But Hardy admits that “I had this conversation with a pro-legalization friend not long ago, and I really didn’t have a good answer when he hit me with the old reliable, ‘How’s that working out for you?’”
One thing seems certain: job training in prison, whether it’s for HVAC repair, carpentry, even a recent program instituted by New York City’s Rikers Island to teach inmates how to be baristas, helps reduce recidivism. But a lot depends on whether there are programs to help prisoners find jobs when they are released, and in many cases, prisoners on probation are not eligible for housing assistance, and those on drug charges can’t get food stamps in their first year out.
Still, Hardy is an optimist. He sees things changing, the general public and legislators caring about the problems created by the war on drugs and mass incarceration, and starting to do something about them. “I think ‘care,’ for lack of a better word, is at an all-time high,” he says. “The First Step Act [a bipartisan prison reform bill signed into law in 2018] was modest. It was mostly about reducing sentences for people serving time on drug convictions. But the dialogue around it was pretty remarkable. You had vast majorities on both sides of the aisle embracing this idea that rehabilitation is a cause the country should get behind. People of varying ideologies respond to results. If you can say, ‘This is cheaper than what we are doing now, and it also happens to be safer and more humane,’ they have a hard time blowing you off.”