Freedom can be terrifying

BISMARCK--When inmate David Mitchell learned he was getting out on probation, he wasn't happy or excited. "I was terrified," said the 47-year-old Bismarck man, who was serving time for his fifth conviction of driving under the influence, which, i...

BISMARCK-When inmate David Mitchell learned he was getting out on probation, he wasn't happy or excited.

"I was terrified," said the 47-year-old Bismarck man, who was serving time for his fifth conviction of driving under the influence, which, in 2013, the North Dakota Legislature made a felony when a driver hits a fourth DUI offense.

After orientation at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, Mitchell spent five months at the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck and another five months at the Tompkins Rehabilitation and Corrections Center in Jamestown. Halfway through treatment, he learned that the halfway house where he hoped to stay upon release wasn't taking "DUI guys."

"I'd never been homeless before," he said.

Faced with that prospect, Mitchell said he was ready to go back to prison to finish serving his time.


"They kind of talked me down," Mitchell said, referring to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation staff who counseled him on his post-release options.

Sister Kathleen Atkinson said stories such as Mitchell's are common and are the reason she formed Ministry on the Margins and the Stay Out of Jail Club, which is regularly attended by 20 to 25 former inmates.

Atkinson, a nun at the Benedictine Sisters of Annunciation Monastery, said she has been visiting her "men at the pen" for years. But it was a visit about five years ago that changed her perspective. She said the man she was visiting told her he was terrified of being released.

"He hadn't been out for several years. And now he's supposed to walk through the gates and make it in Bismarck," she said.

Inmates make less than 20 decisions a day, Atkinson said. Upon release, they will be making 1,000. In addition, many ex-felons find themselves locked out of housing and work. To a felon, Atkinson said job opening signs read "Help Wanted - But Not You."

Finding a job

Mitchell, a welder for five years, admits he's one of the lucky ones.

He returned to work for his former employer, Terry Mauch, of TM Welding and Repair in Lincoln. Mauch even picked Mitchell up from prison and bought him some work boots and lunch.


"He called me when he was getting out. I said, 'I'll give you a second chance.' Everybody deserves a second chance, I guess," said Mauch, who described Mitchell as a good employee when he worked for him for six to eight months before his November 2014 incarceration.

"His problem was drinking. I knew he was going back on the ankle bracelet, and, as long as he was on that, he didn't have a problem," said Mauch, who was referring to the electronic monitoring device called a SCRAM bracelet, which is used to track a probationer's whereabouts and to remotely monitor alcohol consumption.

Mitchell isn't the only probationer working for Mausch, who occasionally hires from local halfway houses. Mauch said the results are mixed: Some make good employees, while others have a bad attitude and don't accept responsibility for anything.

Establishing a home

Mitchell has been staying at the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House since getting out of treatment in August. For $50 a week, he gets room and board, and he's found that being technically homeless hasn't been as terrifying as he thought it would be.

"I'm very grateful there was Ruth Meiers to go to," he said. "We're always afraid of the unknown, I guess."

Soon, Mitchell will move to the second floor of the facility, where he'll pay $300 a month for rent for up to 18 months.

"I'm just trying to save money," he said.


Mitchell will need that money, because as tight as housing in the Bismarck-Mandan area is for non-felons, it's even harder for an ex-felon to find a place to live, Atkinson said.

Sex offenders face an even higher barrier to societal re-entry, said Atkinson, pointing out that society lumps all sex offenders into the same category, regardless of the severity of the offense.

"You don't get a second chance for a variety of reasons," she said. "You can't move up to North Dakota and start over, because I can see what you did in Arkansas."

Providing support

That's what the Stay Out of Jail Club is intended to address. Atkinson meets with the men weekly, joining in prayer and offering one another support and sometimes even prospects for jobs or housing. Atkinson said it is not unlike a "12-step" group.

"This is just the support for people who understand what it's like," Atkinson said.

Mitchell has been sober for one year and he said the SCRAM bracelet guarantees he'll stay that way for at least two more. He says the compulsion to drink is weaker now, and only really returns when he is bored, so Mitchell tries to stay busy.

He has ample cause.

Besides saving for housing, Mitchell said he hopes one day to receive regular visitation with his two sons, ages 8 and 12, who live in South Dakota.

Mitchell said the key to his ongoing success is staying focused and positive.

"Just do what you're supposed to do. And that's what I've done," he said.

For many former inmates, playing by the rules isn't enough, according to Atkinson.

"And that's why it's a very unsuccessful system," said Atkinson, adding that as long as society continues to criminalize addiction and mental illness, North Dakota's jail and prison rosters will continue to grow.

Recidivism will only drop when society makes "non-naive recognition that all of us have done some not good things," she said.

"I don't want to be judged for the rest of my life for the worst thing I've done," Atkinson said.

Related Topics: CRIME
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