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TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER KORN - An hour out of prison, Rodney K. has a lot to think about on the TriMet bus heading toward downtown, including where he will sleep tonight.What just might have been the best day of Rodney K.’s life started at 6:45 a.m., with big loping steps toward a number 70 bus at a TriMet stop in front of the Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland.

Rodney is a big man, well over 6 feet tall and now up to 270 pounds after putting on 80 pounds during his latest prison stint. He’s a bundle of contradiction. He likes to talk but has virtually nobody to talk to. He’s friendly and kind to strangers, quick with a smile or an apology. But he is, by his own admission, a thief. He became a meth addict in his 40s and he stole to support his habit. Then thievery became a habit. It still is.

Rodney is also intelligent, but there are parts of his brain that just don’t work well. He mentions his ADHD like a pet lover talking about a bad-tempered cat — a constant annoyance that isn’t going anywhere. The scattered thinking and distractedness first appeared when he started abusing meth. He’s 61 today and he’s been drug-free while in prison.

Just now, Rodney is fishing around for the TriMet ticket that prison officials issued him upon release. It’s supposed to get him from the prison to the Old Town Greyhound station this morning. He’s also been issued a voucher for a bus trip to Eugene. He has been told he must check in with his Eugene parole officer within 24 hours of his release, and he knows that, he remembers it. But already he can’t find the bus ticket — he’s rifling through his pockets, his plastic bag of belongings, the cardboard shoe box full of papers, files and envelopes he keeps tucked under one arm.

There. Hidden between papers in one of his envelopes. Another inmate, just released, has watched Rodney’s desperate search with amusement and shows him how to tuck the ticket deep inside his sock so it won’t get lost again. Rodney smiles and puts the TriMet ticket into his sock. “I’m trying to stay organized,” he says, the tension visibly draining out of him. Staying organized, for Rodney, is hard.

High hopes

He recalls waking up at 2 a.m. yesterday and spending the entire day in a state of excitement. The evening was more of the same.

“It’s hard to sleep the last night,” he says. “It’s like the best night of your life.”

But it isn’t the best day, not yet. Rodney spots a man leaning against a tree about 20 yards away, smoking a cigarette. There’s a number 70 bus parked in front of his stop on layover, but its engine is off so he figures he’s got time. “I’d die for a cigarette,” he says.

He approaches the man but comes back empty-handed. A little farther away he sees a knot of people smoking and heads toward them. He gets his prize and, grinning, begins walking across the street, away from the bus stop, explaining that smoking isn’t allowed on prison grounds and he’s trying to follow the rules. He takes a deep drag, just standing there, alone, across the street from prison. “Enjoying my freedom,” he says.

Returning to his seat in the bus shelter, he leans back as the sun breaks through ominous November clouds and plays on his face. And Rodney smiles the smile of freedom. “It’s like I haven’t been able to breathe for 10 and a half months and now I can breathe,” he says. “The air smells different.”

As Rodney leans back and enjoys his freedom, the number 70 bus starts its engine, waits five or 10 seconds and then pulls away.

About half an hour later another bus comes, and Rodney gets on board. First destination, the Greyhound station. Second destination, Eugene. Third stop, his PO’s office. He wonders what happens if he can’t make it there by 5 p.m. Probably, he says, it will be OK if he gets to his PO Monday morning. He thinks so, but isn’t sure. Just like he isn’t sure what time the bus leaves today for Eugene.

Or where he’s going to sleep tonight. Rodney was living in Clackamas County when he was arrested. But corrections officials have decided to send him back to Lane County, where he lived before that, because on his paperwork he listed his last home address as his PO’s office.

No home to go to

Rodney was homeless. Which means he still is, starting this morning. Nothing unusual there.

Over half the prisoners released from Oregon prisons are released to homelessness, according to a recent report. Family, if they had any, have long since deserted them. The majority went in as addicts and leave as addicts. Mental illness is often part of their makeup. Any money they may once have had has disappeared, much of it taken up by court and corrections fees and outstanding fines. In fact, most convicts leave prison having amassed thousands of dollars in debt while being confined.

The revolving door

TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER KORN - Rodney, here walking toward Pioneer Courthouse Square, hates the prison-issue white sweats and plastic bag that mark him as newly released, and a target for drug dealers.These are the people society wants — desperately needs — to succeed. Most crime is committed by a small number of repeat offenders. If those men and women, after prison, can be integrated into society — weaned off substance abuse, shoehorned into decent low-rent housing, trained for jobs, attitudes readjusted — we will all be much safer, advocates say.

“It’s criminal we spend as much as we do to lock them up and then kick them out the door with nothing, and we expect them to become law-abiding members of the community,” says Paul Solomon, director of Sponsors Inc., a Eugene-based nonprofit that offers ex-convicts halfway house beds and a variety of re-entry services. “I challenge anybody to do that. Take away the family support structure that they have and try to start over with nothing. That’s what happens with these people every day.”

Rodney stayed at Sponsors after a previous prison stint and he says he might check in with them to see if there is an open bed tonight. His expects that his PO, if he makes it there by 5 p.m., will tell him to bunk at a shelter called The Mission. He won’t go there. “It feels like going back to prison,” he says.

“I’ll buy a sleeping bag,” he says.

Anxiety sets in

As his bus wends its way along Northeast 33rd Avenue, Rodney begins to take stock and finds it a little unnerving. His fingers are beating a fast rhythm on the bus seat in front of him. Looking out the window, he says, “I feel like I’ve been in a time warp.”

He wonders aloud, with recreational pot having been legalized while he was in prison, will he be allowed to light up? He’ll have to ask his PO.

As the bus fills with other passengers, he becomes more aware of his clothes. Rodney is wearing the standard-issue prison release uniform — bright white sweats, sneakers, and the clear plastic bag for his possessions. He thinks he looks stupid in the outfit, to say nothing of easily identifiable. He says he knows ex-cons who shoplifted on their first day out just to get enough cash to buy civilian pants and a shirt.

“If I was in my 30s or 40s, I might do a small crime to get rid of my clothes,” he says.

The Lloyd Center is just minutes away from Old Town, but Rodney can’t stay on the bus. The rat-a-tat-tat of his fingers increases as he nervously starts looking out the window. Cigarettes are his security, he says, and that one smoke outside the prison just whetted his appetite. Approaching the Holladay Park stop, he notices a convenience store, grabs his shoebox and plastic bag, and rushes off the bus.

But inside the store, he can’t remember the PIN number that goes with the debit card he was issued for the money he earned while confined. He starts rummaging through his shoe box. Nothing. He needs cash. Now. Just a little. Glancing about, he spots an unattended backpack. “Don’t even think about it,” he says out loud to himself. But it’s hard, not thinking about it. He needs that pack of cigarettes.

A reporter offers to buy Rodney a pack. Once outside the store, he takes a long drag on his second cigarette since freedom. He’s still thinking about the backpack in the store, his most recent prison stay, and the fact that he didn’t yield to impulse.

“Maybe they got my attention this time,” he says.

Long odds

Getting Rodney straight, housed and employed won’t be easy. Nationally, 77 percent of men and women released from state prisons are rearrested within five years, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. That number has stubbornly resisted improvement in recent decades, despite a slew of taxpayer-financed programs aimed at helping newly released prisoners.

Some of the new programs offer housing assistance, others provide job training and mentors. But the data that is supposed to make the case for most of these programs is scanty and flawed.

Oregon corrections officials claim the state has the nation’s lowest recidivism rate. But the Oregon Department of Corrections only counts parolees convicted of new felonies as recidivists. Many states count as recidivists any ex-convicts sent back to jail or prison for any reason.

Nationally, almost half of parolees who are returned to incarceration have violated their parole conditions. Failing drug tests and changing addresses without permission from a parole officer are among the most common parole violations. Oregon’s recidivism rate does not reflect parole sanctions.

Oregon tracks recidivism over three years. Other states look at five years out.

Because each state tracks recidivism differently, accurate state-by-state comparisons of recidivism rates are impossible, experts say. The numbers are mostly valuable for tracking changes within a state.

On the positive side, Oregon Department of Corrections data show a steadily decreasing number of new felonies committed within three years of release by parolees, from a high of 38.9 percent in 1987 to 29.4 percent in 2011.

If Rodney had chosen while in prison to engage in any number of support programs that were offered, he might have had someone meet him at the prison gate when he was released this morning. But like many convicts, he just wanted to get out.

Technically, Rodney is on post-prison supervision, as is just about everyone released from an Oregon prison.

Reliance on parole officers

Oregon has the lowest max-out rate of all 50 states. Fewer than half of 1 percent of prisoners released here serve out their full sentences. Instead, most prisoners are sentenced to an early release while under the supervision of a parole officer. In some states over half those in prison serve their full sentences, which means under half are supervised by a parole officer after release.

Most criminal justice officials view Oregon’s lowest in the nation max-out rate as a positive development. The Oregon Department of Corrections saves money — as much as $85 per day per bed. Ex-convicts have parole officers to serve as case managers, trying to connect the ex-convict to helpful services. The parole officer can also sanction the ex-convict by imposing penalties, including a return to jail, if he or she does not meet parole conditions. One of those conditions is showing up for a first-day meeting.

Rodney crosses the street to wait for a MAX train that will take him downtown. A middle-aged man in a Columbia Sportswear jacket walks by, notices Rodney’s white sweats and plastic bag, flashes a thumbs up and a smile and says, “Good luck.”

Rodney appears to visibly relax. “I’ll take that and run with it all day,” he says. “He didn’t even know the story and he just said, ‘Good luck.’ ”

There’s a bus to Eugene that Rodney has to get on, and a bus schedule he still doesn’t know, but when a MAX train stops right in front of him Rodney doesn’t step forward. Too crowded, he says. Besides, he adds, he’s still enjoying his cigarette. He’s becoming more certain that making his PO by Monday will do.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER KORN - Temptation is just a few feet away as Rodney waits inside the Greyhound station for his bus to Lane County.

Too many diversions

The next train is his, and Rodney rides it downtown. He says he knows where he’s going, but he stays on the train as it heads south past Old Town until someone mentions he’s well past the station.

Now he’s walking through downtown, past Pioneer Place, his eyes taking in everything, the weight of the shoe box and plastic bag forcing him to stop and catch his breath every block or so.

He finds his way to the Greyhound station, but he’s in no hurry to get inside and learn when the bus to Eugene will be leaving. There’s a side show in front of the station that is beyond irresistible. One man is shooting heroin into his arm. A woman at the street corner is naked from the waist down, pulling a skirt up from her ankles.

Rodney leans against a sidewalk pillar and takes out his pack of new cigarettes. Immediately a rail-thin woman, a regular on these streets, sidles up, hoping for some cash, maybe a deal. Rodney jokes to the woman about how high she’s flying and then, almost immediately, regrets it. So he approaches her and apologizes. He whispers to her that by the end of the weekend he might be joining her. He offers her a cigarette and they stand side by side for a moment, smoking together.

Rodney clearly is in no hurry to get to Eugene, or to his PO, or to a future that is all too unclear at this moment. He’d like to go to community college, he says, but his plans are all vague. Eventually Rodney enters the bus station, sets his shoe box and plastic bag on a seat and approaches the counter. The next bus won’t leave for 90 minutes, he is told. He finds his voucher, gets his ticket and sits down on a seat facing the counter, with a view out the glass front doors to his left. And he begins to talk.

He explains that he was high on meth when he was busted, but he’s been clean for the 10 and a half months he’s been in prison. He wants to stay clean but it’s going to be hard, he says, starting out homeless and tempted.

“I’m an addict,” he says in a voice smaller than should be possible from a man with such a big frame and such a broad smile.

Rodney settles into his chair. Ninety minutes. The dealers move back and forth just beyond that glass front door.

“I’m being thrown to the wolves,” he says.

Still to come: housing, jobs, freedom, debt — the daunting hurdles facing Oregon’s released convicts.

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