Education vital to transition from prison to community

News Analysis
By Dwight Hobbes
Contributing Writer

Sonic Director Hillary Sorin -Photo by Dwight Hobbes

Revolving-door imprisonment has characterized America’s criminal justice system as long as America has had a criminal justice system. The Sonic Program, a component of 180 Degrees, Inc. in Minneapolis, works to change that. And does it in an interesting way.

Sonic Program Director Hillary Sorin sees art as more than entertainment and employs it as a means of rehabilitation. She teaches classes, meets with clients, and assists them in the hunt for employment and housing.

A pleasant woman with a firm demeanor, Sorin arrives to be interviewed with an immediate point to make. She adamantly states that, though she’s in charge of the program, “[It’s] not about me, but the participants. These are individuals, many of whom did not graduate high school, received their GEDs in prison much later, some of whom are completing their GEDs now. Sonic assists citizens transitioning from incarceration and re-entering our communities.”

A highlight of the Sonic Program is its weekly film night, which, Sorin says, “provides an opportunity for education and entertainment for residents, families and friends. [We examine subjects] ranging from developing healthy relationships, rehabilitation, race and racism, gender, class, individual and collective action and civic engagement.”

Viewings with a social message have included Precious, The Wire (Season Four), Mississippi Burning and When We Were Kings. “They’re helping one another study art,” Sorin says, “utilizing film as a way to express and understand their own experiences as they navigate re-entry.”

Sorin doesn’t have long to work with clients, so the guys have to get it in gear post haste: “Most of them have 60 days to find a job or housing.” If, after two months, you haven’t landed a job or housing, it’s a parole violation and back to prison you go.

Something must be working at Sonic, since there are graduates who stay connected to the program. Sorin points to Mujahid Muhammad, noting, “He’s maintained his employment, is applying to college.” Muhammad, who is African American, says he is “working on ways to connect the Somali community and Black Muslim community to issues of re-entry.”

Released from prison after 17 years, Muhammad got a job last year and now lives with his wife and children. He states, “[It] was an important step in my transition back into the world, because it allowed me to not only take much-needed small steps, but [also] allowed me to get confidence in living out in this new world.”

For guys like Mujahid Muhammad, the Sonic Program has proven a godsend. There is, however, cold reality. Sorin reflects, “Housing and employment requirements pose great barriers to Sonic participants, and if they can’t meet the requirements, in most cases participants are returned to prison. These men are labeled recidivists although they have not recommitted the same offense for which they were convicted. Many times they simply have not located employment and/or approved housing within 60 days.”

One drawback: The Sonic Program doesn’t serve women. Sorin winds up putting in personal time — off days, lunch hours — to help females with their re-entry. “Although we do not have the capacity to serve women directly, there are many wonderful service providers who do offer on-site service to women.”

Sorin flatly states, “Our work is incredibly important. In 1980, 13 percent of African American high-school dropouts went to prison. Today, 40 percent of African American high-school dropouts end up in prison. The expansion of our prison system is uniquely dependent upon this population. This is why Sonic emphasizes education and helps prepare participants to achieve a GED and higher education.

The Sonic Program isn’t going to solve the problem of recidivism all by itself. It weighs in, though, as part of the solution. Beyond that, one does well to be grateful for small mercies.
“It’s hard to advocate for people with criminal histories in this economy,” Sorin acknowledges, “especially for housing, when there are so many people working and [who] have children who’ve never committed a crime.” Still, she adds, the system could be spending tax dollars more sensibly.

“We spend $35,000 [per inmate annually] in Minnesota keeping men incarcerated. We could be utilizing that money to [invest] in our properties and work with landlords.”

180 Degrees, Inc., overseeing the Sonic Program, has as its credo, “Our mission is to turn lives around to ensure safer communities.” Serving an estimated 250 men each year, the residential program focuses on the transitional needs of formerly incarcerated individuals to facilitate their rejoining society in a productive capacity.

The Sonic Program is a vital community resource doing a job few want to even think about. And to all appearances doing the job well. It certainly states a case for more programs like it.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to