Harry Olsen, who spent a total of eight years in prison, visits Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland. Olsen founded Phoenix Rising, which includes a transition house and an in-prison mentoring program. Former inmates “have a lot of stuff tattooed, but when they get out, many feel like ‘convict’ is tattooed on their forehead,” he said. The mentoring program, which includes volunteers from the community, helps them realize “not everyone is going to hate them — even if they find out their past.” (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Harry Olsen, who spent a total of eight years in prison, visits Columbia River Correctional Institution in Northeast Portland. Olsen founded Phoenix Rising, which includes a transition house and an in-prison mentoring program. Former inmates “have a lot of stuff tattooed, but when they get out, many feel like ‘convict’ is tattooed on their forehead,” he said. The mentoring program, which includes volunteers from the community, helps them realize “not everyone is going to hate them — even if they find out their past.” (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

More than 90 percent of the U.S. prison population is male. This piece focuses primarily on men post-incarceration. In the next issue of the Catholic Sentinel, we examine the unique challenges women face upon release.

Bradley Scott Vollmer has spent more than a third of his life in prison. He’s robbed banks and sold narcotics, all in an effort to get high, get numb and forget.

His father was a Portland police officer but also a pimp who compelled his mother into prostitution. As a teen he was diagnosed with hepatitis B. Doctors told him he had 10-20 years to live. “My life was chaos,” said Vollmer, sitting in a Portland-area transition house for the formerly incarcerated.

Locked up for crimes as a juvenile, the teenager was abused by a priest before being moved into the adult prison system.

“Knowing I’d be dead in 20 years — I could cope with that because I knew there was a God,” said the 60-year-old. “But after that abuse, it hurt my ideas about God.”

Vollmer looked down at his interlaced fingers.

“But I don’t want to hate,” he said.

In and out of the correctional system for years, Vollmer has remained free for more than a decade. He attributes his eventual success to a range of supports, including a recidivism-reduction program in prison and the encouragement of the Phoenix Rising transition house’s founder, who’s also a former felon.

Many who minister in prisons and work with released inmates say that despite numerous obstacles post-incarceration — among them barriers to jobs and housing and longtime drug addiction and mental illness — there are insufficient re-entry services in Oregon and nationwide.   

“Re-entry support is vital; without it, people are lost and can more easily return to prison,” said Linda Showman, project consultant for the Portland archdiocesan Office of Prison Ministry. “There are some re-entry avenues, but there are a lot of gaps.”

Fractured services

Paul Solomon is executive director of Sponsors Inc., a comprehensive re-entry program based in Eugene. Solomon said the focus on criminal justice reform in the past several years has meant more funds for re-entry support, but programs remain “very scattered and disparate from state to state.”

In Oregon, the services for prisoners released from one of the state’s 14 prisons are limited and “often fractured,” he said. “Some of the larger counties have programs available, but beyond that it’s hit or miss, and in some counties there’s nothing at all. … There are rural counties in Oregon where people are routinely released from prison homeless.”

Oregon’s county commissioners decide how state funds for criminal justice should be allocated. They can designate the funds for re-entry programming, or “all of it can go into parole officers and jail beds,” said Solomon, who’s led webinars on re-entry for the U.S. Department of Justice.

By some estimates there are around 50 organizations in Oregon that could be classified as re-entry support; they include transitional sober-living houses and resource centers that help secure housing and jobs.

But even if a prisoner is linked with such aid, piecing the needed services together outside of prison can be grueling. “People often have to take multiple buses to get to all the different programs and then also check in with their parole officer,” said Jen Jackson, special projects director at Sponsors.

Funding for re-entry programs for federal prisoners, who account for about 10 percent of the approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, is a small fraction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ $7.1 billion annual budget. About 15 percent of the budget, less than $1 billion, is designated for the Reentry Services Division, but that’s made up of six branches, most of which do not address re-entry specifically.

Ultimately, at both the state and federal level, re-entry services are chronically underfunded.

‘Collateral consequences’

When Michael Francis Plew stepped out of prison after six years he had nothing but two bus tickets and a $30 Goodwill voucher.

He was grateful to be free but after years in close confinement “I was so disoriented,” said the 28-year-old Plew, recalling how he’d started walking in the wrong direction and got lost.

“And then socializing with people was really odd, really intense,” he said. “You are constantly judging others, trying to figure out what they are thinking, because that’s what you do in prison.”

Such disorientation is common, said Brian Martinek, a former assistant police chief for the Portland Police Bureau who is now executive director of the Northwest Regional Re-entry Center in Portland, which like Sponsors offers wrap-around support for former prisoners in Oregon. “If you’re in prison a long time, where you’re told what to do and how to dress and what to eat, and then all of a sudden you come out and are supposed to manage yourself in a crazy, fast-paced society without any help — it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The shock of the re-entry process means those who come through the Northwest Regional Re-entry Center “have anxiety disorder nearly across the board,” added Martinek, a member of St. John Fisher Parish in Southwest Portland.

Oregon Catholic Curtis Gibson spent about four years in prison for theft and knows all about that post-prison shock.

“My faith is pretty much what kept me out of prison because it keeps me doing the next right thing,” said Gibson, who is on the board of Wisconsin-based Dismas Ministry, which provides prisoners with free Catholic prayer resources. “If you don’t focus on the next right thing, you will be overwhelmed.”

Gibson had a lot of support, but most guys he knew were like Plew and walked out of prison with little more than a bus ticket and the clothes, often unwashed, that they’d come in with.

“You are told you have to get housing and a job, but you don’t have a driver’s license or Social Security card or a car,” said Gibson. “You can’t get state help because you have no Social Security card — either you never had one or you lost it or your friends or family threw it out because they gave up on you.”

The formerly incarcerated have an unemployment rate of more than 27 percent (with higher rates for women and people of color) and are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy nonprofit.

People with criminal records aren’t a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act, and housing guidelines vary by state. In Oregon, landlords can discriminate legally in situations where they’re able to demonstrate that a person’s criminal history poses a safety risk.

In reality, illegal discrimination toward released inmates — as with other forms of housing discrimination — “happens all the time” undetected, Martinek said.

In the Portland-metro region, the rising cost of housing introduces an additional, often bigger challenge.

Many former prisoners can secure only minimum-wage jobs, at best, and “trying to pay for housing on that is nearly impossible,” Martinek said.

Oregon law prohibits employers from asking applicants about criminal history until the first interview or until a conditional job offer has been made. But that doesn’t stop many employers from turning down people once the record becomes known.

Solomon calls the obstacles that follow former prisoners in the days, weeks and decades after their release “collateral consequences of a conviction.”

Years after he was released, Gibson’s daughter asked him to co-sign on a college housing lease. “I was told that with my record I couldn’t do it,” he said.

“Your conviction impacts your credit, housing, peers and the friends who judge you,” said Gibson. “It never goes away; you deal with it your whole life.”

A revolving door?

The challenges people face after leaving prison, coupled with inadequate assistance, means many end up back behind bars. Though there’s ambiguity about how it’s defined, recidivism typically is measured by criminal acts that result in rearrests, reconviction or a return to prison during a three-year period following a prisoner’s release. Based on 2018 Oregon Criminal Justice Commission data, of those released from an Oregon state prison in 2014, almost 20 percent were incarcerated for a felony within three years, while 41 percent were convicted of a crime within that period. Nationally, the recidivism rate for former state inmates is around 37 percent, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Yet by some longer-term measurements, recidivism is much higher. A U.S. Department of Justice study shows that 83 percent of state prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested at least once in the nine years following their release. 

Capturing a more positive trend, Pew reported that recidivism dropped by nearly a quarter between 2005 and 2012. 

Martinek believes that decline was in part due to the Second Chance Act, passed with bipartisan backing in 2007. The legislation emphasized re-entry support for higher-risk prisoners. According to Martinek, the act has been “extremely watered down” under the current administration.

‘A blanket of support’

The best ways to keep criminals out of the correctional system is to help them secure employment and housing and connect them with a functional support system, said Martinek.

“All the data that’s out there that has any value suggest people are better off when they have those things,” he said, which is why both Northwest Regional Re-entry Center and Sponsors make them a priority.

What’s needed is “a blanket of support,” said Jackson at Sponsors.

Sponsors has no religious affiliation now but continues in the spirit of its founder, Holy Names Sister Janice Jackson.

Sister Janice was moved to establish the agency in 1973 when she “got to wondering what I would do if I were out of prison and back in my home town without a job and a place to live,” she told the Sentinel in 1979. “Where would I turn for help?”

Each year, Sponsors helps more than 500 people re-enter their communities.

Both Sponsors, aiding former state prisoners, and the Northwest Regional Re-entry Center, assisting released federal inmates, take a holistic approach. Along with on-site housing and employment support, they offer mentoring and mental health and addiction counseling.

The two cite similar success rates, around 65-75 percent, but that only looks at the short term; the rates are based on the percentage of people who leave with a job, stable housing and a support system. Sponsors is in the process of studying some of the long-term impacts of its programs. 

Phoenix Rising, a 2018 recipient of a local Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant, is an example of a less-comprehensive program that, at least anecdotally, can be transformative. The nonprofit includes a transition house in Gresham, where Vollmer and Plew have lived, and provides mentoring and community building inside correctional institutions.

Much of its success is due to founder Harry Olsen, an eccentric who’s studied different religions and has a wry sense of humor.

Criminals “learn to lie effectively, but this house is where people can get their feet on the ground,” said Olsen. “The way I see it is: Shut up and show me you intend to change.”

Olsen spent a total of eight years in prison. He used heroin and cocaine, and his drug addiction fueled theft and burglary. “I was a recalcitrant little sucker who learned early to despise authority,” he said.

“Hanging out with Harry is a reminder that change is possible,” said Vollmer.

Roy Hedrick, 60, another Phoenix house resident with a long criminal record, said he sometimes calls Olsen five-10 times a day to stay on track. 

The calls, staying connected to healthy friends and mentoring new residents of Phoenix house “keep me sane and sober,” Hedrick said. “Seeing other people succeed makes me feel good.”

Sharing the cross

A relationship with God can give former inmates strength, solace and that ability to do, as Gibson says, “the next right thing.”

The Archdiocese of Portland’s growing prison ministry is one way Catholic inmates in western Oregon can stay connected to God’s grace through the sacraments and faith formation while incarcerated.

Martinek said faith is also a link to a healthy support system outside prison — one of the “most critical components of success.”

“Your faith community can be part of those people around you who will lift you up, pick you up,” he said. 

Showman, with the archdiocesan prison ministry, said she appreciates the approach of Home for Good in Oregon, which integrates former prisoners back into their faith communities. The organization links prisoners with a mentor who shares their faith affiliation. The mentors are trained by a chaplain, and when the prisoners are released, the mentors encourage the individuals as they enter their respective churches.

“Anyone going to a new church by themselves feels sort of a stranger,” said Showman, and if you’ve just been released from prison, that feeling is heightened. A program such as Home for Good in Oregon helps them feel more welcome.

Catholics have a ways to go when it comes to helping the formerly incarcerated, said Martinek.

“I love my faith, but we are not great at being ambassadors for people outside of our community,” he said.

“There’s the saying, 'If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,' and everyone is responsible for what they have done,” said Gibson. But "the smallest amount of compassion is appreciated. If faith communities can grab these guys early on — inviting them to a Bible study or spaghetti feed — you don’t know what little thing will make a difference.”

“Be open to the Christian idea of redemption,” added Showman.

Martinek hopes more Catholics and non-Catholics alike realize that comprehensive re-entry support, which often includes an emphasis on faith, simply “makes sense” if you want to keep people out of prison.

“I’m someone who put people in prison for 20 years, and I don’t believe everybody should get out,” he said. “But I do believe people deserve a second chance — not just for them, but the truth is that it’s better for all of us if they are successful contributors to society and do not have more victims.”

For his part, Martinek has taken to heart the often gritty, unglamorous task of responding to Jesus’ plea for radical love. He believes helping former criminals is “about us doing our part walking with others as they struggle through life, like we all do,” he said. It’s about “helping people carry their cross.”


How to help

To learn about ways to help released inmates transition into the community, email Linda Showman of the Portland Archdiocese’s prison ministry, prisonministry@archdpdx.org.


Learn more

Sponsors Inc.

Northwest Regional Re-entry Center

Phoenix Rising Transitions