A way out 

Activist wants to give ex-cons options

For Bozeman native Casey Rudd, the problems with Montana’s prison and pre-release system are decidedly personal. Rudd, 53, a former inmate at the Women’s State Prison in Billings, has now been clean for eight years, and out of prison for six. And she’s been busy.

In the time since her release, Rudd has founded and operated Connections, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping former inmates successfully make the difficult transition back into the real world after their release from prison. With a statewide recidivism rate of 68 percent, the task is not a small one, although it can only be accomplished one person at a time.

That’s a lesson Rudd learned the hard way. When she was 15-years-old, she became addicted to methamphetamines. Her addiction continued to plague her for nearly 30 years, during which time she managed to raise four children. In 1994, Rudd was convicted of selling $60 worth of marijuana and $60 worth of hash, and was sentenced to serve 28 years in prison. “The judge told me he knew I’d sold other drugs, and that he was sentencing me to serve the amount of time that I had been both a mother and an addict,” says Rudd.

That harsh sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years, and Rudd was ultimately released into Montana’s ISP, or Intensive Supervision Program, after two and a half years behind bars. As she quickly discovered, however, having been in prison not only complicated her life, it also compromised her options afterward.

“I had to tell prospective employers about my incarceration, and then the first thing they wanted to know was, why were you in prison?” she says. “And as soon as I told them, they said, ‘Well you’re exactly the kind of person we want to keep out of here.’”

Discouraged, Rudd expressed her frustration to parole officers, and learned that the difficulties she was experiencing were commonplace among former inmates. Someone, she felt, needed to stand up for people like herself.

Now, four years after founding Connections, Rudd has become that someone. Of the 55 former inmates her organization has assisted, only five have gone back to prison. The judge who sentenced Rudd is now an advocate on her behalf.

Still, her belief that the system continues to fail people is stronger than ever. “I’ve watched so many of them—the gate opens, they come out and they have no idea what to do—they have no support, and no resources,” she says. “So they end up doing what they know best, which is getting drunk or high, and fall right on their face.”

The assistance that Connections provides is basic, on-the-ground sort of stuff—a place to stay, rides to appointments and interviews, and perhaps most importantly, a caring support network that advises and encourages people when they need it most. Since its inception, Connections has expanded in scope, establishing parallel programs to assist alcohol and drug addicts, youth at risk and people who are ill with hepatitis-C.

The organization receives no funding, and operates by reaching out to channel the generosity of churches, businesses and ordinary people from around Montana. “Montanans have been incredibly generous,” says Rudd. “They’ve given money, furniture, jobs—you name it.”

If Montana’s prison, pre-release and parole systems are indeed failing people, how might we improve or reform them? Rudd and her husband will be in Missoula on Saturday, Oct. 26 to help answer that question. At 10 a.m., there will be a screening and discussion of Corrections, a documentary about CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America (which recently built a private prison in Shelby) and about the proliferation of private prisons in the United States.

From 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon, Rudd will facilitate a discussion on the need for prison and pre-release reform, and will articulate her vision for creating a statewide coalition to address these issues. These events are free and open to the public, and will take place at the Castles Center, in the University of Montana Law Library.

The Saturday forum will be an opportunity to explore various answers to those questions, as well as ways to educate, engage and empower people on this issue. In Rudd’s opinion, problem number one is that early release is essentially a money-making, taxpayer-fleecing racket that fails by design. On average, it costs taxpayers $24,000 to house an inmate for a year—money that empty prison beds don’t earn. The proliferation of corporate-owned private prisons such as the one in Shelby, which have an intrinsic for-profit motivation, exacerbates this dynamic.

Montanans are also under the impression that inmates who have been released early are only re-imprisoned if they commit additional crimes. Rudd asserts that this impression is incorrect, and that violations used to justify re-incarceration are often trivial in nature—things like allowing a vehicle registration or driver’s license to lapse. Thus, people are frequently and all too easily sent back to prison, then trapped in a cycle from which they cannot escape.

In the future, Rudd envisions a network of support organizations based in towns throughout Montana, helping former inmates to overcome the many barriers and stereotypes they face as they attempt to rebuild their lives. At the core of this mission is a compelling sense of concern and compassion for those who badly need it. “We treat everyone like family,” says Rudd.

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