In 2000, when Glenn Martin was leaving prison in upstate Attica, New York, after serving six years for robbery, the correctional officer thanked him in a way he’d never forget: “He said my being there helped pay for his boat, and that when my son came there he would help pay for his son’s boat.”
As cruel and obnoxious as the comment was, it was a reasonable expectation. Of the 6,000 residents in Attica, nearly two-thirds are prisoners, most from troubled neighborhoods in Martin’s hometown of New York City, about eight hours drive south. Like so many other states over the last three decades, as the nation’s prison population exploded from 307,000 to 1.6 million, New York has come to see incarceration as a major source of employment. The corrections department is the state’s largest agency, employing more than 31,000 at 70 institutions; at $40,000 per inmate, the state spends $2.5 billion a year.
It was, many observers agree, never the best use of taxpayer money. And now, with so many states facing major budget crises, it looks like it won’t continue at the same pace much longer. California’s prisons are so overcrowded and under-funded that a federal judge recently ruled that the state must release roughly a third of its 158,000 prisoners by 2012. The New York State legislature is close to scrapping the draconian Rockefeller drug laws which, by imposing mandatory sentences rather than rehab treatment, has kept so many drug users in prison for years. Other states, such as Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina, are either releasing some prisoners who have served their minimum time or putting drug offenders in treatment programs instead of prison
This potential flood of ex-convicts reentering society, which already sees more than 700,000 inmates returning each year, poses major challenges for government agencies and non-profit organizations struggling with budget crises. Even without the expected surge of prisoners coming home, their efforts haven’t proved particularly successful at stopping the revolving door of recidivism. Until recently “most people got 50 bucks, a bus ticket and let out the door without any preparation they land back in their old neighborhoods at four in the morning where there’s drugs, so what would we expect in terms of them being successful,” says Amy Solomon, a scholar at the Urban Institute, a non-partisan research organization.
More than two-thirds of former inmates are packed off to prison again within three years, but about half of these are due to technical violations like not reporting in time to parole officers or failing drug tests rather than new crimes. Parole and probation officers are typically funded just enough to be able to detect violations, but not enough to offer help, say, for drug rehabilitation. This revolving door is very expensive; it adds a $1 billion a year to California’s overburdened penal system.
The Second Chance Act, signed last year by President Bush, was a welcome acknowledgement that the country needs to get better at reintegration. States, now under orders to systematically review barriers to ex-cons finding housing and jobs, are partnering with an array of local organizations that have long dealt with newly released felons. New York, for instance, is opening a number of specialized reentry units closer to home where inmates spend the last three to four months of their sentences meeting with state and community social service agencies to help line up housing, jobs and drug rehab programs, and reconnect with their families and neighborhoods.
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