Bitter Harvest: California’s Prison Boom Produces a Bumper Crop of Ex-Convicts

"It's a simple exercise in arithmetic. You put six times as many people in prison and six times as many come out."

The atmosphere at the Oakland Independence Support Center verges on chaotic. The client base here–homeless individuals, many of whom have prison records–has almost doubled in the last six weeks. The center is running dangerously low on soap and towels; Isaac Magrue, the job placement coordinator, hustles back and forth from one crisis to another, and interrupts our interview momentarily to help clients with their resumés. Amid all this, Stanley Trotter, who has been unable to hold a steady job since his release from jail and now finds himself living on the street, signs the final paperwork for his new $38,000-a-year position as a truck driver. The center helped him find the job and a place to stay, arranged transportation, and paid the $55 fee for his trucker’s license.

Though designed for the homeless, the client-run support center is one of the few programs that attempts to grapple with all the issues surrounding incarceration–and what happens once you get out. The center provides an array of interrelated services, from free meals and showers to job training and domestic violence counseling. Staffers here also run a literacy program, substance abuse counseling, resumé workshops, anger management classes, and a program to sponsor clients to get their BAs at the New College of California.

“When you talk about the poor, dispossessed, un- or underemployed, and people living on the street–which includes a significant number that have been incarcerated–you find there is no comprehensive strategy to deal with these people,” says the center’s executive director, James Sweeney. “We try to address all the issues that are brought to bear when someone has been incarcerated.”

There’s a growing number of people in Oakland who have served time in either state prisons or local jails. Their chances for the future are often marred not only by the stigma of having a record, but also by a lack of marketable skills and job experience, and a history of substance abuse and crime. And while the prison and parolee population (along with prison budgets) have increased by leaps and bounds, neither state nor local governments have devoted serious attention to the transition from prison to normal life. With little help in this transition, many ex-offenders find themselves among the ranks of the homeless and unemployed–both of which count as violations of parole–and still more find their way right back into prison.

The past twenty years have seen a tremendous growth in Oakland’s parolee population. As the state prison population has quadrupled since 1980, the parolee population has seen equally significant increases: In 1975 California state prisons released 21,000 prisoners to parole; according to the National Institute of Justice, the state now discharges an average of 125,000 prisoners annually–and there’s no longer a review board to determine their fitness to reenter society, since these boards were largely eliminated in the face of evidence of discrimination in their practices.

Ex-prisoners are returned to the county of their last legal residence, where they generally serve one to three years of parole. This translates to 4,600 active parolees in Alameda County, approximately 3,000 of whom live in Oakland. And the numbers continue to grow: City officials estimate that currently somewhere between sixty to eighty former prisoners are released to Oakland each week–that’s 3,100 to 4,100 a year.

“It’s a simple exercise in arithmetic,” says UC Berkeley Boalt School of Law Professor Frank Zimring. “You put six times as many people in prison and six times as many come out. The imprisonment experience is now a much larger part of the lives of Californians.”

And when prisoners are abruptly released from a dangerous, violent prison environment back into their community, their problems are hardly over. Many ex-offenders have never held a steady job and have histories of criminality and substance abuse that are perpetuated and exacerbated by the experience of incarceration. Nearly one in five California state prisoners has been diagnosed with a psychiatric problem or mental disorder, according to a study by the Berkeley-based California Policy Research Center. The study also notes that HIV rates in prisons are significantly higher than in the rest of society due in part to continued intraveneous drug use. Plus, inmates often form gang affiliations for protection while inside, thus continuing rather than breaking a pattern of crime.

While the state legislature expanded the Department of Corrections’ budget dramatically over the past twenty years (from two percent of the state’s general fund in 1981 to nearly eight percent last year), building 21 new prisons in that time, little attention –or funding–has been devoted to helping prisoners reintegrate into society, advocates complain. In-prison re-entry programs are few and far between–only five percent of the 142,000 prisoners released in 1998 had completed one, according to the CPRC.

Once out of prison, the situation does not improve much, with an underfunded parole system dedicated primarily to supervision rather than rehabilitation. In 1997 the state cut parole services by 44 percent, driving parole officers’ caseloads in Oakland up to an average of seventy or even eighty parolees per officer. At these rates, there is little time for individual followup on a one-to-one basis; parole officers see a typical parolee for two fifteen-minute sessions a month. In 1999, the East Bay regional parole office lost track of approximately one-fifth of its parolees.

The parole department has made some effort recently to expand its rehabilitation services: there’s now a substance-abuse training program, a “lit lab” where parolees can learn literacy and computer skills, and an employment referral system. But the numbers show that these programs still cannot meet the needs of the entire parolee population. Regional parole administrator Mike Oskins reports that the lab clocks over 1,200 hours a month. Divide by the number of Alameda County parolees, and you get just over fifteen minutes per parolee per month. The substance-abuse training program meets four times a week for four to five weeks, but only serves thirty people at a time–about 300 a year. Additionally, those who complete their entire prison term without an early release for good behavior–those who arguably need rehabilitation services the most–are freed without parole.

“Parole [is] almost an afterthought [in the current sentencing system],” says Boalt’s Zimring. “There is a fair amount of supervision, but practically no transitional services. There is no special effort on the part of parole or correctional officers to invest resources in creating winning transitions. It’s a lot like studying black holes in space–any legislator will tell you of course it’s important, but try to find that department in government and it doesn’t exist.” Barry Chrisberg of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency concurs: “Parole is really an add-on to the punishment system. Transitional services are an afterthought, at best.”

As a result, advocates say, released inmates bring the pitfalls of incarceration with them back into their community. “These people are coming from an environment where they have to be tough–they meet force with force, and that has to be diminished,” says Curry Johnson of RelyAble Choices, a job development and placement center that deals with many former inmates. “They need to learn how to stay professional. It is a process of reeducating them on what is necessary to retain a job, like getting up on time–basic things that we take for granted. We try to teach them to self-evaluate, to keep a professional demeanor, and not to take criticism personally.”

With little money and few marketable skills, and often with no prior employment, many former prisoners end up unemployed or homeless or turn to crime again. According to the CPRC study, 65 percent of employers stated that they would not knowingly hire an ex-felon; unsurprisingly, one year after release up to sixty percent of parolees are unemployed. In addition to the stigma attached to a criminal record, ex-offenders in California are barred from working in the education, real estate, law, medicine, nursing, and physical therapy fields. And with over $1 billion in unmet affordable-housing needs in Oakland, according to Councilmember Nancy Nadel, many ex-offenders find themselves in homeless shelters or leave the city entirely.

There may be some hope on the horizon. California’s Proposition 36 will direct nonviolent drug offenders to local probation and substance abuse programs rather than to prisons, beginning this July. Oakland’s city manager has proposed providing police officers with a referral list of local programs to give to parolees, and an on-demand substance-abuse treatment program is in the works for Oakland. City officials are also in the early stages of developing Project Choice–intended to be a comprehensive strategy to provide the services ex-offenders need.

But even the existing programs are underfunded. The Oakland Independence Support Center has seen its clientele double in the past six weeks but cannot apply for additional funding from the county until the next fiscal year. Similarly, RelyAble Choices receives most of its funds from a federal grant that they expect to be discontinued this June. Considering the obstacles, those who work with ex-offenders are not surprised that nearly seventy percent of those released from California prisons are reincarcerated within eighteen months. In fact, parole violators now constitute the majority of inmates entering state prisons. “People don’t have options so they wind up back in the underground economy,” says Nadel. “I don’t believe that if they had options that would happen.”

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