In 2000, when Glenn Martin was leaving prison in upstate Attica, N.Y., 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 of Attica, nearly two-thirds are prisoners, most from troubled neighborhoods in Martin's hometown of New York City, about an eight-hour drive south. Like so many other states over the past three decades, as the nation's prison population has 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 people at 70 institutions; at $40,000 per inmate, the state spends $2.5 billion a year. (See pictures of crime in Middle America.)
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 underfunded 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 that, by imposing mandatory sentences rather than rehab treatment, have kept many otherwise law-abiding 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. (Read about challenges to New York's drug sentencing laws.)
This potential flood of ex-convicts re-entering society, on top of the more than 700,000 inmates who return each year, poses major challenges for government agencies and nonprofit 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?" wonders Amy Solomon, a scholar at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. (Read about one ex-inmate's struggle to re-enter society.)
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. 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 $1 billion a year in costs to California's overburdened penal system.
The Second Chance Act, signed last year by then President Bush, was a welcome acknowledgment 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 re-entry 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 information on drug-rehab programs and reconnect with their families and neighborhoods.