[Hpn] Nationwide - U.S. struggles with problem of ex-cons - SwissInfo News -
August 21, 2002
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Wed, 21 Aug 2002 01:39:46 -0500
U.S. struggles with problem of ex-cons
Having clinched the world record for imprisoning the most citizens,
the United States is now facing another problem -- what to do with
the hundreds of thousands of ex-cons released each year.
By Atiya Hussain -(Reuters) SwissInfo News - August 21, 2002
Men and women, in numbers greater than the population of the
United States's capital city, are freed from America's crowded
prisons every year. Most of them have had little preparation for
life outside prison and end up in communities that offer little
And many -- between 40 percent and 65 percent, depending on how
recidivism is measured -- end right back in prison.
"The social skills necessary to survive in prisons are the
inverse of skills necessary to get a job," says JoAnne Page,
executive director of the Fortune Society, a New York non-profit
organisation that provides services, including housing, to former
"This country has made a decision to make a commitment, not in
prevention, not in treatment, but in incarceration. There's a
huge re-entry problem that policy-makers are just waking up to,"
Highlighting the scale of the problem, the U.S. Justice
Department last month announced a $100 million initiative to
The effort, which enlists the help of the Departments of
Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban
Development and Labor aims to help provide education, job
training and substance abuse treatment to violent offenders.
Last year alone, 630,000 offenders were released from prison, the
Justice Department estimates. That is well above the roughly
572,000 people who lived in the nation's capital, according to
the 2000 U.S. Census.
U.S. incarceration rates, at 690 convicts per 100,000, now top
even those in Russia, which once led the world with its rate of
incarcerating 676 of every 100,000 people, according to the
Sentencing Project, a non-profit criminal justice policy analysis
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United
States had 1.96 million people locked up in prisons and jails as
of Dec. 31, 2001.
And according to data collected by Human Rights Watch, more than
60 percent of incarcerated adults are black or Latino, even
though blacks and Hispanics make up only 25 percent of the U.S.
population. The proportion of black males in prison is nearly
eight times that of white male prisoners, according to the
'REVOLVING DOOR' SYSTEM
A report prepared last year by the General Accounting Office, the
U.S. Congress' investigative arm, highlighted the system's
"revolving door" characteristics.
Recidivism rates vary, depending on whether prisoners' rearrest,
reconviction or reincarceration rates are measured. Historically,
recidivism has hovered around 40 percent but a recent study
showed two-thirds of state prisoners released in 1994 were
rearrested within three years.
In part this is because prisons are failing to tackle one of
their biggest issues -- substance abuse. The boom in the prison
population reflects in large part the U.S. war on drugs, but
substance abuse treatment has fallen in state prisons that house
90 percent of all U.S. prisoners.
Less than a fourth of state prisoners were treated in 1997,
compared to 32 percent in 1991, according to the GAO's report.
Critics say Congress' 1994 decision to bar prisoners from federal
assistance for education has compounded the problem.
Prisoners are eligible for high-school equivalency programs, but
cannot work toward college degrees, which specialists say are key
to their transition after release.
Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, says
that decision "flies in the face of everything we know about
"Just from a crime control point of view it's a very
self-defeating program," Mauer said.
RESOURCES SCARCE ON THE OUTSIDE
The problem becomes obvious as soon as prisoners are released.
Most ex-offenders get little more than bus fare and are often
dropped off in troubled neighbourhoods.
If they are lucky, their families take them back, and they can
start adjusting to freedom and to changes in the country and
families that have learned to do without them.
If not, they can end up on the streets or in shelters for the
homeless, with precious few resources to help them stay off drugs
or find a job. Shelters catering to ex-prisoners' needs are rare
-- housing for ex-offenders is available only in New York and San
So the Justice Department's initiative is very welcome.
"The signs are very encouraging, but we have a lot of work to do.
Equally important is the next step -- how do we get the funding
streams and how do we get policy support," said Stanley Richards,
a former prisoner and now the Fortune Society's deputy executive
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