When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry

When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry

When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry

When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry


Every year, hundreds of thousands of jailed Americans leave prison and return to society. Largely uneducated, unskilled, often without family support, and with the stigma of a prison record hanging over them, many if not most will experience serious social and psychological problems after release. Fewer than one in three prisoners receive substance abuse or mental health treatment while incarcerated, and each year fewer and fewer participate in the dwindling number of vocational or educational pre-release programs, leaving many all but unemployable. Not surprisingly, the great majority is rearrested, most within six months of their release. What happens when all those sent down the river come back up--and out?

As long as there have been prisons, society has struggled with how best to help prisoners reintegrate once released. But the current situation is unprecedented. As a result of the quadrupling of the American prison population in the last quarter century, the number of returning offenders dwarfs anything in America's history. What happens when a large percentage of inner-city men, mostly Black and Hispanic, are regularly extracted, imprisoned, and then returned a few years later in worse shape and with dimmer prospects than when they committed the crime resulting in their imprisonment? What toll does this constant "churning" exact on a community? And what do these trends portend for public safety? A crisis looms, and the criminal justice and social welfare system is wholly unprepared to confront it.

Drawing on dozens of interviews with inmates, former prisoners, and prison officials, Joan Petersilia convincingly shows us how the current system is failing, and failing badly. Unwilling merely to sound the alarm, Petersilia explores the harsh realities of prisoner reentry and offers specific solutions to prepare inmates for release, reduce recidivism, and restore them to full citizenship, while never losing sight of the demands of public safety.

As the number of ex-convicts in America continues to grow, their systemic marginalization threatens the very society their imprisonment was meant to protect. America spent the last decade debating who should go to prison and for how long. Now it's time to decide what to do when prisoners come home.


Never before in U.S. history have so many individuals been released from prison. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that nearly 95 percent of the 1.4 million prison inmates now in prison will eventually be released and will return to communities—635,000 people in 2002 alone and at least that many in future years, as more inmates complete long prison terms. We know that most of those leaving prison today will be poorly educated, lack vocational skills, and struggle with substance abuse, physical disabilities, or mental illnesses. Few of these problems will have been addressed in prison.

As prison populations have increased, the costs of building and operating prisons have soared. To cap operating costs, policymakers in many states decided to run austere, no-frill prisons and to cut back funding for programs and services. Inmates released today will be less prepared for life on the outside, be offered less assistance in their reintegration, and face an increasing likelihood of being returned to prison for parole violations or new crimes.

But the other consequences of prisoner reentry are less well known. What does it mean for a large number of men, mostly racial minorities from the inner city, to be taken out of these communities, sent to prison for two to three years, and then be released back into these communities? At release, many are unable to find jobs and suitable housing. Some will be legally barred from voting, receiving public assistance, obtaining a driver’s license, or retaining custody of their children. Many (more than two-thirds) will eventually return to crime and prison, where the cycle begins again.

What impact does this constant churning of large segments of the resident population have on those who remain there? What are the consequences for the victims, the community at large, and the families and children left behind? How does the stigma of a prison record and the anger that often accompanies imprisonment contribute to drug use and dealing, gang activities, and family violence? Ultimately, how will the reentry phenomenon affect the next genera-

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