Ex-convicts lack survival skills 

U.S. hopes to teach prison inmates how to live on the outside 

August 21, 2002


NEW YORK -- Having clinched the world record for imprisoning the most citizens, the United States is now facing a problem --what to do with the hundreds of thousands of ex-cons released each year.

Most of the ex-inmates have had little preparation for life outside prison and end up in communities that offer little guidance.

And many -- 40 percent to 65 percent, depending on how recidivism is measured -- end up right back in prison.

"The social skills necessary to survive in prisons are the inverse of skills necessary to get a job," said JoAnne Page, executive director of the Fortune Society, a New York nonprofit organization that provides services, including housing, to former prisoners.

"This country has made a decision to make a commitment -- not in prevention, not in treatment, but in incarceration," Page said.

In July, the U.S. Justice Department announced a $100-million initiative to reintegrate prisoners.

The effort aims to help provide education, job training and substance-abuse treatment to violent offenders. It enlists the help of the Departments of Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Labor.

Last year, 630,000 offenders were released from prison, the Justice Department estimates.

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 nonprofit criminal justice policy analysis group.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States had almost 2 million people locked up in prisons and jails as of Dec. 31, 2001. And according to data from Human Rights Watch, more than 60 percent of incarcerated adults are black or Latino, even though the two groups together make up only about 25 percent of the U.S. population.

A report prepared last year by the General Accounting Office, 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 GAO study shows about 65 percent 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 rise in the prison population reflects, in large part, efforts made in 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 25 percent of state prisoners were treated in 1997, compared with 32 percent in 1991, according to the GAO 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 crucial to their return to general society after release.

Problems surface as soon as prisoners are released. Most ex-offenders get little more than bus fare and are often dropped off in troubled neighborhoods.

If they are lucky, their families take them back, and they can start adjusting to freedom and to families that have learned to do without them.

If not, they can end up on the streets or in shelters for homeless people, with 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 Francisco.

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 director.