From: Drug Policy Forum of Texas Url: http://www.dpft.org/ Listserver: DPFT-L@listserv.tamu.edu
The current issue of TIME has an excellent article about an important pending social problem that was in large measure created by our war on drugs. The problem is nicely summarized by the following paragraph:
"This year the nation's prisons will release more than 630,000 people-the largest prison exodus in history. That's four times as many as were released in 1980, before crack, before zero tolerance, before truth-in-sentencing policies and before 1.9 million people filled U.S. prisons and jails, the current record. Since 1980, the number of prisoners returning to society has steadily climbed. It's simple physics: the more people you lock up, the more you must one day let out. For 40% of those now in state prisons, that day arrives in the next 12 months."
For those of you who don't subscribe, here's a text-only copy. Undoubtedly too long for the list, so I'll break it up into three parts. Here's Part I:
--G. Alan Robison
Living on the Outside
Doing time is hard, but trying to re-enter society after prison is almost impossible. Amanda Ripley tells one man's story from lockup to new life
BY AMANDA RIPLEY
On a bright February morning in Harlem, Jean Sanders shook Bill Clinton's hand. Just one week out of prison, Sanders had risen early and put on a suit to come uptown from Brooklyn and apply for low-income housing-one of the first stops after scratch for former felons starting over. Clinton happened to be looking for office space in the same building that day. Plunging into the frenzy of cameras and adoring well-wishers, Sanders jostled and sweet-talked his way to the front of the throng and welcomed the former President to the neighborhood. It was hard to say who was more thrilled to be there. "He's gonna love Harlem food," Sanders predicted. Then he went upstairs to submit his forms.
That day Sanders, then 41, fairly bristled with possibility. After nearly seven years behind bars for stealing a woman's car while in a drug-addled haze, he was free. He had a plan: 1) reconcile with his family, 2) find an apartment and 3) get a job. He filed his housing application and surveyed the scene outside. "If this is a sign, then I think everything's going to be all right." Then he headed home to Brooklyn to watch, along with his mother, his cameo on the evening news.
This year the nation's prisons will release more than 630,000 people-the largest prison exodus in history. That's four times as many as were released in 1980, before crack, before zero tolerance, before truth-in-sentencing policies and before 1.9 million people filled U.S. prisons and jails, the current record. Since 1980, the number of prisoners returning to society has steadily climbed. It's simple physics: the more people you lock up, the more you must one day let out. For 40% of those now in state prisons, that day arrives in the next 12 months.
Since Sanders was released, TIME has followed him through a labyrinth of bureaucracy and temptation. Most of the time, he is optimistic, almost irrationally so. He envisions a better life for himself, whereas most would see a life half wasted. And like almost all ex-cons, he can rattle off a litany of reasons he should be forgiven. "I have a good heart, I have a halfway good brain, and I believe in myself," he says. "People gravitate toward me." And it's true. In welfare waiting rooms, small children toddle over to him unprompted. On the subway, the same place where he used to jump the turnstile and beg for coins, he is now the chatty middle-aged man in a leather jacket, thriving on the laughter of strangers. At the hospital he visits every week to take his tuberculosis medicine, he shouts, "Hi, Mom!" to every old lady he sees. And no matter how stoic the women looked just a moment before, slumped in their wheelchairs, they positively light up.
Sanders has come out of prison before and gone back in. He has spent years of his life on a kaleidoscopic array of drugs. But he has four children, ages 18 to 21, and he wants very badly to stay out of jail this time. "I want a life. I want to be normal again. I want to go to work, come home, see my kids, go on vacation," he says. Then, hearing himself, he adds, "That's a lot of wants." It's clear to everyone who knows Sanders that this time he is bent on reinventing himself. It is equally true that he has never been good at handling life's most punishing moments. His default tendency has always been to escape, either in body or in mind.
All these things make Sanders fairly representative of the class of men criminologists and politicians have recently become concerned with: ex-offenders in the throes of re-entry. Surprisingly little is known about them. And the looming fear is that their return-just at the time the country is fighting a recession and a war-will boost crime again, just as their incarceration helped bring it down. Already, crime increases in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles have been at least partly blamed on their return. Meanwhile, for the ex-offenders and the people entangled in their lives, this new phase can be just as wrenching as the initial lockup.
If Sanders continues to be typical, he will go back to prison. More than 40% of men released today return to prison within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number is higher for men like Sanders, who have been released before and gone back before. Sanders has a 12-page criminal history; it depicts a petty drug dealer, a car thief-a career of committing and recommitting crimes within a very small radius of his childhood home. But since his release, Sanders has done almost all that reformers can reasonably expect of an ex-con who has never completed high school; who was abused as a child; who lost seven family members to murder, fire and disease; who has an epic history of drug addiction; and who is, in the end, not that unusual among the masses of former inmates.
While the country's prisons were growing and multiplying in the 1990s, society's ambitions for them withered. Rehabilitation went out of fashion. America vented its frustration with crime and the drug war by reducing access to in-prison drug-treatment and education programs; outside prisons, the Federal Government dramatically restricted welfare and public housing for ex-cons. Meanwhile, technology made it easier for even corner bodegas to run background checks. And the list of occupations barred to people with records grew longer.
The result is that each day this year, an average of 1,726 men and women-mostly men-will walk out of penal institutions having spent more time behind bars, with less preparation for their return to society and slimmer chances of success there, than those who came before them. The country's once overcrowded prison system has matured into an overwhelmed postrelease supervision system. According to a Justice Department report released last August, there are now 4.6 million Americans on probation or parole-an increase of 44% since 1990. And just as the prison population is racially skewed, so goes the ex-con demographic: 47% of parolees are black. "We need to think about the long-term consequences of what we've done," says Jeremy Travis, lead author of a June Urban Institute report on prison re-entry. "For [the African-American] community to have 10% to 25% of its men unable to vote or unable to access credit or other privileges of citizenship for the rest of their lives in some states creates a permanently diminished group within society."
At noon on Feb. 6, 2001, Sanders walked out of prison and cashed his $40 release check from the department of corrections. He immediately bought a disposable camera and had someone take a picture of him standing in front of a police van. In the photo he looks unusually somber. He's staring straight ahead, as if he's posing for a mug shot. He will carry that picture with him "to remind me," he says.
That afternoon he took a cab to his mother's house, the same squat brick house where he grew up, at the end of the same street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn where he used to commit death-defying stunts on his homemade scooter; the same street where he eventually sold marijuana, crack, heroin, cocaine and "you name it."
Ophelia Sanders, 70, welcomed Jean home. They sat at her kitchen table and talked for a long while. He oohed and aahed at the pictures in the living room—a brother graduating from college, nephews grown taller than he is. He did not immediately recognize a shot of one of his daughters. There were just two shots of him: Polaroids taken in prison. Neither had been framed.
Ophelia made her son dinner. But he would not be allowed to stay the night, not this time. Like many parolees, Sanders had come home to a family scarred by his past, deeply distrustful of his future. When they learned that Jean was coming out of prison, Ophelia and her two other sons, Orlando and Andrew, had a family meeting. They decided that he would not be welcomed back home. It was painful, but the open-door policy had not worked the past three times Jean was released. So Sanders spent his first night out of prison—and six months' worth of nights to come—in a homeless shelter 2 1/2 miles away.
A short woman with a tuft of white hair and a heart-shaped smile, Ophelia has spent the past 15 years in the maddening loop of mothering a criminal son. She bounces—sometimes in the same sentence—from guilt to anger to worry. She goes to church every Sunday for four hours. She has worked in lingerie factories for 40 years and has never allowed alcohol in the house. Her other sons have managerial jobs. She does not know what makes Jean different. She has not stopped wondering and worrying. Since his release, whenever Jean is late to meet her, Ophelia is sure he's been locked up. "It's easier when he's upstate," she says. "At least I know where he is."
The last time Jean went upstate, in 1994, Ophelia told neighbors that he had gone to college. It was a fib, but she had seen the potential for it to be true. "Jeanie is the gifted one of all my kids," she says. "He can tear down this house or a car and put it back together again." During Jean's latest seven-year stint, Ophelia made the 12-hour trip to visit him three times. That's more than anyone else went. Now Jean is reaching out to his kids. Every week or two he calls two of his daughters. They talk with him but resist his efforts to suddenly be their father. "He needs us more than we need him," says Niferteriah Jones, 20. "It's kind of selfish in a way. I've been accustomed to living my life without a father, and now he wants a big welcome-home party."
Sanders' other daughter, Janean Fuller, 18, is more forgiving. She spent a long weekend with him at Ophelia's house in August, and Jean washed and waxed the neighbors' cars so he could take her to see Rush Hour 2. He tried to hold her hand when they crossed the street, just as he'd done the last time he'd been with her—when she was 10. "I'm starting to trust him again," she says, "but I don't really want to confide in him too much because what if he messes up and goes back? I don't know what I'll do if he goes back. I worry about it a lot."
Ophelia knows three other women on her street who have had sons in and out of prison. In a three-block radius surrounding her house, there are roughly 50 to 100 men on parole, according to 2000 New York State division of parole data. The police precinct that includes Ophelia's block represents just 4% of Brooklyn's population but houses 10% of Brooklyn's parolees. When a young man disappears off the streets into prison, residents say, in a perverse euphemism, that he has "gone back home."
"We know who has gone in, what they did, when they're coming out and whether they'll try to extract revenge," says Orlando, 38, Jean's youngest brother. Orlando lives upstairs in his mother's house because, he says, he feels he has to look after her. He has created his own immaculate world out of his boyhood room. Between the Smurf doll and the baseball trophies he has set up a big-screen TV and framed photos of his family. When he quietly leaves each day for his job running a city recreation center, he locks his bedroom door. He has never told Jean that he disapproves of him. He says Jean "didn't choose to have a drug problem or whatever." In the next breath, he says that "when we become adults, we make choices."
Jean called the first gigantic brick shelter he stayed in Castle Grayskull. As a rule, he neatly packages his complaints, slipping them in here and there, camouflaged as corny jokes. He likes attention and knows he is not likely to get it playing the bitter ex-con. The second shelter, which was better, he promoted to "Cuckoo-bird Dungeon" and said he was blessed to be there. But both were trials for Sanders. Inside and out, they alternately reeked of prison or temptation. Within a five-block radius of the second shelter, there were three crack houses. Directly outside the shelter, men worked the corner, smoking and doping. Police made frequent sweeps, stopping whoever wasn't in motion. Sanders was careful not to pause. Even so, over the course of three months, he was searched twice. He was polite and compliant; he joked about how his orange wallet looked nothing like a gun. He was clean both times but so shaken he had to sit and catch his breath.
Several times a week a bus stopped at his shelter and unloaded men newly released from prison. Studies have estimated that 30% to 50% of big-city parolees are homeless. Sanders was surrounded by the very people his parole conditions forbid him to consort with. But parole also demands that he have an address, even if it's a shelter. One day, while Sanders was taking a shower, someone broke into his locker and started selling his underwear—brand new pairs he had got from the state when he left prison. His new washcloth also vanished. "You might think it's silly, but a little thing like that freaks you out. Why would they take my washcloth?" Twice a week the warrant squad came through, beaming flashlights at the bunks, demanding IDs. "That left my nerves sort of rattled," Sanders said. "Even if you're not doing nothing, you get nervous." The police often came by to recruit shelter residents to pose in lineups with suspects. The gig pays $10, but Sanders declined. Being that close to jail made him too anxious, he said.
By June, Sanders had a resume and a closetful of secondhand suits he got from a widowed neighbor of his mother's. He wore one every day. The women at his job-training program nicknamed him GQ. He grew a neat beard to look less threatening. He had interviews with every kind of business from messenger services to department stores including Macy's and K Mart but received not a single viable offer. The kinds of jobs he was most likely to get he couldn't take. Because of an old neck injury, he can't do heavy manual labor—a common problem among former inmates, who, because of their intimate history with violence and needles, tend to have far more medical problems than average Americans. He responded to an ad in the paper for a bathroom-attendant firm in Manhattan. Impressed by Sanders' demeanor, the interviewer said his record was no problem. But the jobs were off the books, a forbidden arrangement under his parole conditions. He paid for a security-guard training course and aced the test, only to find out later that security firms don't like to hire felons.
Since Sanders met Bill Clinton that day in Harlem, he had been back to the Housing Authority six times. He was convinced that the homeless shelter was, for him, an incubator for failure. He qualified for a $215-a-month rent check from the city's welfare agency—more than he would get in many other states—but he couldn't find a room in New York City for that rate. And, of course, he is forbidden under the terms of his parole to leave the city. So he kept going to the Housing Authority in search of cheap real estate, filling out forms as though they were lotto tickets. Each time he was told he needed more paperwork. In New York people with criminal records must finish parole and then wait up to six years before renting in public-housing projects. But Sanders was still eligible for low-income housing, at least in theory.
On one visit, in May, he waited 20 minutes to be told he needed to submit copies of his court dispositions. Out of a briefcase bursting with official documents, he produced the dispositions with a flourish—he had been to court three times to get them. "I got them," he said, with the satisfaction of a citizen who believes he has finally checkmated the state. Nonplussed, the woman behind the counter asked him for copies. He had only the originals. There was no copier he could use in the building, she reported. "You have to go outside for that."
As Sanders ping-pongs from one fluorescent-lighted lobby to another, it's quickly apparent that he does not need more government oversight. He is booked up with appointments every week. "I'm psycho-socialed out," he likes to say. Each week Sanders is required to attend two drug-treatment meetings in Queens. Once a week, whether he has a job or not, he must appear before his parole officer in Brooklyn. Once a month he must also see his welfare caseworker, an hour away in Harlem. After two months on welfare, he must attend eight hours a day of job training to get $22.50 and $130 in food stamps a month. Some weeks he submits three urine samples for three different programs.
He has done all these things in the belief that they are, mostly, helpful. But the ordeal leaves him feeling drained—and watched. One day, as he shuttled between housing and welfare appointments, he started to buckle under the scrutiny—he added up all the people he had to report to, including his family, and he ran out of fingers. When he missed a drug-treatment meeting to go to a job interview, he had to defend himself to an irate caseworker. "It's like they got a rope around your neck, a rope around your feet, and they just tug on you because they can," he said.
That marionette-style supervision produces a common lament among ex-offenders and those who advocate for them. "The expectations placed on the parolee are disproportionate to what they can assimilate," says Carol Shapiro, head of Family Justice, a national nonprofit group focused on prisoner re-integration. "People are looking over their shoulders waiting for them to fail." It would not require more money to improve and coordinate these programs, she says. It would just require more smarts. At Gowanda Correctional Facility in upstate New York, Sanders went through a prerelease prep program. But all the information seemed outdated or useless. No one from the state's housing, welfare or Medicaid services came to help the soon to be released begin the paperwork chase, he says. So when Sanders came out and started the process, he had to wait the customary 45 days to receive health care. Those first days are precarious ones, especially for recovering addicts. Says Stanley Bates, who grew up with Sanders and became a corrections officer at New York City's Rikers Island jail: "The system is designed to make these guys fail."
Here's the way it ends:
On a Friday afternoon in June, four months after his liberation and with precious little accomplished, Sanders leaned back in a chair and took a deep pull off a crack pipe. Nothing he had done since his release had felt more familiar. He had spent the day helping an acquaintance move, then wound up in the empty living room as a crack pipe was passed around. He declined on the first round. The next time he reached out. The first hit is always free.
When the high wore off, the party moved to a nearby crack house, just blocks from the shelter. At 5:30, the police descended, and Sanders didn't run. They found a small rock of crack in his waistband. "They were very courteous," Sanders said of the police. After being strip-searched and photographed, Sanders sat quietly on the floor of the holding cell, processing the notion that he'd just sent himself back to prison. "I lost my mind. I did it to myself," he said by way of explanation. He made no phone calls.
Then Sanders got lucky. He was charged with only disorderly conduct and sentenced to eight days of community service. But his parole officer would be told of the violation, and his urine would be dirty. Sanders walked to his mother's house in the rain, hoping the water would cleanse the stench of the jail. He told his mother he'd been arrested, leaving out the bit about the drugs. "I had a moment of weakness," he said. "You always have a moment of weakness," she replied.
That following Monday, in another familiar ritual, Sanders prepared to run. He packed his things at the shelter and went to his mother's house to ask for money. But as he sat there facing her interrogation, he changed his mind. "I was on the run for two years once. I know how to do it. But I'm 41 years old. I'm tired of running." So the next day, instead of taking Greyhound south, he went to his parole officer. He walked into her cubicle, as hundreds of others have, sweating, shaking, wondering if he would leave in handcuffs. But after he agreed to commit to a drug-treatment program and stay clean, he got a second chance. "He wants to do the right thing," said officer Thersea Fedrick. "I just don't think he has many friends or many different lifelines."
It used to be that the parole officer was a lifeline, helping choreograph all the different pieces of a parolee's haphazard life. When Fedrick started her career 12 years ago, she had 35 cases. She used to drive parolees to job interviews and treatment programs; she would also refer them to an in-house employment counselor and a psychologist. But those jobs have been cut, and she has 75 cases. "The only time we pick people up now is to take them to Rikers [Island]," she says.
After his "slipup," as Sanders calls it, he started attending drug treatment religiously. For three months he spent 16 hours a week doing custodial work in exchange for welfare. He still had trouble placating his five or six different "bosses," from parole to welfare to his mother. "I can do time. It's living I can't do," he said once. But he had moments of certain victory, like the time Janean gave him a tool kit for Father's Day—his first Father's Day gift ever—and the day his eldest brother trusted him with his phone number. At every family gathering, Sanders took pictures with his disposable cameras until he was begged to stop.
One day in August, he walked out of the shelter in a fit of frustration. His mother agreed to take him in temporarily. Soon afterward, a neighbor said Sanders could rent a 6-ft. by 12-ft. room with the $215 welfare check, if he would also help fix up the place. Elated, he went the next day to the welfare office and got approval. The check took three weeks to arrive, testing the patience of his new landlord. But at last he moved in. He shares a bathroom and a kitchen, but he has his own phone and a TV. "I feel like a human being," he says.
Then came Sept. 11. Rolling black clouds of smoke and dust drifted over to his neighborhood in Brooklyn. Sanders, like people everywhere else, was depressed by the attacks. His problems and successes were dwarfed by their implications. Finding work got even harder. He had a second interview for a janitor job at a Brooklyn YMCA but was finally told he was "too good for the job." "What does that mean? Was I dressed too nicely?" he says. In October he broke down crying in an elevator in Manhattan after being rejected for a messenger job.
And then for two weeks, Sanders stopped trying altogether. He went AWOL from his welfare-to-work job, from parole and even from his mother's church, which he'd been attending every Sunday since his release. "I just got under the covers and let the TV watch me," he said. The phone would ring, and he would jump all over it. "I was hoping it would be someone who cared about me, but it was those telemarketers." He briefly dated a woman, but she was embarrassed that he couldn't buy her dinner. He ended the relationship, saying it was more than he could handle.
On Nov. 7, just when Sanders had run out of ambition, the unimaginable happened: he was offered a job. The position, as a gas-station attendant in Far Rockaway, Queens, was 40 minutes from his home and paid $6 an hour. "I could just tell you a thousand stories in one minute," he said. "I can't even tell you how I feel. It's nothing to really brag about. But, hey, I am on cloud nine. I am going places. I am going to Disney World!" Sounding like he was accepting an Oscar, Sanders repeatedly credited Curtis & Associates, the job-training program that helped him land his new position.
Shortly before Christmas, Sanders went around to his family members and handed out crisp money from his billfold. For New Year's Eve, he did something he hasn't done in seven years: he worked. Then he went back to Brooklyn to watch the ball drop on TV with his mother. They said a prayer for the new year, and he went home to bed.
Sanders has now been out of prison for 12 months, his longest stretch of freedom in 15 years.