The Magazine

Free at Last

What will happen as large numbers of ex-cons are released from prison?

Sep 9, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 48 • By ELI LEHRER
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JOE ARPAIO, sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, has some interesting ideas about running prisons: His inmates sleep in tents in the desert, work on chain gangs when they misbehave, wear pink underwear, and eat green baloney sandwiches that cost less than dog food. Smoking, skin mags, and coffee are banned. Cellblock televisions show nothing but educational programs and weather reports. As Arpaio is fond of saying, the Maricopa prison system, which serves the city of Phoenix, runs on the principle of "zero tolerance for the criminal element."

Yet if the effectiveness of punishment is judged by its ability to stop people from repeating bad behavior, Arpaio's vastly popular efforts (he has an 85 percent approval rating with local voters) haven't been a huge success. While Arpaio has been an excellent law enforcer and runs an effective anti-drug program in his correctional system, a 1998 Arizona State University study commissioned by the sheriff himself found that his trademark harsh measures had no effect on recidivism.

It's difficult to argue with Arpaio's desire to punish prisoners: Most people behind bars have done terrible things. But today's prisons--even supposedly tough ones like those in Maricopa County--do little to break criminals of the behavior that got them into trouble in the first place. All around America, just-released thugs step off of Greyhound buses and pick up their criminal careers where they left off. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 70 percent of robbers and nearly 80 percent of car thieves commit the same crimes again within three years of release. Overall, two-thirds of ex-cons are re-arrested within two years of release. Charles Colson, the former Nixon aide who founded the Prison Fellowship, sums up the situation best: "Instead of rehabilitating offenders, [the correctional system] debilitates them."

Almost 600,000 people (an all-time record) left prison in 2001. The flip side of the growing prison populations of the last two decades--the incarceration rate more than tripled between 1980 and 2000--will be a growing number of released prisoners in the decade ahead. Their future is not bright. "The people being released from prison today are, on the whole, disconnected from their communities and have spent longer times behind bars," says Jeremy Travis, an Urban Institute fellow who studies prisoner reentry.

As Travis and others point out, increased numbers of released criminals don't translate directly into rising crime rates. America's prisons released more prisoners every year in the past decade, as crime rates entered their sharpest dive on record. Crime is lower than it has been since the mid-1960s. But a return to the level of civic peace our grandparents enjoyed will require a serious effort to cut recidivism.

Some tough-sounding moves actually make things easier on criminals. Abolishing parole--a quick and dirty route to longer sentences that many state legislatures followed in the 1980s--often made things worse. Thanks to time off for "good behavior," prisoners can still get out after serving a fraction of their sentences. Time-off policies, in any case, simply require prisoners to avoid insubordination, violence, and theft while in prison. Parole requires that prisoners actually improve themselves through educational programs and work.

While more research remains to be done, states like Vermont that have retained traditional parole do have slightly lower recidivism rates than the rest of the country. Rather than abolishing parole, it might have been better for states to increase sentences honestly. After all, letting a prisoner know that he can get out after two years of a six-year sentence if he earns an associate's degree is better for him and society at large than having him slack off and be released for "good behavior" after serving half of a "no parole" four-year sentence.

So if many supposedly tough policies don't work as advertised, what does? There's no pat answer--society is best off if some offenders live out their lives behind bars--but, since over 90 percent of those now incarcerated will eventually get out, breaking prisoners of their bad habits should be the priority.

THE BEST SINGLE LESSON for prison reform comes from the great social policy success of the last decade: welfare reform. Since 1996, welfare policy in most states has focused on getting welfare recipients to work. Even before reforms actually went into effect, men and women on the dole began scrambling for jobs. Since 1996, welfare rolls have declined by more than half and, just as important, members of the nation's underclass acquired the disciplined habits of working-class America. They learned how to be on time, take direction from bosses, and dress suitably for work. As productive wage earners rather than beneficiaries of state largess, they also earned a well-deserved measure of self-respect.

What worked for the largely female population of welfare recipients can also work for the largely male population of prison inmates. "The work ethic is part of mainstream America," says Charlie Sullivan, a former Catholic priest who is the executive director of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, a left-leaning grass-roots group that promotes opportunities for prisoners to work. "When you can provide opportunities to work you can have prisoners learn what the rest of society does every day. They can begin to become breadwinners and help keep their families together rather than tearing them apart."

Work programs are effective. An Urban Institute literature review from May 2002 found that prisoners who work in paid jobs for 18 months or more do almost as well as those who do significant college level work. This is a surprising outcome since most prisoners can barely read when they enter the clink and only a small, highly motivated bunch can do college work. While the benefits of education are significant, it's much harder to force prisoners to learn than it is to force them to work. (Although requiring prisoners to become literate and earn GEDs is a good idea.)

At least one good model for prison labor already exists. The federal prison system, which requires all prisoners to work, allows particularly well behaved inmates to work in factories run by Federal Prison Industries. They produce everything from office furniture to pens for the government's use. The program also gives prisoners the opportunity to earn money for a nest egg upon release. Prisoners who misbehave lose out on the financial benefits and satisfaction of work. It's probably no coincidence that federal prisons have less violence and produce fewer recidivists than their counterparts on the state level. (Direct comparisons are a bit difficult since a larger percentage of federal inmates are educated white collar workers or sophisticated criminal kingpins.)

Indeed, work can change the entire atmosphere inside prisons. "When you have 50 or 100 jobs paying $5.15 an hour, it can set up lots of good competition within a prison," says Knut Rostad, the president of the Enterprise Prison Institute, a right-leaning group that promotes opportunities for prisoners to work for money. Of course, not everyone supports prison labor. Manufacturers and unions are united in their opposition to the cheap labor which prisoners supposedly provide. (Actually, added security costs and low worker productivity mean that prison labor costs are, at best, about the same as those in the outside world.) Indeed, a bill that would significantly weaken Federal Prison Industries has found supporters in both parties. But the political obstacles to more work by prisoners should not be insuperable.

Prisons should also hold inmates accountable for their behavior, particularly when it comes to drug use. Bureau of Justice Statistics studies from 1997 and 2000 show that over 50 percent of inmates used drugs in the month before their arrests and more than a third committed the crimes for which they are imprisoned while under the influence of narcotics. Despite regular searches, more than 10 percent of inmates test positive for drug use at any given time. Allowing prisoners to continue their drug use inside prison rewards this particular brand of law-breaking.

Those who fail drug tests should receive severe punishments, extra time added to their sentences, and plenty of coercive drug treatment. Most research shows that forced drug rehab programs actually work better than voluntary ones. What better time to mandate sober and drug free behavior than when they are supervised for 24 hours a day? A 2000 UCLA study found that regular drug testing reduces recidivism significantly. Even if it did not, forcing prisoners to stop using drugs they presumably enjoy seems like a more appropriate punishment than shutting down the weight room.

Even if prisons meet the tall order of socializing prisoners to the discipline of work and breaking them of their drug habits, cracking the recidivism problem will also require better follow-up from corrections professionals. Political scientist Edward Banfield famously argued that the real determinant of social class wasn't income as much as it was the ability to plan for the future. A great many criminals live from day to day and misbehave at least in part because they fail to recognize the long-term consequences of their actions. Forcing inmates to plan for their post-release lives could go a long way toward mitigating this problem and, perhaps, stopping them from repeating criminal behavior in the future. Every prisoner leaving the prison gates with the traditional bus ticket and cheap suit should also have a specific, detailed plan for his post-release life.

This will require a radical break with current practices. A 2001 Urban Institute study on prisoner reentry uncovered some shocking practices that border on negligence. The state of California sends mentally ill prisoners home with only one day's worth of medication and, quite often, no directions on how to get more. Is it any surprise that so many return to crime? Parole and probation caseloads per officer have more than doubled since 1980. And, although they have proven successful in places like Boston and Orange County, programs based on intensive monitoring are under-funded. Indeed, a June 2002 cover story in Governing magazine argued persuasively that Boston's crime rates had begun to rise after a decade of decline largely because the city's law enforcement establishment lost its focus on the intensive intervention program that had become a national model.

Thanks to the end of parole in many states, poorly behaved prisoners often serve out their entire sentences and then get released with no supervision whatsoever. There's no reason why the states shouldn't endeavor to follow up on every released prisoner by, at the very least, forcing them to register with the local police and other social service agencies. Lowell, Mass., and Stamford, Conn., have both pioneered highly effective partnerships with local probation departments. (Both cities, not coincidentally, rank among the top 20 crime reducers in the country.) While intensive monitoring can be costly, it is always cheaper than keeping people locked up. In some cases, states might do better to shorten sentences a bit and redirect the money toward monitoring a larger percentage of released prisoners, re-imprisoning them if they show any sign of reverting to their old ways.

Finally, faith-based programs deserve more consideration. It goes without saying that no prisoner should be forced into faith-based rehabilitation but, at the very least, faith-based programs should stand on an equal footing with the New Age whole-person philosophies that pass for rehabilitation in many prisons today. Recidivism rates were considerably lower in the late 19th century when prisons saw their work in explicitly spiritual terms. Such practices deserve another try. Muscular Billy Graham-style evangelical Christianity, orthodox Islam, and Roman Catholicism all provide clear rules for nearly all aspects of life and, as a result, produce sincere converts who rarely re-offend.

Those who believe that today's prisons are soft on criminals have a point. Allowing inmates to continue lazy, hedonistic, and immoral behavior is a recipe for a high recidivism rate. More than anything else, prisoners need more rules and regulations. Society should force them to work, attend classes, stop doing drugs, and live sober, upright lives after leaving prison. Doing so would punish them and protect the rest of us more effectively than green baloney sandwiches ever could.

Eli Lehrer, a senior editor at the American Enterprise, works on the Heritage Foundation's Excellence in Policing Project along with former Attorney General Edwin Meese III.