Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Book Review: From Prison to Home

by Jeremy Travis, Amy Solomon and Michelle Waul
Justice Policy Center, the Urban Institute, Washington DC, 2001, 56 pages, paper

Review by Roger Hummel

In a remarkable new book from the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, the dimensions of prisoner reentry are analyzed and reported in highly readable detail. Useful statistics, graphs, charts, maps and abundant sidebars accompany a fact packed text to offer the reader a 56 page book that delivers a comprehensive review of the nation's reentry process.

This year about 600,000 prisoners - roughly 1,600 per day - will be released from the nation's state and federal prisons. Most will reenter the communities where they were arrested and will try to avoid returning to prison. Sadly, for most of the returnees, that won't happen. Forty percent of released prisoners will be rearrested within one year while nearly two thirds are expected to be rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of release.

From Prison to Home examines the recidivism phenomenon along with the collateral consequences: rearrest and reincarceration, public health risks, homelessness, disenfranchisement, and weakened family and community ties. The Urban Institute deserves high marks for producing this objective view of a complex national problem of immense proportions.

The Policy Shift

The authors focus on three major changes in criminal justice policy over the past 20 years. The first is a dramatic increase in the nation's imprisonment rate from 110 per 100,000 residents in 1973 to 476 per 100,000 in 1999. Due in large part to get tough on crime and mandatory sentencing laws, state prisons now house 1,200,000 individuals and federal prisons another 135,000. The number of prisoners released each year has grown from 147,895 in 1977 to approximately 585,000 in 2000.

Second, the philosophy of prisoner rehabilitation and earned release within a framework of indeterminate sentencing has lost its intellectual and policy dominance. Previously, under the indeterminate approach, most states explicitly embraced rehabilitation as a goal of corrections and authorized parole boards to release those prisoners who had earned good-time credits through unstinting obedience to prison rules and successful completion of appropriate in-prison programs. No more. Today, the indeterminate sentence approach is, in many states, being replaced with mandatory minimums, abolition of discretionary parole, three strike laws, truth in sentencing policies and obligatory sex offender registration.

Third, the mission of parole supervision has undergone significant change with an increased focus on surveillance rather than rehabilitation. New capabilities have been introduced to provide enhanced capacity to detect parole violations and increase the rate of revocations. A recent survey of parole officers shows, for example, that more of them give high priority to the law enforcement function of parole rather than to its service or rehabilitation functions.

The Reentering Prisoner

Over 95 percent of the nation's state prisoners will eventually be released; 40 percent of those now held in state prisons will be released within the next 12 months.

Of the 600,000 prisoners who will return to their communities each year, most have not completed high school, have limited employment skills, have histories of substance abuse, and are beset by serious health problems. Eighty eight percent of the parolees are male, 12 percent are female; 55 percent are white, 44 percent are black, 21 percent are of Hispanic origin irrespective of race. Their median age is 34.

Returning prisoners suffer a host of health problems. Substance abuse (74 percent) and mental illness (16 percent) are common afflictions among prisoners expected to be released within the next twelve months. About 25 percent of our nation's residents who test positive for HIV or AIDS and one third of those infected with hepatitis C have been released from a correctional facility. A recent survey showed that 85 percent of California's parolees are chronic drug or alcohol abusers, 70 to 90 percent are unemployed, 50 percent are functionally illiterate, 18 percent have psychiatric problems, and ten percent are homeless.

Correctional institutions are now doing less to prepare prisoners for release. Only 12 percent of the soon to be released prisoners participated in pre release programs and only 18 percent of those with a substance abuse problem received any treatment while incarcerated.

Challenge for Reentering Prisoners

Eighty percent of state prisoners report a history of drug and alcohol abuse including 74 percent of those expecting to be released within the next 12 months. Absent substance abuse treatment while in prison, rates of relapse following release are high. For example, two thirds of untreated heroin users resume their drug use and criminal behavior within three months of release.

Rates of mental illness among prisoners are at least twice as high as rates for the nation's overall population. Several studies reached the regrettable conclusion that parole agencies are unable to identify and address the needs of mentally ill prisoners.

Other studies show that having a job with a decent wage is associated with lower rates of recidivism. By one estimate, a 10 percent decrease in an individual's wage relates to a 10 to 20 percent increase in the likelihood of reincarceration. One researcher estimates that releasees suffer a 10 to 20 percent "wage penalty" because of their incarceration history. Sadly, employers are reluctant to hire returning prisoners because a criminal record is perceived as signaling they may not be trustworthy.

Suitable housing is another challenge facing returning prisoners. Some prisoners may not be welcome back in the family home. Returnees rarely have the financial resources to obtain housing in the private market. Further, federal laws bar many returning prisoners from public housing and federal housing programs. Those individuals convicted of a drug felony are permanently barred from receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamps. In California, for example, it was found there were only 200 shelter beds for 10,000 homeless parolees.

Overall, From Prison to Home delivers an insightful and well researched presentation of the prisoner reentry situation. The book should be on the reading list of all prisoners, prison officials, parole agents and outside support groups.

Single copies of the book are available upon request and at no charge from: Urban Institute Justice Policy center 2100 M St. NW Washington DC 20037 (202) 833-7200.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login