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When Prisoners Come Home By Joan Petersilia (Oxford University Press, 278 pages, $29.95) According to criminology professor Joan Petersilia, approximately 1,600 adults are released from state and federal prisons each day. Most are African-American or Latino males. Three-quarters have a history of substance abuse; one in six is mentally ill; and 40 percent have neither a high school diploma nor GED. Worse, since the lion’s share return to the communities they left � more often than not inner-city ghettoes � it is small wonder that recidivism rates are depressingly high. Criminal justice is scary stuff and Petersilia’s dispassionate account barely scratches the surface in presenting the human face of the system’s failings. For one, When Prisoners Come Home pays too little attention to gender differences and the growing impact of privatization on prison conditions. For another, in eschewing interviews with former inmates and their keepers, the book misses the mark, needlessly distancing readers from those imprisoned. That said, the book packs a wallop and is insightful and alarming. Simply put, Petersilia questions the government’s current approach to corrections and looks at both incarceration patterns and what happens when someone is locked up. “The nation now spends about $31 billion a year to house prisoners,” she writes. Largely the result of a get-tough-on-crime ethos popularized in the 1970s, we have created a society in which prison stays are normal for large swaths of the population. Indeed, the statistics are shocking: Two million people are held in U.S. prisons and jails on any given day, including a third of all young black men. “Common sense suggests that many prisoners return home more desperate, more violence prone, and more of a menace,” she concludes. This makes the issue of release all the more compelling � and disheartening, since two of every three prisoners will end up back inside, usually within the first year of freedom. “We simply cannot reduce recidivism without funding programs that open up opportunities for ex-convicts to create alternatives to a criminal lifestyle,” she writes. We also have to consider how we treat people when they are inside. The current trend of isolating inmates � including the aggressive mentally ill � in punitive isolation or “supermax” units, is a case in point. According to the author, social deprivation often causes psychological damage that impedes the reintegration progress. This begs the question of why the practice is allowed to continue. But Petersilia believes that even if supermax conditions are abolished, additional changes are imperative if released prisoners are going to succeed once they are out. She sees parole � ongoing, long-term supervision of people released from prison � as positive and laments that its function has shifted from social work to law enforcement. “Drug testing, house arrest and electronic monitoring are now common parole supervision techniques,” she reports. In California, Petersilia’s home state, scant social supports leave newly released prisoners dangling. “Of the approximately 130,000 substance abusers in California’s prisons, only 3,000 are receiving treatment behind bars. Of the 132,000 inmates released last year, just 8,000 received any kind of pre-release program to help them cope with life on the outside,” she continues. In 16 other states, parole has been abolished and once prisoners serve fixed sentences, they are released. Zero supervision is provided despite blatant risk patterns. What’s more, many prisoners return to the “real world” only to discover “invisible punishments,” laws barring them from receiving public assistance, living in public or subsidized housing, retaining parental rights, voting, serving on juries, or working in a slew of occupations. “In California, parolees are legally barred from law, real estate, medicine, nursing, physical therapy and education,” Petersilia writes. “In Colorado, the job of dentist, engineer, nurse, pharmacist, physician and real estate agent are closed to convicted felons. All states restrict former felons from employment as barbers, beauticians and nurses. Even a prior arrest as a juvenile is an absolute bar to employment in a criminal justice occupation in many states despite the fact that criminal justice agencies that have hired former convicts rate their job performance equal to or better than that of the average employee.” It’s hard not to question America’s attitude about punishment. “Most inmates who leave prison . . . had serious needs prior to imprisonment; most of them went untreated in prison; and face a staggering number of personal and financial problems at release,” Petersilia concludes. Petersilia offers four suggestions as to what to do: • Provide more education, work, and rehabilitation opportunities to promote life skills to those still incarcerated. • Institute discretionary parole policies and involve prisoners in prerelease planning. • Offer better parole supervision and target services and surveillance to those who need it most, based on risk profiles and assessments. • Develop collaborative partnerships between service providers, ex-convicts, law enforcers, victim advocates, family members, and neighborhood agencies to enhance mechanisms of informal social control. Petersilia also posits a shift in law enforcement and urges governments to separate violent from nonviolent offenders. Under her plan, only the turbulent and dangerous would be imprisoned; property and drug offenders would be subject to less-costly sanctions and treatment. This suggestion, while hardly radical, seems reasonable. Add the creation of affordable transitional housing; employment workshops to train ex-convicts for jobs they can get; therapeutic communities for those at risk of relapsing into substance abuse; and classes in basic literacy, parenting, and nonviolent conflict resolution, and you’ve got the start of a humane criminal justice system. The United States currently detains a higher percentage of the population than any other developed country in the world. That this is not a burning issue for would-be legislators adds insult to a festering national injury. Eleanor J. Bader is the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism and is a frequent contributor to Library Journal, In These Times, The Progressive, and Z magazine. This article first appeared in the New York Law Journal, a newspaper affiliated with Legal Times.

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