Housing First


About Ex-offenders About Ex-offenders

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Screaming for Release - click for photo gallery

"Screaming for Release" is what a prison artist called this work. The Fortune Society, a group that works on criminal justice issues, holds an annual art contest for prisoners. A sample of their work shows a longing for family, religion -- and home.
View a photo gallery of art created by ex-offenders.

For more than a decade, the greatest increase in U.S. government-subsidized housing has come in the form of cells. America has been on a prison building spree, nearly doubling the number of people held behind bars since 1990. Almost 2 million people were locked up at the federal, state or local level as of June 2001, according to the latest statistics from the Justice Department.

A record number of prisoners also means a record number of ex-prisoners returning to towns and neighborhoods. "You've got more people doing time. They're doing worse time. There's less rehabilitation, and they're coming out in enormous numbers," says JoAnne Page, executive director of the Fortune Society, an organization founded by ex-offenders to support ex-offenders.

More than 570,000 men and women were released from prison or jail in 2001 alone. For tens of thousands of these former inmates, the question of where they will live is an immediate and critical one, and has important consequences for society at large.

Most ex-offenders return to families or friends in their old neighborhoods. Often, this is the environment that helped them get into trouble in the first place. Others are no longer welcome home or don't want to return. "They come out and they've got a bus ticket and 'gate' money, which is like 50 to 90 bucks," says Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute, a research and advocacy organization. "They don't have a job. They can't afford first and last month's rent, which is huge. So they drift, from the homeless shelter to the couch of a friend to a low-rent hotel. "And that's the lack of stability, the chaos, in which small -- and sometimes large -- crimes flourish."

Many cannot return home because offenders convicted of drug crimes are barred from public housing. "You can have committed murder and live in public housing," says Schiraldi, "but if you sold drugs, you can't live in public housing."

Parole boards, which used to have discretion over when prisoners were released and could require them to take steps toward rehabilitation, have been eliminated in 14 states. Nationwide, parole officers are dealing with dramatically larger case loads. Some spend as little as 15 minutes a month with each parolee. Money for transitional housing, along with job-training and education programs, has been squeezed as states poured their budgets into building prisons.

In its study When Prisoners Return to the Community: Political, Economic and Social Consequences, the National Institute of Justice (a part of the U.S. Justice Department) looked at what happens when ex-offenders hit the street with little or no preparation. The study predicts that in that situation, "A number of unfortunate collateral consequences are likely, including increases in child abuse, family violence, the spread of infectious diseases, homelessness and community disorganization."

The health consequences alone can be severe. In New York City, when a multi-drug-resistant form of tuberculosis emerged in 1989, 80 percent of the cases were traced to jails and prisons. In 1997, 2.1 percent of all state and federal prison inmates were infected with HIV, a rate five times higher than in the general population. More HIV is expected on the streets as a result.

There also are social costs yet to come due. More than 1.5 million children in the United States have parents in prison, according to one study. And those children of inmates are five times more likely than average to serve time in prison when they become adults.

Greater resources must be dedicated to pre-release training, counseling and education if more ex-offenders are to succeed in going straight, says the Fortune Society's Page. Transitional housing that combines a place to stay with other services, such as drug treatment and job counseling, is key in helping ex-offenders re-establish themselves in society, she and other experts say.

Such projects often face significant resistance from would-be neighbors worried about rising crime rates and falling property values. However, a study by the Justice Policy Institute and researchers at George Washington University found crime in the District of Columbia was no more prevalent around halfway houses for ex-offenders than in areas where there were no such facilities, and that property values continued to increase on the blocks in which the houses were located.

While housing ex-offenders likely will remain a contentious issue in many communities, advocates say all Americans have a vested interest in seeing ex-offenders find a home outside prison. The alternative makes for grim statistics: Today, of all offenders on parole, two thirds are re-arrested within three years.

By Reed Karaim

About Ex-offenders

In the United States, one out of every 145 residents was behind bars in 2001 -- a level of imprisonment shared only by Russia, among Western nations. "We have five percent of the world's population, and 25 percent of the world's prisoners," notes Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute, a research and advocacy organization.

Those prisoners are disproportionately black and Hispanic, and are mostly young and male. An estimated 12 percent of African-American men, 4 percent of Hispanic men, and 1.8 percent of white men in their 20s and early 30s were incarcerated in 2001.

Men are more than 10 times as likely to be imprisoned as women, but the female incarceration rate has been growing faster than the male rate. About 166,000 women were in prisons or jails in 2001.

The dramatic growth in incarceration has been part of a "get-tough" approach to crime that also has led to less sentencing flexibility and more emphasis on punishment than rehabilitation. Whether or not this approach has been a success is a matter of continuing debate. Supporters point to generally falling rates of violent crime in the 1990s. Opponents point to higher rates of recidivism among offenders after release.

In the last two years, the incarceration growth rate has slowed, as some state are again exploring alternatives to hard time.

Other Resources:

The Fortune Society has extensive information about the criminal justice system and the support available for ex-offenders.

The Justice Policy Institute examines current prison trends, along with alternatives to incarceration.

The National Institute of Justice has published a series of papers on sentencing and corrections, including "When Prisoners Return to the Community: Political, Economic and Social Consequences."

The Urban Institute provides extensive research on crime in America in the "Issues in Focus" section of its Web site.

Multimedia Through multimedia documentaries, the Web site 360degrees presents what it calls "a critical examination of the state of our prison system." The site launched in January 2001 in conjunction with the broadcast of the Prison Diaries documentaries on NPR's All Things Considered.

The Truth About Bob

More For the series "The Truth About Bob," The Des Moines Register's Ken Fuson spent five months researching the life of ex-convict Bob Fitzlaff, who gained national attention in the 1970s when he requested a life sentence because he considered prison his only home.
Related NPR coverage
Listen'Three Strikes' Laws
Correspondent John Biewen reports on California's prison guard union, a powerful interest group in the raging debate over that state's "three strikes" law. The report is part of the project "Corrections Inc.," by the documentary unit American RadioWorks.
April 6, 2002

ListenEx-offenders' Stories
A profile of "Youth Portraits," a radio skills training program in which ex-offenders released from New York's Riker's Island chronicle their lives.
February 11, 2002

Listen'Learning to Live' Outside
When a Chicago man named James got out of prison last September, after serving seven years for car theft, he was determined to change. Producer Dan Collison chronicles that struggle in Learning to Live: James' Story.
May 29, 2001
Expanded coverage

ListenParole Board Lessons
Frederic Reamer reflects on his nearly nine years of service on the Rhode Island Parole Board. He believes many drug- or alcohol-related cases could have been avoided with earlier treatment.
June 30, 2000

ListenParole System Commentary
Commentator Joe Davidson says the parole system that is supposed to deal with released prisoners is hardly functioning, and can't handle the swiftly rising number of releases.
September 29, 1999