Release of Drug Offenders Strains Communities In the 1980s and '90s, more than a million people in the United States were arrested each year on drug charges. Most went to prison. Now hundreds of thousands of inmates are returning to their neighborhoods, and many communities are collapsing under the burden.

Release of Drug Offenders Strains Communities

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, over a million people in the United States were arrested each year on drug charges. Many went to prison, and for years, that's where they stayed, until now. Hundreds of thousands of inmates are pouring out of the nation's prisons. They usually go back to the neighborhoods they came from.

In the fourth part of our series on The Forgotten War, NPR's Laura Sullivan found that these inmates were forgotten, too. And as they return home, their communities are struggling to cope.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Getting out on parole is hard. Staying out is harder. For some people, freedom can be counted in hours.

Mr. DONNIE ELLIOTT (Parole Officer, Oakland, California): Now you either take it off, or right now I take you to jail.

SULLIVAN: Oakland, California. Parole Officer Donnie Elliott is staring down 50 or so new parolees packed into a rundown building. They've only been out of prison a few days, and already one is headed right back.

Elliott's told everyone to take their hats off. The woman in the front row is apparently going to keep hers on.

Mr. ELLIOTT: Stand your ass up. Come here. Get up. Get up. Don't you make me. Take the goddamn thing off or go to jail. You make the decision. You come into my goddamn meetings and you act like this. That's why you went to prison. Get your ass out of here.

SULLIVAN: And with that, Elliott handcuffs her and she's on her way to jail. No one in the room is smiling anymore. This meeting is this group's first official parole obligation.

Next week, there'll be 50 more parolees sitting in these same chairs. Like almost everyone in this group, they'll likely be drug offenders.

Mr. RON OWENS (Former Convict, Mentor): This is a test. This is only a test.

SULLIVAN: The meeting's main attraction is Ron Owens, a 52-year-old former convict and mentor.

Mr. OWENS: Quit tripping. Don't party yet. You ain't home. You look like you're free, right? You guys think you're free, huh? You get to wear your own clothes. Woke up with a beautiful woman, ain't that right? Yeah. You had breakfast. You was able to go 50 miles. Whoopee, 50 miles - you're almost free. Don't get it twisted. You're in a four-step incarceration. You ain't free yet.

SULLIVAN: Owens tries hard to get them to focus on the difficult road ahead -find a place to live, a place to work, money to eat, and do it without drugs.

Mr. OWENS: It ain't nobody - it ain't the police fault. It ain't the parole's fault. It ain't nobody's fault. It's your fault. Anytime you wind up bending over and spreading your cheeks, buck naked, stripping for somebody else, you made a mistake.

SULLIVAN: The mistake many of these parolees made was doing or selling drugs in the '80s and '90s. Many of them were the first targets of harsh new drug penalties - prisoners of the war on drugs.

In the years since, few have had rehabilitative programming, drug counseling, job training or education. Owens says he has seen some of these men and women before, and he will likely see them again. Seventy percent will be back in prison within three years.

Mr. OWENS: All the big, major drug dealers, they're coming home now - you know, legendary heroes, so to speak. These guys want their turf back. And that's causing a conflict between the young drug dealers and the older convicts. And they're having shootouts on the streets.

(Soundbite of car engine)

Mr. OWENS: It's "The Untouchables" all over again.

Ms. JUNIOUS WILLIAMS (Community Activist, East Oakland): We're in East Oakland at 73rd and International Boulevard. This is like one of the hot spot areas in terms of crime and violence.

SULLIVAN: Junious Williams is a community activist who's lived here since the 1980s.

When you look around this street, there are a lot of beauty shops that are closed up - a liquor store, a retail store that's been turned into a church. So you get out of prison and you've got $200 in your pocket, you stand on this corner, what do you do?

Mr. WILLIAMS: They've had a lot of problems in this neighborhood, and, in fact, in this intersection, with violence. We saw a bunch of young men just sort of hanging. We've got this assumption. He or she is going to come out, and they're going to get to work. Well, even in fantasyland, if I had a job, I ain't going to get paid Friday. So, you know, we put them in a very vicious cycle.

SULLIVAN: Three to 4,000 inmates are coming home to Oakland every year. Most return to this rundown neighborhood on the edge of the city - many to this very corner.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Even if you take the most conservative estimate - that's about 3,000 or so folks coming out - we don't have 3,000 substance abuse slots. We don't have 3,000 jobs. We don't have 3,000 of anything.

SULLIVAN: It's beginning to show. Three years ago, Oakland had 82 murders. Last year, it had 143. In those years, the number of inmates returning from prison exploded. And it's not just Oakland. Baltimore, Houston, Detroit, St. Louis -dozens of other places are scrambling to provide re-entry services for thousands of former convicts.

But there was a time when many of these former convicts wouldn't have been convicts at all. In the early 1980s, drugs were illegal, but over the next two decades, California alone added more than 1,000 new drug offenses.

Mr. DANIEL ABRAHAMSON (Lawyer, California): The more drug-related crimes that we put on our books, by definition, we're criminalizing more people, and the crime rate goes up simply because we've defined more people to be criminals.

SULLIVAN: Daniel Abrahamson is a lawyer who has been involved in trying to reform California's drug laws.

Mr. ABRAHAMSON: One of the key aspects of the drug war is we've marginalized entire populations and subcommunities within our nation.

SULLIVAN: Some of the sentences were staggering. A two-week supply of crack cocaine would get you a mandatory five years. That's the same amount of time on average people spend in prison in this country for murder.

Dozens of states followed California's lead, and the laws only got tougher. In 1994, California introduced Three Strikes, You're Out. Within three years, all the state's prisons were overcrowded, and their budgets were through the roof. They still are.

Rehabilitative programs were never part of the enforcement budget of the war on drugs.

Mr. AARON HAMILTON (Halfway House Program Director): So this is one of our dorms. This is our big dorm.

SULLIVAN: At a halfway house of sorts in East Oakland, Program Director Aaron Hamilton swings open the door to a large bedroom.

(Soundbite of snoring)

SULLIVAN: The state's paying for this program, run by a nonprofit group called Allied Fellowship. Hamilton walks through a row of 20 bunk beds as one guy sleeps in the corner.

(Soundbite of snoring)

SULLIVAN: Hamilton says they cram parolees in here together so they can get used to socializing normally.

Mr. HAMILTON: To get rid of jailhouse behaviors, so to say - the "this is my stuff" type mentality, "my area, don't touch it" - even a stare. The stare downs versus the normal looking at a person.

Unidentified Man #1: Number one is arm.

Mr. HAMILTON: Correct.

Unidentified Man #1: Number two is leg.

Mr. HAMILTON: Very good.

Unidentified Man #1: Number three is ear.

Mr. HAMILTON: Excellent.

SULLIVAN: Every day for six months, the parolees who aren't working gather for workshops in the dining room, learn how to open a bank account, how to use proper grammar.

Mr. HAMILTON: So I'm going to introduce three new words to you, and explain what those words mean. The first one I want you to write down is spelled, A-N-A...

SULLIVAN: They eat in the house, sleep here and spend their break time lifting weights and smoking on the back porch.

Unidentified Man #2: What you've got? A little tail on the back of your head?

Unidentified Man #3: (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: Ah, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SULLIVAN: But consider the numbers. This program houses 60 parolees a year out of the 3,000 to 4,000 who returned to Oakland, and half of these men and women will drop out before the six months are up.

The problem is not just the physical drug addiction. For a lot of people, the addiction is to the lifestyle. There's money in drug dealing.

Mr. DAMON SYKES (Former Convict): You spend real money on me, you're going to get real dope from me. That's what I said.

SULLIVAN: Downstairs in the basement rec room, 32-year-old Damon Sykes is taking a break on a beat-up couch. He joined the program a few weeks ago.

Mr. SYKES: I always buy my dope soft, so then that way I can cook it. And then when I issue it out, you'd think that I was the dope man from the culinary arts school.

SULLIVAN: Sykes says he wants to leave drugs behind, but he's been dealing on and off for almost 12 years now. He's not sure how to do anything else.

Mr. SYKES: You're doing something where you know that the end result is either death or jail. You know, they say that they have a war on drugs and they're sweeping you off the street. But it's like a cycle that they've started now.

SULLIVAN: Do you think that there are less drugs on the street?

Mr. SYKES: No. I think there are more drugs. Everybody's everywhere. You've got E pills, crystal, crank, heroin, coke. It's off the chain.

SULLIVAN: Sykes has already violated his parole once. That makes him a pretty typical resident of East Oakland. Just about everyone knows someone who's been to prison. You can ask almost anyone. I did at a local barbershop on International Boulevard, the only place other than the liquor store still open after dark on this rundown street.

Inside, Kali Kirkendall's cracking jokes for the line of men waiting to get in his chair.

Mr. KALI KIRKENDALL (Barber, East Oakland): I've been looking forward with a big girl - you know what I'm saying? He's getting up out the pen. You know what I'm saying? He's going to be all right.

SULLIVAN: How many people in your family, in your friends, in your network have been to prison?

Mr. LARRY JONES: My little brother been, most of my friends.

SULLIVAN: Right now, Kirkendall is perfecting Larry Jones's hairline.

Mr. JONES: It's a high percentage. It's a high percentage.

SULLIVAN: There's a line of eight or nine men. Everyone in this shop on this day, with the exception of a woman and a 10-year-old boy, has been to jail or prison, mostly for drug offenses. And many like Kirkendall has been in and out multiple times.

Mr. KIRKENDALL: If you don't have a good foundation - a mother, a father, a wife, girlfriend - or something to help you, you're in trouble.

SULLIVAN: There's only a program or the church. For 25 years now, Reverend Alfred Smith has watched this community fall apart. He created a jobs program here at the Allen Temple Baptist Church. But like the barbershop across the street, there's a long line to get in.

On this night, he's sitting in his office, long after the choir has finished practicing.

Reverend ALFRED SMITH (Allen Temple Baptist Church): Can't people see what we're trying to do to put our finger in the dike to stop the floods of crime? Why don't they come and help us?

SULLIVAN: California doesn't have much money these days to come help. It will spend $9 billion this year just on its prisons. In that same time, 125,000 more inmates will head home to their communities.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

BLOCK: The war on terror is pushing the war on drugs out of the news. This year, for the first time in two decades, federal money to fight drugs will decline. Many people who have spent years trying to reduce drug abuse say the country's drug czar is responsible for allowing the war on drugs to be neglected and forgotten.

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Drug Czar): My argument would be, while counterterrorism is very important, this one is one that is easily forgotten and yet it is one that affects virtually every family in the United States in one way or another.

BLOCK: Tomorrow, to conclude our forgotten war series, John Burnett profiles the office of the nation's drug czar, John Walters.

NORRIS: You'll find a timeline of America's war on drugs at

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NORRIS: A Microsoft billionaire wants to make spaceflight cheap enough for everybody. That's coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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