Public Forum / The State of Reentry

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No one was surprised when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the chronic overcrowding of California’s prisons was tantamount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” Two years ago, after decades of complaints and demands for action at the federal level, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation admitted that at 190 percent of capacity, it is difficult to manage a prison system where the cells are packed and men are sleeping on beds stacked in available buildings. 

Consider that in 1977 there were less than twenty thousand prisoners locked up in California. Today, in 33 crowded prisons designed to hold 90,000 inmates there are almost 165,000 prisoners. At a cost conservatively placed by the Department of Corrections at $129 per day for each prisoner, this kind of warehousing is an expensive recipe for violence and hopelessness that cannot be economically sustained. 

The Supreme Court is not giving us a choice. The court has mandated that between 37,000 to 46,000 prisoners must be released. The conditions, the justices have ruled, are horrific. The problems could be listed. It is easier, and just as accurate, to imagine the housing and security problems that exist. 

The task of choosing which prisoners to release from serving their time in prison is a job for Solomon, but Gov. Jerry Brown and the prison board will have to do. And, unless there is a new prison growing in the desert, or a strapped budget is squeezed out of another $906 million for a proposed prison medical center to handle our aging baby boomers in stripes or bright orange, inmates will be coming to a neighborhood near you.

Reentry is a term used to describe the return of the formerly incarcerated back into society. The journey for the criminal is not one that elicits much sympathy and, in many cases, probably even for most, it is a struggle for us to care about. 

The truth still exists that the released criminals’ future is uncertain and dangerous. There is small hope for success when the recidivism rate in California is above 70 percent. Families, to whom close to 90 percent of the incarcerated return, are ill-equipped to adjust to the arrival of a loved one, and that makes the assumption that they are even loved at all.

In communities that are already strapped economically, struggling to maintain their infrastructure, saddled with the concomitant problems of high unemployment, and frightened by the possible influx of former prisoners, there is understandable panic.

It is at moments like this that leadership is needed. One may look to the horizon for a new chief riding to the rescue, but such an exercise assumes that those who have promulgated expedient solutions to longstanding problems can identify either the direction of their ride or the end of the horse on which they sit. The hoped-for leadership is not likely to come from partisan Sacramento or the federal government.

There is some hope. There is leadership being offered and, in spite of opposition, or resignation, or fatigue at paying the cost of bad decisions made by others, it comes from the age-old ideal that we can change the circumstances of our society and our own souls by serving “the least of these.”

If we are to manage the court-mandated release of 37,000 to 46,000 prisoners then we must embrace the work of faith-based and community groups that stand at the ready. In the face of overpowering challenges, law enforcement leaders are prepared to build coalitions where none existed. Volunteers are poised to minister inside the prisons before inmates are released and help those who deserved to be locked up focus on support services for parolees once they are free. 

What is still missing is the great call that allowed us to collectively send an American spaceship to the moon or create a Peace Corps that, individual by individual, altered societies all over the world. We need to reenter into what it means to be a citizen. We need to engage with our own governance to achieve the greater good. 

The debate on criminals being repatriated into society is just the first salvo of things to come that will test our collective will and our regard for each other. The consequences of pretending that the prisons will maintain the peace, or that those who were punished inside won’t be in our neighborhoods, are dire. It is not about forgiveness or holding criminals accountable. It is about a realistic approach to finding a way for the perceptions of authority, rules, sense of decency and responsibility to be shared. It is not a great stretch to see that these are the very issues over which our culture is waging a war.

We need to reenter a relationship with our neighbor, reenter regard for our fellow citizens, reenter responsible regard for our laws, reenter the care and concern that real freedom demands of us that we might reenter what it means to be a citizen of California.

The call, ultimately, is not for all of us to be the first responder in places of risk or possible harm. If one seeks to serve, one will find a role to play. Of course, if one does not feel the call to help the prisoners, there will always be widows and orphans to attend to.

By B. Wayne Hughes, Jr., Malibu businessman and philanthropist