The Prison Paradox

Growing up, she never much thought of the law, but of late she has thought of little else. An attractive, well-coifed woman of 44 given to conservative suits and sweeping statements, Toylean Johnson has immersed herself in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure the way some people bury themselves in the Bible. Johnson, however, is not a lawyer; she's a hardworking single mom who has watched one male relative after another carted off to jail. Her brother is serving hard time in Louisiana. Readell, her oldest son, 25, is doing a 17-year hitch in Texas. A youth she took in when his own mother was imprisoned is serving a four-year term. Only through luck and Johnson's perseverance have her two youngest sons, 23 and 18--arrested but not yet locked down for the long haul--escaped the fate of so many of their peers. Johnson, a senior support specialist at a Houston medical center, estimates her legal fees and other prison-related costs in the neighborhood of $50,000 and rising. Her dilapidated home with its paint-starved paneling only hints at how

difficult this period has been. She has taken out a second mortgage, drained her savings and cashed out her retirement. She has acquaintances whom prison has left similarly strapped. "I personally know of at least 40 or 50 kids... who are either locked up, who've been in prison and are back on the street or on paper [parole]," she says. "All of my kids' friends have been arrested at one point, place or time for something or little of nothing."

Her calm tone cannot hide her bitterness. And her perspective is the dominant one in Sunnyside, a rundown area south of downtown Houston filled with weeds, ramshackle homes, churches--and the unmistakable scent of neglect. It is a place, like so many in urban America, within spitting distance of and yet isolated from the mainstream middle class; a place where dreams of affluence compete with the reality of poverty and where the police seem as likely to harass as to help. At a time when the country enjoys record prosperity, when even many of those once on welfare are working, this is the America the good times have left behind: neighborhoods where prison time can seem as inevitable as the rain, and only the lucky ones escape the storm. "Before you know it, you're caught in the system," says Johnson, "and you don't get a second chance."

Never before have so many Americans--roughly 14 million--faced the likelihood of imprisonment at some point in their lives. Some 2 million are currently behind bars. Due to sentencing reforms and stiffened criminal penalties (especially for drug abuse), more people than ever are serving longer terms. In Texas the total inmate population has grown nearly 500 percent in less than a quarter of a century. Upwards of 220,000 people are incarcerated there. Only the much larger state of California (with 240,000 prisoners) has more residents locked down than the Lone Star State. And though California's total prison population dipped slightly for the first time in decades this year, it seems poised to resume its upward climb. Fearful of the emergence of young so-called super-predators, Californians this March passed an initiative targeting underage offenders. As a result, in the next five years the state will send an estimated 5,600 youths to adult prisons who normally would have gone to the Youth Authority or county jails.

The general trend extends far beyond California and Texas. America's rate of imprisonment is the highest on the planet, since we recently passed Russia, our only real rival, according to an analysis last month by Washington's nonprofit Sentencing Project. We have become, to put it bluntly, a nation of jailers. And for that we are literally paying a steep price. Between 1985 and 1996, total expenditures on state-prison activities more than doubled, going from just under $13 billion to over $27 billion. We are also paying in less apparent ways, in the currency of lost human connections, including those between parent and child. Two percent of America's children must now visit prison to see Mom or Dad.

No one is seriously suggesting that America throw open the jailhouse door. Victims have a right to justice. And any society must protect itself from those who would rob, rape and otherwise violate the innocent; so prison will always have a place in a civilized world. But what happens when incarceration is so widely used that it becomes a powerful cultural force in itself? When it shapes millions of Americans' lives, and affects the outlook (and stability) of entire communities? One need look no farther than Sunnyside to get some sense of what that means.

Santino, Toylean Johnson's 23-year-old son, was first picked up in 1996, on an aggravated-robbery charge. The case (rooted, Santino claims, in mistaken identity) was eventually dropped, but not before Santino lost his security-guard job after spending two months in jail. In his next run-in with the law, Santino was charged with assaulting and intimidating a witness. It took Toylean three weeks to raise the money to pay his $30,000 bond. This case also went no-where. But by then Toylean had exhausted all her financial reserves. Meanwhile, Santino was fired yet again. "I've adapted to the possibility I could get jacked up in the legal system at any time," says Santino. "That's the way I live."

That fatalistic attitude is not at all peculiar to Santino--or to Texas. "Growing up in other neighborhoods, you probably are used to taking a vacation for a week or two with your family. But right here our vacation is when you get locked up," says Gerardo Lopez, a 22-year-old former member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang of Los Angeles who now works with Homies Unidos, a group that counsels young men from the streets. "Law enforcement wants there to be an endless stream of kids going back and forth to prison. They don't want us to get along. That would be an end to the overtime for them," says Hector, founder and director of No Guns, a gang-outreach program in Los Angeles.

No doubt the vast majority of police and prosecutors are committed to fairness and evenhanded justice. But the deeply held sense that the forces of the law are arrayed against them has led many young men--and, increasingly, young women--to adopt a certain blase bravado about committing crimes and doing time. Robert Naranjo, a counselor for No Guns who spent much of his youth in trouble with the law, recalls, "Prison was no big deal for me or for my neighborhood. My cousins were all incarcerated... My aunt took pride in my cousin coming out of Tehachapi [state prison]. He came out built."

In some neighborhoods, prison has become such a part of the routine that going in can be an opportunity for reconnecting with friends. A onetime drug dealer from Maryland recalls his panic upon conviction. Having heard horror stories about young men abused inside, he fretted over how he would fend off attacks. Once behind bars, he discovered that the population consisted largely of buddies from the 'hood. Instead of something to fear, prison "was like a big camp," he says.

For Shawna McNeil, a 27-year-old former crack user, incarceration was a break from a troubled life. She went to prison in Pennsylvania after setting fire to a building because the landlord had put her out. She now recalls her time behind bars as "the best two years of my life; three hots and a cot. I didn't have a care in the world." She did miss her three children, she concedes, but she refused to let them visit: "I didn't want them to see me being dragged out of the visiting room."

After release, McNeil found her way to CBC Career Institute, a Philadelphia program that prepares people for entry-level jobs. Most of its students are not ex-offenders; they are more likely to be welfare recipients trying to make the transition to the work world. Yet even for those students who don't have records, prison seems an all-but-unavoidable presence. One recent eve-ning, sociologist Elijah Anderson visited a CBC class and asked whether any students knew people in jail. Practically every hand went up. "Every other guy on the block has been to jail," said one young woman. And women get involved with such men at their peril. "They don't want you to succeed," one participant explained.

Anderson worries about prison culture and its values contaminating entire communities, making it difficult for even the best-intentioned parents to protect their children. Dina Rose, a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, has an even broader set of concerns. In high-crime communities that are socially isolated and racially segregated, she fears that locking up ever more people may be so damaging to neighborhood social cohesion that it destabilizes the very areas it is supposed to make safe.

Rose has done her most extensive fieldwork in Tallahassee, Fla. With colleagues Todd Clear, Kristen Scully and Judith Ryder, she has focused on some of the city's most crime-ridden areas, including Frenchtown, a onetime community of black "freedmen" that dates back to the 1840s.

Long caught in an economic free fall, Frenchtown has lost its once funky charm. The blocklong stretch of Macomb Street where Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and other big names made music into the wee hours of the morning is today an empty, grass-covered lot. The neighborhood's young professionals are long gone, their place taken, in large measure, by convicted felons. Some longtime residents reckon that about 5 percent of the community's combined population goes in and out of prison on a revolving-door basis. That estimate is borne out by gender ratios: in one Frenchtown area identified by Rose and Clear, males made up barely 43 percent of the area's 1,579 residents--a statistic attesting to the high rate of imprisonment among the neighborhood's young men. "I don't think you're going to find anybody in the neighborhood who doesn't have a relative who's in prison or been in prison," says Kenneth Barber, a Frenchtown native who served four years on a 1972 heroin-dealing conviction. "If most of the men in the community are incarcerated, you leave women to be community leaders and raise the families when it should be the other way around."

In parts of Frenchtown, Rose and her colleagues theorize, incarceration has reached a tipping point--that dangerous locus at which new arrests no longer reduce crime but drive the crime rate up. The reason, they conjecture, is that arresting huge numbers of people so disrupts the social network that community ties crumble and therefore can no longer keep crime in check. Rose & Co. estimate the mathematical tipping point in the areas they have studied to be in the vicinity of 1 to 1.5 percent. That is to say, up to the point where 1 percent or more of a community's residents are imprisoned per year, locking people up seems to drive the crime rate down. But once that point is reached, the crime rate goes in the opposite direction.

Speculative and preliminary though their conclusions are (and the researchers stress that they do not know precisely where the tipping point is), Rose and her colleagues find the implications troubling for a society that tends to believe tough policies alone can win the war on crime. Some people in Frenchtown share the researchers' sense of unease. If parents go to prison, "the children will follow," warns G. V. Lewis, a 49-year-old Baptist minister who works with the Florida State Commission on Human Relations. The implications of parental imprisonment stretch far beyond Frenchtown. In 1999 nearly 1.5 million children had at least one parent in state or federal prison (up from less than 1 million in 1991).

And if the high incarceration numbers aren't troubling enough, there is the painfully manifest racial component of the current prison buildup. The figures are so skewed that they even taint the good racial news, such as statistics showing black unemployment at historically low levels. If so many black men were not in jail, the unemployment numbers would be much higher, argues George Cave, an economist associated with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Once the figures are adjusted for incarceration, there has been "no enduring recovery in the employment of young black high-school dropouts," note Princeton sociologist Bruce Western and his colleague Becky Pettit of the University of Washington.

Statistics only hint at the sense of futility felt by many black and Latino men who see prison as their special preserve, who believe the predominant police function is neither to serve nor protect but to put them in cages. Santino Johnson likens the atmosphere on the street to that on the television show "Wild Kingdom," with the cops in the "king of the jungle" role and poor black men as the prey: "When the lion comes on the scene, all the antelopes run, and then it's whatever the lion wants to pick."

Police prejudice or tactics certainly cannot be blamed for all the legal troubles faced by young minority men. There is also the fact that blacks and Latinos disproportionately live in communities where desirable options seem few and where voices summoning them to their own destruction are all too plentiful. Jesse, 31, who grew up in the Midtown area of Los Angeles, found those voices irresistible. Although he was raised in a two-parent, deeply religious household, he fell in with a gang as a teenager and ended up serving time in both state and federal prisons for selling drugs.

But even when such neighborhood dynamics are taken into account, many recent studies bolster the suspicion that there is a pervasive, fundamental and race-based inequity in the system. An analysis earlier this year by the Justice Policy Institute found that white youths in the Los Angeles area were much more likely than nonwhites to be treated leniently by the criminal-justice system. Another study, by a coalition of juvenile-justice research and advocacy groups, found that nationally, in every category of offense, minority youths were more likely than whites to be waived from juvenile to adult court. Blacks also make up the vast majority (nearly two thirds) of those sent to state prison for drug offenses, though white drug users out-number them by more than five to one, according to Human Rights Watch. "You can talk all you want about individual behavior," says Los Angeles civil-rights attorney Connie Rice. "But we incarcerate poor kids for things that middle-class kids get counseling for." One reason is that middle-class kids have greater access to competent lawyers.

Toylean Johnson recounts the story of Gerald, a teenager whose mother was in prison on a drug rap. Feeling sorry for the boy, Toylean's son brought him home and Toylean didn't have the heart to turn him away. Eventually Gerald was charged in a shooting. Witnesses claimed he was nowhere near the scene at the time, but he accepted a plea bargain for a four-year term. Why? "He didn't have the money to defend the case," says Johnson.

Readell (who was recently transferred to Colorado City Prison in El Paso) is currently appealing a drug-case conviction. An admitted drug abuser, Readell got caught up in a drug sting operation because, as he tells it, he was innocently hanging out with the wrong people. Those people were in league with a crooked cop in the business of ripping off drug dealers. When the cop got busted, so did the friends and Readell. In his initial statement, the dirty cop claimed he didn't even know Readell. But when the cop pleaded guilty, his story changed. Jurors were so troubled by inconsistencies that they could not reach a verdict. On the second go-round, after deliberating for 20 minutes, a jury of 11 whites and one black convicted Readell, having heard from a string of police officers and an alleged accomplice--a five-time felon.

But even if one assumes that people like Readell are fully guilty of the crimes for which they have been convicted, does incarceration of such nonviolent criminals serve much of a purpose? As a society, our answer has been something of a collective shrug. We have no choice but to lock them up, we have said in effect, especially if we believe that they are beyond redemption.

Indeed, in 1974 sociologist Robert Martinson authored a hugely influential essay that effectively endorsed that view. "What Works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform," published in The Public Interest, essentially concluded that nothing works, that the very idea of rehabilitation was a sham. Martinson's article was so influential because, among other things, it reflected the spirit of the time--a frustration with coddling wrongdoers, an anger at the spiraling crime rate. The same spirit spawned New York's so-called Rockefeller laws, harsh measures that gave hard time to those involved with drugs. That early salvo in the nation's war on drugs set the stage for much of the legislation that was to come. Martinson's gloomy analysis provided much of the intellectual rationale. By 1979 Martinson had changed his mind, but the hard-line movement that his early ideas informed had taken on a life of its own.

The targets of that movement--America's criminal class--did not vanish behind bars never to be seen again. More than 585,000 inmates will be released this year, up from 424,000 in 1990, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. And some of them are better for the experience. Deforest Simmons, a former drug abuser who has spent 13 of his 48 years in various Florida prisons, credits time behind bars with turning his life around. Out of prison for more than a year and drug-free for six, Simmons, now a freelance home-improvement consultant, says prison "was a basis for me to change. I was able to reacquire... discipline during my time in prison." But for every ex-inmate who talks of prison as a valuable turning point, there are a hundred others who see it as a way station to a ruined life. As Chito, a former Los Angeles gangbanger, observes, "Going in and out of jail... makes you hate yourself. It makes you bitter."

What happens as those embittered souls return to society? And can we somehow stop from adding millions to their ranks? Such questions were conspicuously neglected by the major-party presidential candidates this year, but they cannot be ignored forever. Motivated by apprehension, logic, compassion and love, Americans across the political landscape are searching for answers. Some are even trying to resurrect the idea of rehabilitation.

After studying programs at prisons in five different states, Ann Chih Lin, a political scientist and University of Michigan professor, has concluded that rehabilitation can work. In a new book Lin suggests that effective programs require the support of both prisoners and staff. And they don't simply teach job skills, but also assist in reintegrating individuals into a society that has become foreign. That might call for planning, years in advance, for inmates' eventual release--and putting them in touch with institutions and people on the outside who expect them to do something other than steal or smoke crack once they get out.

A host of transition programs already exist outside prison walls. They tend to be run by social workers, religious groups, prisoner advocates and, in some cases, ex-cons themselves. Bodega de la Familia, a nonprofit organization on New York's Lower East Side, works not just with ex-offenders but with their families. Bodega's leaders are convinced that the entire family of an ex-offender needs help--and that close relatives can provide an anchor that a solitary parole officer cannot.

Other programs attempt to intervene before prison (or death) has claimed another young life. In 1998, in a violence-plagued Chicago West Side community where gang violence is pervasive and incarceration is routine, the Chicago Boys and Girls Club and Mount Sinai Hospital jointly launched Within Our Reach. Dr. Leslie Zun had grown weary of seeing victims of violence (generally gang-related) carried into his hospital. So he collaborated with Boys and Girls Club consultant Jodi Rosen to take advantage of those young patients at a particularly vulnerable moment in their lives--at the point when they were literally lying on their backs, recovering from their wounds, and (he hoped) ready to re-examine their lives. While still in the hospital, willing participants undergo a lengthy interview and evaluation process. A caseworker aggressively tracks them for several months and tries to engage them in productive activities, such as job training, while helping to steel them against the voices in the street summoning them to their own destruction.

Even prosecutors and judges are grappling with ways to turn things around. In June the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals proposed help rather than prison for thousands of nonviolent drug addicts. If the proposal works as planned, low-level offenders will get rigorous inpatient drug treatment. If they stay clean, they can avoid incarceration. "It's a shame they have to come to us for intervention. But we've got them. And we know we can help them," said Judge Judith Kaye.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., the Kings County District Attorney's Office, in collaboration with a wide array of social-service providers and law-enforcement agencies, has launched a prison-reclamation effort of its own. The initiative, quarterbacked by Deputy District Attorney Patricia Gatling, arose from concern that crime was rising in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods even though it was down overall. The D.A.'s office concluded that two factors were responsible: gang activity and the re-entry of thousands of ex-cons. "These were individuals who had no access [to resources]... coming from communities that were not stable, going back to those same communities," observes Gatling. ComALERT (Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together) tries to connect ex-cons with help for drug addiction, job counseling, "whatever it takes," says Gatling, to bring some stability to their lives. And for convicted gang members, who would otherwise be serving sentences of 40 years to life, it offers a precious second chance to get on track. Though the program started small (with 17 gang members and roughly 300 ex-offenders), Gatling has ambitious plans for expansion. "I have 3,000 people returning to Brooklyn every year," she says. "I've got to get in gear." She sees the program eventually touching most of those 3,000 lives, as well as reaching inside prison walls--beginning the process of reintegration before the felon is released. "This will break the cycle of recidivism," says Gatling, who points out it might also save the state money. (It can cost up to $71,000 a year to house an inmate in New York's Rikers Island.) It also, in Gatling's view, recognizes a simple reality: "You can't incarcerate your way out of the crime problem."

Canada came to that realization early. In the 1980s the Correctional Service of Canada redefined its mandate. It now defines its job not primarily as punishing people but as safely reintegrating of-fenders back into the community as law-abiding citizens. Under its philosophy of reintegration, Canada's recidivism rate has dropped to less than half of what it was two decades ago. "If we became harsher... we actually think that it would prevent us from dealing with the factors that lead to more offenses later on," says Ole Ingstrup, Canada's commissioner of corrections, who instead advocates what he calls "the restorative model."

Canada's style, of course, is not ours. We believe in making people pay for their crimes, in protecting the weak from the vicious. We believe in justice. And we believe in simple truths. So much so that we might find it hard to accept this complex possibility: that our strivings to protect society may have weakened it. At the very least, our policies have arguably hurt certain communities. But they may also be doing deeper damage, for they fuel the notion that we can afford to throw human beings away. And they discourage us from asking whether it is morally or economically justifiable to invest so much in locking lost souls down and so little in salvaging them. In fact, a strategy of human reclamation may be the only thing that makes sense in the long run, not only for those fated to spend time locked down, but for the communities to which they seem destined to return--communities that now are doubly damned: to suffer when wrongdoers are taken away and yet again when they come back.

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