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Locking people up is supposed to make our streets safer, but it may be doing the opposite.
By Sasha Abramsky
July 10, 2001

Photography by Andrew Lichtenstein

Jason, 19, has just been released after a year-long stint on Rikers Island, New York City's sprawling jail complex, where he was sent for dealing drugs. But he still doesn't get out much. Jason's mother keeps him at home in their Harlem apartment, fearing that the instinct for violence he had to hone in jail will land him back behind bars.

"Jail is whacked, man. Whacked," says Jason, who asked that his last name be withheld. "I picked up some violent shit in there. You're with people locked up for murder, gun charges. Eventually that shit's going to wear on you." While he was locked up, Jason says he saw a group of kids sodomize another inmate with a stick. He himself got slashed twice and stabbed in the back with a sharpened paper clip. Although Jason had never been convicted of a violent crime before, he retaliated by stabbing a rival gang member. As a result, he was sent to solitary confinement in Rikers' Central Punishment Segregation Unit, an area inmates call "the Bing." He spent three months alone in a space the size of a small bathroom. "You be in the Bing, you're in there by yourself," he says. "End up playing with roaches and shit. You end up going crazy." Then one day, you're sent right back to your old neighborhood.

Since America embarked on its generation-long prison expansion, the number of people behind bars on any given day has risen from 500,000 to nearly 2 million. The looming question is: What happens when they are released? Over 90 percent of them will eventually return to society. Over half a million inmates are currently released each year -- numbers approaching those of demobilized soldiers at the end of a long and bloody war. Some are rehabilitated by their time in the lockup; but others emerge from prison more violent and more prone to crime than when they were taken away. Like the Vietnam vets who found it so hard to readjust to civilian life 30 years ago, many ex-cons like Jason bring the habits and attitudes they've developed behind bars back with them to the streets. By subjecting petty criminals to a world of hardened violence, America's experiment with mass-scale incarceration may ultimately make its streets not safer, but more dangerous.

"What I'm seeing is people coming out of prison with anywhere from moderate to severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," says Bonnie Kerness, associate director of the American Friends Service Committee's Criminal Justice Program in Newark, New Jersey. "People are coming out with hair-trigger tempers."

There's no question that prisoners are subjected to harsh and often violent conditions. Race-based gangs dominate inmate life and often collide brutally with one another. Staff assaults on inmates are not uncommon -- and the average number of inmate-on-staff assaults has risen 50 percent since 1991, according to data collected by the New Jersey-based Criminal Justice Institute. And a recent Human Rights Watch report affirms the widely held belief that violent male-on-male rape is commonplace behind bars.

Small wonder, then, that so many ex-convicts seem to be made worse, not better, by their time in the lockup. The most recent major study of recidivism by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked 16,000 released prisoners -- and found that two-thirds were rearrested on felony or serious misdemeanor charges within a few years. Even more striking, nearly one-fifth of those who had been locked up for nonviolent offenses were rearrested for violent ones. Sometimes, the violence flows directly from prisons to cities: Boston's superintendent of police recently told the New York Times that a major reason his city saw a surge in gun crimes last year was because of newly released inmates continuing prison feuds on the streets.

Studies over the last three decades have repeatedly found that being sent to prison actually seems to make inmates more likely to commit crimes. A study by researchers at the University of North Carolina, for instance, concluded that "increasing imprisonment generally did not have a deterrent effect on imprisoned offenders, and in fact may have increased their chances of rearrest." Another study carried out at Carnegie-Mellon University found that prisoners in 10 states continued their criminal behavior later in life than did offenders who managed to evade prison time. As prominent criminologist Alfred Blumstein writes, "Incarceration can move the prisoner to a more serious level of criminal activity ... as a result of association with other more serious offenders." In effect, prison serves as what many experts describe as a "graduate school for crime."

Consider John King, a small-time burglar when he was sent to a state prison in Texas. There, forced to survive in a world divided into race-based prison gangs, he joined a white supremacist group that schooled him in racial hatred and violence. When he was released in 1998, he and two other men killed James Byrd Jr., an African American man in Jasper, Texas, by dragging him behind a pickup truck.

While King's case may be extreme in its violence, many prisoners locked up for nonviolent offenses wind up resorting to violence simply to survive. Hyyawatha Branch, a former inmate in Pennsylvania, started out as a juvenile delinquent. "In juvenile, you fight every day," he recalls. "I learned how to be in control of things, giving orders, being aggressive enough to fight my way to the top." When he was released, Branch climbed rapidly up the rungs of the criminal justice system. "I started robbery and stealing," he says. "I got shot. I started shooting people." He wound up doing 18 years for homicide.

Now 13 years out of prison and well into middle age, Branch teaches a job-application class to recently released ex-cons in Philadelphia for the Pennsylvania Prison Society. After decades of living behind bars and then working with hundreds of former inmates convicted of small-time offenses, he knows firsthand how the current prison boom is harming society. "I don't know where they get this word 'rehabilitation,'" he says. "If you took a person through hell, how are you going to get them back to where they originally came from?"

At their most extreme, correctional facilities may literally drive inmates crazy. Faced with the need to discipline and control soaring numbers of convicts, correctional officials increasingly rely on segregation facilities -- prisons-within-prisons where inmates are often kept in solitary confinement, let out of their cells for an hour a day or less. The federal prison system, as well as 40 states and the District of Columbia, have segregation units. On any given day, some 36,000 people are held in them.

In several states, including California and Texas, inmates are sometimes taken directly from isolated cells where they have festered for years and released straight back to the streets. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have filed a half-dozen lawsuits against segregation units, arguing that subjecting inmates to such harsh conditions will ultimately boomerang on the public by worsening their tendencies to violence and mental illness.

"Paula," another ex-inmate placed in solitary confinement at Rikers Island while serving time for selling drugs, says she came out of a stint in the Bing a ball of fury. "I was only allowed out two times a week, and every time I went out I was shackled," she says. "It kicked up a lot of animosity and anger in me. When I got out, people were afraid to talk to me. I literally lived like an animal. Straight-up animal. I'd flip on a dime on you."

Inmates like Paula are often set free with little more than a one-way bus ticket back to their old haunts, a couple of hundred dollars in "gate money," and virtually no preparation for re-entering society. In California, a recent state report found that 85 percent of released prisoners are drug or alcohol abusers, 50 percent are illiterate, and 10 percent are homeless. Nonetheless, many states have cut job-training and educational programs in prison over the past decade, and Congress has barred inmates from receiving grants for college correspondence courses. Between 1991 and 1997, the number of prisoners in drug-treatment programs dropped by more than half. There are some re-entry programs for recently released convicts, but they serve relatively few people. The Fortune Society, for instance, is one of the largest re-entry programs in New York but serves only about 1,000 ex-cons annually, out of the nearly 30,000 who are released in the state every year.

In effect, ex-cons have become a huge and growing caste of untouchables. A criminal record makes getting a job considerably tougher. California has even banned parolees from certain occupations, including nursing, physical therapy, and education. Bruce Western, a sociologist at Princeton University, found that paroled inmates who do manage to land jobs are paid only half as much as people with similar backgrounds who have not been imprisoned. In many states, felony convictions and drug-related offenses render former prisoners ineligible for public assistance or public housing, and Congress recently cut off higher education grants to those with drug records.

"They're released back into society, to the same devastated community, with an enormous buildup of anger and frustration," says Eddie Ellis, a former inmate who now works as an organizer for the Harlem-based Community Justice Center, which helps ex-convicts re-enter society. "You've got to be an absolute idiot not to know if you take someone, lock them up for 10 years, and don't give them any rehabilitative activities, when you let them out you're going to have a failure."

Those failures will be felt by everyone -- and are likely to grow only more acute. Not only are more people in prison than ever before, but they are being subjected to the violence of incarceration for longer than ever. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, inmates released in 1985 served an average of 20 months. For those entering prison today, the average time served is projected to be more than 42 months. Exposed to more violence on the inside, the hundreds of thousands of inmates who will be released each year are likely to commit more muggings, car thefts, and killings on the outside.

Communities that are home to the most ex-convicts will be the hardest hit. In some urban neighborhoods, as many as one in four men are under the criminal justice system's control on any given day. Todd Clear, a criminology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says many inner-city neighborhoods may be reaching what he calls a "tipping point." In some areas, he notes, so many residents have been through prison that entire communities are unraveling, afflicted with rising unemployment, domestic violence, and crime. When Clear and his wife, Dina Rose, studied a 1996 drop in crime rates in Tallahassee, Florida, they discovered that crime fell the least in neighborhoods with the most residents who had spent time in state prisons. "The only difference was incarceration," Clear says.

The study underscores a trend that may soon affect the nation as a whole -- one that Clear boils down to a simple formula. "The higher the numbers returning from prison," he says, "the higher the crime rate."

Sasha Abramsky is a New York-based journalist who writes frequently on criminal justice issues. His book, Hard Time Blues, will be published by St. Martin's Press in January 2002.

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How We Got to Two Million
Incubating Disease
Bad Investment
Left Behind
Liberty and Justice for Some


A prisoner in a segregation unit in Livingston, Texas.
A prisoner in a segregation unit in Livingston, Texas.



An inmate fresh from prison waiting for a bus home in Huntsville, Texas.
An inmate fresh from a Texas prison waiting for a bus back to civilian life.


Heading home from prison in Huntsville, Texas.
Heading home from prison in Huntsville, Texas.


A recently-released inmate in Hyawatha Branch's job skills class.
A recently-released inmate in Hyyawatha Branch's job skills class.


DISCUSS: Breaking the cycle



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