The Day After Prison

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

At the end of our show about race, class and prisons, Princeton sociologist Bruce Western ran through a quick list of things you could do to help prisoners successfully re-enter society.

There are a whole bunch of things we can do at very low cost right at discharge. We can make sure people are enrolled in Medicaid. Do they have five points of ID, so they can get a driver’s license? Do they know about things like the Earned Income Tax Credit? Are there plans for transitional employment and housing? Things like that will help draw people back into society so they can fulfill roles like worker, father, and spouse.

Bruce Western, on Open Source, 4/17/06

It’s all well and good to talk about fixing the social problems that lead to crime and incarceration. But there are already two million people in America’s prisons, and 650,000 people leave prison and re-enter society every year. Given what we know about the negative impact of prison on the lives of these people (and their families), what do we do about them?

We’d like to talk about the nuts and bolts of re-entry, which Western calls the hot topic in corrections policy right now. What happens once they let you out? How real is the old cliche of being dropped off by bus with twenty dollars and a wave goodbye? What’s the role of the parole system, which keeps millions of people tied to the criminal justice system, and often sends them back to jail? Is is possible to mitigate some of the negative effects of prison with social programs targeted at former inmates?

Help us jump-start the conversation.

Debbie Mukamal

Director, Prisoner Reentry Institute, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Martin Horn

Commissioner, New York City Departments of Correction and Probation

Former Secretary of Corrections for Pennsylvania, 1995 – 2000

Keith Hooper

Chief of Operations, Talbot Hall,

an assessment and treatment facility in Kearny, NJ

Chairperson, Executive Board of Community Education Centers Alumni Association

Served 3 years in NJ state prison (1992-1995)

Karen Witts

Detective in charge of prisoner re-entry, Lowell (MA) Police Department

Marc Olmsted

Marc Olmsted is a blogger who served 286 days in a minium security facility in Chino, CA.

Dan Collison

Some of the sound we used in this show was from his documentary Hunstville Blues. It was produced with Long Haul Productions

Related Content

  • Abby

    In Massachusetts, you might want to talk to the folks at SPAN; it’s a faith-based group that helps with re-entry and does advocacy work.

    Also,there’s Partakers whose primary mission is mentoring students in BU’s College Behind Bars program, but they are working on job training and coaching stuff as part of a new project. They are very involved with advocacy stuff in MA.

  • Rillion

    I understand that Eric Schlosser’s (he of the infamous Fast Food Nation) next book examines the prison industrial complex in America. It’s not out yet, but he may be up for an interview on the subject.

  • kb

    Ezekiel Edwards has been writing on prison issues for the past couple of months on the DMI Blog. ( His most recent: Give the Second Chance Act a Chance.

    He is a staff attorney for the Bronx Defenders, a nationally recognized organization of public defenders that has become a model of holistic, community based advocacy for clients that are charged with crimes and for the communities they live in.

    He lives these issues every day; may have good insights for Monday’s show.

  • deadforever

    Let’s talk about nuts and bolts. I see a lot of nuts and bolts being tossed about and as usual no one is doing anything. When I got out of prison no one was waiting. I ended up back on the same streets I was on before I went in and nothing had changed except me. I’m meaner and a whole lot more angry. You folks go ahead and pass your books around. I’d be really surprised to see anyone who’s actually done anything for an excon. We don’t need your pity or your pious words we need a job and a chance at a good life.

  • Brian White

    Nuts and bolts. Okay, well I have never been in prison. Of course I understand that I could be put in prison at any time for any number of infractions. Every American is a crminal in some way, be it speeding, or any number of other offenses. Maybe you got some good information from your friend at Big company inc. and bought some stock? I don’t know, maybe you smoked a joint once or drove after you had one and a half beers?

    I don’t believe we can rehabilitate anyone. I mean some people who are in prison got to be there. I don’t want child molestors, rapists or killers walking the streets. But people have to rehab. themselves. What we can do is make it possible for them to do it. Make it possible for them to get a job. Make it possible for them to get educated. Make it possible for them to return to their families. Make it possible for them to be upwardly mobile.

  • masonik4

    I think the problem with society is that we are too quick to place people in groups without knowing all the details. I mean, if you say you don’t want killers or rapists or whatever, how much do you REALLY know about their situation, or do you simply assume that every person in prison was correctly judged and condemned?

    Let’s be fair about a few things, yes there are some people in prison who need to be there, but there are also some that are there on circumstances. For example, if a female falsely accused a person of rape, and got that guy sent to prison, by some people’s own words, they are forever condemned, even if you don’t really know what happened. This can go for any situation, and creates a very unfair judgement of people by those who are not willing to consider that MAYBE some of the circumstances wasn’t as clear cut as a CSI episode.

    This isn’t fair to the inmate who did his time and is trying to change, because by some comments here, society could really care less. I kinda agree with the other ex felon, because I am one myself, that some of the people doing the most talking are the ones that are only doing that to assure themselves that at least they talked about it. But put the real issues to them and they won’t touch it.

    But I have always believed that ever person deserves a chance, regardless of what others think. If a guy coming out of prison really wants to change, and does his best, society (especially a Christian society) ought not judge them and see if they can help. I write alot about that in my prison blogs, and to me, the biggest point in almost everything I try to share is that there HAS to be hope…

    who are you to take that away from them?

  • Rillion

    Here’s something you can do to help prisoners successfully re-enter society: Give them their vote back. In many states you lose your right to vote permanently if you’re a convicted felon. If imprisonment is your debt to society, then having satisfied that debt you deserve to have your voice in politics returned. This is especially true for people who have been convicted of unjust laws, who are then deprived of the ability to vote for politicians who will change or nullify those laws.

    Bills to return voting rights to ex-felons have been proposed throughout America, but generally are left to die in committee:

  • avecfrites

    We often hear that government should perform more like businesses. So, to borrow a management technique, I ask “Whose job performance is based on how well people do after they are released from prison?”

    If nobody in the justice system or political system is being rewarded for ex-felons being successfully integrated into society, then why would anyone think that it is likely to happen?

    We need to pay high-ranking government officials, probably at a state level, based in large part on the recidivism rate and similar meaures.

  • nother

    I printed up this thread and handed it to the guy that I interviewed for the last prisons thread. I asked him to write down his thoughts when he goes back to his cell and give them to me. I said that I would simply write them verbatim on the website; blog by proxy if you will. I asked him to write his hopes and fears for the future and I asked him to write about any preparation he’s been given for his release.

    So far he has given me no writing, no blog, and I think I know why. He does not want to write on paper what he has told me in person; he will return to the market of drugs. Of course, you know I don’t mean the billon dollar market of “legalized� drugs advertised on every other commercial, I mean the “illegal� drug market (which one is bigger) the only avenue that catapults him back to status in our materialism society.

    My incarcerated friend has bluntly told me of his unfortunate intentions upon release, but I witnessed an interesting response to my questions about “hope.â€? He kind of took a breath, looked up diagonally to the ceiling, and told me about a certificate he had for welding. He told me some more about his kids and he talked about taking a “straightâ€? path – away from the “game.â€? In the course of our conversation, he talked about the divorce he is getting but he also talked about how badly he wants an ipod like mine and a cell phone like mine. He conveyed how badly he wants to buy nice things like that for his two kids as well.

    I feel that the only thing my friend feels will bring him back up with the joneses is capitalizing on his opportunities in the market of drugs.

    It’s about “class�

    Racism is more of a contributing factor in the path to prison but the issue of “class� is the more pressing issue the “day after prison.�

  • nother

    My “dangerous idea� is the end of this prohibition; its old idea, a fanciful notion to most, but it’s necessary. Did we not learn anything from the prohibition of alcohol and all its ripple effects?

  • nother

    Please show your solidarity with you fellow immigrants – past and present.

    In MA. –

  • Nikos

    with fries (6:55 PM, April 30th): we need a new government.

    Not a Donkey instead of an Elephant, but a whole new spectrum of choice. Without it, your hopes for “(a) government (that) should perform more like businesses� is as vain as my hope for a party I can vote for in good conscience (i.e., Social Democrats – who don’t – and can’t – exist in our 18th century [de facto] Two Party State).

    nother: great work (as usual). Keep us posted!

    Rillion: right on.

    masonik4: Yup. We label as if people are not persons but the stereotypes we culturally believe in. Personal actions are, in a very real sense, the person – yet stereotyping conveniently ignores the possibility (or likelihood!) that said people might actually want to start over!

    (Now, having said all this, I might quibble with you over the rape issue – but only because I’m a former male bartender who’s seen way too many of my gender get away with ‘drunken’ date rape. In my experience, women don’t frivolously accuse men of sexual assault – on the contrary: women tend to keep mum. This tendency has the unfortunate effect of empowering the violators to keep on keepin’ on. However, this tangent is much more appropriate for a different thread, methinks, a ‘status of women in the world’ thread, IMHO.)

    Brian White: if I were you, I’d ignore pretty much anything and everything from the blogger sometimes known as ‘deadforever’. He’s a deceptive role player (often entertaining, but hardly ever sincere – see the Alley for more info).

    On the other hand, your response was terrific and enlightening – so thanks for taking the time to give it!

  • The Stanford Prison Experiment showed in just a short time how this experience radically transforms both the incarcerated and the guards. Unfortunately, the lessons were lost as since that time prison conditions and treatment has worsened. It would seem that any talk of the day after prison must included a discussion of how to address the lasting and traumatic emotional effects of the many days in prison.

  • Potter

    We helped an acquaintance who came to us just out of prison desperate for connection, belief, hope, a hand, a smile and a pat. We were educated about how those who serve their time and get released are stigmatized by society, the very society that they are supposed to go back to and become a contributing, responsible part of. It’s like walking a tight rope. Should you slip that’s it. So no money, no job, no family. And if you are a sex offender, even a rehabilitated one, you are threatened with “preventative” reincarceration, classification and having that information published based on your original offense (not on your current state). I understand that our prisons are full of drug offenders. These people should be treated for their habits. How many are mentally ill or in need of psychotherapy? Ongoing health care? Our friend had no health coverage other than the emergency room “the day after”.

    I’d also like to point out that local politicians use cracking down on these people as political footballs- to gain community support. Nobody wants them in their community.

    Having spent time in prison is a shame that a person carries for the rest of their life. if they manage to get okay with themselves, they still must keep the secret dark and hidden. There is no forgiveness.

    I agree with Nother’s “dangerous idea” that some of these drugs we prosecute for should be legal. This is such an old cry too, not only an old idea.

  • Potter

    Hello Peter, Thank you for your story. Some of us, at least are, rooting for you. It’s a hard hill to climb. made harder by selfish ignorance, but I don’t think there is much of a choice.

  • MsMaryMac

    “S/he who opens a school door, closes a prison.” Author: Victor Hugo

    In NYC there are two programs that work with ex-offenders to help get them into college and support them while in college and graduate school. One is run by Episcopal Social Services and the one I am involved with, College and Community Fellowship, is housed at the Graduate Center of City Univ of NY. The CCF program is 6 years old and works with about 45 students per year, and none of our students have returned to prison.

    College makes incredible differences in the lives of these individuals, Helps make them very employable, and allows them to hold their heads high, thinking of themselves as students getting on with their lives, and gives them respect in their families and communities.

    We help students get into colleges, give small stipends per year, offer academic and mentoring support, and peer support.

    Our website is

    The College and Community Fellowship MISSION

    The mission of the College and Community Fellowship (CCF) is to eliminate the individual and social barriers to education and civic participation of formerly incarcerated men and women and their families.

    Through our myriad activities and programs, CCF addresses the educational, economic, and political needs of formerly incarcerated women and men in the NY metropolitan area, working in concert with other organizations to enhance their successful re-entry.


    Strengthen and expand our educational program, including mentoring, tuition support, and academic support of formerly incarcerated men and women;

    Address the expanding career development needs of our fellows, alumni, and other formerly incarcerated people who are seeking employment that is congruent with their levels of education;

    Link with local, state, and federal reentry agencies and criminal justice organizations to explore the development of a local and national agenda promoting education as an alternative in and after prison;

    Develop the leadership of CCF fellows as part of local and national criminal justice reform organizations, coalitions, and networks.

    For more info, go to:

  • scott clancy

    As a former inmate out for just over one year, I am amazed at how polyanna everyone seems to be about re-entry. The reality is that there are few programs and they are overwhelmed. There is almost no serious pre release planning or preparation, and no one lets the inmates know or understand just how crucial this planning is.

    Successful re-entry means first and foremost re-establishing trust with those that care for you. Then the next most important thing is a sustainable job. (And talk about exploitation: employers seem to feel that if they give you a chance they can get away with just about any demand) Housing and community ties are also crucial to success.

    If, as I believe, serving a sentence for a crime is punishment enough, then we all need to work for a system of help, education and training that makes re-entry possible. Not just another part of the criminal punishment system.


  • Peter Schulte

    Hello, Potter and all,

    Thank you for your encouragement. It seems like Wahington State has a very well-designed set of programs for returning inmates to society. There are many well-meaning and reasonable folks working for the State, BUT . . . ! I wish that Open Source could do a show on sex offenders under supervision here, many first time offenders like me, who suffer(ed) abuses that are unconscionable.

    Before one of my incarcerations under supervision, my “therapist” said to call her, then she refused to take my calls. My public defender showed the phone records in Court. This caused the DOC to withdraw some of their other made-up probation violations. One of my friends won an isssue in Court, but the DOC ignored the Judge’s finding. During my experience in “therapy” I was afraid to complain to the State QA agency for phsychologists because I know that any opposition earns retaliation.

    With the help of people like Potter, and dedicated Christians and Buddhists, I’ve been able to move on with my life. I want to leave it all behind, yet I would welcome a phone call from Open Source to bring these abuses into the public forum and spare my friends who are yet to leave prison.

    By the way, Open Source is my favorite program and I listen to it four or five nights a week, then discuss topics with my friends. This program caused me to update my podcasts from Open Source and I’m looking forward to them! Thanks!


  • Potter

    Peter, I know the story of our friend here which sounds similar to yours. He’s a decent person, served his time ( 5 years) for a first time offense. We thought it was not only outrageous how the punishment continued beyond prison but counter-productive for society as a whole. If folks such as yourself are not helped to get back onto your feet and feel a sense of worth to be able to build a life beyond all that is hopefully past, then depression sets in and there you have the vicious cycle. It’s so elementary as to make me feel that there must be ignorance and unenlightened selfishness at work. So I agree that this is a very worthy topic for elaboration.

    I am really irked by the political aspect of this issue. Our local hacks use this issue to assure the pumped up fearful publict hat they are protecting them against dangerous people out there.

    Mindlessly classifying those who have served their time for a sexual offense may soothe (or falsely soothe) the public but it does real damage to the person so classified. It puts a ball a chain on them when they need a hand up. it also makes offenders vulnerable to vigilante /lynch crimes. There is a story of that recently in Maine.

  • Potter
  • Potter and Peter, I have mixed feelings about the crime of child molestation. When I hear about offenders being let out of prison, especially when they have not received proper councelling, I am inclined to support a public registery, and if a know offender was living in my neighbourhood, since I have young children, I can’t say I would just quietly accept it. Of course, what is published in the press is often inaccurate, as the information below suggests. But how should we deal with high-risk pedophiles and repeat sex offenders? Should we use a colour-coded warning system, like that for terrorist threat, based on the risk assessment mentioned below, so that not all offenders face the same treatment by an angry and fearful public?

    Please help me better understand this social problem.

    Don’t most sex offenders reoffend?

    There is a perception that the vast majority of sex offenders will repeat their crimes. Research studies by the US Dept. of Justice and the Canadian Government have found, however, that sexual offense recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed, averaging between 14 and 20% over 5-year follow-up periods. Studies that have tracked sex offenders over longer follow-up periods have found that pedophiles who molest boys, and rapists of adult women, were the types of offenders most likely to recidivate at rates of 52% and 39% respectively. Repeat offenders are more likely to reoffend than first-time offenders. Those who comply with probation and treatment have lower reoffense rates that those who violate the conditions of their release. Sex offenders who target strangers are more dangerous than those with victims inside their own family

    It is also important to recognize that official recidivism statistics are always lower than actual reoffense rates, because some sex offenders commit many sex crimes that go unreported and undetected. It is estimated that less than 10% of all sex crimes result in a criminal conviction. This means that there are many sex offenders in our communities who have not yet been identified.

    Although extensive media attention is paid to child abductions, such cases occur relatively rarely, and less than 1% of sex crimes involve murder. Despite myths of stranger danger, the vast majority of sexually abused children (80-90%) are molested by family members and close friends or acquaintances.

    How do we know who will reoffend?

    Progress has been made in the science of risk assessment, which allows us to determine the likelihood that a sex offender will commit a new sex crime in the future. Although we cannot predict with certainty that any particular offender will act in a specific way, we can estimate, with moderate accuracy, whether or not an offender belongs to a high- or low-risk group. Using risk factors that have been correlated with recidivism, qualified practitioners can use scientific risk assessment tools to screen offenders into risk categories.

    If the above is accurate, then

  • Potter

    Sidewalker: Thanks for allowing me this soapbox.

    Are sex offenders that have been caught and have done time more or less dangerous than those who have not been caught?

    Your quote says that “It is estimated that less than 10% of all sex crimes result in a criminal conviction. This means that there are many sex offenders in our communities who have not yet been identified.

    The other stats ( that I was aware of) are equally interesting. Most sex crimes are done by family members.

    So the question is not only how do we know who will re-offend but how do you protect your children from any potential danger out there? There is perhaps much to be anxious about. Is that anxiety all focused on the person in your community ( I don’t mean you particularly Sidewalker) who has served their time and gone through a program and is now out trying to make a new life? ( What about the offender who lives, registered, in another community but can travel to yours?)

    There are programs in prison that sex-offenders go through I believe it’s not mandatory- but it may be, it should be. Certainly there should be incentive that post prison life would be easier. Post prison life should be made easier for those who have undergone therapy. This is like an AA program. I am not clear about the particulars but our friend went through it and learned a lot about himself. He turned himself around as much as he could possibly in a prison atmosphere (which is a tough place for a sex offender to be btw because they are low on the totem pole; picked on by the others). Once out after five years of having to deal with all sorts of things in prison he did not want to talk about, and how he kept himself together, he needed a chance to show he could be responsible. He needed this for HIMSELF- to believe in himself most of all. He is a decent guy other than that business. So if everyone around him in his life after prison is convinced and acting like that he is going to re-offend this is quite an obstacle to this next stage in rehabilitation.

    The stats show that those who go through this program in prison have a very low recidivism rate.

    Programs/therapy need to be available, perhaps mandatory after prison. Society should pay for it as they pay for prison. After a period of probation/ post prison follow-up therapy, there should not be a registry that follows a person to the end of his days. A traffic offense should not land him back in prison.

    Perhaps there are advances on the practitioner side but are communities using these tools to assess the real risks of each individual? Or are they mindlessly classifying everyone in the worst category to be “safe�? Our friend had to hire a lawyer and beg for funds from friends to have a hearing to change his category. Your category makes a big difference in your life, the difference between having you face plastered on posters or not.

    On the other end, if there is fear in a community in which a newly released person resides this should be addressed in one way or another (informational meetings with professionals ) but not by receiving political pandering to augment one’s fears. No one can really protect our kids 100%. Once, long ago, a child in the neighboring town went for a walk and never came back. These incidents, though shocking, are rare. Do we keep our kids locked up?

    My own feeling is that there is danger out there not only from sex offenders ( those who have served, and those, apparently the majority, who have not been caught, potential first offenders) and potential non-sexual crimes as well as repeat offenders of non-sexual crimes ( uncategorized, unregistered). It’s those who have committed sexual crimes that have paid for it that are bearing the brunt of all the societal angst . And it’s not in anyone’s interest.

  • Thanks Potter. Your points make a lot of sense. I, too, have heard that most offenders are people we know, so it makes it much harder to protect our children. I remember there was a music teacher at my high school whose house I visited with my sister a couple of times. He and his wife always had lots of kids over and everyone thought he was a nice old guy who didn’t have any kids of his own. Long after I had graduated I heard he was caught, but I don’t know what happened to him.

    Like you said, if we vent all of our fears and anger at those who have been punished, this is unfair and irrational. That’s not to say we shouldn’t watch the high-risk offenders and those who don’t take follow-up programmes. But how to do this is the issue and is society ready to properly fund rehabilitation programmes, when offenders cannot pay themselves. I know we would agree that real social security is not about wasting money on creating the conditions for more terrorists but on help people deal with their problems and make a life for themselves where they are less likely to feel lost and insignificant and to prey on weaker members of society.

    Your idea of community meetings also makes sense, as we need to be more informed of the actual conditions and not be inflamed by the media and ‘get-tough’ politicians. We don’t want a police state, but we should be aware if there are people we don’t know spending too much time in our neighbourhoods. One of the reasons I have felt my children are fairly safe in Tokyo is, ironically, that there are so many people and the houses are all so close together. Without much effort, we can see and hear everything around us. In fact, most of the incidents of children disappearing occur in the suburbs and rural areas. Still I never let my children go to the park alone, though many parents here do. I know that chances of something happening are very low, but I can’t help worrying.

  • hurley

    Careful with your posts, Peter, if you only want your first name used — you seem to have posted with first and last names.

    No Borders, a fine, not to say tragic, documentary on the problems prisoners have reintegrating with life on the outside currently airing on one of the National Geographic channels. Worth a look.

  • h wally

    Has anyone heard what happened to all the sex offenders who escaped during Katrina?