The Ex-Con Next Door

How communities are preparing for the largest exodus of prisoners in American history

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Jesse Howes looks in on inmates soon to be released from the El Dorado Correctional facility in Kansas.

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Building the skin of an airplane is a craft with little tolerance for failure. The rivets that bind the sheets of aluminum must be set cleanly, without burrs or scratches, because just one faulty patch of skin can rip apart an airplane in flight.

The instructors who teach these skills at the minimum-security Winfield Correctional Facility outside Wichita, Kan., have little tolerance for failure, as well. It takes years of good behavior for a prisoner to land a coveted spot in this class, which certifies participants as aircraft sheet metal workers. Yet, as good as they are, the inmates' skills don't guarantee them a job when they get out. Indeed, although subcontractors might accept them, none of the five airplane manufacturing plants that ring Wichita hire ex-felons.

Getting cons to stay ex-cons has long been one of the most vexing challenges of the criminal justice system. One out of every 31 American adults is in jail, on parole, or on probation, and the central reality is this: Nearly everyone who enters the prison system eventually gets out. The problem is, most of those ex-offenders quickly find themselves back inside. Today, ending the cycle of recidivism has become an increasingly urgent problem as communities nationwide are forced to absorb record numbers of prisoners who also often struggle with addiction and other illness.

There are more than 1.5 million people in state or federal prison for serious offenses and 750,000 others in jail for more minor crimes. Prison populations have swelled since the early 1970s, and now offenders are returning to their neighborhoods at a rate of more than 1,400 per day. In 1994, nearly 457,000 prisoners were released from state and federal custody, and in 2005, almost 699,000 prisoners were released. That is the largest single exodus of ex-convicts in American history.

Revolving door. But it's hardly the end of the story. According to the most recent nationwide study on recidivism, in 1994, more than two thirds of prisoners—68 percent—ended up back behind bars within three years of release. It is that figure, little changed for decades, that has community leaders and criminal justice experts focusing on a fresh approach.

The process of coordinated prisoner reintegration is now known as "re-entry," rather than rehabilitation or release. Whereas rehabilitation assumed that individuals could change on their own, re-entry focuses on educating employers and communities about how they can help the offender on the outside. It aims to break though the red tape that has historically delayed social services for felons and to prevent the snags—like drug treatment programs that reject offenders who have been clean only a short time—that keep them from making a healthy return to society.

In practice, that means synchronizing many different social and correctional services while offenders are still inmates and continuing that assistance after their release. Re-entry programs don't necessarily require more funding, just better coordination of existing resources like job training and stable housing. "Rehab is focused on the individual offender; re-entry is about communities, families, children, coworkers, and neighbors," says Amy Solomon, a criminal justice researcher at the Urban Institute.

The state of Kansas has launched several re-entry programs being held up as models. Since the programs were started in 2003, the number of parole absconders has fallen by a third and recidivism has been cut in half. Jesse Howes, a case manager for the Kansas Department of Corrections, meets with selected prisoners during the critical time about eight months before their release and continues to see them on the outside. One of Howes's charges is Michael B. [corrections officials did not allow last names to be used], 44, fresh out of the El Dorado Correctional Facility and working at a Wichita hotel. In 2004, Michael set fire to an empty van after a fight over a girl. It wasn't his first time in prison; he had done a stint for burglary back in 1998 and was charged with escape from custody a year later. Now, after serving nearly three years for the arson conviction, he says he's taking "one baby step at a time." He visits with Howes once a week, to defuse an escalating spat with his boss or to collect coupons for the bus. It's attention to these little things, experts say, that can make the difference between going straight and returning to prison.