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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Back in Wichita, city officials are trying to think beyond individual offenders and toward the community to which they will return. One downtown neighborhood that is flush with ex-cons is a blighted grid of boarded-up houses, empty lots, and scattered trash. Howes, who grew up nearby, imagines prisoners returning to these streets and the hurdles they'll face. But the city, using state and local re-entry funds, is working with developers to change the scene, pairing the unemployed with businesses, targeting healthcare services, even trying to improve math and reading scores for children. "Transforming the physical aspects of the neighborhood is often just as important as helping the individuals," says Sandra Moore, president of Urban Strategies, a St. Louis-based company that is consulting with Wichita.

Orville S., 39, who was sentenced in January 2004 for aggravated sex battery and intentional touching, is now in a Wichita work-release program that keeps him confined at night but allows him to work during the day. He is skilled in plastics manufacturing, but there are no jobs at a local factory. He had a lead on a position at an automotive parts store, but that too came up empty. "Jobs are hard to find because of my crime," he says, after being denied a janitor's job at a local church. But he's hopeful. "I'll find something," Orville says. "I can't afford to get in trouble again."