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.
Long shot. Lonnie K., 50, is so anxious to leave Winfield that he keeps his release papers and a citation for good behavior folded in his prison-issue jacket. He hopes to get into a truck-driving school, but he knows it may be a long shot. He's been out a few times before, only to land back in prison after arrests for theft. "I won't even have clothes when I get out," Lonnie says. Howes makes a note to find some threads from the Salvation Army and to set up job interviews for Lonnie. He tries to steer his charges away from low-paying food service or retail jobs. "Unless you can earn a living wage [more than $12 an hour]," Howes says, "you're not going to make it."
Providing free services to murderers and thieves might seem like coddling, but statistics show it's the cheapest and most effective way to keep the public safe. If they can keep just one of the prisoners enrolled in the aircraft sheet metal class out of prison for six months, Wichita officials say, they will save the state money. That's why re-entry programs have made for some unlikely political alliances, including, in Kansas, between conservative Sen. Sam Brownback and Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Brownback has sponsored the federal Second Chance Act, which would provide ex-cons with millions of dollars in job training, housing vouchers, and other services. And Sebelius has made helping ex-prisoners a top priority.
In Virginia, meanwhile, YMCAs are working with female offenders and their children. Families are critical to re-entry because they can be both the cause of or the solution to recidivism. Programs in Georgia, supported by a $2 million federal grant, provide job training and mental health services for juvenile offenders. And similarly funded programs in Pennsylvania target offenders 14 to 35 years old.
Holding a job remains the best predictor of success for ex-cons, and employer surveys have found about 80 percent of ex-cons to be diligent, trustworthy, and dependable. Yet employers are still reluctant to hire them. They risk having employees who can be at worst violent and at best antisocial and reap few benefits in return. Employers are eligible for tax credits, and the federal government does bond former inmates up to a few thousand dollars, but small businesses often find the paperwork more trouble than it's worth.
"This is not a question of one kind employer giving a second chance to an ex-con; this is a nationwide problem," says Devah Pager, a professor at Princeton University and author of Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration. In studies in New York and Milwaukee, Pager found that employers were half as likely to call applicants with criminal records and even less likely to call them if they were also black.
Marc Lascano, the Austin operations director for a Texas car repair chain, is an exception to that attitude. His Brake Check has hired more than 75 ex-cons in the past five years. More than 80 percent of them have stayed for at least a year, and several have gone into management. "They are disciplined because they are used to following instructions within the corrections system," Lascano says.
The ex-offenders are trained with funds from a state program that has paired thousands of ex-cons with employers. Since 2000, Project RIO (for Reintegration of Offenders) has kept about 40 percent of those who enter the program employed, compared with 24 percent for those who don't enroll. And the recidivism rate for RIO participants was one fifth of that among those who did not participate.
Some states, including New York, have laws restricting employers from considering of criminal records in hiring, but many others do not. Ex-cons are further handicapped because employers can now easily gain access to criminal offender databases when they are performing background checks. The Army, for example, found that more than 8,000 of its new recruits last year had criminal histories. It granted them waivers, but other professions are off limits to ex-cons—teaching and child-care work, of course, but also embalming, limousine driving, firefighting, and haircutting.
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."