In Oakland, prisoner release already the norm
on February 20, 2009
By Casey Miner/Oakland North
Dr. Barry Krisberg is an expert on released prisoners in a city that’s full of them. Of the 12,000 people on parole or probation in Alameda County, roughly half live in Oakland, though the city is home to only a third of the county’s residents. Given those numbers, Krisberg, president of the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, says a few more released inmates—which is what the city may get if the state is forced to release thousands of people from overcrowded prisons—won’t hurt.
“We’re already releasing people all the time,” he says. “The only difference with this is that people who would have gotten out in June will get out in March.”
While corrections officers and law-and-order types have insisted that any court-ordered release would pose an unacceptable threat to public safety—governor Schwarzenegger has said he will take the case to the US Supreme Court—the reality in Oakland is that the system is already strained. Statistically, says Krisberg, such a release is not likely to change crime rates or increase recidivism (the number of former inmates who return to prison). That’s largely because California’s recidivism rate is already the highest in the country: 70 percent of inmates are back in prison within three years.
Part of the reason, says Vernell Crittendon, a former corrections officer at San Quentin who now spends his time working to rehabilitate former inmates, is that prisoners receive very little support while they’re incarcerated; when they get out, they’re released back into the communities they came from. According to the Alameda County Reentry Network, a local task force that deals with inmate reentry issues, most of Oakland’s former inmates move back into the high-crime, low-income neighborhoods of East and West Oakland.
In that kind of environment, says Crittendon, people who have already made bad choices will continue to make them. And their home environments, already less than ideal, are probably even worse thanks to the recession.
“You’re just releasing them back into an environment where even more people are out of work,” he says. “The housing crunch is the worst in low income areas. The cost of food, heating, and fuel have all gone up. If we continue to move in this direction, all we are doing is setting up 58,000 people [for failure]. There is no avenue of success for them.”
Complicating matters is the fact that low-level offenders—those most likely to be released—are in some respects also the most likely to commit new crimes. These prisoners are often younger and haven’t been incarcerated very long. “Crime is something you tend to age out of,” says Bill Heiser, program coordinator for the Oakland-based Urban Strategies Council. Heiser says most crimes are committed by young men in their twenties and early thirties. “They’re locked up, get no guidance or path, then they’re released back into the exact same context,” he says. “And we expect a different outcome.”
The federal judges based their order earlier this month on a finding that California prisons were so overcrowded that inmates were not able to receive proper physical or mental health care. But they need it: A 2008 report by the Alameda County Reentry Network found that inmates are significantly more likely to suffer from mental and physical health problems than the general population. The problem with the prison system isn’t just that it’s too crowded to get proper health care to inmates while they’re in prison—it’s that those inmates don’t receive adequate medical evaluation before release, either.
When they come back into the community, says Heiser, former inmates are often ill-equipped to meet their own medical needs. Many suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes, or have serious mental health issues, but they may not know how to access the proper services and are five times more likely than the general population to be uninsured. In short, says Heiser, they have some of the population’s greatest needs for medical care, but face the most barriers to receiving it.
“You could not design a more dysfunctional system.”
This is the first story in a two-part series on the rehabilitation of former inmates who return home to Oakland. The second part will be published Friday, March 6.
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