We started with a seemingly simple question: Why do so many inmates in the United States end up returning to prison after they are released?
In search of answers, our Re-entry Project team — freelancer Lottie Joiner, USA TODAY videographer Jarrad Henderson and I — set out on a multistate tour of prisons and transition programs in America.
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We expected to find stories of inmate violence and of former felons who encountered discrimination as they struggled to find work. What we didn't expect to find was pervasive corruption and systems too overwhelmed to offer desperately needed services that give ex-convicts a fighting chance to succeed in the outside world.
We learned of inmates who worked with prison guards to deal drugs. We heard about others who used drugs for the first time while incarcerated. Instead of getting rehab, those who came in addicted often got worse. We found inmates who used their time not to gain a trade but to learn how to more craftily commit crimes upon release.
We found stories of such stark and unforgiving conditions inside prison walls. We also found stories of heartbreak and redemption — repeat offenders who have tried hard, despite being victims of rape and trauma and despite laws restricting re-entry, to make it on the outside.
Most Americans have heard the statistics that point to how alarmingly high our incarceration rates are. The most familiar: The U.S. has 5% of the world's population but 25% of its prisoners. America has the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the developed world, one that outpaces Cuba and China combined.
But many Americans are unfamiliar with how restrictive U.S. laws are for the formerly incarcerated. Restrictions, corruption and limited educational and drug rehab services help ensure that more than 75% of prisoners return to the system within five years of release in America.
Our goal with the project was to delve deeply into why recidivism rates are so high in the U.S., and we spoke to about 30 inmates and former inmates to get the human stories behind the numbers.
Candace Harp-Harlow, an inmate we met in Oklahoma's Mabel Bassett prison, was the victim of sexual trauma — molested at age 6, raped at 13. She started self-medicating with drugs. Soon, she was addicted to Xanax.
Her confinement began when she was a teen. By the time we met her, she was 29 and had been in prison twice on drug-related charges and other offenses she committed while high. Through much of her incarceration, she continued to use. She also never got sufficient psychological care or job training.
Nearly half of inmates in federal prisons are there for non-violent drug offenses. In state prisons, about the same percentage are there for drug-related offenses or some other non-violent crimes. Most aren't getting help.
At Oklahoma's Mabel Bassett, one of the roughest prisons for women in the country, taking classes is treated like a privilege. The wait list is hundreds of names long.
Oklahoma's prison system is too overwhelmed to offer needed services, says Laura Pitman director of population, programming and strategic planning for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Budget cuts have left facilities understaffed and guards underpaid — an environment ripe for corruption not just in Oklahoma, but all over the country.
In 2011, prison guards on average made 14% less than the median annual income, according to a study on prison corruption by the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity. That study also found that a guard at New York's Rikers Island made up to $900 daily smuggling drugs and other contraband into the facility.
Nekia Brown, who failed an Oklahoma inmate diversion program, worked with guards in Mabel Bassett to continue drug dealing, she says. When she entered, she was dealing low-level street drugs. By the time she left, she expanded her business to the world of prescription drug fraud. In prison, Brown told us, she "learned to be a better criminal."
Met with barriers, not services
Although some states have started to reduce barriers to re-entry, across the USA more than 48,000 legal restrictions limit, among other things, where former inmates can work, whether they can vote and their ability to get housing.
Louisiana, where we met inmate Harold Sylvester, has 389 restrictions on employment, more than any other state. Sylvester, a former drug dealer and addict, is finishing a four-year term in Lafayette Parish Correctional Center.
In Sylvester's 20 years in and out of the system, Lafayette is the first prison that has offered him re-entry services. He spends part of his incarceration on work release, getting daytime job experience and returning to prison at night.
Re-entry services have been shown to lower recidivism. Three years after incarceration, rates dropped between 6% and 19% in eight states that tracked recidivism from 2010 to 2013.
A program that offers transitional services in Oklahoma, Exodus House, also managed to lower re-incarceration rates. Over seven years, only 13% of participants went back to prison.
During a prior incarceration, Sylvester was locked up across from his father's killer, he says. He fought daily. He was released with no transitional services like the anger management and job training he's getting now. And barriers to re-entry would have stopped him from getting housing assistance. Job applications would have required him to mention his criminal background. He went back to dealing drugs after each stint and overdosed three times.
A failing system?
We asked nearly everyone we encountered — prison system directors, inmates and family members, former inmates, activists and politicians — the project tag line question: Is America failing its prisoners?
The overwhelming answer: Yes.
One memorable response, the one that most reflects what we saw, came from Pitman: "Are prisons in the U.S. failing inmates? I would say yes. But I would also say we as citizens are failing our fellow citizens."
No one benefits — not inmates, not taxpayers, not the general public — when re-entry to society is so often followed by re-entry to prison.
Eileen Rivers is the Web content editor for USA TODAY's Editorial Page and editor of Policing the USA's Re-entry Project. Follow her @msdc14.