Dan is Getting Out of Prison

By · Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

After 14 years of imprisonment, Dan is going home. Dan has been incarcerated since the summer of 1994. At the time of his arrest he was a 25-year-old without much more of a formal education than the GED he earned in night school. He had been working in an Arizona gas station when friends who lived in his trailer park invited Dan into a drug trafficking conspiracy. Dan earned a few thousand dollars hustling weed and cocaine, but federal authorities busted him after a few months. His conviction led to a sentence of 17 years.

His release date approaches, yet he has no idea what kind of life he will lead. As we were watching the news this morning, we saw that a government agency had reported that more than 10 million Americans were unemployed. Dan is returning to Arizona, a state that has suffered one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. If national unemployment rates exceed 6 percent on average, Dan knows that unemployment may be worse in the Phoenix area. For a 40-year-old man without a job history, with a substandard education level, and with a lengthy prison record, the unemployment rate might approach 100 percent. The prospects for Dan’s future do not look bright.

Dan lacks both financial and human resources. Administrators from the Taft federal prison camp are releasing Dan to a halfway house six months prior to the expiration of his sentence. While in the halfway house, administrators will expect Dan to stabilize himself. They will allow him out of the house each day to find a job. Once he finds a job, Dan will have to forfeit 25 percent of his gross pay to the administrators of the halfway house. Those funds will cover the costs of Dan’s room and board. Administrators will allow Dan to keep the remainder of his earnings to prepare for his life.

During the time that Dan has served in prison, he has lost everything. He does not own any clothes outside of the ragged sweats he has accumulated from other prisoners. He does not own a vehicle and he has no idea of the cost of living. Without a work history, Dan does not expect to find a job that will pay more than $400 per week. Yet Dan will lose $100 of that money for halfway house expenses. He anticipates that after taxes, he may be left with $250 in take- home pay for a full week’s work.

Dan hopes to find a job during his first month at the halfway house. If he can reach that goal, he will have an opportunity to work for five months before his term will expire. When Dan’s time in the halfway house concludes, he will have to pay the full cost of his housing and food expenses, and he expects those costs to run him far more than $100 per week.

Yet during those six months that Dan serves in the halfway house, he knows that he will have personal expenditures. He will have to purchase clothing, as he does not own anything. He will have to pay for toiletries, transportation expenses, and any food that he eats away from the halfway house. Tough times await him.

Dan has heard that he will need to save sufficient funds to meet the expenses of renting an apartment. With move-in costs including a prepaid first-month rent, last-month rent, and a security deposit equal to one-month rent, Dan anticipates that even an efficiency apartment will require $1,200 in savings. With expected take-home pay of $250 per week, Dan has no idea how he will manage to save enough money to live independently.

In the early spring of 2008, President Bush signed a law known as The Second Chance Act. That law made it possible for administrators to release offenders to a halfway house up to one year prior to the expiration of their terms. That extra time in the halfway house was supposed to provide offenders with more opportunities to stabilize themselves upon release from prison. Dan requested halfway house placement at the earliest possible time so that he could find employment and work toward stability in accordance with Congress’s intention of The Second Chance Act. Yet the Warden at Taft Camp denied Dan’s request, assuring him that six months in the halfway house would be sufficient for him to find a job and save enough funds to begin his life. When Dan appealed the warden’s decision to higher-level administrators, they too declined to grant Dan relief.

Recidivism rates in our country exceed 60 percent. More than six in every ten offenders who walk out of prison engage in some type of activity that returns them to confinement within three years. For some, it appears that the complications awaiting their release dwarf the harshness of living in prison.

Prisons don’t have to churn out so much failure. Rather than warehousing prisoners like Dan for 14 years, administrators could have designed meaningful incentive programs that would have encouraged Dan to develop skills and resources that would allow him to transition to society as contributing citizen. We need prison reforms that will reverse the troubling trends of high recidivism rates. The entire mindset of these institutions need to change, and that change should begin by replacing the Director of the Bureau of Prisons with a new leader who shares the promising vision of President-elect Barack Obama.

For prisoners like Dan, any change will come too late. He will be home for Christmas of 2008, yet I have a suspicion that he may miss the steady routine of the human warehouse to which he has grown accustomed. Dan is not ready for the challenges of society. With more than 600,000 people returning to society from prison each year, Dan is but one of many examples that we need prison reform now.

In my article entitled Strategy for Successful Prison Adjustment, I offer guidance other prisoners may follow to ensure they don’t walk out like Dan.

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