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Getting Straight


Getting Straight

June 8, 2003
Urban PolicyCrime

EVERY day, the nation’s prisons release a walking crime wave: 70 percent of state con victs are re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of their release.

A Justice Department study found that convicts let out from the prisons of 15 states in 1994 had been charged by 1997 with 2,900 homicides, 2,400 kidnappings, 2,400 rapes, 3,200 other sexual assaults, 21,200 robberies, 54,600 assaults and 13,900 other violent crimes, not to mention over 200,000 car thefts, burglaries and drugs and weapons offenses. Add in crimes they didn’t get caught for, and the total is undoubtedly far higher.

Cutting recidivism is the next frontier in crime reduction, yet most solutions offered to date misdiagnose the problem. Contrary to received criminological wisdom, there is no shortage of rehabilitation programs. What is in short supply are mechanisms to hold prison wardens and parole officials accountable for results.

ORTHODOX criminology’s line runs like this: America once made an effort to reform prisoners, but in the late 1970s a mean-spirited vengefulness took over the national psyche. Governments jettisoned rehabilitation programs and turned prisons into mere holding tanks, into which they shoveled ever more victims of criminal justice bigotry. Now inmates can’t get drug treatment, education or job training. They are released from prison with bus fare and nothing else. Little wonder that so many return to a life of crime.

The best way to refute this web of error is to talk to inmates and parolees about their time in and out of prison. Not only do their experiences contradict each of the fallacies that make up the standard story, but the offenders themselves stand foursquare for the primacy of individual over government responsibility in going straight.

Fallacy No. 1: The state stiffs addicts on needed drug treatment.

Sitting in a narrow holding cell on Rikers Island, Rosa Velez eagerly recounts her treatment history since being sentenced in February 1999 for possession of one kilo of cocaine. “I did CSAT [Comprehensive Alcohol and Substance Treatment] in Taconic [State Prison], ASAT [Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment] in Albion [State Prison] and SAID [Substance Abuse Intervention Division] the whole time I was in Rose Singer [on Rikers Island],” she says, pushing a wisp of shiny auburn hair back from her childlike face.

OUTSIDE of prison, she has done detox and received counseling from Phoenix House, the Smithers Addiction Treatment Center and the South Bronx Mental Health Center, all at state expense and through the intervention of her parole officer.

Now Rosa is back at Rikers’ Judicial Center for a parole revocation hearing, having disappeared from her current drug and mental-health program for a prolonged cocaine binge. “I need structure. I need help,” she says emphatically, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she has already received quite a lot of state assistance. “I need counseling and psychological help,” she adds.

And she’s still going to get it. A prisoner advocacy group, the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, will argue before the parole judge that Rosa be given 12 to 18 months of residential treatment instead of another prison term.

Have you bottomed out? I ask Rosa. After a pause, she says deliberately: “I’m ready to straighten my life out. I’ve been thinking about it while getting high; now it’s like I’m putting my foot down.”

Maybe. Certainly her attitude in the past was not ideal. The last time she went upstate for parole violations, she vowed: “ ’I’m gonna get high upstate and high when I come back.’ I was angry. I was rebellious.”

She was true to her word. Even the loss of her children has not been a stronger motivator than her addiction. “I haven’t spoken to my baby in three years,” she says matter-of-factly. She is forbidden from contacting her seven-year-old daughter, who is living with the daughter’s father in a location unknown to Rosa. Her 5-year-old is living in the Dominican Republic with the father’s family. “I have to do what I have to do for myself,” Rosa explains.

Rosa’s extensive involvement in treatment programs is typical. Though I did not encounter an addict who had not been given treatment by the corrections or parole departments, critics like the Urban Institute’s Jeremy Travis cite statistics showing that nationally, less than 20 percent of soon-to-be-released addicts report having received treatment while incarcerated. But not getting treatment is different from seeking and being denied it. Travis provides no evidence that prisoners are being denied sought-after treatment.

TO the contrary, many of the addicts I spoke with acknowledged refusing help offered to them. Was the treatment provided always a long-term residential program, arguably the gold standard of drug cures? No; but I also did not find anyone who blamed his relapses on inadequacy of therapy.

Fallacy No. 2: Prisons offer no opportunity for self-improvement.

Jorge Acosta, a loquacious Doe Fund client, proudly shows up at our interview with a folder full of vocational and Bible study certificates he earned while serving time for assaulting his daughter and her mother. The state sent him to a batterers’ program in 1994, but he quit.

He lauds the anger-management course he took in jail, however. “It helped me a lot. It made me realize what I once was. Dr. Ruth — she was a beautiful person. She would say: ’Stop it, you’re full of crap.’ I loved her for that.” (It almost goes without saying that Acosta, like every other ex-con I spoke to, is an addict, which means he has also been given drug treatment — in his case the intensive Project Return.)

EXHIBIT A in the advocates’ brief against America’s allegedly mean— spirited corrections policies is the elimination in 1994 of no-obligations federal college-tuition grants for inmates. But the overwhelming educational need among prisoners is a high school degree or just basic literacy. Rare is the prison today that does not provide GED and reading programs, and most offer a wide range of vocational education, postsecondary programs and cognitive and behavioral therapy.

Many of the real experts praise the educational and therapeutic offerings in prison. Mark, a hulking rape convict attending a post-incarceration anger-management class, asserts: “Prison today is no longer a prison. It’s a correctional facility to correct what’s wrong. [Though] a lot of people just go through the motions with prison programs, [the state] puts it on the table. You gotta dig deep to get it.”

Indeed, the overwhelming consensus among ex-offenders is that the most important factor determining whether someone goes straight is not the availability of programs but self-discipline. “It boils down to the individual, I don’t care what anyone tells you,” insists Louis “Pepe” Velazquez, a gravelly-voiced extrovert who once dealt and consumed illegal substances omnivorously, but who now works for the Doe Fund. “If you don’t start rehabilitating yourself in prison, you won’t last outside.”

Fallacy No. 3: There are no jobs for ex-cons, because the marketplace discriminates against them.

There is no denying that if you began a life of crime early and have never worked, you’ll be unlikely to land a $30,000-a-year job. And you will in fact be turned down for employment again and again. But I was amazed at the number of offenders who had extensive work histories as truck drivers, deliverymen or warehouse managers, interwoven with periodic incarceration.

The overriding impediment to their continuing employment was not their prison record but their drug use. All reported losing jobs again and again because of drug-induced absenteeism and irresponsibility.

EVEN those offenders with little to no work history can hope to find employment. New York, like many states, releases nonviolent offenders from prison toward the end of their sentences to live in halfway houses in the community and go to work. Virtually everyone in work release has a job, often found while still incarcerated.

Rosa Velez, the addicted parole violator in Rikers, is typical of the less qualified work-release inmate — she was a high school dropout with no work experience and a raging drug habit. Yet within a week of leaving prison in 2000, she had found a cashier’s job at a Zaro’s Breadbasket in the Bronx. She subsequently worked as a cashier at a Wendy’s at Rockefeller Center and at three McDonald’s. Interspersed with these jobs was a 60-day return to prison for drug use and going AWOL. She also was fired from at least one job for absenteeism. Yet she keeps finding employment.

Prisoner and poverty advocates scorn such low-paying service jobs. That is folly. These entry-level positions allow people to establish a track record as reliable workers; they launch marginal workers onto the American conveyor belt of economic mobility. Many fast-food companies, such as McDonald’s, are constantly searching for employees to promote; Rosa herself was proposed as a training manager before she self-destructed.

Here again, ex-offenders have a better grasp of reality than the advocates. A helmeted bike messenger with no teeth rallied a group of just-released felons at the job-search firm America Works a little over a year ago. “I’m on my second job,” he told them buoyantly. “I did it on my own. It’s not easy. You deal with lots of BS and peer pressure.” But then he delivered the hard truth: “We need to start off at the bottom and work up. If you let go of your ego and show yourself more reliable than anyone else, they’ll pick you up.”

STRANGE as it is to say, I found New York’s ex-offenders courteous, self- aware and likable. I almost invariably received sincere thanks for attending group meetings, even when I had tried to convey society’s frustration with crime. Many employers echo my positive reaction. The foreman at a toy distributor who has used work-release inmates told me: “I was surprised at the respectfulness. Prison can be humbling.”

Nearly every inmate or ex-offender I spoke with asserted emphatically that he wanted to work. Talking to these men, you find yourself wondering: Are you fundamentally different from me? Are you a criminal in an existential sense - or do you just have a weakness for bad decisions?

Now, clearly, all is not as it seems to the inexperienced observer of this population. Many criminals know exactly what you want to hear and deliver their lines masterfully, intending all the time to go back to drugging and stealing without a pang of conscience. Nevertheless, significant numbers of inmates come out of prison with solid intentions, and a few straightforward reforms could improve their chance of success.