50,000 people now leave prison every month. Crime experts and policymakers are debating what to do about them. These ex-convicts have served longer sentences than inmates of earlier generations, and they're less likely to have gotten any education or job training behind barsonly a third do so. In the 1980s and 90s, as prisons filled to overflowing and a tough-on-criminals mind-set prevailed, states cut rehabilitation programs. So ex-cons typically return home carrying all their old liabilitiesaddictions, poor education, bad work habitsand they bring new ones: stigma and damaged relations with family. Most return to where they came from, to places like the east side of Durham, North Carolina.
On a drizzly fall day, community organizer Steve Hopkins takes me on a driving tour of east Durham.
"I wanted to take you down on South Street to give you a sense where a lot of the [ex-cons] hang out at," Hopkins says.
Hopkins seems a well-qualified guide. He was born in Durham. He's active in his neighborhood, one of the city's poorest and toughest: Northeast Central Durham. He works for the Durham Affordable Housing Coalition and he is, himself, an ex-con. Hopkins served several terms behind bars from the 1960s into the early eighties, for burglary, armed robbery, and kidnapping, he says. At forty-seven, Hopkins has lived prison-free for 20 years. But his neighborhood has not grown out of its problems.
The homes in east Durham are tiny bungalows with front porches. Quite a few are boarded up. Young men stand in groups of three and four on street corners. They give passing drivers a steady look. "He's trying to stop you, trying to sell you something," Hopkins says as a young man gives us a furtive thumbs-up.
Hopkins knows a lot of these young men, and their histories. "Most of the drug dealers in this area are ex-cons."
Like most American cities, Durham saw its crime rate fall after the worst years of the crack epidemic and gang violence in the early and mid-1990s. Now east Durham has the feel of a battle zone where the worst of the shooting is over but the rebuilding hasn't yet begun.
Hopkins takes me to the Fayetteville Street Public Housing Community. "There's a lot of single family females that live over here," he says. "Some of the absentee parents are in the penal system."
Joyce Snipes, the housing project's Resident Council President, notes that out of 200 families in the project, perhaps two are headed by a married couple. There are "very few fathers involved," she says.
The project's tan brick apartments surround a spartan grass courtyard crisscrossed by sidewalks. As we walk the grounds, a small group of teenage boys approaches. One boy walks with his arms wrapped tightly around the shoulders of two others. "That guy that's in the middle right there," says Snipes, "he was shot about a couple weeks ago at a teen's party" at a nearby community center.
Pellets sprayed from the gunman's shotgun struck the young man in the face, damaging his eyesight.
"They try to make it look like he's just a normal person, "Snipes adds. "They walk him, hold him, hug him, rather than [him] using a cane or a stick."
We stop and ask the teens to chat. The boy in the middle, the tallest of the group, says his name is Kevin. His friends introduce themselves as Dimetrius, DuShawn, Dante and Brandon. They range in age from fourteen to sixteen.
Kevin's eyes don't seem to focus on anything. The skin on his face is marred by small pockmarks from the shotgun pellets. "He didn't mean to shoot me," Kevin says of the young man who pulled the trigger that night. "He was trying to shoot somebody else."
Four of the teens live with their mothers, and one with his grandmother. Only one of the five has a father in the house. Four of the five boys say at least one of their parents has been to jail or prison.
"My father's locked up for life," says Dante, adding he hasn't seen his father for some six years. "It's like hell when your parents ain't there for you. I can't see my dad for a longfor a lifetime."
Asked what he would say to his father if he could speak to him, Dante answers without hesitation: "'I love you.'"
Next: Pharmacy on the Street