There are signs America's historic prison expansion may be reaching its peak. During a 30-year war on crime that began in the 1960s, the inmate population doubled, and then doubled again. The United States has two million people behind bars - more than any other nation in the world. But now, growth in the prison population has slowed to near zero. The soaring crime rates that prompted the war on crime have come back down in recent years. And tight budgets are making some states rethink the tough sentencing laws that helped fill prisons in the first place.
Now, more than 600,000 inmates are leaving state and federal prisons every year - that's the biggest number in U.S. history. How they fare on the outside, and how communities fare in absorbing these ex-inmates, is a topic of growing concern.
It's a chilly December day in Durham, North Carolina, and Eddie shows up for a noontime appointment at Presbyterian Urban Ministries.
The ministry is in a big stone church building on East Main Street. Director and Pastor Dorothy Lane Ellis escorts Eddie to her office in the basement. He's 42, a small, wiry man with neatly trimmed brown hair and a goatee.
"What brings you in to see us today?" Ellis asks as she types his name and address into her computer.
"Well, I got this disconnect notice," Eddie explains. "Everybody's sending me notices, the phone company and what have you. This is another one that I received that they're going to turn me off on the 27th if they don't receive money from me in the amount of $101.20."
Eddie doesn't mention that he can only afford to eat one meal a day. Or that he hasn't paid this month's rent and worries he might be homeless within a few weeks.
"Do you currently have any income?" Ellis asks.
"Well, some small odd jobs that I can find. Like today I'm sawing up some wood for a fella and he's going to pay me probably enough to put gas in my tank and get some food," Eddie says.
Eddie doesn't fall within the categories of needy people Reverend Ellis usually helps - families with children, disabled and elderly people - but luckily, a recent ice storm that knocked out power for days brought in a fresh batch of donations Ellis can draw from. She agrees to pay Eddie's bill and calls the electric company to tell them a check is on its way.
"Thank you," Eddie says. "How about a word of prayer before we leave?" When Ellis agrees, Eddie bows his head and begins, "Father God, we thank you for the blessings of this day. I thank you for this dear sister who serves you by serving others ... ."
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