From American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio. Distributed by NPR. On the Internet at www.americanradioworks.org.
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 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 US history. How they fare on the outside, and how communities fare in absorbing these ex-inmates, is a topic of growing concern.
Hard Time - Scraping By
Getting help with the bills
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 ... ."
Battling addictions to alcohol, sex and crack cocaine
Eddie was not always the sort of person who breaks into prayer with near-strangers. He turned to religion in prison. Eddie grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, the son of a policeman. He quit high school to join the Navy and later held a series of jobs back home. He battled, and beat, addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine. But in 1996, his life came apart.
"What it basically was, was sexual addiction," Eddie says. "I put down drugs and alcohol and stuff like that and I just started to get involved with, you know, lewd women. And slowly but surely that became an addiction. And I eventually got hooked up with a young girl and I got in trouble that way."
Eddie got caught having sex with a teenage girl. He was sentenced to find years' probation, but was then arrested on a similar charge in Virginia. A New Jersey judge sent him to state prison for multiple counts of endangering the welfare of a child. He served five years and two months. He's now getting treatment for sex addiction as a condition of his parole. Eddie left prison in December of 2001 with no job, literally no money, and little support from his family.
"Because of what I had done, my mother told the rest of my family that they were forbidden to mention my name in her house ever again," Eddie says. "My brother's a police officer. I mean, we were so close when we were kids and he just doesn't answer any of my letters, he doesn't want anything to do with me. And then when I needed two hundred dollars because they were going to turn off my phone and they were going to turn off my water, he told my father to tell me to go someplace else to find it, to take it out of the garbage can where I've taken everything else from. It hurt."
Eddie says it's not surprising that some ex-inmates, shunned by their families and employers, turn to their old friends still doing crime. He says since leaving prison he's met drug dealers and bookmakers who, when they heard he was an ex-con, offered him "jobs."
But he's opted for whatever honest work he can get.
"Have you ever been convicted ... ."
Eddie climbs into his 1991 Dodge van and heads to a poor part of north Durham. He moved to North Carolina after his release because of a spiritual group he'd heard about in prison, the Human Kindness Foundation, which is based near Durham. The group helped Eddie find an apartment here, though he still has to pay the $575-a-month rent. A wealthy volunteer with the foundation bought Eddie his van for $1,700.
"I'm glad to have it; it certainly beats walking," Eddie says as he drives up Roxboro Road. "I don't know what I'd do without it because I certainly wouldn't be able to do painting jobs. But it needs a little work. The brakes in the front need to be redone. It blows smoke now, and it seems that that situation's getting worse and worse. I can't afford the repairs right now."
When Eddie got to Durham he joined a local Church of Christ, and his connections there get him some of the informal work he drums up. This day he's working for a friend from church who owns a home in need of repair. Behind a big old house with worn and warped clapboards, Eddie spreads a drop cloth on the ground and sets to work scraping away old paint. The job will pay him ten dollars an hour.
"I'll just work out here for maybe two hours or so and just make a little bit of money today," Eddie says.
Like Eddie, many ex-convicts struggle along on sporadic, informal work. Researchers have found that a prison term takes a slice out a person's earning power - a 15-percent slice, on average. Since most people who go to prison have few marketable skills to start with, a 15-percent wage hit often means poverty. Federal and state laws ban many felons from holding jobs in schools, nursing homes or airport security. Eddie's home state of New Jersey has a long list of jobs off-limits to certain felons - from bartending to firefighting, to working at a racetrack or as a parking attendant. Before his arrest, Eddie held jobs as a postal worker and an optician and he managed a Radio Shack store. Since prison, he says, he's applied for dozens of entry-level jobs.
"I went into Wal-Mart recently," Eddie recalls "and I filled out an extensive application and I sat there for quite some time waiting for someone to come and take my application. And a fellow came out of the office, and he was standing right next to me, out in the open, and he said, 'The manager wants to talk to you so could you please just wait for a few more minutes. He wants to sit down with you and discuss things.' I said, 'OK, fine.' He came back out a few seconds later and he said, 'I noticed that you forgot a few blocks on this application. Could you just fill them in.'"
Those empty blocks were the questions about the applicant's criminal record, Eddie says. He says he won't lie as a matter of principle, but he sometimes leaves the questions blank hoping he'll get a chance to tell his story in person. So now he filled them in.
"And where it said, 'Have you ever been convicted of a violent crime?' I checked no because I haven't. And then it said, 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony?' and I checked yes because I have. So he said, 'All right, thank you,' and he went back in that office. And then he came out another door. This time the counter was between he and I, the fella that I had just shook hands with and been talking to, and he said, 'Is this the number that you can be reached at?' I said, 'Yes, it is.' He said, 'Well, the manager's in a meeting right now.' And I said, 'Look buddy, you don't need to lie to me. I see what's going on. And I'm just gonna pray for you.' You know. And so I left," Eddie says.
Eddie says he understands why a manager might push a convicted felon to the bottom of the applicants' pile, but he claims to have done things differently himself. "When I was a manager for Radio Shack and guys came to me and were honest with me and said, 'Well, I'm on probation' or 'I got to go to AA' - I hired them."
If Eddie really behaved that way as a manager, he apparently wasn't typical. Gudrun Parmer directs a Durham County program for ex-prisoners. She says ex-cons had a better chance of finding work a few years ago, when jobs were plentiful.
"A lot of times the employers were willing to give them a break on the criminal record because the need for workers was so great, especially in construction, landscaping, the service industry. But now they can pick. Now they have more people looking for work than there are positions. Our guys are usually the last ones on the list," Parmer says.
Some advocacy groups suggest policies to make ex-prisoners more attractive to employers - such as expunging the criminal records of ex-cons who stay out of trouble for a given period, or giving tax credits and other incentives to employers who hire former inmates. In the meantime, 're-entry' has become a buzzword. Lots of crime experts and corrections officials say there ought to be more programs to help ex-convicts succeed - job-training courses, halfway houses and drug treatment programs. The actual growth of such programs is slow, partly because governments are strapped for money. That leaves religious groups to fill the void.
Eddie has gotten support from one such faith-based group. One afternoon he and several other ex-inmates sit in an upstairs meeting room on East Main in Durham, listening to a local businessman, Ellis McCoy, lead them through the first chapter of the Book of James.
"Verse four: 'But let patience have her perfect work,'" McCoy reads. He looks up at the men around the table. "Patience will bring maturity. Going through a trial brings maturity."
The men have each found their way to New Beginnings Outreach, a fledgling ministry aimed at helping ex-offenders. Phillip Jackson is the ministry's founder and Executive Director. He gave up a well-paying management job to start New Beginnings. Jackson grew up in a rough town near Philadelphia. He carried a gun by age twelve, he says. He did 18 months in a military prison before turning to Christianity. He says God called him to help ex-convicts, even though it's not always easy or rewarding.
"We've had some success stories, but we've had some who have come out and had us pay their bills while they were going to ask other people to pay the same bill, and just really tried to take advantage of us," Jackson says. "So I do understand the apprehension, but we've got to take a chance. We can't give up. Because there is that one that we may reach and turn their lives around. That's what drives us."
Jackson wants to teach ex-inmates about Jesus - and give them what they most need in the practical world: paying work. He started a little painting and cleaning company, and he tries to scare up jobs for his crews of ex-cons. In a weak economy, he's finding only spotty work for them. Jackson admits he's also having trouble raising money from local church leaders for his ex-offender program.
"I've talked with many pastors and I have heard pastors say, 'That person got themselves into that position and they need to get themselves out of it.' I just don't know where that comes from scripturally," Jackson says.
As the New Beginnings Bible study continues, Ellis McCoy prompts Eddie to read the next verse of James 1: "Verse five," Eddie says. "'If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault ... ."
But a couple of months later, Eddie still hasn't found a real job. In a run-down house in north Durham, he spreads off-white paint on the interior walls, trying to make the place fit for renting. It's another one-day paycheck, this time for Eddie's landlord. The money will help Eddie squeak by on his bills for another month.
"I'm trying to build a business," he says, carefully stroking paint onto a French window frame. "A little painting company. And if God blesses me that way, I'm going to be the exact opposite of society. On my applications it will say, 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony?' And if they put 'no' I'll tell them I can't hire them."
Eddie sometimes talks bitterly about society's treatment of ex-prisoners like himself. Then in the next breath he'll say he brought it all on himself - he's to blame. Either way, he argues that the overwhelming hurdles ex-convicts face aren't good for anybody.
"If I could take back the things I did, I would. But I can't," Eddie says. "There's nothing I can do. But I'll never do them again. So isn't that enough? Five years of my life have been thrown away. I threw them away. But is society going to want to throw away another five just for good measure?"
In early 2003, 13 months after his release from prison, Eddie finally got a pair of part-time jobs - at a gas station and a pet-care shop. The service station didn't ask about a criminal record. The application at the pet-care shop asked if he'd had a felony conviction within the past five years. Eddie was locked up in 1996, so he could truthfully answer no.
Hard Time - Marsha and Sons
Family life is often collateral damage in the war on crime. The Justice Department says two-thirds of the women in prison, and half of the men, have children under the age of eighteen. So at any one time about one and a half million American children have a parent behind bars.
Marsha, the mother of two boys, served seven years in the North Carolina state prison system for second-degree murder - a result of her relationship with a drug-dealing boyfriend. She was just 22 when she got locked up and left her young sons behind. Now she has to reclaim her role as their mother.
Most of the inmates at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women wear the required blue-green shirt - sort of like the shirts surgeons wear. This day Marsha wears jeans and a black sweater. She's a pretty, round-faced woman with shoulder-length hair. She's reserved and watchful, but today she wears a distinct glow. It's release day.
"Today is Thursday, November 15, 2001," Marsha says, her voice breaking into a giggle that she can't quite suppress. "It's a date I will never forget."
Marsha sits down in the prison cafeteria across from her new parole officer, who reads her the terms: the early-evening curfew, no traveling outside of Wake County without permission, the understanding that she effectively remains in the custody of the state.
As Marsha gathers with several of her closest friends in the prison's grass courtyard, the talk has the feel of graduation day - except that only one of the women is graduating.
"It's a beautiful day to go home!" says Marsha's friend, Maleena.
"God, Marsha, you ready?" says Candace.
Gina teases Marsha about an earlier conversation: "I asked her, 'What's the first thing you're going to do?' She says she wants to go to the grocery store!" The women laugh and joke about Marsha's impending freedom from prison cafeteria food.
"I just want to go to a grocery store and push a grocery cart, and let my sons pick out what they want," Marsha says dreamily.
Marsha's fellow inmates will tell you she's a sure thing to make it on the outside. She got her degree from Shaw University while in prison. Classmates in her job-training course voted her Most Likely To Succeed. Partly because she was such a model inmate, Marsha served just seven years of a 30-year sentence. Even before her release she lined up a job with a Raleigh housing corporation; the job will pay $25,000 annually plus benefits.
Marsha pockets her gate check - $45 in North Carolina - says one last goodbye ("I love y'all!") and walks out of prison.
The challenge begins
On Friday, December 6, three weeks after her release, Marsha waits for her sons to come for a visit. She sits in her new apartment in a residential part of Raleigh. It's part of Harriet's House, a transitional program for women leaving prison. The arrangement gives Marsha cheap rent and access to counseling.
"Some people getting out of prison they say they'd rather go on their own," Marsha says. "They don't want to go into a transitional house because of all the rules and this and that, but I feel like I do need that. You know, I haven't lived on my own in seven years."
But the halfway house requires ex-prisoners to get settled for six months before taking on the full-time care of their children. So Marsha's kids, Michael and Khire, still live with Marsha's mother in a small town on the North Carolina coast. Every other weekend a Harriet's House staffer drives out and picks up the boys and brings them for an overnight stay with their mother.
When they walk into the apartment, Marsha greets them with kisses. Michael is eleven; Khire's nine. They wear baggy jeans and jackets. They have round faces like their mother's. The three talk about what's new in school, weekend plans. Marsha breaks out the toothbrushes she bought for her sons to use at her place. They all seem at ease with one another.
"I thought that they would kind of be a little uncomfortable with me, that it would take some getting used to. But no, they were just theirself," Marsha says with a smile.
A Song of Lament
While in prison, Marsha wrote lots of letters to the boys and told them she loved them. She had relatives bring them for visits from time to time.
And yet, while Khire is sunny and affectionate, his big brother Michael is quicker to show an angry edge - and a bruised sense of trust that his mother will stay around this time. When Marsha, talking with a guest, describes something she wrote for a prison drama program, Michael overhears her and asks what she's talking about.
"One of them's a lament," Marsha says of her writings. "And it's about coming to prison and leaving you and Khire."
Michael misunderstands. "What?! You're leaving us?"
"No, you'll be with me," Marsha says.
"Oh." Michael seems reassured for now.
Since her release, Marsha has continued to perform with C.H.A.I.N.S., a drama troupe made up of women inmates. On a winter evening the group performs at a Church of Christ in Raleigh. One of the show's most dramatic moments is Marsha's performance of the monologue she wrote - her "Psalm of Lament." As she recites it in a strong, impassioned voice, her eyes well up and her voice breaks.
"The worst pain I have ever felt was the day Michael lashed out at me, telling me he hated me and he would never forgive me for coming to prison. 'You're my mommy. You should have known better!' my son said. Michael later hugged me and said, 'Mommy, I love you and I forgive you.' I'm glad Michael forgives me, but I cannot forgive myself for the pain I've caused my son. God of mercy, save me from hating myself! Give me grace to forgive. Heal my son's wounds!"
Michael does seem more wounded than his little brother, Khire. Michael was four and Khire just two when their mother and father went off to prison. And when their parents committed the crime that got them sent there.
"I remember the day that they did the drive-by," Michael says. "Khire might not remember it 'cause Khire was really young. All I remember my mom saying, she was going to the store, and like that's what I really remember, and that's when she came back and everybody started crying and stuff like that. And she was real scared."
On the way to the store, Marsha says, she and her cousin saw their boyfriends and stopped. Marsha's boyfriend was the father of Michael and Khire. He and his friend were drug dealers.
"They both caught a ride and on the way back, they both got out of the car and ended up shooting and killing two guys," Marsha says.
Michael has heard the story from his mom and dad.
"They was in this car, and these two dudes, they wouldn't give my uncle his money back, and he had a gun, and he shot both of them while they was driving. And then that's when my mom got real scared so she drove off. My momma didn't know nothing about it, though. She didn't know it was going to happen," Michael says.
Asked how he feels about his parents' involvement in such a crime, Michael says, "I really don't feel sad about it because I know they didn't do it. But if they did do it I'd be kind of mad at them."
Despite Marsha's relatively minor role, she still served hard time.
"In the beginning I felt like it was unfair," she says, "because I didn't actually, you know, kill anyone. But then I had to realize that I still played a part."
Two months after her release, Marsha gets full-time custody of her sons. The three share a two-bedroom apartment in the Harriet's House program, and Michael and Khire transfer into Raleigh schools. Michael has had behavior problems for years; he's been expelled from school several times while living with his grandmother. In the fall of 2002, he enters Longview School, a "separate," special education school in the Raleigh district for kids with behavior problems. Michael's problems continue.
"Michael's generally non-compliant," says Longview Principal Karen Hamilton. It's not that he simply talks back to teachers from time to time, says Hamilton. "For children to be here, that has to be something they do more often that not."
With a reporter following him through a day in school, Michael behaves unusually well, according to his teachers. He sits quietly and does at least some of the work he's asked to do. But in math class he slips. He bickers with a classmate, then erupts. "Who you hollerin' at?" he asks the other boy, Travis. "You hollerin' at me? I'll punch you in your mouth!"
"No, you won't, says Travis.
"Shut up!" Michael yells. "Tell that dude to shut up!"
A teacher intervenes.
Ms. Rhonda Victor is Michael's science teacher. "There are days he'll sit and he'll suck his finger like a little baby and not say a word, but he's not willing to work," she says. Other days he's disruptive. "He's very into 'beating,'" - drumming loudly on his desk with his thumbs and fingers - "and he enjoys that but he'll do that all period if I allow him to, so we're working on that," Victor explains.
Most of Michael's middle school classmates in the alternative school have already been convicted of crimes - from alcohol possession to car theft to assault. Michael has not.
His teachers say he shows signs of trying to get his behavior under control.
Back at home, Marsha reminds the boys to do their homework. Khire, she says, is doing great in school.
"Hopefully when I get my annual report," Khire says, "I'll have A's and B's. I do my homework every day."
Nine months after being reunited with her sons, Marsha admits, "I'm still happy that I'm here with them, but there's a lot of challenges that I didn't anticipate."
It's not just Michael's behavior. Marsha and the boys have been grieving, too. Just two weeks after Michael and Khire moved to Raleigh, their grandmother, who'd taken care of them for seven years, died suddenly of a heart attack. She was just forty-nine.
"I didn't even really cry," Michael says.
"Yes you did, you cried," says Khire.
Michael concedes that he did cry. "I been around my grandma for so long, for like almost my whole life."
For a while after their grandmother's death, the boys slept with Marsha; they were too upset to sleep alone. Now Marsha has a new challenge: Her sons are signed up for after-school programs, but some days Michael just goes home to the empty apartment.
"I think I'm about at the very end of my rope with him," Marsha says. "He's been suspended again. And his grades are actually dropping. Basically he's not really doing anything. I've asked him why. He says he's bored in class." Marsha thinks her son's troubles go deeper. "I think he's very angry. He talks a lot about wanting his dad here, and not really having anybody as far as a male to identify with, he talks about that some."
And raps about it. Michael takes pride in his free-styling; he rattles off rhymes without writing them down. He says he's never rapped about his mom, but he will rhyme about his still-imprisoned father.
Asked to free-style about his dad, Michael says he's willing but struggles. "Dag, I wish my dad should've never left," he begins. He stops. "Man, I'm shy, man." He gathers himself and starts again. "Dag, I wish my dad should've never left / In the future, all I see is death. / But I try to look past that and turn the other way / I crash that, smash that, put the nine away./ As I--." Michael falters again. "I can't, man."
Michael and Khire's father is in the North Carolina state prison in Gatesville. The boys used to visit him when they lived with their grandmother, but they haven't seen their dad since their mother got released a year ago.
"I can't take them because I'm not approved to see him because I'm still on parole," Marsha explains. For now, she's raising the boys alone.
At a Raleigh Boys' Club on a Saturday morning, Marsha watches Michael at basketball tryouts. "Yesterday was November 15, which was a year since my release," she notes. "Doesn't seem like it's been a year. But I think a lot has been accomplished in that year."
Marsha says in prison, it's all you can do to muster a sliver of hope. She ached to trade that bleak life for this one - the life of a single mom caring for her sons and helping them through their own thickets. She's where she wants to be. But she wishes there was more help available for Michael and Khire and other kids like them - kids who've had a parent in prison.
"They're so intelligent but it's certain things, it's either their behavior or they're still angry at their parents, and they can't get past that to concentrate on anything else," Marsha says.
When tryouts are through, Michael runs across the asphalt parking lot to Marsha's car. He's thrilled to announce he made the team. Marsha congratulates him, and asks if that tall man who was running the tryouts will be the coach. That's right, Michael says. "He wants to teach us the fundamentals of the game."
Hard Time - Collateral Damage: East Durham
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 generation, 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.'"
Pharmacy on the Street
Steve Hopkins says in parts of east Durham, imprisonment has become much more pervasive since he was young, and harder to recover from. "In Durham, the ex-cons really don't have a chance," he says.
When Hopkins finished his last prison term in 1982 his parole officer helped him get a construction job and a car, he says. Now, because of changes in sentencing laws, more and more inmates are serving full terms and getting released with no parole. That means they have no official contact with the state, no officer monitoring their behavior or offering support.
Entry-level jobs, for ex-cons lucky enough to get them, pay less than they used to.
Heading back up Fayetteville Street we pass a strip mall that's anchored by a chain drug store and a KFC. In the 1920s, a street near here became known as the "Black Wall Street." It was home to Mechanics and Farmers Bank, the nation's first black-owned financial institution; the largest black-owned insurance company, North Carolina Mutual Life; and other, smaller, black-owned businesses. When Hopkins was a kid in the 1960s, the neighborhood was still the center of black economic life.
"Then urban renewal came through," along with the new Durham Freeway, "and took out a lot of the black-owned businesses," Hopkins says. North Carolina Mutual moved to downtown Durham while many other black-owned businesses disappeared entirely.
The forces that swept through east Durham are common to lots of urban neighborhoods. Desegregation allowed middle class blacks to move out, leaving pockets where almost everybody was poor and working class. Then the factory jobs went away.
"We used to be a tobacco [and] textile town," Hopkins says. "Now all the tobacco plants are closed down, and most of the textile plants are gone. And now we don't know what we are. They call us the City of Medicine, so I guess we have become a service-providing community."
To leaders in this town of 140,000, the "City of Medicine" slogan means high-paying jobs at the Duke University Medical Center, at area research labs, and at the technology companies in Research Triangle Park. Raleigh-Durham was a New Economy boomtown until the bubble burst in 2001. But most people in east Durham qualify only for the jobs at the bottom, serving food or cleaning.
So ex-cons find it hard to get a job they can live onthe one thing that, according to researchers, would give them the best chance of staying out of jail.
Another important variable, researchers say, is marriage. Those who come out of prison with a committed relationship, or who form one soon after their release, are more likely to stay out of prison for good. But just as a prison record makes a man as unattractive to prospective employers, it has a similar effect on potential mates.
We meet Dreta Perry on another visit to the Fayetteville Street housing project. She's an unemployed mother of three. The father of her children is in prison; she's not sure what for, she says.
"It's hard for them when they get out, whatever their charge is," Perry says of the many ex-cons she's known. "Basically you can't get a job. You've got to lie about having a criminal record [because] they don't want to hire you." If an ex-con does lie, she adds, "then they hire you and after a while they find out [and] they fire you."
In Perry's neighborhood, so many of the men are in that predicament that she finally gave up finding a man. "I'm not looking," she says flatly. "I can speak for, as a woman: the men that's getting locked up, I mean, they're getting out, they can't get a job, so what's left? The pharmacy on the street. Selling drugs."
Dragging Down Neighborhoods
In poor black and Latino neighborhoods across the country, disproportionate numbers of households have a parentusually a fatheraway in prison. Black men are eight times more likely to go to prison than whites, and Latinos six times more likely than whites. The imprisonment gap has deepened the economic gaps among racial and ethnic groups. The stigma and damaged earning power that come with a prison record have been disproportionately stamped on men and women of color.
A few years ago, economists celebrated that job growth in the 1990s had put more people to work among all groups of Americans. The rising economy was genuinely lifting all boats. Even black men who'd dropped out of high school were finding jobs in record numbers, the experts said. But Bruce Western, a sociologist at Princeton, analyzed the numbers more closely. The sunny employment figures assumed that those who left the ranks of the unemployed did so by getting jobs.
"But once you take into account that a large number of these men are in prison or jail"not in the workforce"there's actually no improvement in the employment rate over this period," Western explains.
In other words: for young black men with little education, the prison boom wiped out the economic boom.
Experts like Western talk about incarceration as a form of churningremoving people from the neighborhood, then sending them back as a bigger drag on the community than they were before. Multiply that effect hundreds of times in a neighborhood and, some researchers say, the effect can be the reverse of what's intended.
In the late 1990s, sociologist Dina Rose and her colleague Todd Clear, then at Florida State University, looked carefully at crime statistics in Tallahassee. They found that in the neighborhoods with the highest incarceration rates in a given year, crime went up faster the following year than in other comparable neighborhoods with lower incarceration rates. Controlling for other factors affecting crime, they and reached a provocative conclusion:
"There was a tipping point at which increasing the number of people in prison really increased crime in those areas," says Rose. "That's not to say that we shouldn't be incarcerating anyone, because at low and moderate levels, [imprisonment] does [reduce crime], and there are clearly people in these neighborhoods who need to be removed. But it does mean we need to think about our use of incarceration very carefully and try to think about the ways in which incarceration as a process of removing and returning people can destabilize communities in general."
Steve Hopkins, the ex-con and community activist, agrees that some criminals need to be arrested and locked up. But ask him what he would do to make things better in east Durham, and stepped-up crime fighting doesn't make his wish list.
"I would make sure that everybody from the age of eighteen and up had a safe, decent place to stay," Hopkins says. Other priorities: a stronger education system to help young people follow their dreams, and better jobs for them to aspire to.
"But," says Hopkins, "I see now a big disconnect. People would rather lock you up and throw the keys away than to help you discover who you are and to help you become who you can be. And that's a waste of people. We can't afford to just throw people away like that, like yesterday's shoes."