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Are Prison Release Practices Creating Homelessness?

Are Prison Release Practices Creating Homelessness?

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reporting on health prison release homelessness

In California's largest cities, one senses that the number of homeless people continues to grow, whatever the interventions to prevent it.

But some of the more commonly cited reasons for that growth don't explain the whole story.

The closure of state mental hospitals created a major wave of homelessness throughout America, but that was decades ago.

The depletion of affordable housing is another often-cited factor. Yet some cities, including San Francisco, are making a concentrated effort to move homeless people into housing.

So what else could be contributing to the growth? One area that hasn't been examined adequately is the role of our prison system.

Looking at the facts, it's hard to argue that prisons don't play a major role.

In 2010 alone, California's prison system released more than 125,000 former prisoners into our neighborhoods. Prisoners close to that number are released each and every year. How many local housing programs would it take to offset this annual tidal wave? Not surprisingly, the California Legislative Analyst's Office estimated in 1999 that 30 to 50 percent of parolees in San Francisco and Los Angeles were homeless.

If you think about the obstacles that many prisoners face when they are released, it's not hard to understand why so many end up homeless.

Imagine you're leaving a cell after a relatively short sentence of, say, five to 10 years. Here is the reality you face after you're released:

1. For security reasons, neither you nor anyone who knows you is allowed to know in advance when you'll be released. So it's impossible to make appointments in advance for health care, for job interviews, for housing placement, or for assistance of any kind.

2. You have little money and probably no prospects for income. You get, at most, $200 on release (but even that small amount can be at the discretion of your parole agent). Out of that $200, you must pay for clothes, if you need them, and a bus ticket. You're now down to a small amount of cash, which must cover you for the indefinite future because you are pretty much unemployable. (Too bad if you have contracting skills, since a felon is permanently barred from getting a contractor's license.)

3. You are ineligible for almost all affordable housing. To get publicly subsidized housing, you must be able to pass a "crimcheck" to show you've never been convicted. You'll never pass a crimcheck again in your life. That leaves you the street, a shelter, or trying to bum a night or two on someone's couch.

4. You probably have no relationships left. There's a good chance you haven't seen a friendly face during visiting hours in years. Your girlfriend/boyfriend moved on ages ago. Your parents may have died. Even if your loved ones tried to hang in there, the longer you've been behind bars, the more your relationships have eroded. This erosion is much worse if you are one of the prisoners that California shipped to another state. Who could visit you in Wyoming?

5. You may have health problems, and you have no insurance. Prisoners are older and sicker on release than they used to be. But unless you have HIV or are one of the subset of prisoners whose mental illness was diagnosed in prison, you get no help when you leave -- not even an appointment, not even one day's worth of pills. In fact, you're sent out without even a piece of paper to show what medical conditions developed or care you got in the last decade.

Even if you had been receiving federal disability benefits before prison because of, say, a profound learning impairment, your eligibility was automatically cancelled when you were incarcerated.  You now have to re-apply, without easy access to medical care, as though you had never qualified before.  The process takes months and is extremely complicated. It requires a dedicated, persistent professional working on your behalf, and an address and phone. None of which you have.

6) You probably have no identification. Getting a legal job requires I.D. But when you go to prison, no one lets you go home first and pick up your Social Security card. And by now, your stuff is likely all gone. Your driver's license might have expired while you were behind bars. Proving who you are, without anything that can prove who you are, can be a circular bureaucratic hell. 

7) Even if you have a plan for accomplishing all this, it might disintegrate. Release from prison is a rocky, difficult adjustment for most everyone involved. Perhaps a loved one said you could come stay, and then, as issues of blame and hurt and frustration mounted, you ended up on the street. Or maybe a friend of a friend promised you a job, but when you showed up with tattoos, and without ID, the job fell through. And then your wife got angry and   Well, you can see how easily fragile support systems can disintegrate after release.

When you look at it all together, the way we release prisoners almost seems specifically designed to create homelessness. The people who are incarcerated are already disproportionately likely to come from resource-poor communities, have few job skills, and have diagnoses of learning disabilities and mental illness or both.  It's no wonder that so many end up on our sidewalks.

What do you think? Do you think that the way we release prisoners is a factor in creating homelessness in your area? Do you want to know how many people in your county might be homeless felons? Stay tuned for the next post in the series for actual numbers.


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Doc, you missed one. In general, released prisoners are on parole. They are given a parole officer and *required* to remain in the area they committed their crimes. The exact same area where their previous criminal associates live. Even when an ex-prisoner wants to change their life by going to anew area where they don't know any small-time crooks so they can start over fresh, they aren't allowed to.

In general, the lower class is just fuel for the prison industry. Pick up some teenager in Fremont for peeing in the park and drinking a beer in public and direct him properly, you've got lifetime employment for prison guards and a steady income for the prison industry owners.

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Thoughtful article.  The way we treat prisoners is cruel.  No doubt some are dangerous, but I daresay that most are not.  Most are pot-heads and theives.  And they are not given a chance to live, ever again.  You do a little time for a bad mistake, and your life is over.  And that's just wrong.  But who cares, right?  There but for the grace of God go I, we all figure.  And meanwhile, we tolerate this wickedness.  Bring back the old '60s ideal of rehab, and ease up on the punishment, and we might see crime rates go down.  Aw, who cares.  We all have bigger fish to fry.  And so it goes...

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Thank you for posting this story. It's a crime that in CA we spend a fortune on imprisoning people, a large number of whom have victimless drug-related offenses, yet we do nothing post release. Parole officers should be doing much more than they are, and the Ca Dept of Corrections should be putting up some of its huge budget to support reintegration of former prisoners into society. Instead, prison guards get paid over 100K a year to do a role call and then go home.

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I have been on both sides of this problem.  I am a sober addict who was homeless for years, and I am now a mental health nurse working in a prison.  I cannot speak about every county in the State because they all sentence people differently, but in the Bay Area people DO NOT go to prison for "victimless drug crimes".  I know, I have been convicted of several of them.  The people in prison are the ones who have been offered drug diversion programs several times and have not responded to or participated in the programs offered.  There are also very few "victimless" crimes.  Addicts need to get drugs, and very few work for a living.  Going to prison for stealing a bicycle might not sound appropriate unless you are the victim who relies on that bicycle for your daily commute, or you are a messenger who makes your living riding.  The CDCR does not offer much in the way of aftercare upon release.  Most folks were offered the care prior to incarceration and they failed to make use of it.  That is one of the major issues we have in dealing with addicts.  Very few will change until the consequences of their addiction get really bad.  The fear of incarceration doesnt deter alot of people who are in the grips of the obsession to get high.  Prison Guards only make 100k because they are so short staffed that they are forced to work involuntary OT.  We have the same problem with the nursing staff.  At least once a week I am called on to stay for an additional 8 eight hour shift because we are short staffed.  I dont want the OT.  I want to be home with my family.  There are people that want as much OT as they can get, but most of us would rather go home.

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Every time some homeless guy is interviewed, we learn that he just recently moved here from out of state.  It is clear that we have a huge homeless problem because we are so generous that we attract homeless from the other 49 states.  It boggles the mind that someone with a college education could be thinking that the problem is that we are NOT generous enough.

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I been faulsly accused .. the trail is set for may 4th of 2015... yet for the past yr its been in public records of the accusations. .. and i have been severly discriminated because of it..

It has thrown me into a violent depression that renders me suicidal at times... i can't live amounghst society. .
i have been cast out to survive in the streets..
sincerely valerie mcdermott

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I feel total empathy for the homeless. But some homeless are not victims. They are felons. My friend “Slemmer” is living out of his car. The reason: He stole $$ from his professional high paying job in reading PA. So he sat around and smoked pot all day and got lazy. The felony led to not qualifying for unemployment, which led to him getting evicted from 2 apartments, which led to him living in his car smoking weed. The problem with a felony is no one wants to hire you so you need to get realistic in job searches. You have to restore your career. Suck it up and go to work. Maybe take a job that is beneath you as opposed to sitting around feeling sorry for yourself and getting high. If “Slemmer” took a job to pay his rent that was slightly beneath him, he would not be homeless living in his car asking his friends for $$ .


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