When They Get Out

How prisons, established to fight crime, produce crime.

Jean-Michel Turpin / Getty
Editor’s Note: We’ve gathered dozens of the most important pieces from our archives on race and racism in America. Find the collection here.

Popular perceptions about crime have blurred the boundaries between fact and politically expedient myth. The myth is that the United States is besieged, on a scale never before encountered, by a pathologically criminal underclass. The fact is that we're not. After spiraling upward during the drug wars, murder rates began falling in the mid-1990s; they are lower today than they were more than twenty years ago. In some cities the murder rate in the late twentieth century is actually lower than it was in the nineteenth century. Nonviolent property-crime rates are in general lower in the United States today than in Great Britain, and are comparable to those in many European countries.

Robert Scully grew up near San Diego, in the affluent town of Ocean Beach. From a very early age he used drugs, and before he was a teenager, he had been on the streets and then in juvenile facilities run by the California Youth Authority. From heroin use and dealing he moved to robbery; by the time he was twenty-two, in the early 1980s, he was in San Quentin. In prison Scully degenerated, eventually using a contraband hacksaw blade to escape from his cell and attacking another inmate with a homemade knife.Nevertheless, horror stories have led to calls for longer prison sentences, for the abolition of parole, and for the increasingly punitive treatment of prisoners. The politics of opinion-poll populism has encouraged elected and corrections officials to build isolation units, put more prisons on "lockdown" status (in which prisoners are kept in their cells about twenty-three hours a day), abolish grants that allowed prisoners to study toward diplomas and degrees, and generally make life inside as miserable as possible. Marc Mauer, the assistant director of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., says, "Fifty years ago rehabilitation was a primary goal of the system." Nowadays it's not. "The situation we're in now is completely unprecedented," Mauer says. "The number going through the system dwarfs that in any other period in U.S. history and virtually in any other country as well." In 1986, according to figures published in the Survey of State Prison Inmates (1991), 175,662 people were serving sentences of more than ten years; five years later 306,006 were serving such sentences. People haven't become more antisocial; their infractions and bad habits are just being punished more ruthlessly. Crime, however, is a complex issue, and responses to it that might instinctively seem sensible, or simply satisfying, may prove deeply counterproductive. Locking ever more people away will in the long run increase the number of Robert Scullys in our midst.

At about the same time, California began opening what it called maximum-security facilities—dumping grounds for troublesome inmates. Scully wound up in solitary confinement in a prison named Corcoran. The guards there, as recently reported in the Los Angeles Times, are alleged to have taken it upon themselves to organize gladiatorial combat among prisoners in the exercise yard; they would sometimes break up the battles by shooting into crowds of prisoners. Scully was shot twice. He was placed in a "security housing unit" cell, where for close to twenty-three hours a day he was deprived of all human interaction. In 1990, soon after the "supermax" prison at Pelican Bay had opened in the redwood forests northeast of the old Victorian timber town of Crescent City, Scully was moved again, into a tiny bare cell with a perforated sheet-metal door and a hatch through which his food was served. In the supermax even exercise was solitary. He stayed there four years. At the time of his release, in 1994, he had spent the previous nine years in isolation. A month later he was arrested for violating parole by consorting with an armed acquaintance, and went straight back to Pelican Bay.

Scully re-emerged on March 24, 1995, by now a human time bomb. He was picked up by Brenda Moore, the girlfriend of a fellow inmate, and they began driving south, along Highway 101, toward San Diego, where Scully was supposed to check in with his parole officer. They never made it. Five days later they arrived in Sebastopol, a town an hour north of San Francisco. There, late at night, they loitered around a restaurant until the owner, fearing a robbery, called the police. The pair drove off to a nearby parking lot. Soon after, as they sat in their truck, Deputy Sheriff Frank Trejo, a middle-aged grandfather looking forward to his retirement, pulled into the lot.

Trejo asked to see the woman's license, and as she fumbled for it, according to investigators, he suddenly found a sawed-off shotgun pointing at his face. He was made to back up until he was between the two vehicles and get on his knees, and Scully shot him in the forehead. Scully and Moore ran across a field, broke into a house, and took a family hostage. The next afternoon, with police surrounding the area, Scully negotiated his surrender.

Robert Scully evolved into a murderer while housed in Pelican Bay. There he experienced some of the harshest confinement conditions known in the democratic world. Highly disturbed to start with, he was kept in a sensory-deprivation box for years on end. Psychologists and psychiatrists called in by his defense team believe that he simply lost the ability to think through the consequences of his actions. He became a creature of brutal and obsessive impulse. At Scully's trial Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has spent much of his career studying the effects of isolation on prisoners, and who has testified in class-action lawsuits against departments of corrections across the country, argued that sensory deprivation and social isolation had caused Scully to regress until he was a violent animal capable only of acting on instinct, with no ability to plan beyond the moment. His incarceration had created what Grassian termed "a tremendous tunnel vision." Pelican Bay Chief Deputy Warden Joe McGrath estimates that every month thirty-five inmates are, like Scully, released from isolation directly back into the community.

Since 1985 America's prison population, not counting the more than half a million people in jails at any one time, has increased by about six or seven percent yearly. Truth-in-sentencing laws mandate that many prisoners serve 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole; all the same, figures over the past decade indicate that on average more than 40 percent of prison inmates are released in any given year. Assuming that these statistical relationships remain constant, we can make certain predictions. In 1995 a total of 463,284 inmates were released. To use a worst-case scenario, some 660,000 will be released in 2000, some 887,000 in 2005, and about 1.2 million in 2010. Even factoring in lower release rates because of three-strikes laws and truth in sentencing, and even taking into account estimates that 60 percent of prisoners have been in prison before, there will still be somewhere around 3.5 million first-time releases between now and 2010, and America by then will still be releasing from half a million to a million people from its prisons each year (not to mention hundreds of thousands more from short stints in jail). That is an awful lot of potential rage coming out of prison to haunt our future.

ON a gray morning in September, with the tropical storm Frances hovering over the Gulf Coast, I rode with Larry Fitzgerald, the sixty-year-old public-relations officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, to a parking lot deep inside the Estelle Unit of the Huntsville complex, seventy miles north of Houston. Surrounding the car was a landscape of rolled razor-wire fences, surveillance cameras, bleak watchtowers, and gray concrete buildings. Fitzgerald told me that he was tired; the previous evening he had attended an execution, his sixtieth in the five years he had been with the department. We got out of the car and flashed our IDs at the camera. A series of heavy electronically operated doors clicked open, one after another. We went through one, and it closed behind us before a second opened. We entered a sterile hallway lit by fluorescent ceiling lights, the air smelling the way one would expect it to smell in a place where the outside had been utterly banished. There the warden and several hefty corrections officers met us, and we proceeded into the bowels of the prison, away from outdoor light, away from outdoor sounds, deep into the computer-controlled hidden hell at the heart of America's burgeoning incarceration establishment.

There are up to 660 men living in isolation behind the metallic-blue and Plexiglas doors of the Estelle Unit's "administrative segregation" cells, the high-security facility at Huntsville that opened in August of 1997. (Texas is currently developing five more "supermax" units that will eventually hold more than 3,000 people.) Depending on their status—there are three levels—the men get from three to seven hours of exercise a week, and from two to eight hours of visits a month. The rest of the time they remain in their cells. "The security here," Fitzgerald told me with satisfaction, "is better than Alcatraz. Alcatraz didn't have the electronic things we have now. The art of incarceration has definitely improved." The inmates, disciplinary cases from the broader prison system, are men removed not just from the outside society but from the rest of Texas's 140,000-plus prisoners, as close to being vanished spirits as any resident of a medieval dungeon. On them is being performed one of the most astounding social experiments in America's history: isolated for about twenty-three hours a day in bathroom-sized quarters, fed through hatches in their doors, provided with virtually no sensory stimuli for months or years on end, deprived of full meals as punishment for breaking rules, made to dress in paper gowns if they dare to rip up their uniforms, many quite simply seem to go insane. While I was touring the unit, a desperate prisoner "self-mutilated," slashing at the veins in his hands until his blood spurted over the walls, the floor, and the steel seat of the cell he was in, like a peculiarly vivid Jackson Pollock painting.

The inmates are often tormented by headaches. Many quite clearly can no longer focus their thoughts on anything. Some weep; others obsess; the more resilient, like David Prater, a twenty-six-year-old lifer who has a degree in finance from the University of Texas, read as much and as often as possible to while away the days. But they are a minority. The average IQ of a Texas prison inmate is 92, and many do not even know how to read. From what I could tell, many of those guarding them aren't much smarter. As prisoners from the nearby low-security unit mopped up the blood from the cutting, guards made jokes about the "mutilator."An officer with the rank of captain assured me that all the inmates were psychologically assessed when they came into Estelle, that if they were mad they would be at the psychiatric unit upstate, and that since they were here, ipso facto, they weren't mad. As he completed this logical circle, the entire "Level 3" unit behind us was rent by the howls and screams of the close-to-naked inmates. It was a hideous sound that would have been familiar in the lunatic asylums of bygone centuries. For the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who explored the histories and social functions of both the asylum and the prison in Western culture, the similarity would probably have illuminated his notion that both institutions function at least in part to reassure the outside population of its "normality" in contrast to the horror caged within.

WILLIAM Sabol, a researcher at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, has recently begun studying imprisonment and release statistics for ninety metropolitan areas. Over the next few years he will focus on releases in Baltimore, a city with a very high incarceration rate, exploring the effects of release on different communities. For Sabol, the biggest concern is not that already devastated inner cities will be further damaged but that certain struggling blue-collar areas and middle-class black districts, of whose young men large numbers have been imprisoned during the war on drugs, will be unable to reabsorb the ex-cons while retaining their civic character. "When these men return," Sabol explains, "they're less likely to get jobs and there's a higher likelihood of disruption of the family. What we're interested in is will it tip the scales against those neighborhoods that are marginal?" Faced with a growing population of ex-felons, people with resources will probably flee these communities, thereby expanding the areas of devastation.

Since fewer than 10 percent of prisoners are sentenced to life, we can expect that more than 90 percent of prisoners will be released. Releasing over several decades millions of people who either never acquired job skills or lost their skills in prison, and who will face employers' suspicion, is almost guaranteed to produce localized but considerable economic problems. Currently, among black men aged twenty-five to thirty-four with less than a high school education, the jobless rate is around 50 percent. If those in prison and jail are included, the figure rises above 60 percent. If incarceration rates ever start to drop, and fewer people are entering prison than are being released, then according to the most basic principles of supply and demand, wage levels in areas already suffering chronically high levels of unemployment will plummet as the competition for scarce jobs increases.

The sociologists Bruce Western, of Princeton University, and Katherine Beckett, of Indiana University, are convinced that the economic problems of mass release actually run much deeper. In January of this year they published a paper titled "How Unregulated Is the U.S. Labor Market? The Penal System as a Labor Market Institution," in which they argued that one of the reasons America's unemployment statistics look so good in comparison with those of other industrial democracies is that 1.6 million mainly low-skilled workers—precisely the group least likely to find work in a high-tech economy—have been incarcerated, and are thus not considered part of the labor force. Rendering such a large group of people invisible, the authors claimed, creates a numerical mirage in which unemployment statistics are as much as two percent below the real unemployment level, and which has been made possible only by what Beckett terms an American "intervention in the economy [the growth of the prison system] comparable financially to Western Europe's unemployment benefit and welfare programs." If mass imprisonment is what the urban scholar Mike Davis, in his book Ecology of Fear, terms "carceral Keynesianism"—using prison building and maintenance as an enormous public-works program to shore up an economy in which blue-collar jobs have been exported to the Third World—then mass release may well prove its undoing.

Eddie Ellis, a onetime Black Panther who was recently released after serving out a twenty-five-year sentence for murder, believes that the cities are sitting on volcanoes. Now a full-time organizer in the Harlem-based Community Justice Center, Ellis told me when we met that starting around the year 2005, New York is going to see the release of wave after wave of inmates, at the rate of about 30,000 a year, who were incarcerated after 1990. "That's when they began phasing out the programs [education in prison, vocational training, and the like]. By 1994 to 1995 they no longer existed. These are the people we're talking about coming out in such a horrendous condition. The next wave that comes out, we're looking at a serious influx of people into a few communities that not only will devastate these communities but will have a larger consequence for the whole city." The welfare reforms of 1996 drastically curtailed felons' access to welfare money, and specifically barred addicts from access to Medicaid and many drug-rehabilitation programs. Ellis predicts rising epidemics, as ex-prisoners without work or Medicaid spread TB, HIV, and hepatitis.

To complete a grim picture, wholesale incarceration decimates voter rolls. In all but four states prisoners convicted of felonies lose the right to vote. In more than thirty states they can reapply only when they're off parole. Those who find work while on parole will—like much of the black population of the pre-civil-rights South—be paying taxes into a political system in which they have no say. In California alone close to a quarter of a million people are disenfranchised by such laws.

The situation is even worse in twelve states—almost half of them southern—where a felony can result in disenfranchisement for life. The history of these disenfranchisement laws can be traced straight back to the post-Civil War South; because of the disproportionate number of black men in prison today, the laws continue to affect not just individuals but the aspirations and political influence of entire communities. In a study released last October, the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group based in New York, reported that throughout the country two percent of adults, or approximately four million people, are disenfranchised; within the black male community the figure is 13 percent, or 1.4 million men. In seven states—Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming—fully a quarter of all black men are permanently ineligible to vote. In Florida alone 204,600 black men, and in Texas 156,600 black men, have lost the vote.

The political implications for the next century are troubling. Already the inner cities, where on average more than a quarter of young black men are disenfranchised, have seen their power as voting blocs shrivel. And since today's young are tomorrow's old, the problem can only get worse. In 1997 the Justice Department estimated that 29 percent of black males born in 1991 would spend some time in prison. Only four percent of white males would do so. In some cities in the states in which convicted felons are permanently disenfranchised, as older, pre-prison-boom blacks die out, the proportion of black men of all ages who lack the right to vote will rise to about one third by 2020. In certain parts of some southern cities—Houston, Memphis, Miami, and New Orleans, for example—it may be as many as half. Conceivably, an overwhelmingly black town could have an electoral register dominated by a white minority.

Quite simply, mass incarceration followed by mass release into subcitizenship will undermine the great democratic achievements of the past half century. In effect, even if not in intent, after the brief interregnum of the civil-rights years the South, with the rest of the country in tow, is once again moving toward excluding huge numbers of African-Americans from the political process. Marc Mauer, of the Sentencing Project, says, "It's a wonder there's any black representation at all, given the numbers."

RECENTLY I met several ex-prisoners in New York City who were putting their lives back together under the auspices of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that runs one of the country's most successful and intensive post-release programs. Some of the people I met had done terrible things; others had merely taken foolish wrong turns. Regardless, talking with them gave each one a human face. It helped me to understand that most of these ex-cons are damaged people with hopes and fears and dreams that perhaps can be coaxed out of them in a nurturing environment like Fortune's.

The most extraordinary of the people I met was a thirty-nine-year-old named Edmond Taylor, who had served a total of eighteen years in a variety of New York's toughest prisons for crimes ranging from drug dealing to violent assault. Out of prison for the past couple of years, Taylor has dedicated himself to change; he works full time as a counselor, helping other prisoners to adjust to life on the outside, and he is regarded by Fortune's executive director, JoAnne Page, as one of her great success stories. Taylor came to meet me straight from counseling a distraught woman who'd been told at a job interview that the company wouldn't hire her because she had a felony conviction. He said, "If I can save just one person a year, I'm happy."

A highly articulate man, more capable than most of understanding what led him into violence and helped to destroy half his life, Taylor explained that he had spent nearly four years in "the box"—some of that time in Clinton Dannemora prison, near the Canadian border, for being what he described as "a vocal critic" of conditions within the prison. Describing his reaction to being released from isolation back into the general prison population, he said, "First there's fear, then there's anger, and the anger takes over. It's violent anger. Very quick. No thought of the magnitude of the consequence of the violence. An individual bumped me, rushing to get to the gym. And I rushed up behind him and hit him with a pipe. He went into a coma." Taylor went straight back into the box. I asked how long it had taken him to recover from isolation. He looked surprised by the question, and said, "Honestly, I've still not recovered. I've been out of isolation five and a half years. Ms. Page is my boss. If she was to confront me when I had a lot on my mind, anger would come up before rational thought. Anger. Strike back. Now it's not so much physical as verbal. In another situation it would cause me to lose my job." Then Taylor told me a shameful secret. Shortly after he got out of prison, he was living with his brother. His brother criticized him for some of the attitudes he'd brought out of prison with him. "I felt fed up, and I attacked him," Taylor said. "I grabbed him, choked him, lifted him off his feet, threw him to the ground. I pummeled him, causing him to get several stitches above the eye. I grabbed a kitchen knife—I don't remember any of this; he told me afterward—and put it to his neck and said, 'I should kill you. I hate you.' The realization that I put my hands on my baby brother—the only person at that time who'd ever been in my corner..."

Edmond Taylor sees a future of violent chaos, with a large, uneducated army of enraged ex-cons flooding the streets of the inner cities. JoAnne Page adds, "There's an issue of critical mass. As you lock up a higher percentage of young men in a community, what happens when these guys come out, in terms of role models, crime, the safety of the community? Prisons breed global rage. People come out loaded with so much anger that they're ready to blow up at a touch." She worries that many of them, lacking jobs upon release and having no access to state support, will resort to stealing just to eat. Many will also end up homeless, with their best chance of finding shelter being to commit crimes and return to jail or prison. The Correctional Association of New York estimates that on any given day 3,800 homeless people are in prison at Rikers Island and in other New York City jails.

Without making contingency plans for it—without even realizing it—we are creating a disaster that instead of dissipating over time will accumulate with the years.