California taxpayers foot the bill for one of the largest prison systems in the world.
The annual cost of incarcerating an inmate in 2010-11 was $48,895 and in 2012, it is estimated to rise to $55,527. The Department of Finance estimates that the average cost of parole supervision for 2011-12 was $7,616. But that is just the tip-of-the-iceberg in terms of the costs to entire communities in Oakland.
The cycling of mostly men of color through the California prison system and onto the streets of Oakland is a revolving door that impacts many families by having a brother, father, son or mother that has spent time in prison. In March 2012, there were 14,313 adults under supervision of the Probation Department in Alameda County and almost 70 percent of those were African American or Latino men.
“The imprisonment of men of color from disadvantaged places has grown to such a point that it affects families and children, institutions and business, social groups and interpersonal relationships,” says sociologist Todd Clear in his book, ‘Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse.’ Imprisonment has grown to the point that it produces the very social problems on which it feeds.”
Parts of East and West Oakland that are most impacted by poverty, crime and chronic health problems are the same communities that absorb the majority of the formerly incarcerated. And that population returns with few resources: they are barred from receiving some types of government assistance like food stamps; they often cannot benefit from public housing; they are denied student loans and they cannot vote. They have just spent, on average, one to three years in an extremely controlled environment that often fosters aggression, isolation and emotional withdrawal, to name just a few of the psychological impacts of incarceration.
The formerly incarcerated often need support with housing and employment upon re-entry. The unemployment rate in Alameda County is hovering a little below 11 percent, but according to Louis King at the Private Industry Council, that rate is closer to 60-70 percent for the formerly incarcerated, many of who have never had steady employment. These challenges often become insurmountable obstacles leading to the revolving door back to crime and prison.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 65.1 percent of inmates returned to prison within the first three years after being released during 2006-07. For those who had served time twice, a staggering 76.4 percent return to prison within three years. Alameda County’s three-year recidivism rate is lower than the state average at 62.9 percent, but these numbers indicate a massive failure of “rehabilitation.” Kevin Grant, the Violence Prevention Network Coordinator for Measure Y said, “If almost seven out of 10 vehicles had to return to the shop because they were not fixed, that place would be shut down.”
In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison overcrowding in California violated protections against cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce the inmate population by 35,000-40,000 by 2013. In 2011, the legislature passed The Public Safety Realignment Act to reduce the prison population and to lessen the number of low-level inmates cycling in and out of state prisons. Under realignment, most offenders convicted of non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual offenses will serve time in county jail rather than state prison and parole violators will no longer be returned to prison for violations.
But the intention of realignment is not just to reduce the California’s prison population. Even prior to the latest budget crisis, California was having problems managing the costs of massive incarceration. Not only will it be more cost effective to have local governments manage offenders, but also counties have the potential of doing a much better job of reducing recidivism and creating community based alternatives to incarceration.
If realignment is going to work, Alameda County will have to do something different to break the vicious cycle of crime and imprisonment and release and return that destabilizes many Oakland communities. Whether it will be increasing the use of diversion, expanding restorative justice, increasing drug treatment, adding more housing and job support or focusing more on the family as an ingredient in re-entry, realignment presents an opportunity to address what creates and sustains crime and criminality.
This series will put a face on the formerly incarcerated, examine the obstacles they face upon re-entry and bring the impacts on their families and children into the limelight while looking at the opportunities and challenges that realignment presents.