The biggest problem facing released prisoners

industrialized nations in the world the United States stands nearly alone in regard to the size of its prison population. The fact that the U.S. has a large prison population means that it also must deal with the issue of hundreds of thousands of released prisoners coming back to society after years of incarceration. Most of these individuals find themselves coming back to a situation that is less than welcoming. The majority of these individuals entered prison uneducated and left the same way; they are largely unskilled; lacking the support of their family or friends; and, perhaps most importantly, they must deal with the stigma of having been in prison hanging over heads twenty-four hours a day. The result is a group on individuals who suffer significant social and psychological problems that too often make the transition back into society not only a difficult task, but for many, also an impossible one.

Although the problems surrounding the re-entry of prisoners into society are numerous and variable one of the primary reasons why these individuals face such a difficult future is the fact that the treatment and training / education that they receive while incarcerated is totally inadequate. A great percentage of those entering prison are suffering from either substance abuse or mental illness, yet, the availability of treatment programs is limited and there is little encouragement for those needing treatment to participate. Similarly, due to budget restraints and prison over-crowding, there is little or no attempt at providing prisoners with any form of educational or vocational training. As a great number of the individuals entering prison were marginal members of society when they entered the fact that they leave prisoner no better trained or educated than when they entered makes them even less employable upon their release. The effect of this combination of minimal treatment and non-existent training is that the great majority of released prisoners find themselves being rearrested within months of their release.

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America’s present dilemma regarding its prison population is not a new one. For centuries, or for at least as long as the human treatment of prisoners became an issue, the issue of prisoner rehabilitation or treatment has been an acrimonious issue. The literature on the issue is voluminous and there is no real consensus on how to address the issue but the problem in the U.S. today is unprecedented purely due to the numbers involved. For America’s minorities, the Hispanics and Black, the reality of a young man from such group experiencing some time in either jail or prison is extremely high. For many from these groups the process of arrest, incarceration and release is a continuous one and, unfortunately, the system offers them little hope. The goal for these individuals is to avoid being incarcerated. There is no hope of ever living in society for an extended period of time. Success is measured in how long one avoids incarceration not in establishing oneself in society. The issues surrounding prisoner treatment, conditions of incarceration and release have developed into a national crisis.

How to address this national crisis is the focus of Joan Petersilia’s book entitled, When Prisoners come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration (Petersailia, 2009). In preparing her book, Petersilia relied upon extensive interviews with inmates, former prisoners, and prison officials in an effort to obtain a broad range of views. She used these interviews and her own research to document that the current jail and prison system in the United States is not only failing but is also failing badly. She is highly critical of how the system operates and argues that the system is flawed from top to bottom and must be overhauled in order to effectuate successful change. In the course of her book she offers a number of helpful suggestions. Suggestions that she feels would more properly prepare prisoners for reentry into society and would allow them to become successful members of society. In Petersilia’s view, too much time has been spent on determining how to incarcerate more and more members of society and very little time has been spent on what to do with the incarcerated once they are released. She advocates that this trend must be reversed and that the majority of society’s efforts should be expanded on preparing inmates for their eventual release.

Petersilia does not broach the issue of prisoner reentry into society without providing a long and detailed explanation of the problem. In the first portion of her book she provides one of the most detailed histories of the development of the America prison system available. She details how American prisons evolved from being purely punitive in nature to becoming largely rehabilitative in purpose and then turning back again in the direction of being punitive as law and order became a major political issue in the 1970s and 80s.

In an interesting twist, Petersalia argues strongly that one of the major reasons for the present problems in the American prison system is the heavy reliance on determinate sentencing systems. She argues that the determinate system has removed the incentives for prisoners to improve themselves. Shorter sentences have become the rule and prisoners now known they are going to be released and they no longer have to prove themselves before a parole board. The discretion has been removed and so has the need to demonstrate self-improvement. Petersalia suggests that the old indeterminate system of sentencing needs to be re-evaluated and, possibly, reinitiated along with the increased use of parole boards.

In Petersailia’s view the biggest problem facing released prisoners and the major reason why so many eventually return to the prison population are the barriers that society places in the way of prisoners upon their release. Petersalia spends a great deal of time explaining how these barriers are set up and the profound effect that these barriers have on the released prisoner’s psychic. Released prisoners are essentially barred from most employment and cannot establish housing. The net result is that they are prevented from succeeding in their quest to become productive members of society. Society, in the guise of protecting public safety, treats ex-prisoners as pariahs and, in the process, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The barriers are erected and contribute to what has become the “churning” of America’s prisoner population.

The book also highlights how the present prisoner reentry program downplays the importance of the victim. Again, Petersalia argues that determinate sentencing has played an important, if nonetheless chilling, part in regards to victim’s rights and that this effect should be considered in reviewing the possibility of returning to indeterminate sentencing.

The strength of this book is its historical evaluation of the American prison system and how changes in public policy have affected how the prison system operates. In analyzing how changes in public policy have affected the nation’s prisons and how they have subsequently affected other issues such prisoner reentry, Petersalia has served an important public service. She has opened the eyes of the public toward the problems inherent in the present system and provided correctional officials and politicians issues to consider in order to reform the existing system. Petersalia warns, however, that merely looking at the problems inherent in prisoner reentry will not remedy the situation. This has been attempted before with some minimal, but short lived, changes. The only solution is a radical change in public policy and this can only be accomplished through a radical transformation in public attitudes toward prisoners and the prison system. Petersalia argues that these attitudinal changes are slow to develop but essential if any long-term solutions are to be successful. Petersalia’s book is a first step and, as Petersalia is the first to admit, only a minor step in what is a major undertaking. The American prison system is in a crisis situation but books like Petersalia’s provide a vital service in the effort to address the crisis.


Petersailia, J. (2009). When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration. New York: Oxford University Press.

When Prisoners come Home

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