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Prison’s revolving door

on August 9, 2010

Editor’s Note: This story, video and photos were produced by Robert Rogers and Guilherme Kfouri as part of News21, a national journalism initiative led by 12 of America’s leading research universities, including UC Berkeley.


He was free, again. But Anthony Woods’ days outside the walls would be numbered.

Three months after being imprisoned for missing parole appointments and failing drug tests, a corrections bus scooped him up from San Quentin State Prison and dumped him a few blocks from his mother’s home in Richmond, just off Cutting Boulevard. He looked down as he walked at first, watching one foot step in front of the other. It didn’t take long to slip.

“I remember thinking ‘Don’t look up, just go straight home,’” Woods said. But on the walk from bus stop to mom’s house, he couldn’t elude his long time tormenter: crack cocaine.

“I had a few bucks. It was burning a hole in my pocket,” Woods said. “This is a neighborhood that’s infested.” He shook his head. “I can’t walk two blocks without the opportunity being there.”

Woods has two felonies on his record stemming from an armed robbery in the early 1980s. He’s been on parole ever since. First released in 1986, Woods has been in and out of California prisons at least 17 times according to prison records, mostly for dirty drug tests, missed appointments and “technical violations” of his parole.

Woods is just one of a group – tens of thousands strong – of ex-convicts paroled in California every year. They often face bleak prospects for employment and debilitating drug addictions. About 400 reside in Richmond, a city long plagued by crime.

More than 70 percent of the time, they prove unable to comply with the terms of their parole.

“A lot of our ongoing crime is committed by folks who are recidivists,” said Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus. “Budget cuts for important programs inside prisons mean that inmates land on our streets often worse off than they were when they went in.”

Last year, more than 66,000 paroled felons in California were returned to custody without being convicted of a crime. The violations that land them back in prison include failing drug tests and missed appointments with parole agents.

Woods has been on parole for more than 20 years.

“They go in, they spend on average about two months, they continue to get released, they’re out about an average of four to six months, they’re back in,” said Joan Petersilia, a law professor at Stanford. “Prisoners on the inside refer to this as ‘doing life on the installment plan.’”

The number of parolees returning the streets is on the rise, thanks to the state’s attempt to reduce prison overcrowding. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitiation (CDCR) is working to reduce its population to comply with a ruling last year by a three-judge federal panel, which decided that overcrowding in state prisons contributes to unconstitutional conditions.

State law SB3x18, which took effect in January, released parolees convicted of non-violent crimes from traditional parole supervision. The new law aims to lower the costs of imprisoning and supervising convicts who pose little threat.

As part of the reform, parole agents are handling reduced caseloads while thousands of gang members and other felons have been put on electronic tracking devices as an alternative to incarceration.

“It’s estimated that about 10,000 people who would have gone to prison last year will not go to prison this year,” Petersilia said.

Meanwhile, those who do go to prison continue to face lengthy sentences, Petersilia said.

Before the mid-1970s, prison sentences were indeterminate, Petersilia said, so inmates could be released earlier than their original sentence if they completed vocational or academic classes in addition to good behavior. Now, sentencing reforms have resulted in “determinant” sentences, Petersilia said, which has resulted in inmates receiving guaranteed release dates, despite cuts in rehabilitation programs leaving them ill-prepared to return to society.

Woods, with his robbery convictions from the early 1980s, still qualifies as a two-striker and as a parolee who could pose a threat. Due to his ongoing “technical violations” and misdemeanors like shoplifting, Woods is still on parole more than two decades after his original crimes.

Recidivism has been a major driver of skyrocketing corrections costs, which gobble up about 11 percent of the state budget, or roughly $8 billion — more than the state spends on higher education. The state spends about $49,500 per year to house each prisoner, Petersilia said.

Stanford professor Joan Petersilia, one of the state's foremost experts on parole.

More than seven in 10 parolees return to prison within three years in California, the nation’s worst rate, according to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office.

“A major part of what determines whether a parolee will be successful or not is employment,” said Theodore Pacheco, a parole agent who has worked specifically with Woods’ case. “We show them the vocational, educational and drug treatment opportunities available to them when they get out.”

Woods says he has no special skills and hasn’t held a steady job since he worked as a grocery clerk in the late 1990s. His lengthy criminal record scares off potential employers, he said.

In July, Pacheco remanded Woods to custody barely a month after his release, claiming that he had missed several appointments and tested positive for drugs. Woods spent more than two weeks in custody, including a trip back to San Quentin State Prison for just a few days, where he said he went through a familiar battery of intake processes.

Stories like Woods’ are a big part of California’s corrections crisis, said Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice. “We’re just recycling people over and over and over through this system,” Krisberg said. “And a lot of them for fairly minor offenses, who continue to have drug problems or whatever, and we lock them up for 90 days, which costs a lot of money and does not advance public safety.”

According to CDCR records, of 84,882 paroled felons who were returned to prison last year, 66,261 were returned for violating conditions of their parole, not for committing new crimes.

“This makes no sense,” Petersilia said. “Unfortunately we don’t have the political will to change it because there will be a parolee … now out on parole and they’ll miss an appointment or test positive and we won’t send them back to prison and they’ll murder someone.”

The California Rehabilitation Oversight Board (C-ROB) issued a report in March warning that cuts to already stripped-down educational and vocational programs in state prisons jeopardize efforts to reduce prison populations. “The recent budget cut to inmate programming may well mean that the hope for reduction in recidivism will not be achieved any time soon. Without some reduction in the parole return rate it seems likely that California will be unable to get control of the inmate population crisis,” the report read.

Woods supports his habit by doing odd jobs around the community.

Recidivism wasn’t always an intractable problem. In 1980, only about one of four parolees ended up back in prison, a ratio that has more than doubled. A 2003 report from the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, brought California corrections’ recidivism problem to the fore when it showed that most parolees were returned to prison for technical violations, memorably calling the system a “billion-dollar failure.”

Back in Richmond, Woods has little hope that any reform may affect him. He said he is resigned to a life of cycling in and out of prison. The reason? He has no illusions about ceasing his use of crack cocaine.

“I don’t see how I’ll ever quit,” he said, rolling a small, glass crack pipe between his thumb and forefinger, adding that he wishes he could stop.

Moments later, he’s ambling off to a liquor store on the corner near his mother’s home. Within minutes, he scores $8 worth of crack cocaine – a small bag with two BB-sized rocks pressed into a handshake – some of which he quickly loads into his pipe.

He takes refuge in a nearby park. He squats behind some weathered bleachers, which shelter him from a mild breeze.

He reasons that because he smoked crack on the day of his release, he would already “test dirty” if required by parole to submit urine. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said, lowering the glass pipe into the orange flame of his cigarette lighter. “If they want to send me back, what can I do?”

This story originally published on UC Berkeley’s News21 site.


  1. Norma Harrison on August 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Good. Except we cannot cure this problem in the capitalist system, which creates it.

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