On Monday, the last of 6,112 federal drug-trafficking offenders whose sentences were cut short last year by the United States Sentencing Commission were released from prison.
It's a controversial move in a country where tough-on-crime attitudes have dominated public discourse for decades. But the released offenders represent a small portion of the approximately 93,000 inmates in federal prison for drug-related charges, of whom 46,000 could eventually qualify for early release under the new guidelines. Of that 46,000, Time reports that 43.1% are Hispanic, 31.2% are black and nearly a quarter are non-citizens. Most are from the American South.
No hardship will compare to the years and decades that the ex-prisoners have spent in the federal prison system, which is starved for resources and often violent. But as these former inmates return to their communities, many will face a second round of punishment that prevents them from finding jobs, suitable housing or normal lives outside the revolving door that is the prison system.
Approximately 67.8% of state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Within five years, that total had risen to 76.6%. Among former drug offenders, that number was a bit higher, at 76.9%.
These are not good odds for prisoners re-entering society, and there's little hope that the former inmates released last week will be better equipped to break the cycle.
"There's no reason that it is going to be substantially different for this group of people," Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told Mic.
"While 6,000 is a lot of people coming home, for context, every year there are 600,000 people who get out of state or federal prison who come back to our communities," Mauer said. "That is the system of mass incarceration. On average, these people would have served 10 and a half years in prison. Now they're getting out at about eight and a half years on average."
"It's a drop in the bucket," he said.
Mauer said that many of the inmates being released go to halfway houses whose employment services offer opportunities for menial work, but few programs to help former inmates develop new skills and ease their transition easily back into society.
The situation was not always quite so dire, according to Mauer. As part of a 1994 crime bill, Congress eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners wishing to obtain college degrees while behind bars, essentially depriving them of educational resources. A Rand Corp. study in 2013 that inmates who pursue education in prison have a 43% less chance of getting in legal trouble again than those who do not. (Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced plans for a pilot program to allow some prisoners to receive Pell Grants.)
Over the past three decades, the U.S. prison population more than doubled. In 1990, 715,000 people were locked up in state and federal prisons. By 2014, that number had exploded to more than 1.5 million. According to ThinkProgress, some estimates that include county and local jail populations put the number of Americans locked up on any given day at over 2.4 million individuals.
According to a 2015 Pew Charitable Trust report, the federal prison system grew from just 24,000 inmates in 1980 to over 215,000 in 2013, with the average time served skyrocketing from about 16 months to slightly over 40. In 1994, drug offenders made up 61% of all new inmates.
Prison consultant Michael Santos, a former inmate in 19 different federal lockups who now coaches those entering prison for the first time, told Mic that "the world has changed" for many of the inmates now being released.
"The world is now technologically based and people who have been in that long will not have had any experience with that," Santos says. "They will not have had a smartphone. They will not have applied for a job online. They may not have sent an email."
"They're going to face some significant challenges finding housing, employment ... finding meaningful careers," he added. "There may be some who took advantage of opportunities to educate themselves and build a support network but historically that's not a majority of people."
"Returning citizens face considerable stigma and stereotypes, though the strength of these factors is hard to measure," Lindsay Phillips, a psychology professor at Albright College who researches the perception ex-inmates face in workplace and community settings, told Mic via email.
Phillips stressed that many "returning citizens" face significant challenges like drug addiction and untreated mental illness that could complicate their re-entry, as well as a depressing array of other practical barriers, such as "obtaining identification and finding transportation to jobs and appointments." While those who have social support networks in their communities tend to do better, Phillips wrote, her research indicates that even members of the public who say "society should do more to assist these populations" tend to view ex-convicts negatively.
For most inmates, their personal networks are the extent of the support they receive. Santos described the $200 newly freed California state inmates receive upon leaving prison as generous, compared to the resources available to the majority of returning citizens.
California lawyer and Prisoner Reentry Network founder Jared Rudolph told the Guardian that the crucial weeks and months following prison release act as a "bottleneck of poverty" that ends up destroying some ex-inmates' chances.
"Guys don't get birth certificates for months, face huge delays for driver's licenses," Rudolph told the paper. "They go into Social Security offices and hear, 'No, man, you're dead, you don't exist. I don't know who you say you are but you're not in the computer.'"
Finally, deliberate efforts to keep ex-convicts disenfranchised from their communities further stack the odds against them. The Guardian reported in 2012 that 5.85 million people with criminal records were barred from voting on the basis of their criminal records, including in 11 predominantly Southern and Southwestern states that "deny voting rights to some or all of the 'ex-felons' who have paid the price of their crimes in full, successfully passing through prison, parole and probation."
According to Sean McElwee, a researcher who studies voting rights at the progressive think tank Demos, some studies suggest up to 2.5% of the population is unable to vote thanks to such laws. McElwee told Mic that these laws not only encourage recidivism, but also help ensure policies that disadvantage ex-prisoners stay in place.
"First, studies suggest that rights restoration decreases recidivism rates, by allowing returning citizens to fully participate in society," McElwee wrote in an email. "Second, because numerous studies show that turnout is correlated with government transfers and responsiveness, voting rights restoration would force politicians to respond to returning citizens. In the status quo, disenfranchisement encourages politicians to reduce spending on poor communities and communities of color."
Ultimately, advocates for the prisoners say, times may be changing — but the damage is done for the vast majority of those who have been already incarcerated.
"We send far too many people to prison in the first place," Mauer said. "In too many cases, it's counterproductive. People would be better supervised in the community and wouldn't suffer the negative consequences of incarceration."
"These people who are getting out, they went in in a different era," Santos said.
He paused. "No one cared about their lives after release."