Judge Aaron Persky explained his six-month jail sentence for Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner this way: A longer term “would have a severe impact on him.”
That makes sense. Incarceration disrupts people’s lives. Many of the 637,000 people released from prison each year have little access to high-quality education, job training or substance-abuse treatment. That contributes to recidivism (one study found that more than two-thirds of prisoners will be arrested again within three years) and other problems. Finding work after release is “difficult or nearly impossible” for 76 percent of former prisoners, according to one study. Another found that 30 to 50 percent of those under parole supervision in Los Angeles and San Francisco were homeless.
But how someone handles life after custody has a lot to do with the resources they have. People who are incarcerated stand a much better chance of success if they come from a background of wealth and extensive education and have strong support from family and friends on the outside. In other words, people like Brock Turner suffer much less from jail time than those who were already disadvantaged.
This makes sense. Many prisoners enter with little education. According to the Department of Justice, the proportion of state inmates without a high school diploma or GED is about 40 percent. Fewer than 13 percent had a post-secondary degree, compared with about half of the general population. And prison doesn’t offer many chances to advance. The federal government, which runs the nation’s largest prison system, has cut job training for inmates in half in the last decade. Even a little education can change that — when inmates do get training, a RAND Corp. study found that they have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not.
Many prisoners also return to their community with “limited education, few marketable job skills, no stable housing, chronic health issues, substance abuse needs, and fragile support networks.” Health concerns also can loom large. Medicaid coverage has been expanded under the Affordable Care Act to cover more former prisoners, but 28 percent of ex-convicts with drug-use disorders still lacked health coverage in 2014, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said in a study. The study cited both a shortage of treatment capacity and difficulties the ex-inmates find in trying to navigate the complex medical care when they are preoccupied by finding shelter and employment.
On top of that, many prisoners are burdened on their release with thousands of dollars in unpaid debts, everything from fines to child support to parking tickets. The result for some is moving from life in a prison, where at least their basic needs such as meals are provided, to a “public shelter at the bottom of the pile,” says Malcolm Young, a longtime prisoner advocate running a new re-entry program for federal prisoners.
Many of these problems are mitigated when a prisoner has a college degree, a support network and access to health resources. One Urban Institute study found that the former inmates most likely to be employed eight months after they were released were those who had jobs before they entered prison, worked or had job training while behind bars, were married or who got work with the help of a former employee. Prisoners whose families or friends can help provide them with jobs and other resources may not even need any connections to social service programs to get their lives back in order.
Of course, there are some burdens that affect all prisoners. Young says that former inmates’ important practical concerns are exacerbated by psychological issues caused by being in custody, where they must follow orders by corrections officers for months or years. “We underestimate the impact of incarceration on aspects of people’s personalities that give them the ability to function,” he says. He explains that ex-inmates may “suffer periods of disorientation that cause them to lose some skills and abilities.” Some are baffled by fast-evolving modern technology such as iPhones and debit cards. It may take a released inmate several months to “relearn basic coping skills,” he says.
Norman Brown, who works with Young in counseling former inmates, served 24 years in federal prisons himself before his sentence on a drug charge was commuted last year by President Obama. He says that living in such a “controlled, unnatural” all-male environment makes adjustment to the real world all that more difficult.
It “puts you in a frozen state,” he said.