Half these dudes dropped out of junior high,” he said, pointing to several friends standing with him sipping from plastic foam cups of “Purple Drank,” a brain-battering draft of prescription-strength codeine cough syrup cut with soda. “Some of them dropped out of elementary school. All they got is this hustle. They got no backup.”
Out of Prison, Back to Houston
Houston Prison Releases
HOUSTON — Corey Taylor, a convicted drug dealer, recently got out of prison and moved into his grandmother’s house in Sunnyside, a south central Houston neighborhood of small, tidy yards.
During his first days home, Mr. Taylor, 26, got a sharp reminder of the neighborhood’s chronic problems.
“Out of 10 of my partners, only one is doing anything different,” he said, referring to his former drug-dealing companions. “I have some friends I haven’t seen for 10 years because either I was locked up or they were locked up.”
Last year, 32,585 prisoners were released on state parole in Texas, and many of them returned to neighborhoods where they live among thousands of other parolees and probationers.
Sunnyside is one of 10 neighborhoods in Houston that together accounted for 15 percent of the city’s population, yet received half of the 6,283 prisoners released in Houston in 2005, according to the Justice Mapping Center, a criminal justice research group.
The group, which is based in Brooklyn, has done work for the Texas Legislature that helped lead to a $217 million expansion of rehabilitation services.
Neighborhoods like Sunnyside can be found in virtually every big city in the nation. Even as violent crime statistics trend downward, incarceration rates throughout the country remain at a historic high of 750 per 100,000 residents. Each year about 650,000 prisoners are released on parole, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Mapping studies in neighborhoods as distant as the Phoenix suburb of South Mountain and the Newhallville area of New Haven show incarceration rates far higher than the national rate.
The parolees are almost always coming back to areas where support systems, like schools and public assistance programs, receive less money and attention than incarceration does, the studies show. In an effort to break the cycle, Texas this fall began its expansion of services for former inmates, including job training classes, drug treatment programs and psychological counseling.
The approach, based in part on legislative presentations by the Justice Mapping Center, is a sharp departure from the state’s longtime criminal justice focus on retribution.
The shift is intended to save the state money by slowing the revolving door between state prisons and neighborhoods like Sunnyside. The parolees released last year cost the state $100 million over the course of their prison terms; the 85 who returned to Sunnyside, population 21,000, accounted for almost $8 million of that, according to data by the mapping group.
“It’s not uncommon for children of criminal justice system clients to themselves go into the criminal justice system,” said State Senator John H. Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
“Certain lower socioeconomic areas produce clients for the criminal justice system in a way that is analogous to the way that the welfare system created a cycle of first- and second- and third-generation welfare recipients.”
Despite declining crime and lower arrest rates, Texas’s adult prison expenditures have grown to $2.8 billion a year, tripled since 1990. Decades of tough-on-crime legislation and low parole rates have quadrupled the state prison population since 1985.
The prisons are about 4,000 inmates beyond their legal capacity, according to prison officials.
A variety of groups, including the Council of State Governments and the Open Society Institute, are investigating the economic cost of communities with high rates of prison admissions and releases and the effectiveness of incarceration policies.
Eric Cadora, a founder of the Justice Mapping Center, said high incarceration rates hinder government efforts to turn around troubled neighborhoods by taking people out of the work force, compelling families to rely on government assistance and scaring away investment.
The Fifth Ward, an east Houston neighborhood, has one of the city’s highest concentrations of former prisoners. At least 125 state parolees resettled in the neighborhood in 2006, according to the mapping studies. Their prison terms cost Texas $9 million.
Mark Wright, 31, stood outside a house in the Fifth Ward recently selling drugs just weeks after completing a prison term for drug possession. Altogether, Mr. Wright said he had served 10 years for four drug-related convictions and one parole violation.
“I was bred into this life,” said Mr. Wright, who said he still made his living selling drugs. “It’s survival of the fittest out here.”
Mr. Wright said that “damn near 99 percent” of his friends had served prison terms, mostly for drug possession, including his younger brother, who is currently in prison.
“Half these dudes dropped out of junior high,” he said, pointing to several friends standing with him sipping from plastic foam cups of “Purple Drank,” a brain-battering draft of prescription-strength codeine cough syrup cut with soda. “Some of them dropped out of elementary school. All they got is this hustle. They got no backup.”
In east Houston, another of the city’s troubled neighborhoods, Marilyn Gambrell, the founder of No More Victims Inc., a support group for students at M. B. Smiley High School with incarcerated parents, said that more than half of the 1,250 students there have relatives in prison or who have done time in the past. Ms. Gambrell is a former parole officer who supervised many of the parents.
Each day, several dozen of the teenagers gather in a carpeted classroom with plush sofas and cushioned chairs to talk about what it is like to have a family member in jail or prison.
During a recent discussion, drugs, violence and poverty were running themes. One boy said he had accompanied his stepfather on drug runs, and most of the students said they themselves had already had run-ins with the police.
Tangenea Miller, 20, is considered a graduate of the support group. She works as a corrections officer at a Houston lock-up. “I see a lot of people there from my old neighborhood,” Ms. Miller said.
The situations described in the high school sessions were front and center one recent day in the Houston neighborhood of Kashmere Gardens. Weeds curled out of broken windows and open doorways in abandoned homes. Mounds of trash sat in empty lots flooded with stagnant water.
Young men, most of them unemployed, stood in front of shotgun houses sipping Purple Drank. Others dealt dope in front of strip-malls and on side streets in broad daylight. The Justice Mapping Center estimates that Texas taxpayers spent $10 million to incarcerate the 117 state prison inmates who were paroled to Kashmere Gardens last year.
Al Jarreau Davis, 26, was released back to Kashmere Gardens five months ago after serving less than a year in state jail for drug possession. It was his second jail term. Mr. Davis and his older brother, Bay Davis, also a recently released drug offender, support themselves by selling marijuana and crack cocaine.
A third Davis brother was shot to death a year ago during an argument after a traffic accident.
“There ain’t no jobs out here for someone like me,” said Al Jarreau Davis. Both brothers said they fully expected to be arrested again, or worse.
“I’m probably going to stay out on the street until somebody murders me,” said Bay Davis, matter-of-factly.
And new parolees keep coming. Every few weeks, several dozen inmates assemble in the chapel of the state prison in Huntsville on the eve of their release for a two-hour orientation program by Christian outreach workers. The prisoners are offered phone lists of clinics, churches, shelters and drug treatment programs. Then they file out of the chapel and back to their cells for one more night of restless confinement.
It is a shoestring program and most inmates do not participate, said the Rev. Emmett Solomon, a prison minister who leads the classes. “Most of what they get to prepare them for their release, they get right here,” Mr. Solomon said. “But it’s probably too little, too late.”
Mr. Taylor, the Sunnyside drug dealer, was in a recent class. He left for the bus station the next morning, with about 40 other men, wearing tattered, unfashionable donated clothes and carrying their possessions in mesh bags.
As Mr. Taylor got off the bus in Houston later in the afternoon, a passing stranger who called himself Ice welcomed him home.
“Hey man, I know how it is,” he told Mr. Taylor. “I just got out, too.”