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California Is Letting Thousands of Prisoners Out Early. Its Housing Crisis Is Keeping Them From Starting Over.

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Mother Jones illustration; Getty

After 15 long years behind bars, Terah Lawyer needed to show the parole board she had somewhere lined up to live. She landed a spot in a facility on Treasure Island and was so grateful to be out that at first she didn’t mind being forced to spend dozens of hours a week in treatment classes for a substance abuse problem she didn’t have, and in fact, as a drug and alcohol counselor, was certified to teach about. But quickly, the program’s strict schedule and tough restrictions, like lockdowns on holidays and limited free time, got in the way of adjusting to real life. Before she left prison, she’d worked hard to secure a job with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, but her facility’s rules forced her to delay her start date three months, and she lost the opportunity. Most painfully, the program’s structure made it hard to visit with her parents, who lived a couple hours north in Sacramento.

“The whole process of transitioning was hindered and stalled,” Lawyer says. “It handicapped me in certain areas because I didn’t have that immediate exposure I needed to see what life was like out here.”

Once she was finally able to start working, she’d leave the house at 7 a.m., work a full day, and get back in time for the hour-and-a-half class at night. “I was required to still bring in 21 hours of treatment classes in order for me to get my weekend passes to go home, to go shopping, to go out with family or friends, to do things that are considered freedom,” she explains. “It was really difficult being able to hold down a full-time job, which is thankfully now giving me an income, and also meet the program’s requirements of classes that I didn’t even need in the first place.”

Lawyer’s experience—and her stunted post-prison transition—is far from unique. For the thousands of people each year trying to put their incarceration behind them, stable transitional housing can be critical to their success, but in many cases the current system gets in the way. Social and structural barriers, from NIMBYism to rental and employment discrimination against felons, have long made finding housing incredibly difficult for formerly incarcerated people—in fact, they’re 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general population. There are simply few good options, particularly for people leaving prison after long sentences and facing a radically changed world. Like Lawyer, they may get stuck in a program for substance treatment even when they have no history of drug or alcohol abuse, or they can end up in places that look and feel like the prisons they just left.

While this is an issue across the country, over the past decade California has become something like ground zero for the problem, with its affordable housing crunch and a slate of laws reforming tough-on-crime policies that have offered release for thousands of people. While the state has taken steps to mitigate the problem in recent years, reentry housing is still a huge crisis that shows few signs of abating. In the end, many people who most need support when they’re let out will fall through the cracks.

Crystal Wheeler got out of prison in 2012 after 22 years inside and she struggled with PTSD from her decades behind bars, as well as her husband’s severe control and abuse. She had no family nearby, so her parole conditions required she stay in a reentry housing program. The only available option was a six-month program in Claremont, California, with a heavy emphasis on drug and alcohol treatment, despite the fact that she’d never had a substance abuse issue. “I didn’t need to go to AA meetings at 6 a.m.,” Wheeler says. “That time could have been better used for teaching us things that our husbands never let us do.”

Still, this kind of set up was typical. Most reentry housing options have traditionally focused on treating drug and alcohol dependence. When the concept of prison reentry housing caught on, facilitators looked to the only similar service sector with infrastructure in place: residential programs treating addiction. Substance abuse treatment was also already used inside prisons as an indicator of successful rehabilitation; parole boards often looked at prisoners’ completion of a 12-step program—once one of the few available programs behind bars—as a measure of suitability for release.

Prisons and........

© Mother Jones