Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire

A law professor tracks policies that fail prisoners and their families.

By Dom Apollon Nov 01, 2008

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION is failing to address the needs of veterans from the Iraq war, but it’s arguably doing even worse when it comes to reintegrating prisoners—casualties of the War on Drugs—into their communities. In his new book, Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities: Reentry, Race, and Politics (NYU Press), Anthony C. Thompson describes the consequences of this failure and the effect of the “tough-on-crime” policies on parolees.

Written in an accessible style for the broad audience it deserves, Thompson’s book begins with a good synopsis of the stigma that past incarceration places on people of color. Although Thompson does not present much, if any, new or original research of his own, he highlights plenty of other interesting work, including Devah Pager’s 2003 matched-pairs study, which found that not only did a criminal record have a greater impact on Black applicants than white ones, but also “white applicants with criminal records were more likely to receive callbacks from employers than Blacks with no criminal history.”

The book gets going when Thompson makes the case that inmates and recently released parolees in need of educational training and other services are injured by the public’s media-fed myths and stereotypes of incarceration. He then gives a much-needed spotlight to the explosive increase of women of color among prisoners and their special reentry concerns and needs, including visitation regulations that intensify feelings of separation for mothers and their children.

Unsurprisingly, Thompson, a professor of Clinical Law at New York University Law School, is at his best when identifying the impacts of court decisions on reentry in housing, healthcare and employment. He does an excellent job, for example, discussing the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Department of Housing & Urban Development v. Rucker. The Court gave public housing authorities the discretion to act with impunity to prescreen and even evict people with criminal records. This court decision has, of course, led to serious problems of homelessness among former prisoners.

But while Thompson should be applauded for contributing to our understanding of how racism and bad policy have “constructed seemingly insurmountable reentry barriers,” neither readers new to this topic nor experienced practitioners in reentry services and related fields are likely to be satisfied with what’s ultimately an incomplete and inconsistent effort.

As a political scientist, I was left wishing Thompson had made a more forceful argument about the federal court system’s lack of enforcement powers when it does announce favorable decisions. For example, in compliance with the Estelle v. Gamble precedent (1976), federal courts have consistently required the government to “provide mental health treatment to incarcerated individuals who require such services.” Yet, little has been done to meet the increasing needs. 

Moreover, those readers hoping for a one-stop shop of data to support Thompson’s arguments will be left disappointed. While he provides some evidence in the book, it isn’t always the most recent (e.g., using Massey and Denton’s 1993 classic American Apartheid to make a point about the current state of waiting lists for public housing units and subsidies), and there isn’t a single data table in the entire book to identify trends. The latter would be particularly helpful in providing evidence for some of the trends that Thompson identifies as key to the increasing barriers to successful reentry that our society erects.

When Thompson tells us that “the last decade has exhibited a massive reduction in the quality and quantity of prison-based vocational training programs,” he quotes Joan Petersilia’s explanations for that reduction but gives no quantitative definition of what “massive” means or whether this critical point has been a uniform trend, or if people of color have been once again particularly impacted.

Most chapters in Releasing Prisoners and the book itself end with suggested policy reforms or conclusions that could transform the parole process from its current punitive form to a rehabilitative approach. Although Thompson does not always push the race-conscious policies that one might expect from the book’s introduction, he has nonetheless contributed to this important discussion in substantive ways.

Dom Apollon is research director at the Applied Research Center.