California Creates First 'Re-Entry' Facility for Prisoners

Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill Wednesday that will convert a former women's prison in Stockton into the state's first "community re-entry" facility for prisoners. It will allow prisoners to serve the final months of their sentences in the communities where they will be released.

Julie Small: The first "community re-entry facility" is located about five miles east of downtown Stockton. It's a squat concrete box that sits on the middle of a scorched field. It's ringed by double barbed wire fences. The state used to house female inmates here. The police train here now. But with the touch of his gubernatorial pen, Governor Schwarzenegger gave the place a new purpose.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: Now with this bill, we will create the first re-entry facility right here at a former prison for women. Those inmates will be given a chance to lead crime-free lives.

Small: The secure re-entry facility will house men serving the final months of their sentences. For the first time, California inmates will be able to do that in the communities where they'll be released. They'll have access to local rehabilitation services like drug abuse and anger management counseling, job and housing placement.

Schwarzenegger: Help that they really need to go out into society, return to society, as law-abiding citizens. Today these inmates are being sent back to their communities, normally, regardless whether they are rehabilitated or not. They get their $200 and a bus ticket, and they get sent out, and we always hope for the best. But the fact is that many of them commit new crimes, give California the highest recidivism rate in the nation.

Joan Petersilia: California is about a decade behind on thinking about and planning for the date of release.

Small: UC Irvine criminologist Joan Petersilia says there's no greater threat than an inmate fresh out of prison but with no support in the community where he's sent. That's exactly what's been happening.

Petersilia: What California is missing is this continuum of sanctions. We have either probation – which is virtually nothing – or full-fledged prison. The analogy is you either have brain surgery or aspirin. You've missed the bulk of what people need.

Small: Petersilia says the re-entry facility will offer an interim sanction – one that's already proved to be effective in other states.

Petersilia: This is all we know that works: Jump-starting within a prison, gradual transition to a half-way house or transition facility to the hand-off to local community. That's the only thing we know that works, and we're going to try it here in California.

Small: California will also test ways to assess inmates to see who's most likely to re-offend. Are they likely to steal? Use drugs? Beat a wife or girlfriend? James Tilton, who heads up the Department of Corrections, says better inmate assessment is the key. It'll help officials choose the right programs to offer inmates in the re-entry facility. And those programs give the locals a chance to connect with inmates about to be released into their community.

James Tilton: The community comes in and provides the services in this facility. When the inmates move to parole, the same providers provide that continuity of service and support.

Small: Tilton believes that will help ex-convicts stay out of jail. Tilton expects to have the new re-entry facility in Stockton up and running by the middle of next year. If it works here, the Department of Corrections will create 16,000 slots for inmates in other re-entry facilities. Tilton says he's already identified 60,000 inmates who'd qualify for a stay at a re-entry facility. That's about a third of the state's prison population.