State Parolee Struggles to Leave the Life of Crime

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There's an ongoing debate over what to do with California's growing prison population, and how to best deal with former prisoners reentering society. This week, we consider the options for ex-offenders as they transition back into society. In the first of a five-part series, KPCC's Frank Stoltze tracks the story of parolee Jason Henley. (This series was produced by Frank Stoltze as part of a fellowship with USC's Institute for Justice and Journalism.)

Frank Stoltze: Outside a liquor store in South Los Angeles, Jason Henley spots a man panhandling. It doesn't take much conversation to establish that they've both done time. He and Julio chat about what they had to do to survive the state's prison system.

Julio: You can make a man bleed with anything you want, boss. If you think about it, you can kill a man with a safety pin.

Jason Henley: Toilet paper roll, three, four of them, roll it out.

Stoltze: The two share a beer and talk about making flamethrowers by lighting shaving cream on fire and blowing it through a toilet paper roll.

[Sound of Jason blowing a raspberry, Jason and Julio laugh]

Stoltze: Henley is just back from state prison – for the sixth time.

Jason Henley: Oh I did lots of things. I stole cars, I sold drugs, I did robberies. I did credit card fraud. I've done a whole gamut of things.

Stoltze: Each time, he spent from a few months to four years behind bars. California's 33 prisons are home to 170,000 men and women. Each year, 60,000 return to L.A., Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties. Most, like Henley, end up back behind bars.

Joan Petersilia: Our prisoners are hit with a prison system that provides them basically no help.

Stoltze: U.C. Irvine Criminologist Joan Petersilia advises Governor Schwarzenegger on the state's $10 billion prison system.

Petersilia: The surprising thing is, when people say, we're spending so much, how can we not be doing well? We're not spending it on the offenders. We're actually spending it on the staff and the infrastructure of the system.

Stoltze: Locked up, Jason Henley says he learned the finer points of crime.

Jason Henley: To be a better drug dealer, give credit when credit is needed. If somebody just got through spending $200 with you and they say "Man, can I get $20 worth of dope 'til Friday," and you tell 'em no, you just lost a customer. That's a little tidbit I picked up in prison.

Stoltze: On a car ride through his old Inglewood neighborhood, 42-year-old Henley recalls how his life of crime started: shoplifting sneakers and selling dollar joints by the time he was eleven.

Jason Henley: It was the thrill, it was the money. Plus it was going against what my father stood for. You know, my father is a retired deputy sheriff, so everything he stood for, I went against.

Alvin Henley: OK, I'm Alvin Henley. I was a sheriff's deputy for 27 years with the Los Angeles County.

Stoltze: Alvin Henley says he first found gang graffiti on the back of his son's bedroom door when Jason was in middle school. He wonders if, after six trips to prison, his son has had enough.

Alvin Henley: I don't think he wants to go back, but I don't see him not going back. See, we've got a systemic problem with him through 30 years of incarceration. Just like 30 years of ignorance, what do you do with that? How do you break that?

Stoltze: Henley says people in his son's position need more help. He recalls a parole officer visiting the house only once over the years.

Joy Henley: Some photos of Jason as a young boy...

Stoltze: Henley's father and mother sit in their Inglewood living room flipping through a family photo album remembering better times. Joy Henley was a flight attendant for Pan Am. Growing up, Jason traveled the world with his parents. Later, their role changed.

Joy Henley: We've let him come and stay with us when he is released from prison. We did have a friend that got him a job, and he was so proud of it, and he worked it for a while, and then once, something happened, and he got arrested again.

Stoltze: The Henleys believe their son, like nearly a fifth of all parolees, has mental health issues. Jason Henley doesn't talk about this. He knows he's tired of the lock-up, even as he finds it exciting.

Jason Henley (outside liquor market): ... In prison, there's drama, adventure, sex, comedy, and tear jerker. You've got everything that happens in the free world. And motherfuckers live good.

Stoltze: In a more sober moment, Henley wishes he'd gotten more help in prison. He saw a lot of that help disappear.

Jason Henley: I mean they've had computer repair cut out, they've had computer programming cut out. They've cut out masonry. They've cut out janitorial, they've cut out every vocation that you can possibly think of.

Stoltze: Jason Henley walks through a South Central L.A. park looking for a woman friend. The park is a haven for gangsters and drug addicts.

Jason Henley: It's easy for somebody to get a gun, to go rob somebody, to go sell some drugs, to take somebody's car. But if you give a person just a chance, just an inkling of hope, you'd be surprised at what parolees can do.

Stoltze: Whether its turning their lives around, or going back to prison for a seventh time – as Jason Henley did after his parole agent found a weapon in his hotel room.