PHILADELPHIA — When Antoine Stone found work at a grocery store this spring, he took a giant step toward self-sufficiency while inching away from ever again being a financial burden on Pennsylvania taxpayers.
The well-spoken single father of two daughters didn't just have to overcome the ravages of the recession to land his first real job in years. For Stone, 38, the hurdles to finding work were much higher, and of his own making.
The West Philadelphia native estimates that in his younger years he racked up eight to 10 arrests, serving short stints in city jails. But it was a parole violation stemming from a drug-possession conviction from nearly 10 years ago that landed him in state prison for the first time, from January 2006 to February 2008.
As a convicted felon, Stone needed more help than the average job seeker, and found it at the nonprofit Pennsylvania Prison Society, which in a 12-week program taught him life skills, how to write a resumé, how to dress for success and how to be a better father.
The vast majority of the inmates released from Pennsylvania's prisons don't go through such programs - and it shows.
More than half the state's inmates — 55 percent — wound up back behind bars within five years of being released, according to state Department of Corrections data from last year.
Though it has largely gone unnoticed by the public, the state is in the midst of a recidivism crisis that has contributed to a ballooning prison budget at a time when things like school funding and social programs are being slashed.
Prison-reform advocates charge that not nearly enough is done here to turn the recidivism numbers around, saying that education and job-training behind bars have proved to reduce recidivism and could even pay for themselves in reduced prison costs.
Stone hopes that the program he finished will steer him from becoming another recidivism statistic.
"We learned about ourselves, and we learned about why we repeat certain things - the bad stuff," said Stone, who endured numerous rejections from the likes of Walmart and fancy hotels. "The bad is so much easier than doing what's right."
Failure is costlyWhether this revolving-door syndrome is a result of faulty rehabilitation efforts by the Department of Corrections, the inmates' personal failings, both, or something else, the revolving prison door costs taxpayers a staggering amount.
Take last year's five-year recidivism rate of 55 percent. Of the 13,792 inmates released in 2005, 7,627 were back in prison last year. The state spends $32,059 annually per inmate, so that translated to a taxpayer tally of roughly $244 million.
And that price tag is likely to grow given that state officials estimate that the overall inmate population will climb from 51,400 today to 61,146 in 2014.
"I don't think the public knows that," Jocelyn Fontaine, of the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, said of the high cost of recidivism. "I don't know if it's an issue of out of sight, out of mind. I think they would be a bit more outraged about it if they knew."
State Department of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel, confirmed by the state Senate in May, said he also believes that his department has to step up its efforts to help more inmates make smooth transitions once released.
"We need to do a much better job of partnering with community groups to aid inmates in their return to society," he said. "Our role is to provide them with a meaningful opportunity to make a positive change in their lives. The community's role is to provide support for them upon return."
The Department of Corrections' 2011-12 budget has grown by $186.5 million - boosting spending to nearly $1.9 billion, or more than 20 times the budget in 1980 - but relatively little of that money is earmarked for inmate education and training programs.
Just over 2 percent of the budget, or $44 million, is earmarked for GED vocational-training programs, said a Corrections Department spokeswoman.
Pays for itself?Wetzel insisted that the department's spending priorities are sound.
"The days of corrections having a blank check are over," he said. "While we are committed to reducing future criminality, we need to do so in a manner that is fiscally responsible. I am confident we can achieve what we need to with the funding we have received."
William DeMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said increased funding for inmate education programs matters greatly in the fight to slow the revolving door of recidivism.
"It's an accepted and proven fact that the best way to reduce recidivism is through education," he said. "There are studies that show when programming gets cut recidivism increases. But the pressure is always on buying more razor wire and building the walls up a little bit higher."
A study by the Maryland-based Correctional Education Association found that "simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of re-incarceration by 29 percent.
"Translated into savings, every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs," the study said.
Fontaine and others who study the issue believe that states such as Pennsylvania must do a better job of assessing inmates' social needs to link them with community-based groups and agencies that can help them upon release in myriad areas, from job training to transitional housing.
"It's not enough to give men and women getting released from prison a pamphlet about these agencies," she said. "We know the first night out is very risky. Where are they going to sleep the first night out?"
Federal attentionJust how to save public dollars and crime victims from the river of recidivism is getting serious attention from the Obama administration. In January, it created the Inaugural Cabinet-Level Reentry Council to focus on prisoner-reentry policies across the federal government.
In April, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent letters to all 50 state attorneys general asking them to get rid of statutes that keep ex-offenders from getting jobs and housing, without risking public safety. Holder noted that a study conducted by the American Bar Association found more than 38,000 such statutes that "impose collateral consequences" on people convicted of crimes.
In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf has introduced a bill that would create rehabilitation and reentry programs for ex-offenders and alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders.
"What happens is," Greenleaf said, "people go in with little education, no jobs and an addiction, and they come out with all three and a felony conviction."
In Philadelphia, where city officials estimate that 300,000 ex-offenders live and 30,000 return home each year from federal, state and city prisons, the city has helped more than 200 of them find employment through its re-entry-employment program, which began in 2006, said Bill Hart, executive director of the mayor's Office of Reintegration Services for Ex-offenders, or RISE.
Hundreds more have received help finding housing, job training, treatment programs and various other services, Hart said.
Still, more resources are needed to help such a large ex-offender population, especially those 18 to 25 years of age, said Hart, whose budget of $1.9 million was reduced to $1.6 million in the fiscal year that began Friday due to the loss of nonrenewable grants.
"Obviously, the challenges of the re-entry community far exceed the resources that we have to work with," Hart said.
But the key to staying out of trouble is getting a job.
Paul Mowatt, 26, a burly, bearded man who couldn't count the number of times that he's been arrested, mostly for dealing drugs, finished a three-year stint in prison in March 2010 for a drug conviction.
He spent eight months of filling out more than 100 job applications and never heard back from Sears, Burger King, KFC, Applebee's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, McDonald's and others. Then he learned of the Prison Society.
"What I learned is how to go in and talk to somebody in an interview without being nervous. It just teaches you how to be a man and stand up," said Mowatt, who finally landed a security job at a ShopRite in December.
"Give us an opportunity," he said of ex-offenders. "If you give us an opportunity, I guarantee you we'll shine. They gave me an opportunity, and look at me."