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Cover Story

US prison inmates returning to society: How will they be received?

States, eager to save money and adopt alternatives to incarceration, release inmates in record numbers. Is society ready for the surge? 

By Sean J. MillerCorrespondent, Photos by Tony Avelar / May 20, 2012

This is the cover story in the May 21 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Alfredo Sosa / The Christian Science Monitor

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Los Angeles

Jason Corralez donned a freshly pressed collared shirt. He had shaved neatly around his salt-and-pepper goatee. He looked like a man about to go on a job interview, which he was. It was a job he desperately wanted, but one question gnawed at him: Would they be willing to hire a convicted murderer?

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Mr. Corralez had one advantage as he applied for the position at Trader Joe's in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Both his brother-in-law and nephew worked at the grocery store. But as his wife drove him to the interview, Corralez was worried about that question on the application that asked if he had ever been convicted of a felony. He had written: "Will discuss during interview."

When he arrived at the store, the manager queried him about his résumé. Corralez went through his work experience, which all happened to be from his time in prison, where he had been since he was 17: upholstery work, yard maintenance, small engine repair, clerical tasks. "I explained my job experience," he says. "All the courses I took – anger management, morals and values."

Corralez didn't leave out why he went to prison, either. "I'm an ex-felon for the offense of second-degree murder," he told the manager. A former member of The Mob Crew, an East Los Angeles gang, he served 24 years for killing a member of the rival MS-13 gang in a drive-by shooting. "This is the person I was," he said, "and this is the person I am now."

According to Corralez, the manager stepped back, stunned. "Thank you for being honest," Corralez recalls him saying. As the ex-prisoner walked to the bus stop, he knew what it meant. "I took everything that I had accomplished, everything that I had to do to get a second chance," he says. "But I could see it in his reaction. It was like the nail in the coffin." 

Corralez's struggle to transition from prisoner to free member of society is one that thousands of inmates across the country are going through as states trim their prison populations on a scale unseen in American history.

From California to New York, Texas to Michigan, a record number of convicted criminals are either being released from cells or serving time in community-based programs as states, under pressure to cut costs, adopt new philosophies on how to handle nonviolent offenders and many inmates incarcerated in the 1970s and '80s near the end of their terms. In some cases, lawsuits designed to reduce overcrowding are forcing authorities to open prison doors as well.

These days roughly 700,000 ex-cons are hitting US streets each year – a new high, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. While the vast majority of the inmates are nonviolent, some, like Corralez, served sentences for serious crimes and are now winning parole in higher numbers.

The result is an unprecedented test – of authorities' ability to monitor the newly released prisoners, of social service groups' capacity to help them forge new lives, of the inmates' willingness to start over, of communities' tolerance to let them do so.

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