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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? 

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Thorne wound up in a ward with the most vicious prisoners, segregated from the general population for 10 years. Then, one day, he says, "I just woke up. I think I had just stabbed somebody in our yard." He picked up a legal pad and drew two columns. In one, he totaled the number of assaults his crew had committed; in the other, the assaults inflicted on them. After listing 36 he had carried out alone, he put the pad down. "That was a sign – I'm done," he says.

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Thorne started attending self-help groups, learning computer skills, and working as a clerk. At 31, he got the equivalent of a high school degree. Later, the state transferred him to a prison known for offering vocational work.

There, he heard of a program run by Roman Catholic Sisters Mary Sean Hodges and Teresa Groth. In California, parole boards won't release prisoners serving life sentences unless they have an outside address. The nuns offered him housing and the promise of a job.

It took 13 official hearings for Thorne to win parole. On Oct. 17, 2011, he was handed a temporary ID and $200 in an envelope. Several guards shook his hand. He was free after 32 years.

Today he says he's ready to do anything to move forward in life. "I'll mop, sweep, floss – it doesn't matter to me," he says.

* * *

The nuns who helped Thorne get paroled didn't set out with the goal of freeing lifers. But that's where they've ended up. Hodges, a tall, pragmatic woman with mercury-colored hair, began offering housing to ex-inmates – specifically sex offenders – in an old warehouse near downtown Los Angeles in 2006. The place had once been an adult bookstore. Her group home didn't last long.

"The gentlemen's club next door got concerned that with that many sex offenders in the area there would be police around, and they didn't want police around the gentlemen's club," she says, with a laugh.

Hodges was visiting prisons to pray with inmates. She met Ron Anderson, who was serving a life sentence at Avenal, a state prison in central California. He told her his predicament: He couldn't get paroled without housing, but he couldn't get housing without being released. She promised him he'd have a place to live.

Since then Hodges and Groth have argued on behalf of some 2,000 prisoners. While only a fraction have been freed, lifers now get released in higher numbers than at any time in recent history. Hodges credits Brown for trusting the parole boards' judgments. "He's letting out probably 80 percent, whereas before probably 10 percent were released," she says.

The sisters' reentry program, the only one in the state that provides housing and jobs for lifers, receives about five parolees a month. They housed 10 men in March 2010; today they shelter more than 60.

Frustrated with how hard it can be for ex-inmates to find work, Groth one day entered the lifers' skills on a spreadsheet. She noticed a pattern. Almost all had done upholstery work in prison. With the help of David Velasquez, a paroled lifer, the sisters opened a reupholstering shop in 2010. It has since expanded into a cleaning business that prepares homes to go on the real estate market under the name Starfish Services LLC.

On a sun-splashed afternoon, Corralez does some final stitching on a retro-looking brown sofa at the upholstery shop near downtown L.A. He never heard back from Trader Joe's. "It's not stopping me from looking," he says. He's had a couple of phone interviews for other jobs. In the meantime, he's grateful for the upholstery work.

After his release in March 2011, Corralez says his first few months were hard. He wouldn't leave his house alone because he felt, as in prison, he needed permission – permission to go outside, to eat, to exercise. He's making some money now to help support himself and his wife. He's feeling more confident, too.

"I just didn't get out," he says. "I had to achieve this freedom."

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