Emory Dockery squirms on the stool behind plate glass and tries to explain his seventh incarceration in 20 years.
He reluctantly lists the years he was arrested, the sentences he received, and the crimes he committed - mostly drug offenses. This time he's in on a parole violation. "I left the halfway house," he says. "I knew I would have to face this particular consequence, but I couldn't stay there."
Mr. Dockery is one of more than 630,000 inmates being released from prison this year - the largest such exodus in America's history.
More than half of them return to prison within three years, highlighting a stark problem: In cities from Boston to Los Angeles, violent crime rates have been rising this year in part because of repeat offenses by people newly released from prison.
Dockery's experience is emblematic of the enormous difficulties states face in breaking the cycle of imprisonment and parole. While ex-cons aren't the only factor behind this year's rise in crime, experts say their challenges lie at the core of the crime problem: Many get out of prison no better than when they went in.
"Because we have shifted our emphasis from rehabilitation to punishment, we are putting people back on the streets ill- prepared for dealing with free society," says James Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "They have inadequate skills, bad attitudes, and are going back to their old neighborhoods."
In fact, recidivism rates - including for violent and other offenses - appear to be rising. A Justice Department study released this year found that 67.5 percent of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested withing three years, up from 62.5 percent in 1983. For both years, the study covered two-thirds of prisoners released nationwide.
The recidivism challenge has sparked varying responses over the years, including "three strikes" laws that aim to put three-time serious offenders behind bars for life. Others call for renewed focus on rehabilitation, to put people back on the streets with the means to make it.
"There is an overdue awareness that this is a very pressing social issue," says Jeremy Travis of the Urban Institute in Washington, who co-authored a new report on the state of parole in America. "We quadrupled the rate of imprisonment in 25 years, but we didn't pay enough attention to the inevitability of prisoner release."
For Dockery, the next attempt to make it on the outside will be supervised, as before, by the state of Texas. He will be expected to find a place to live, get a job, and routinely report to his parole officer.
Almost 80 percent of all inmates being released from US prisons are supervised. But states are groaning under the mounting costs associated with that supervision, and experts say the time has come to reform the reentry process.
Aware that a crisis is brewing, US Attorney General John Ashcroft recently announced a $100 million federal grant for states to help their prisoners return home successfully. But state officials say that is just a fraction of what is needed. Facing budget deficits, states have begun cutting into corrections - which for many now is the second-largest budget item.
Florida, for example, suspended new admissions to residential treatment programs for nonviolent drug offenders. California prisoners are no longer given $200 upon release to help start their new lives. Illinois and Ohio have put plans to build new prisons on hold.
Here in Houston, inmate Dockery laments the loss of a life-skills class that was cut since he was here a year ago on another parole violation.
The financial squeeze is discouraging to many who believe that successful reentry must begin long before prisoners are shown the door.
"The reentry issue must be dealt with while a person is still incarcerated," says Mario Paparozzi, a justice expert at The College of New Jersey and a former chairman of that state's parole board.
Successful reentry, he says, means creating a thoughtful review and release process and rethinking how best to use already available resources. It means building strong ties between local housing authorities, police, and businesses. In short, says Dr. Paparozzi, it means "owning crime as a social problem."
One such innovative program is La Bodega de la Familia in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Knowing that roughly 80 percent of all people who leave prison have a substance-abuse problem, the center aims to involve families in the reentry process in an effort to keep parolees drug-free.
"There is tremendous pressure on returning prisoners, who feel society is waiting for them to fail instead of helping them to succeed. That's why relapse is so high," says Carol Shapiro, executive director of Family Justice in Manhattan and creator of La Bodega.
If successful, parole is cost effective, experts say. Locking someone up runs between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, while having them on parole costs between $5,000 and $10,000 a year.
Nationally, 35 percent of everyone returning to prison is a parole violator. While some argue that it makes no sense to send people back to prison on technical violations, parole officers say they face an almost impossible task in making such decisions.
"Parole is the dog that everyone likes to kick," says Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association in Lexington, Kentucky. "In addition to working under increased caseloads and increased workloads, [parole officers] know that they will be blamed for everything that goes wrong."
Intense public pressure prods many parole officers to send people back to prison for technical violations, says Mr. Wicklund.
That is just what happened in inmate Dockery's case. He is currently being held in a facility that consists almost entirely of parole violators - costing Texas taxpayers $31.13 per inmate per day.
Even though he's been in and out of prison most of his adult life, he says he will do things differently this next time around. "In the past ... I never changed anything when I got out," he says. "But not this time. I made up in my mind that this is my last confinement."
The challenge for Dockery, for other inmates, and for US society, will be to beat the pattern of the past.
A study this year of 300,000 prisoners released in 1994 found that within three years:
• 67.5 percent were rearrested (up from 62.5 percent in 1983), almost all on felony or serious misdemeanor charges.
• 46.9 percent were reconvicted for a new crime.
• 25.4 percent were resentenced to prison for a new crime.
• 51.8 percent were back in prison for a new sentence or for a technical violation of their release.
• Rearrest rates were highest for property crimes such as burglary.
• The rearrest rate for violent offenders was 61.7 percent, up slightly from 1983.
Source: US Department of Justice, 15-state survey