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Orlando Sentinel

Prisons Need Help, But Fail To Make Headlines

By Ray Quintanilla, Sentinel Columnist

1 May 2005
Copyright © 2005 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The announcement got hardly any attention. In fact, the fuss at the University of Puerto Rico and the ongoing political dispute about who should run the island's Senate grabbed all the headlines here last week.

But unless Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila and the Legislature take note, there is a little problem that could bankrupt the island: the cost of incarcerating 15,000 inmates.

What's worse, according the director of the island's prison system, the vast majority of inmates who complete their sentences aren't rehabilitated. They end up back in jail for committing other crimes.

The people of Puerto Rico don't have the money to maintain the prison population, Miguel Pereira, the island's corrections secretary, explained to reporters last week. And it's going to get worse in the days ahead with the new governor's crackdown on crime. "It's a cost that is not sustainable," Pereira told reporters.

It costs $40,000 annually to house a single inmate in a Puerto Rican jail. By contrast, the island spends about $4,000 per student annually for a public-school secondary education.

"Any society that spends 10 times more on each inmate than it does for each child is bound to fail," Pereira said, trying to put the crisis into perspective. Now that's a major understatement.

Not only are the island's prisons overcrowded and the costs soaring, but the money spent on inmates shows little promise. Consider that 60 percent of the inmates who are released end up committing other serious crimes.

That's right; they end up right back in the island's penal system. One in five prisoners has been incarcerated more than six times.

The rate of recidivism isn't much better on the mainland, and undoubtedly many of the underlying problems are the same. Let me share some facts about our prisons.

Joseph Williams is CEO of Transition of Prisoners, Inc., an organization that provides services to help former inmates successfully re-enter society. He testified before the U.S. Congress this year and painted this portrait of those behind bars:

50 percent were raised by a single parent, usually the mother.

15 percent were raised by neither parent. They were raised by another relative or grew up in a foster home or an institution.

25 percent were raised by a parent or guardian who was a substance abuser.

15 percent of male inmates and 55 percent of female inmates were physically or sexually abused as children, and the numbers are even higher for those raised in foster homes or institutions: 44 percent of men and 87 percent of women.

95 percent of the men had no loving father figure.

Up to 65 percent are functionally illiterate, meaning they lack the skills necessary to read and understand a newspaper.

Up to 85 percent of inmates need drug treatment, but only 13 percent receive it.

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