prison system

In the 1990s, states went on a prison-building binge. Today, millions who spent time in those prisons are back in society — and many are struggling to find work.

Jay Neal is in charge of Georgia's new office of re-entry. Its purpose is clear: "Helping Georgia's returning citizens find training, assisting Georgia's returning citizens find jobs," he reads off the website.

Returning citizens is America's new term for ex-prisoners, ex-cons and former inmates.

The thing Sara Garcia remembers from the day her son, Mark, got out of prison was the hug — the very, very awkward hug. He had just turned 21 and for the past two and a half years, he'd been in solitary confinement.

"He's not used to anyone touching him," Garcia says. "So he's not used to hugs. And I mean we grabbed him. I mean, we hugged him. We held him. I mean, it was just surreal to just know I can finally give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek."

In prison, Brian Nelson lived in solitary confinement. That meant 23 hours a day in a small cell. No human contact, except with guards — for 12 years straight.

Then, his prison sentence for murder was over. One moment he was locked down. The next, he was free.

NPR and The Marshall Project, an online journalism group that focuses on the criminal justice system, investigated the release of tens of thousands of prisoners from solitary confinement to find out how many prisoners, like Nelson, go straight from solitary to the streets.

Prosecutors usually spend their energy putting criminals behind bars, not urging their release. But racial disparities in the system and the huge costs of locking up so many people are pushing some government officials to call for a new approach.

One of them is the woman who now runs day-to-day operations at the Justice Department. Sally Yates says she's hardly soft on crime: "I'm a career prosecutor."

Business Insider looks into several troubling cases of alleged problems at the Oklahoma County Jail. Among them, unsanitary conditions, negligent care of inmates, poor medical care, and abuse of inmates.

For many convicted felons leaving Oklahoma prisons, repaying their debt to society means paying down a mountain of actual debt from court costs, fines and fees.

As OPMX’s Kate Carlton Greer reports in the final part of a collaboration between KOSU and Oklahoma Watch’s called Prisoners of Debt, keeping former inmates from re-offending and returning to prison often depends on help available when they’re released.

Men and women clutch binders and sack lunches as they shuffle into a cafeteria and catch up before the day begins.

They’re all participants at TEEM, The Employment and Education Ministry, in Oklahoma City. It’s a non-violent prisoner re-entry program that helps offenders find jobs and get plugged back into society.

On a night last week when the temperature dropped to 17 degrees, Edward Brown, who's 62 and homeless, slept at the bus stop in front of the Jennings, Mo., city hall in St. Louis County.

"It was cold, very cold," he says. "It's so cold I can't really move so I kept playing with my feet — rubbing 'em, twisting 'em, trying to keep warm."

For more than two decades, Oklahoma has turned to fines and fees instead of state appropriations to fund the court system.

In the second part of a three-part series with Oklahoma Watch, OPMX’s Kate Carlton Greer says the debt former prisoners now face has becoming increasingly burdensome as the state has grown more and more reluctant to raise taxes.

The roots of Oklahoma’s crime-funded court system start back in 1992 with State Question 640.

The public was mad about tax hikes, so they passed a referendum making it nearly impossible for lawmakers to raise taxes.

Legislators then began turning to other ways to pad the state budget, like fines and fees.

In a new challenge to police practices in Ferguson, Mo., a group of civil rights lawyers is suing the city over the way people are jailed when they fail to pay fines for traffic tickets and other minor offenses.

The lawsuit, filed Sunday night on the eve of the six-month anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown, alleges that the city violates the Constitution by jailing people without adequately considering whether they were indigent and, as a result, unable to pay.

Over the years, Oklahoma has increasingly turned to fines and fees from court cases to pay for the court system itself.

But a joint investigation with Oklahoma Watch reveals that as many inmates regain their freedom, they’re still imprisoned by mountains of debt.

As the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange’s Kate Carlton Greer reports in the first of a series, the cost shift is leading some to question the long-term sustainability of a crime-funded judicial branch.

Robin Wertz left prison back in 2007 facing nearly 25-thousand dollars worth of fines and fees related to multiple drug offenses. Without any real job prospects, Wertz knew she could make a phone call out west and earn some quick money to help her with her savings account while she found a job.

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