After having served as a captain in the Marines and a Justice Department prosecutor in Washington, D.C., I lost a battle with prescription pain killers and turned to heroin when I could no longer get a doctor to feed my pill habit. Off the deep end I went, and six bank robberies later, I found myself sitting in federal prison, next to the same type of offenders I had helped put behind bars just a few years earlier. 

Recently President Obama and his Justice Department have decided, based on recommendations from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, to release early a total of 6,000 federal inmates who are serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses. The move by the administration mirrors the societal thinking shift that drug sentences, for non-violent defendants, are disproportionately severe. Among the first batch of 6,000 inmates being released in the past week, 40 percent (2,400) will be back behind bars within 3 years of their release. I predict this estimate is too low. Why?


I remember walking the yard with a fellow inmate one evening after a dinner of mystery meat and a side of slop.  I thought a brisk walk would reduce the stomach cramps caused by the meal.  I asked my friend, a young black guy from Detroit, what he was going to do when he got out.  He was two years “to the door” as we called it.  Without hesitating for a second, he said “sell crack.”  I had similar conversations with other inmates over the years, some serving 5, 10, or 20 year sentences for non-violent drug offenses. These guys were white, black, Hispanic, and Asian and came from all corners of the country—urban, suburban, and rural.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has cut training programs for inmates by fifty percent in the last ten years. Currently more than 10,000 inmates are on waiting lists to get into what is called the Federal Prison Industries (FPI). The FPI employs inmates paying them pennies to build furniture and provide other goods and services, for low costs.  However, rarely does a job within FPI provide substantive skill building or help an inmate learn a trade that would translate into a job in the real world outside the walls. In fact, the program has been criticized as “slave labor” where inmates are exploited and paid only a few dollars a day for tedious, monotonous work.

Many people who are “tough on crime” argue that it isn’t the government’s job to spend resources on training and educating criminals while they’re incarcerated.  These people made decisions to commit crimes and they should be locked up and forgotten about.  They’re just low-life scumbags. Unfortunately this short-sighted mindset adds to the problem of crime and incarceration and is fiscally unsound to boot.

Ben Franklin said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The same goes for reducing recidivism among offenders.  The vast majority of inmates want to learn a skill or a trade that they can take home with them upon their release. The amount of money required to invest in training inmates pales in comparison to the amount required to warehouse them in prison to the tune of $30,000 per year.  At a 40 percent recidivism rate on the federal level and a 66 percent recidivism rate on the state level we’re talking incarceration costs in the tens of millions. The Bureau of Prisons budget in 2014 was a staggering 6.9 billion dollars last year and the number is sure to go up as the revolving door for return inmates remains in its current state.

The 6,000 currently being released aren’t only ill equipped to find meaningful skilled employment, but many will not have the benefit of time in a half-way house due to the mass release. Halfway houses are already full. I spoke with two federal probation officers with a combined 40 years of experience who said that there are simply not enough beds in halfway houses to accommodate the influx of inmates getting released.  This means that they’re being sent directly home without any transition from inmate to free man and without the structure and help that halfway houses are supposed to provide to make this transition viable.

Prison makes people angry and hardened and edgy.  I know this because I lived it.  I came out with a short fuse and paranoid. My time in a halfway house helped me regain my humanity and my sense of place in a regular, typically non-violent environment. Halfway houses—typically a six month stay—helps wash you of the twisted prison mindset.

So the administration is essentially dumping inmates out on the street without any tools to cope in the real world. And this administration has done very little over the past eight years to help reform the abysmal lack of training resources in prisons.  This massive release smells like a fourth quarter legacy move, and unfortunately everyone loses.  I agree that civil liberties are violated when we impose draconian sentences on non-violent drug offenders. But the added injustice of failing to teach them a trade and sending them back home is unconscionable in a decent society.

Let’s ask the presidential hopefuls to explain their plan for fixing our prison systems in this country because right now everyone loses: Society, because it has to deal with former offenders who are likely to offend again, offenders who are never really given a fair second chance left to live without new skills and left ultimately to their own devices, and the U.S. Treasury.

My friend that I walked the yard with that spring evening is out now. When he left prison he was still on a long waiting list to get into a masonry training program. Today he sells crack.

McKenna is author of Sheer Madness: From Federal Prosecutor to Federal Prisoner, a memoir.