Inside his small, gray cell within the Texas prison system, Church forgot the world and it forgot him.
Stepping out to freedom, “I didn't know how to use computers or cell phones or the Internet,” Church said. “The weirdest thing was walking into a store, like Walmart, and have parents hide their children from me, like I was supposed to jump at them.”If true, this was a pitiful and desperate act. That said, I'm personally a little skeptical of the "send me back to prison" motive attributed to the arson. (He didn't turn himself in immediately, and at the end of the story, Church told Ulloa that setting the fire excited him, declaring “It was my Fourth of July.”) But I don't doubt for a second that somebody who went to prison during the Reagan Administration would find it difficult to cope in the modern world without work skills, family or a support network. After a certain point, it's hard to shed an institutionalized mindset to embrace a world so different from the one left behind in their youth (which is something Texas exonerees who've served extraordinarily long sentences have confided to me in the past).
Fed up on July 10, 96 days after his release, he poured gasoline through a window of the empty house on the Southeast Side, then threw in flaming rags and paper towels, setting the place on fire.
Days later, he told police he did it because he wanted to go back to his job at his former prison unit.
More compelling (to me) than the man-bites-dog story of an offender wanting to go back to prison was the accompanying meditation by Ulloa on the perils of reentry facing those returning to society after long prison sentences:
While Church was behind bars, the federal and state prison population more than quadrupled.Whatever the truth behind Church's motives when he set that fire, such issues are real and faced by more than 70,000 prisoners released from TDCJ facilities every year. Most of those folks, by any measure, don't want to return to prison, but too many will return to a life of crime if they aren't afforded other, realistic options.
The numbers of inmates in the United States grew from 319,598 in 1980 to 1.5 million in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Corrections costs skyrocketed. States today collectively spend more than $50 billion a year by some estimates.
Studies indicate the United States has the highest proportion of its population locked up, its offenders tending to serve some of the lengthiest sentences in the world.
But more striking are the reports that show recidivism rates, the number of people who, like Church, return to correctional facilities after their release, lawmakers and prison reform activists said. A report published just this year by the Pew Center on the States found that on average more than 40 percent of those released from penitentiaries are reincarcerated within three years, for committing a new crime or for violating the terms of their release.
In the past decade, the debate among criminal justice circles has shifted to focus on programs and resources that can help prisoners re-enter society.
President George W. Bush included prisoner re-entry in his 2004 State of the Union address, marking an end to the country’s “period of punitiveness” and paving the way for the Second Chance Act and other legislation to help prisoners adjust to life after incarceration, [Ann] Jacobs [of the Prisoner ReentryInstitute] said.
“We are at a time in our culture when the prison budgets are depleting budgets for higher education in most states, when there are more African American men in prison then there are in college. We can’t allow that as a society. It will pull us all down,” Jacobs said.
Today, almost every state has re-entry programs and resources to assist the 700,000 people on average who are released from correctional facilities annually, but almost every state is under budget pressures.
Texas is known for its toughness on crime and is the country's leader in rate of imprisonment but undertook wide-ranging prison reforms in 2007 that have significantly reduced the state's recidivism rate.
Only 24.3 percent of Texas inmates released that year returned to prison within three years, according to the Texas Legislative Budget Board.
But looming budget cuts could hinder this progress in giving inmates “the tools to live responsibly,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
“While people are in prison, they need to be given vocational programs and counseling and cognitive thinking programming, so that when they get out, they can support their families,” she said.
For inmates like Church, such resources could make a difference in the transition back to the outside world.