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Hard Time

Why Is It So Difficult for Parolees to Stay Out? Background Checks, Addictions and Empty Bank Accounts, For Starters.

February 04, 2001|Solomon Moore

After two terms and a total of 10 years in prison, Mark Cook doesn't think freedom is much to celebrate. For one thing, his feet hurt--he never walked so much in the joint. For another, it's harder to stay clean.

Sure, drugs were everywhere in prison, but prices were less tempting. That's the other thing about the outside: Temptation. On skid row, where Mark lives, temptation is like oxygen. Sidewalk tents double as brothels, brown-bagged bottles swish and crackle through conversations, cellophane packets flash between handshakes.

Mark is on parole, and the odds are against his staying on the outside. More than 70% of California's parolees return to prison within three years. This losing battle takes place every day, everywhere in Los Angeles County, where there are more parolees--40,000--than Los Angeles Unified School District teachers.

Why is it so hard for parolees to stay out? The challenges abound: Illiteracy, crooked friends, lovers who stir the heart to anger, empty bank accounts, employee background checks, poor social skills, old habits. There are bills to pay, trouble to dodge and addictions to curb. Often parolees reenter society with nothing but pocket change, the clothes on their back and a rap sheet.

For Anthony Bunche, who just completed a 14-year sentence, freedom is a wasteland of long-forgotten friends and dead loved ones. For Lydia Lopez, parole is the scarlet letter that scares off employers and jeopardizes her family's finances. For Stephen White, arrested when he was a high school football star angling for a scholarship, parole shines a harsh light on stunted dreams and squandered potential.

For Mark Cook, a 41-year-old thrice-paroled felon, liberty has been nothing but a temporary respite between prison terms.

His hotel room on skid row, a 10-by-10-foot cube with a view of an alley wall, isn't much better than his old cell. He sees the same faces he saw in Susanville and Folsom and Corcoran and County. Guards don't stand in the hallway, but a parole agent can come by any time to toss his room for contraband.

Inside, guards and gangs imposed stability, discipline, order. Mark knew how to get things, whom to trust and whom to avoid. He knew where his next meal was coming from, and when. A few white T-shirts and a gray sweatsuit were a wardrobe. A haircut was simply a shaved head. Even the clouds had a sturdy concrete frame.

Outside, Mark is talking on a pay phone and suddenly some drunk throws a crate at him. Or he's doing well, lining up a truck-driving course for himself, and then the county threatens to cut off his benefits--and then the bus drivers strike, stranding him.

In prison, where half of all inmates are illiterate, Mark often read three novels at once and earned a reputation for knowing his way around appellate law. These days he is reading a donated pulp novel he found in the hotel lobby. News reports about the Kursk, the sunken Russian sub, are just coming out and have inspired him to read a submarine thriller called "Kilo Class."

"I wanted to know what they're going through, to get into the mind-set of the guys in that sub to see if I would be calm and hang on to the end, or whether I would kill myself trying to get out. You could get out, but you can't come up too fast because of the pressure. Even if you opened the hatch and escaped, you would probably die."

Rising too fast. That's what Mark wants to avoid. Think about today, they tell you in prison, because you screwed up yesterday, and tomorrow is a long, long time away. But outside, tomorrow counts. Planning is essential: You have to get food stamps, line up a place to lay your head, make appointments with doctors and counselors and social workers and parole agents. Outside, the clock starts ticking again.

Like most at-risk parolees, Mark's criminal record stretches back to his youth. He has few job prospects (80% of the state's parolees are unemployed) and, at best, a gossamer safety net of family and friends with plenty of their own challenges. And like 85% of California's parolees, he has a substance-abuse problem.

So far, he's surviving. His meager county benefits pay rent at a hotel with clean carpets, a security door and vinyl couches in the lobby. Most of the clientele are older addicts and parolees. Skid row, with its collection of social service agencies, nonprofits and cheap hotels, has more parolees than anywhere else in the state.

Mark could have been off parole by now if he had been able to stay straight and make his appointments with his agents. Now his supervision will continue until April, if all goes well. Mark wants to do better this time, and he thinks he can--but he's not sure.

Neither is Lupe Sanchez, Mark's parole officer. Sanchez carries one of the toughest caseloads in his downtown parole office. These are the absconders, the gangsters, the violent felons--"high-control service" cases.

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