Millions of people in the United States have spent time behind bars over the past 40 years. Between the 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails—as well as the military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. The United States is currently incarcerating almost two million people.
That current snapshot doesn’t truly capture the effect the criminal justice system has on the lives of many Americans. In an average year, approximately 600,000 people enter prisons in this country. What’s more, people go to jail, “over 10 million times each year,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
“Some have just been arrested and will make bail within hours or days, while many others are too poor to make bail and remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (about 103,000 on any given day) have been convicted, and are generally serving misdemeanor sentences under a year,” according to the data.
“At least 1 in 4 people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year — often those dealing with poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorders, whose problems only worsen with incarceration.”
With so many people being locked up and sent to prison every year, you would think facilities are overcrowded, and you would be correct. Before the pandemic, nine state prison systems and the BOP were operating at 100% capacity or more.
According to the ACLU, over the past 40 years, “the number of people held in prisons and jails in the United States per capita has more than quadrupled.” Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has risen 700%. This is a rate that far outpaces the general U.S. population and crime rates.
I share all of this data because I wanted to show just how many people we incarcerate in this country, and how easy it is to find yourself behind bars. Before I share with you just how hard it is to get out. Today, I’m going to answer the question: can you leave prison early?
In this blog post I will cover the following topics:
I will start this section by answering today’s question—yes, an inmate can leave prison early. However, how much of their sentence an inmate has to serve before they can leave varies among states.
A prison inmate can be released from prison early and placed on parole, which essentially means that you are still under the supervision of the Department of Corrections, but you are completing your sentence in the free world.
The amount of time that you must serve behind bars before you are eligible for parole is based on the state where the inmate is convicted and the crime they committed.
For example, in the state of Missouri where I was incarcerated, there were laws in place about the amount of time an inmate had to serve before they were eligible for parole. I was convicted of a Class B felony—possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute—and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Because it was a B felony, the state law said I had to serve at least 25% of my sentence before I would be eligible for parole. Missouri is one of the few states with a parole board, and I had to sit in front of them and answer questions before they would approve my release.
I was given the earliest date possible from the board, which meant I was released after serving 45 months, exactly 25% of my 15 year sentence. However, if I would have been convicted of a violent crime (like a Class A felony), I would have been required to serve 80% of my sentence before being eligible for parole.
A lesser crime, like a Class C or Class D felony, would require the inmate to serve 15% of their sentence before being eligible for parole.
Again, this is just for the state of Missouri. Each state is different when it comes to how much time must be served before an inmate is eligible for parole. Just because inmates are eligible, doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing.
How an individual behaves behind bars can determine if they will get their earliest release date, especially in the states that have parole boards.
As for probation, that is something that is usually connected to lower level crimes. Parole is for people who have been convicted and have already served a portion of their sentence in prison, while probation is a community supervision option that doesn’t require a person who was convicted to spend any time in jail or prison.
Probation is for misdemeanors like DUI (Driving Under the Influence). If you are convicted of a DUI, you won’t necessarily have to spend time in prison and get released on parole.
Instead, a judge can opt to suspend your jail or prison sentence and order you to serve time on probation. Which means you must live your life under the supervision of a probation officer and follow rules like you are on parole. If you get in trouble while on probation, that can lead to jail or prison time.
In addition to being eligible for parole, there are other reasons why a prison inmate would get released early.
One would be an inmate’s advanced age or bad health. An elderly inmate—or an inmate with a terminal disease—can apply for compassionate release, but getting this approved is extremely difficult.
“There is not one system of compassionate release; instead, there are 52 variations on a theme,” says FAMM. “Relief takes different forms depending on the jurisdiction, from temporary furloughs, to parole, to the reduction of the sentence to time served. While very different, all the compassionate release programs share one unfortunate feature—they are seldom used.”
Another reason for early release would be a national emergency, like the recent COVID-19 pandemic. But again, situations like this are very rare. Some states released a few prisoners during the recent pandemic, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons didn’t budge.
Other reasons for leaving prison early would be successfully completing a resident drug and alcohol treatment program, earning good time credit through work and good behavior, or receiving executive clemency from the governor or President of the United States.
So, what happens on the day that you are released from prison? When you are on your way out the door, the prison will give you a prepaid debit card that has at least $5 on it.
If you have been working, any unspent wages will also be on the debit card (if you’ve been making minimum wage via work release, that can mean hundreds or thousands of dollars). Any money that was sent to you by friends and family, but hasn’t been spent at the commissary, is also on the card.
Once you walk out the gate, you are required to do two things. First, you must leave the grounds immediately, which means you must have a personal ride scheduled from a friend or family member, or the prison gives you a bus ticket.
Second, you must contact your parole officer within 24 hours and set up an appointment to meet. Other than that, you are on your own. Unless you’ve been ordered to a halfway house. If that’s the case, you have to check in on the day you are released from prison and follow their rules.
I should note that my experience with being released from prison was the exception, and not the rule. I had a private ride from a family member, a place to live set up for me, financial donations from friends and family, and a college education that allowed me to get myself a job immediately.
For most inmates being released from prison, this isn’t the case. If you don’t have any kind of a support structure, it can be extremely difficult to succeed once you are released. Think about it—what would you do if you were suddenly dropped off with a few dollars in your pocket and nowhere to go?
How would you get a job? A place to live? Food to eat? The vast majority of employers won’t even consider hiring a felon, and the same goes for landlords. No one wants to rent to a felon.
The challenges a former prison inmate faces when they are released are too many to name. This is why we have such a high rate of recidivism in this country.
What would you do if you were released from prison with five bucks in your pocket and nowhere to go? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022 https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html Since you asked: Just how overcrowded were prisons before the pandemic, and at this time of social distancing, how overcrowded are they now? https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/12/21/overcrowding/ Probation and Parole: What's the Difference? https://www.mikeglaw.com/parole-vs-probation-what-is-the-difference/#:~:text=While%20parole%20is%20for%20people,to%20spend%20time%20in%20jail. Compassionate Release https://famm.org/our-work/compassionate-release/ As COVID Cases Spike, Federal Bureau Of Prisons Is Not Releasing Eligible Inmates https://www.forbes.com/sites/walterpavlo/2022/01/11/as-covid-cases-spike-federal-bureau-of-prisons-is-not-releasing-eligible-inmates/?sh=bdd6e63786da Early Release https://prisonprofessors.com/early-release-from-federal-prison-how-to-get-it/
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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