“I couldn't collect a 401(k) off [my gang]. I can't file income tax off that.” -- an Ex-prisoner

Right now, three federal judges have the power to let 52,000 inmates walk free from state prison. With prisons at almost 200% capacity, federal district court judges Thelton Henderson, Lawrence Karlton, and Stephen Reinhart, who is of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, have been appointed to oversee the California Department of Corrections. This is a result of several lawsuits against prison overcrowding, over which Henderson and Karlton presided. Plata v. Davis, for example, argues that prison conditions and a dearth of medical care has subjected California’s 170,000 prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment and violated their constitutional rights.

As a result, a whopping number of them may walk out of their cells virtually penniless and straight into an economy that is on a steep downward trajectory. This will occur, if it does, after the judges have decided to act and the appeals process is exhausted. At that point, what will happen to these prisoners?

These prisoners have languished, contracted HIV and hepatitis, and become entrenched in gang networks. In fact, this situation is a symptom of our bloated prison complex. Prisons are now one of America’s largest and most ignored labor market institutions—the prison population (of which 95% will re-enter) makes up a full 1.5% of our labor force. But, with 25-30% unemployment, ex-prisoners are virtually stuck in the Great Depression.

These re-entrants have the potential to drive communities throughout California toward deeper economic woes, largely due to their labor-market characteristics. In economic terms, one’s ability to find a job relies on ‘human capital.’ Prisoners have very low human capital. They have poor cognitive skills, poor job experience, mental and physical illnesses, illegal ‘employment’ affiliations like gangs, and the stigma of a criminal record.

In addition, several studies have shown that prison lowers lifetime earnings, especially among youth.

Everyone is already aware that manufacturing and low-skill jobs are disappearing from America—half of all manufacturing vanished between 1975 and the 1990’s, even as the prison population quadrupled. These lost jobs are the ones that ex-prisoners have relied on in the past. Now, few employers are willing or legally able to hire ex-convicts in the fastest-growing industries like health care and education.

Thirty or forty years ago, the prison population represented a small and fringe aspect of the economy. Today, the picture is grim and demands our attention. San Francisco has started out on the right path by enacting “ban the box” legislation that bars the city from asking yes/no questions about prior conviction, helping to eliminate the negative credential of a criminal record and facilitate successful transitions for many people.

However, we need a plan from the Capitol to ensure that all our labor markets and our communities can successfully absorb these 52,000 ex-prisoners. We need transition and job-finding programs and we need to create government jobs that are suitable for this population. We need to tap into this font of potential workers, mending our prison system and lifting up our communities in the process.

Karin Drucker is a student at Oberlin College who is active in criminal justice reform in the Bay Area