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DANNY SANDERS doesn't remember what he ate for his first meal in a restaurant after eight years in prison. What he does remember is that he stole the silverware. The slight, quiet, youthful-looking black man, spooning down a pint of chocolate H"aagen-Dazs ice cream and sipping a root beer, smiles and shakes his head as he leans back in his chair. ``It wasn't funny then,'' he says. ``I was a block-and-a-half from the restaurant when I froze on the street. I realized I had a knife and fork in my hands.''

One of the rules at the Elmira prison in New York where he did a major stint was that each inmate carry his fork and spoon to the back of the mess hall and then, in the presence of a correction officer, toss both into a garbage can. Since prison officials viewed the plastic utensils as potential weapons, this was the ``ticket'' out of the dining area.

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Leaving meals with silverware in hand was a habit he picked up while in prison, a jailhouse lesson, one that, though not serious, took a while to unlearn. It wasn't the only lesson he had to unlearn. And Danny Sanders, out for more than 10 years now and a successful counselor of ex-offenders in New York City, is not the only inmate to leave prison with lessons to unlearn.

Yet tragically, in state after state, the most important lesson we expect a prison to teach an inmate - how to leave and not return - is not being taught. Graded on this basis, prisons are failing, miserably.

The share of inmates who commit another crime and do another stretch in a state prison approaches 60 percent. These thousands of repeat offenders are the greatest reason for overcrowded prisons and the prison crisis in America today, says James Q. Wilson, a professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles. Whatever went wrong in their lives to get them locked up in the first place is still going wrong when they get out.

Putting it simply, the typical inmate's stay in prison serves as punishment. It does little to help him learn to behave in a way that society deems right.

The overwhelming number of inmates are left to their own initiative to change so that they become law abiding upon release. And they are to do this while confined in overcrowded prisons, experiencing a life radically different from anything that they are going to face when they return to the streets.

INDEED, for many poorly educated, unskilled, drug-using, often minority inmates, it is as if prison life were designed to thwart successful adjustment back into lawful society. Prison offers little else than a severely diminished chance to get their lives right again.

It is critical that you make the decision to reform while you are still inside, the earlier the better, says Willy Oxendine, out seven months now after four years in New York prisons. Otherwise, ``you can become much worse,'' he says. Not claiming to be anybody's angel, he says it hit him like a ton of bricks once he settled into the routine at the Wyoming penitentiary in upstate New York that ``half the guys I was in with I would never associate with on the street.''

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When did Mr. Oxendine make his decision to reform? ``I started cleaning house about six months after I was in,'' he says, referring to mental ``ripples'' all inmates have when they finally come to terms with the hostility and isolation of prison, whether it's being alone in your cell, playing basketball in the yard, or trying to put your head under a pillow and sleep in the bedlam of crowded dormitory bunking.

``Ripples happen to your mind in prison,'' says Oxendine. ``I thought about how my wife drove herself to deliver my baby; my sister was raped and I wasn't there to console her; my parents needed to have a house built and my two hands were behind bars,'' he says, looking down at his big hands that go with his hulking 6-foot, 3-inch frame.

And especially the ripple of his wife's face at his sentencing. ``I never seen that much hurt on a person's face,'' he says.

``Ripples are what start you to change,'' he says. ``Before I went to prison, if I didn't have enough clothes, or whatever, I'd grab a gun, I'd go to scheming. If you see it, you want it, you grab it,'' he recalls. ``I had bad values, I knew this. You have to change your values in prison if you want to change them when you're out.''

Enrolled at Bronx Community College in New York City in a unique paralegal studies program, one that he began while behind bars, he knows he landed in a safety net. He is given a good chance of succeeding, of extricating himself from the criminal-justice system and leading a fulfilling, productive, and free life.

About 40 percent of state inmates enter some form of pre-release program at the end of their sentence. The rest get a one-way bus ticket, a new suit, and anywhere from $40 to $200, depending on the state.

Reform and preparation for a successful transition back to straight society must start the second week after you're in, says Jo Ann Page, a New York lawyer who works with ex-offenders. ``People come out angry - and part of the transition is working with that anger,'' she says.

One of the biggest criticisms you can level at pre-release programs in many state prison systems, she says, is that they are so artificial, so incapable of dealing with the experience the inmate has just had emotionally, as well as the experience he is going to have when he goes back out on the street.

``We know how to leave people alone, and we know how to throw them into Attica, ... we don't know how to do anything [much] in between,'' says Ms. Page. ``A job and a place to live after you're out are the two most important `transition' programs you can have,'' she says. ``Just what most inmates don't have.''

`A FEW of the states have got a handle on it, but not many,'' says Warren Burger, former chief justice of the United States. ``If we don't train [inmates], they are going to be worse when they come out. Who's going to hire them,'' he asks, ``and if they don't work, what will they do?''

``The first three to six months out are the most critical for a man,'' says Dr. Allan Wolk, director of paralegal studies at Bronx Community College. ``This is when the risk of falling back into old habits is greatest.''

But one of the big myths of prison reform is that rehabilitation programs abound behind bars, says John DiIulio, a professor at the Wilson School of Government at Princeton University. ``They don't,'' he says.

``And when they do, you are only talking about 3 to 5 hours of a 24-hour day,'' says Lacey Williams an ex-offender in New York City. For the majority of inmates, most of their prison time is decidedly unproductive, he says.

``The struggle is to redefine yourself from what the institution says you are,'' says Jim Proctor, an inmate at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore. Once you decide you want to reform, and you alone must make this decision, he says, then you can look for programs.

``Inmates adapt to the environment,'' says James N. Rollins, warden at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore. ``If the environment says you must arm yourself, join a gang, they do that. If the environment says work on schooling, work on job training, they do that.'' Mr. Rollins runs a prison that works hard to provide the latter environment.

Because of overcrowding in many states, combined with a threat of violence, thoughts of reform, which do not predominate in the first place, come even harder for many young first offenders, corrections officials say. They run up against one of the harder facts of prison life, the need to form alliances with other inmates, relationships that often run counter to any desire to improve themselves.

``You must form alliances when you are in prison,'' says Harold Walker, recently out after a 5-year, 4-month stint. He has spent 21 of his 54 years doing hard time and has been in and out of most major prisons in New York. He was wounded in the Attica riot of 1971. ``That's just the way it is or your chances of being killed are very high,'' he says. Because ``at some point in time you have to attach yourself to someone or some group,'' says Mr. Walker. ``Otherwise, if there is a throwdown [a brawl, a riot], you're alone.''

But no one should kid himself, the challenge of making the transition from prison life to mainstream society will always be great, Walker says. Laughing, he recalls a funny, yet painful, experience that points out the challenge of making a successful transition.

He and two other inmates were due for release. ``Everything was so highly coordinated, from the door of my cell right through the sign-out,'' he says. ``A guard escorted us each step of the way. But as soon as we got outside the door, and it was snowing heavily, all supervision ended. Momentarily, I didn't know what to do or where to go. Neither did the other two inmates who were with me, even though all we were going to do was cross the street and catch a bus.''

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