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US prison inmates returning to society: How will they be received?

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John Cadogan typifies those who will help determine the success of California's plan. A burly former tradesman with a sleeve of tattoos, Mr. Cadogan sits in a conference room at the men's state prison at Chino, one hour east of Los Angeles. He faces a quandary.

He is within weeks of being released from the minimum-security wing of the prison, where he has been serving time on drug charges. In a counseling session, he asks his therapy group what to do about his ex-girlfriend. She wants to get together with him when he gets out, but she's using meth, Cadogan says, which is his former drug of choice. Should he do it?

Cadogan says he'd like to see her briefly and then concentrate on his drug-treatment program. "I'm going to come back clean, I guarantee you that," he says, stroking his mutton chops.

The 14 inmates in the room – a rare assemblage of African-Americans, Hispanics, and whites in a prison where people of different races won't even mingle to play softball – are skeptical.

"What if she don't agree with what you're talking about and she starts some [stuff] with you and the police come?" one prisoner asks. Other inmates nod.

Cadogan says she wouldn't do that: She's the mother of his daughter. Members of the group press him. How can you be sure? One man in prison blues leans forward and intones in Cadogan's ear: "It's like playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun."

Discussion leader Mona Velas­quez, a counselor with the Amity Foundation, a rehabilitation group, reinforces the dangers. Cadogan has a common problem, says Ms. Velasquez. "What do you do when you run into that old friend that's using?" She runs through a list of "social skills" outlined on a white board. The last point: "Make a plan."

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