Associated Press
A corrections officer walks along a fence outside the Arizona Sate Prison Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010 in Florence, Ariz.
When I meet somebody who doesn't know me, they don't see me by that stereotype. —Erick Guzman

SALT LAKE CITY — When Erick Guzman got out of prison, he wanted to rebuild his life. But it was easier said than done.

"Just having a felony on your record closes so many doors," he said.

Guzman was in prison for one year. His charge: vandalism. The stigma attached to ex-offenders made it difficult for Guzman to move on from his past, he said.

Criminals pay their dues to society through their prison sentence, but many find they are paying for it for the rest of their lives. With no clear road map for life after prison — and daunting obstacles that make it hard to find a job — some return to crime and repeatedly land back in jail.

It's a problem many groups, including one with Utah ties, hopes to address and change.

"When I meet somebody who doesn't know me, they don't see me by that stereotype," Guzman said.

A resident of Pomona, Calif., Guzman is currently an assistant in a real estate office and is working to become a licensed real estate agent. He's made it further than many ex-offenders, and he credits the help of people who view him as more than just an ex-convict; people who encourage his potential, and don't dwell on his past.

"The biggest issue is the stigma people put on them," said Renford Reese, a political science professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

The university runs a program called Reintegration Academy of Parolees, a 10-week program that teaches academic, professional and life skills to ex-offenders in hopes they'll rebuild their lives and not end up back in prison. Working with the California Department of Corrections, candidates are screened and selected for the program. Guzman was one of 28 who were selected for the inaugural year.

"We think we're punishing them, but we're really punishing ourselves, the taxpayer," Reese said.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with more than 2,266,000 prisoners, according to the International Center for Prison Studies at the University of Essex. Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice show the U.S. prison population has exploded in 40 years, becoming nearly five times larger today than it was in 1970.

"Our priorities are backwards," Reese said, pointing to the $47,000 spent per year per inmate and high recidivism rates, or rate of ex-offenders ending up in prison again. Utah has the fourth highest recidivism rate in the U.S., with a little more than half of ex-offenders returning to prison within three years.

Reese is a part of the Apollo 13 Project, an organization with a mission to help change perceptions of ex-offenders and lower recidivism rates. Named after NASA's 1970 lunar mission, "a near disaster that became a triumph," their website states, they aim to highlight the challenges and triumphs of ex-offenders, raise money and educate the taxpayer on the cost of the current prison system.

"Some of these people are just trying," said Ben Anderson, a founding board member of the Apollo 13 Project who lives in American Fork. "They want a second chance, but it's really hard."

Anderson said he's had friends and family who have served time in prison, so he's sympathetic to the challenges they face. "The chance of them accomplishing anything is minimal."

The Apollo 13 Project is planning basketball tournaments across the country to raise awareness for the issue. The group is hosting a Second Chance three-on-three basketball tournament this week at Utah Valley University. The tournament will be held Tuesday and Wednesday, and the registration fee has been waived. People can sign up at www.a13.org/ball.

"Our main goal of the tournament is to raise awareness," Anderson said. "We want to get as many people involved as we can."

Anderson said Singapore has made progress in lowering recidivism rates, and it can be a model for the U.S. Singapore's efforts to help ex-offenders rebuild their lives was spearheaded by their president in 2004.

"They've been able to reverse that stigma," he said. "They cut their recidivism rate in half."

E-mail: hschwarz@desnews.com