Last week, April 24 to 30, was National Reentry Week, which highlights the challenges faced by those who complete their prison sentences and attempt to rejoin society. Re-entering the workforce after one, three, 20 or more years can be incredibly challenging. Many have lost touch with family and friends. Some face crippling debt from past-due child support and loans taken out prior to incarceration. All have to cope with the stigma associated with being a convicted felon.
At the end of 2014, one in 36 American adults were in the correctional system—in prison, on parole, or under probation—according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. With those odds, chances are every adult in America knows at least one person who is or has been in the correctional system.
On my very first job application—to work at the Michaels Arts and Crafts in Columbia, Maryland—one question asked if I had ever been convicted of a crime, other than a minor traffic violation. While I could honestly answer “no,” it made me think, “What happens to someone who has to answer ‘yes’?” Most likely, I thought, they get passed over without a chance.
Five years later, while working at the Kangaroo Express gas station in Carrboro, North Carolina, I found out that my manager wanted to hire an applicant, but corporate rules would not allow it, since she had a domestic dispute on her record. A domestic dispute! How could anyone with a criminal record get a job with such strict hiring guidelines?
The answer: they can’t. The inability to find a job after incarceration prevents many Americans from contributing to their families, communities, and the economy, which is likely a major factor in high recidivism rates. National Reentry Week focuses on this challenge.
According to the Department of Justice, over 600,000 Americans return home from federal and state prisons each year. Six hundred thousand. That’s just shy of the number of people living in our nation’s capital. How do we help them? How do we prevent our fellow citizens from ending up back in prison?
Fortunately, civil society is stepping up to address this problem. Organizations across the country are implementing programs during and after incarceration to help individuals get back on their feet and stay on the straight and narrow path to productive citizenship.
The Horizon Prison Initiative does exactly this at three prisons in Ohio. Over the course of one year, inmates in the program are moved into special dormitories within their prison, grouped with six to eight other inmates. They carry out their normal work duties during the day, then in the evening they study Horizon’s coursework, exploring “spiritual development, character reformation, victim awareness, and trauma recovery.” By “helping them realize a life driven by criminal thoughts and behaviors—both inside and outside of prison walls—is no longer an option,” Horizon truly reforms criminals, making both prisons and communities safer.
FOCUS Reentry works to “reduce recidivism and enhance community safety.” By “addressing cognitive-behavioral changes, enhancing motivation, using positive reinforcement, and encouraging ongoing support in natural communities,” they have managed to reduce recidivism rates at the Boulder County Jail to well below the Colorado average—17 percent compared to 49 percent statewide in 2008.
Project 180 in Florida “seeks to reintegrate former offenders into community life,” with the goal of “[reducing] the impact of repeat offenders upon public safety, public spending, Florida families and individual lives.” They are currently in the process of opening a residential program, which will assist those who have no family, friends, or resources to get back on their feet after they have completed their sentences.
The Safer Foundation in Illinois focuses on helping people with criminal records find and maintain jobs, understanding that “employment offers the best chance at successful re-entry.” The recidivism rate for Safer clients who achieved employment is 24.3 percent, compared to 47 percent recidivism for the entire Illinois Department of Corrections.
Many attest that the prison system does not reform inmates, it makes better criminals. While government-run prisons seem to be exacerbating the problem they’re meant to solve, these private-sector groups and many others are making a positive impact on people’s lives—for both the prisoners and the communities they go on to serve.