Unlocking Opportunity for People Leaving Prison
January 31, 2011 | by Malcolm Young
A recent flurry of articles describe programs that help people leaving U.S. prisons overcome the challenges that confront them. That we are reading so many of these articles in the media today is tribute to over a decade of contributions by visionary policy thinkers, national leaders, government and private funders, dedicated program directors and staff, innovative corrections professionals, and justice reform advocates.
But the articles reflect an uncertain future.
Stephen Greenhouse of the New York Times describes some of these uncertainties in his story “States Help Ex-Inmates Find Jobs.” Nationally, state policymakers have endorsed prisoner reentry and employment as a strategy to reduce a $69-billion annual prison bill. And it can work: with an investment of $56 million in programs, Michigan realized $200 million in prison savings.
But here’s the rub: states lack the money it takes to save money. Deficit-ridden states such as Kansas have cut the very programs which had successfully reduced prison populations. Federal stimulus funds for transitional work programs and incentives for employers to hire former prisoners are drying up. And some observers are predicting that federal funding for reentry programs will be halved in the coming year.
In Tina Rosenberg’s New York Times story “For Ex-Prisoners, a Haven Away from the Streets,” she lauds The Fortune Society’s “Castle” residence in New York, and Delancey Street in San Francisco. Both provide new homes and peer support for people leaving prison. With proven employment and other reentry services, success comes when, according to Rosenberg, people returning from prison are lifted clear of “their old neighborhoods…their old gang … associates who tempt them with promises of easy money or drug-filled nights.” But, as Rosenberg observes, Delancey Street and The Fortune Society have not been widely replicated. Most people leaving prison are bound to return to communities that hold few sustainable job prospects.
Alex Halperin’s Washington Post Sunday Magazine piece “After Prison, Building a New Life Means More than Just Doing Right” profiles Louis B. Sawyer Jr., who, with the aid of a few reentry programs, returned to just such a community. Sawyer had the advantage of a fair education, money from his prison job, a good outlook, encouragement and support from his church, perseverance, and the stamina to endure futile job fairs. After six months Sawyer networked his way into a job as a part-time peer advocate, guiding people with felony convictions through the “reentry labyrinth” he had mastered. But as Halperin observes, two-thirds of the participants in reentry programs fail.
These three writers tell inspiring stories of life after prison. How can we resolve the uncertainties and policy conflicts that are also revealed so that these stories become more frequent? My own project has developed solid proposals. Here are four:
To address the shortage of public funding for reentry programming, work-related programs should engage private business in the design, delivery, funding, and follow-up to their reentry programming. Businesses are best equipped to define their future workforce requirements. And as it stands, businesses spend a lot of money on training. If corrections provides training that is a benefit to employers and industries, it seems reasonable that the beneficiaries might share the cost.
To be relevant in a highly competitive labor market and to gain public support, reentry programs should target jobs in new and expanding businesses where there is not yet a trained work force competing for those jobs.
Because most prisoners have no choice but to return to their old neighborhoods, reentry programs should play an active role in helping to build positive communities. Employment reentry programs should work hand-in-hand with programs that advance community and economic development (and should be funded with a portion of the considerable federal, state, and local funds now spent on community development projects).
To replicate the success of people like Louis Sawyer, corrections should put a priority on designing and implementing holistic reentry programs that build on strengths, foster motivation, and substantively prepare and connect people leaving prison to particular jobs in advance of their release.
None of these proposals are self actuating. Implementation will be its own challenge. But the rewards include a continued pattern of success in public policy, in troubled communities and for people leaving prison.
On February 1st, 2011 at 1:24 pm, Louis Sawyer Jr said:
Great article, it was right on the money. But, until society becomes serious about the successful reentry of returning citizens back into the community, and the challenges we face on a daily basis, along with the above solid proposals that you have provided, we will always be engaged in these types of conversations. The talk is over, its time for action in a very positive way.
Looking forward in hearing from you real soon.
Job well done, keep up the good work.
Reply to Louis Sawyer Jr
On February 3rd, 2011 at 12:44 pm, carol shapiro said:
While I agree that the articles are all laudable, they leave out a key component to coming home and breaking cycles of criminal and juvenile justice involvement–the family and community they are connected to. Most people don’t live alone, research has shown the value of family engagement, and families are an existing resource that can and must be tapped for long-term sustainable change.
Reply to carol shapiro
On February 8th, 2011 at 6:26 pm, Liane Rozzell said:
Carol, I agree that family is a key. It means that good re-entry policy includes supporting people’s connections with family before and after they return. It also means dealing with housing policies that may cut returning citizens off from their family and support network, such as bans on people with a felony record living in subsidized housing.
Reply to Liane Rozzell
On February 3rd, 2011 at 2:33 pm, Mark O’Brien said:
Great post. Thank you for drawing attention to this important issue. I would make only one small correction. You attribute to Halperin’s article the assertion that two-thirds of reentry program participants fail. In actuality, her article states that two-thirds of people leaving prison are rearrested within three years, regardless of their participation in reentry programming.
Anecdotal evidence and the scant statistical evidence available suggest that individuals who participate in reentry programs have a significantly higher likelihood of refraining from criminal behavior and a reduced chance of being rearrested.
Reply to Mark O’Brien
On February 3rd, 2011 at 8:04 pm, Budder Jones said:
This is a great article, and it is based in the reality of the challenges that are ahead for ex-offenders, returning to society. In light of the programs that are been slashed for lack of funds, we should not depend solely on the government to be the answer to all of our re-entry needs. Most of this re-entry process should be a direct result of an individual to take on the responsibility to make a change in their lives. We still have businesses and large companies where an individual can voulnteer his/her services to assist in developing the skills needed to pursue a better life. We need to think “outside the box”, when planning strategies to successfully re-intergrate back into the world.
For more information on what I’m speaking about, please feel free to contact me @ 773-746-3075.
Budder Jones–Founder/CEO-Inmates For Change (A Non-Profit Organization)
Reply to Budder Jones
On February 4th, 2011 at 5:23 pm, Janetta Pegues said:
Great insight my brother. May God bless your efforts.
Reply to Janetta Pegues
On February 6th, 2011 at 9:17 pm, Julia Roiniotis said:
Very interesting post. The challenge will be to get businesses to see how they can benefit from hiring former prisoners. As with the recent snafu with Hair Cuttery in the DC area, some businesses have blanket prohibitions against hiring anyone with a criminal record. Community leaders, particularly those in community leaders in communities with high proportions of former prisoners, should put pressure on these businesses to hire promising candidates, even if they have a record. So it would seem that community organizations can play a big role.
Reply to Julia Roiniotis
On February 10th, 2011 at 5:08 pm, Ben G said:
My understanding of this topic does not extend much further than me happening to grow up next to a bunch of prisons and having a father that conducted regular bible studies with inmates.
I like the idea of approaching this problem with idea of integrating business as part of the solution. I also like the idea of approaching it like the study of economics by honing in on what specific “carrots” motivate inmates, the public, governments, and other actors. Leave out the altruism for now, and focus purely on hard and fast motivations. Where these motivations intersect, a potential longer term solution may reside. The public. Possible motivations might include money and safer society to live in. If money is being allocated to help prisoners re-enter society and the workforce, but the recidivism rates are not changing, the public has every right to say “why isn’t this money going to help my child who has committed no crime”. But if the numbers really add up, and investment in reentry programs saves money over the long term, verifiable and broadly believed, then this argument needs to be driven home hard. “The economics are clear: it saves money to spend a little now”. Inmates. What motivates inmates? Some seem to find prison life at least stable and once out, may not be overly motivated, so end up going back. Is there a way to create incentive in the way prisons are structured? Is there a way to teach actual skills while in prison that can be converted to a real job? If more freedom and an interesting job while in prison is verified to be a motivating factor for inmates, maybe prisons can be tiered in a way that good behavior results in being moved to a facility where they can get greater freedom and interesting work. For example, Four Mile prison outside of Canon City, CO has a broad range of interesting jobs for prisoners like working with wild horses, dogs, cooking, auto-mechanics and the programs result in a considerable revenue offset for the prison and skills and real jobs for prisoners once they get out (and excellenty trained horses, dogs, fixed cars for the public). Win, win, win.
I think universities could be rallied to conduct critical studies that identify state or federal programs that are having successful numbers with regards to recidivism rates and employment. Studies that identify the most successful programs could be used to tailor the next generation of prisons.
Number crunchers, economists, researchers, business leaders, and the public need to be rallied with a keen eye on what motivates. Businesslike approach.