The steep challenge of re-entry

Last week a group of inmates were sharing their goals for life after incarceration. One inmate is due for release in a matter of weeks; others anywhere from one to three years.

One of the men shared his vision of starting a tow-truck business. Another inmate was less specific, speaking generally about reunion with his daughter and girl friend and his intention of finding a job. Still another spoke about a goal to reorient his life away from the relationships that had not served him well. The fourth man to speak indicated that he had already submitted a proposal to a cabinet-level government official. Smiling, he acknowledged it was a long shot.

As I listened to each of them I wondered if they knew the challenges they would be facing when they get out of prison.

In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes about the various forms of discrimination encountered by convicted felons as they re-enter the community after their incarceration. In employment, housing, voting, jury service, education and food assistance; felons can experience temporary and/or lifetime discrimination. For those who have worn out their welcome with family and find themselves completely on their own, needing a place to stay and a job fairly quickly, the denial of public assistance because of a felony conviction makes successful re-entry a tall order indeed.

This is one factor (undoubtedly among others) in the startling high rate of recidivism, which can be as high as 75% depending on such variables as the age of the prisoner, the crime(s) for which he was sentenced and what programs he participated in while in prison. All prisoners need help when they are released even if their time in prison was genuinely rehabilitative.  But far too many receive little more than pocket money and a bus ticket when they leave prison to face life in a community that is not inclined to ever allow them to be anything other than a criminal.

When I told the men in my group the statistics on recidivism they were stunned, and I wondered if I should have refrained from sharing  those grim numbers. Most of them are serving a sentence in a federal prison for the first time in their lives, and their crimes range from drug offenses to white collar crime. They may be at low risk for recidivism. Still, re-entry is hardly a cakewalk even for the most well-prepared prisoner.

My job is to contribute to the well-preparedness, especially in the areas of the heart and mind. However, knowing what I know about what many prisoners will face upon release, I continually ask myself if I am doing the right things to help them.

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