Re-entering society after long-term incarceration is riddled with challenges. Those with a criminal history face many barriers to receiving public benefits, gaining successful employment, regaining custody of children and obtaining housing. Vocational programs may not be available in prison or upon release, limiting the ability of those with a criminal history to update their job skills in order to obtain employment. Many are suffering with mental or physical illnesses with limited means of getting adequate treatment. All of these issues are in addition to problems borne out of the societal stigma associated with serving time in jail or prison.
According to a publication by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 683,000 inmates were released from prison in 2008 to begin the process of reintegration into their communities.
The Parole System:
Many individuals convicted of a crime are released on parole after serving only a portion of their full sentence. The original intent of the parole system was to reward well-behaved prisoners who had shown they had been rehabilitated and could thereby practice good behavior when interacting with society. However, this is no longer the case – simply put, the parole system has evolved into a solution for relieving over-crowding in prisons. Non-violent offenders are often released after only a portion of their sentence has been served in order to make room for more violent prisoners who have just been sentenced.
Most states have a mandatory discharge date - the good time system. For example, if you are sentenced to five years, and serve 2.5 years without infractions, you are released on parole. Extra good time can be earned by obtaining a GED (in facilities that offer classes), and through other options like trustee status (being an inmate that cleans up after other inmates). So, an inmate could serve three years on ten for no other reason than he didn't get caught tattooing himself (or anyone else), he cleaned the kitchen, and obtained a GED. Parole is not based on rehabilitation nor is it based upon employment prospects.
After a hearing is conducted by a parole board and upon granting of release, prisoners must follow particular guidelines for conduct and meet regularly with a parole officer. Eligibility and conditions of parole are established by state authorities and can vary. These conditions may also vary within communities – one parole agent may be far more understanding of the difficulties parolees face in rejoining society than another. If the conditions of the parole agreement are violated, the individual may be returned to the correctional facility and subject to additional penalties.
For example, if an ex-offender has no job, s/he has no way to pay supervision fees, which then gets the parolee sent back to prison for parole violation. If a parolee cannot satisfy a parole officer that s/he has a stable address, the parolee can (and generally WILL) be violated and sent back to prison. A parolee can be violated for simply being in the presence of another ex-offender. This limits some families from helping one family member, because the family already let another ex-offender come home. It also limits employment prospects; parolees could technically be violated for working together or for working for an employer who also happens to be an ex-offender. Most parole officers won’t violate parolees for that, but technically they could, so that adds a layer of difficulty and stress in finding available employment.
On April 9, 2008, the Second Chance Act was signed in to law. The purpose of the Act was to improve outcomes for people returning to communities from prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities. This federal legislation authorizes grant money to government and non-profit organizations for programs and services that help parolees reintegrate into society and prevent recidivism. The grants cover several areas: recidivism prevention, housing, job training, substance abuse and mental health treatment, recovery programs, mentoring programs, and family support programs.
Factors Attributed to Successful Reintegration:
There are several factors that contribute to successful reintegration. They include:
- Family support
- Financial stability (being able to cover the costs of housing and basic necessities)
- Involvement in substance abuse programs
- Stabilization of any mental illness
Each factor has its own challenges to overcome. We’ll look at them in turn, and provide resources for where to obtain additional information and help in achieving the best possible outcome.
Employment for Former Inmates:
Opportunities for employment may have direct bearing upon who is offered parole and when. Successful employment and eventual reintegration into society can reduce recidivism rates among offenders; however, finding and maintaining employment is difficult (sometimes impossible) for former inmates.
Legal barriers to employing former inmates present huge challenges:
- Most states allow employers to deny jobs to those who have been arrested but not convicted of crimes.
- Most states allow employers to deny jobs to anyone with a criminal record, regardless of how long ago the crime occurred, despite work history or personal circumstances.
In the last several years, more emphasis has been placed on developing resources for employers and inmates through the establishment of intermediaries. Intermediaries may come from private organizations, non-profits, or churches and help address issues of employment, substance abuse, stable housing, vocational skills, and establishment of a stable support network.
Job training and mentoring programs have shown promise in helping former inmates learn new, or adapt existing, skill sets for a new career.
Here are some resources and suggestions for finding employment, job training, and mentoring programs:
The National H.I.R.E. Network provides links to community-based organizations and government agencies that assist with job-related and legal services, tips for completing employment applications, and help understanding what an employer can and cannot review in terms of criminal history.
The U.S. Department of Labor sponsors America’s Service Locator which is a resource hub that connects individuals to employment and training opportunities available at local One-Stop Career Centers. It provides information for a wide range of services, including career development and educational opportunities.
Fair Shake is an online resource center for former inmates, their families, employers, property managers, and other community members. It provides a Reentry Tool Kit with information on employment, relationships, how to deal with rejection, and more. It also has a searchable service directory for additional resources.
Goodwill is a long-standing advocate of employing ex-offenders and is almost universally easy to find. To locate one in your area, use the “Find Your Local Goodwill” section of the website. Goodwill organizations are social enterprises that fund job training, employment placement services, and other community programs by selling donated clothing and household items at their stores and online.
Having a stable support network upon release from prison is vital to successful reintegration. Families can be a source of that support, provided they are equipped to do so. Parents who have been imprisoned face hardships re-establishing relationships with their children, especially if the custodial parent does not want them to have a relationship. In recent years, there have been efforts to help children stay connected to their parents who are in prison, not only helping the child’s feeling of loss while the parent is incarcerated, but assisting in re-establishing the relationship when the parent returns.
While many families are happy to support their loved one and do whatever is necessary, others do not want the responsibility or are afraid of having the former inmate in their home, especially if domestic violence, abuse, drug offenses, or other violent acts were the reason the individual was imprisoned in the first place. Most states make criminal history information accessible to the general public through the Internet. Not only does the former inmate face the societal stigma, but the family does as well. It takes a lot of forgiveness, therapy, and effort on the part of all involved to achieve a healthy family support system.
In cases where family support is not possible, it is important for the former inmate to seek out an alternative support system. These can be groups that focus on rehabilitation and recovery, faith-based organizations, friends, or other non-profit organizations dedicated to helping former inmates re-integrate successfully.
Here are some resources and suggestions for helping families and finding additional support systems:
Assisting Families of Inmates, Inc. (AFOI) helps prepare families and inmates for a successful transition when the inmate is released from prison.
The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated provides a directory of programs by state, as well as programs that provide services nationwide and internationally.
In addition to establishing employment and a support network, having financial stability is integral to a former inmate’s chances of successful reintegration. (Financial stability is defined as being able to cover the cost of housing and basic necessities like food and clothing.) Secure housing can greatly reduce a former inmate's criminal involvement and prevents homelessness.
Apart from establishing employment, finding housing is one of the biggest challenges faced by those with a criminal history. Unfortunately, these two challenges often play against one another: an individual with a criminal record may have difficulty establishing employment to pay for a place to live and without a stable address, the individual may not be able to secure employment. Rental applications may be refused by a landlord who does not rent to felons. Low pay and a lack of credit can also provide significant barriers when obtaining housing. Many property managers run background checks and won’t rent to someone with a criminal record.
In addition, if a former inmate is successful in obtaining housing, they may face difficulties with covering the costs of basic necessities like food and clothing. Most states ban some or all individuals with drug felony convictions from being eligible for federally funded public assistance and food stamps.
Often those who are released from prison will seek shelter with family members, if the family is equipped to provide such support.
Other options for housing include:
- Private rentals
- Public and/or supportive housing
- Subsidized housing
- Halfway house, which is supervised, compliance-based, and often short-term
- Specialized re-entry housing (similar to halfway houses)
Specialized housing options are in high demand and remain in scarce supply. Some of these options may not be available due to restrictions on who can reside there, long wait lists, or lack of funding. These specialized housing options also require a deposit and weekly rent payments; that deposit can be almost impossible for a recently released inmate to pay.
Here are some resources and suggestions for finding housing and assistance in covering the cost of basic necessities:
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides information on housing counseling, food stamps, food banks, healthcare, and homeless veterans. It also has a searchable directory of homeless assistance programs by state.
Goodwill organizations are social enterprises that fund job training, employment placement services, and other community programs by selling donated clothing and household items at their stores and online. They are also a good place to obtain necessary items economically.
Volunteers of America provides a variety of services to people in need, including at-risk youth, the elderly, men and women returning from prison, homeless individuals, veterans, people with disabilities and those recovering from addiction.
The Salvation Army - provides a wide variety of services, including, but not limited to: housing and homeless services, prisoner rehabilitation, and meal assistance.
The Global FoodBanking Network provides links to food banks worldwide.
Substance Abuse Programs
Many non-violent offenders are imprisoned for drug offenses. These inmates are often the first to be paroled in order to relieve prison over-crowding. Involvement in substance abuse programs is essential to help this population achieve successful reintegration. Substance abuse can be treated and managed successfully. The best combination for successful treatment of addiction is to combine medications with behavioral therapy. The treatment plan must be designed specifically for each person's drug abuse patterns, any existing mental illnesses, and be in place for an adequate length of time.
Again, a solid support structure is imperative and can be found in family, friends, therapists, other people in recovery, and people in the faith community. Here are some suggestions for finding substance abuse treatment programs:
Substance Abuse Treatment Program Locator provides a state-by-state locator of drug and alcohol treatment facilities.
Narcotics Anonymous: is an international, community-based association of recovering drug addicts with more than 58,000 weekly meetings in 131 countries worldwide.
Al-Anon/Ala-Teen: a family support group.
Cocaine Anonymous: a recovery and support group for those addicted to cocaine.
Marijuana Anonymous: a recovery and support group for those addicted to marijuana.
Crystal Meth Anonymous: a recovery and support group for those addicted to crystal meth.
Stabilization of Mental Illness
Often, mental illness is an underlying condition in those who have been incarcerated. It could have been present prior to incarceration, exacerbated by the imprisonment, or developed during the incarceration as a result of trauma or other circumstances. Former inmates who have mental illness have a double stigma to fight, so getting help for mental, and physical, illnesses is an important part of reintegration into society.
Mental illnesses can be managed successfully. Mental illness may be treated in clinics, psychiatric hospitals and community health centers. Treatment is tailored for each patient and may encompass a number of different options (together or separately), including psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, systematic therapy (family therapy), group counseling, and medications.
Here are some suggestions for finding help and managing mental illness:
Mental Health America is an advocacy organization that works to promote mental health by informing, educating, and enabling access to mental health services nation-wide. The website has a section entitled “Get Help”, which contains information on finding treatment and how to pay for it.
The Salvation Army – provides a wide variety of services, including, but not limited to: housing and homeless services, prisoner rehabilitation, and meal assistance.
In addition, the mental health services at a local clinic or hospital can provide referrals for treatment.
Emotional Support Resources
Family Support Resources
General Information Resources
Substance Abuse Resources
Additional Resources for Successful Reintegration Into Society After Incarceration:
The National Reentry Resource Center specializes in providing resources, information, news articles, and law updates regarding reentry issues. It provides Reentry Services Directories by state, as well as links to many on-line resources and publications to help former inmates upon release from prison.
The Reentry Policy Council offers resources for reentry programs in accordance with the Second Chance Act.
The National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women is a resource hub specifically for women offenders re-entering the community.
The Tribal Juvenile Detention and Reentry Resource and Technical Assistance Center provides resources specifically for Native American youth offenders.
The National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice has resources specifically for youth offenders and those who work with them.
City Limits.org published a Q&A article with the country’s top experts on re-entry.
Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services published a journal article on the factors necessary for female ex-prison inmates to successfully reintegrate into society.