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From Prisons to Communities: Confronting Re-entry Challenges and Social Inequality

By: Melissa Li

Over 600,000 individuals are released from prison annually and three-quarters of them are rearrested within five years of their release (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005). Men and women released from correctional facilities receive minimal preparation and inadequate assistance and resources, which makes their re-entry into communities challenging (Visher & Mallik-Kane, 2007). A criminal conviction limits employment prospects, public housing assistance and social services (Coates, 2015). Even having a minor criminal record creates substantial barriers and far-reaching collateral consequences. It is important to transform the current criminal justice system to shift the focus from reincarceration to successful re-entry into their communities.

Socioeconomic factors play an important role in determining successful re-entry outcomes. 

A significant challenge that previously convicted individuals face is re-entry into the labor market. Released prisoners have difficulty securing and maintaining employment after re-entry since employers are reluctant to hire people with criminal records (Urban Institute, 2008). In addition to a criminal record, limited education, the stigma of incarceration and a lack of employment history contribute to limited employment opportunities (McGrew & Hanks, 2017). Also, most states allow employers to deny jobs to individuals who were previously arrested but never convicted of a crime (Legal Action Center, 2004). Released prisoners generally find employment and work in low-skill jobs (Urban Institute, 2008) in food service, wholesale, maintenance or the manufacturing industry. These employment opportunities provide few benefits and little to no opportunities for upward mobility. Furthermore, previously convicted individuals who manage to secure a job are employed at lower wages than they earned before incarceration (Urban Institute, 2008). Offenders also experience obstacles in public and private job sectors since they are unable to obtain professional and technical licenses (Holzer, Raphael & Soll 2003). When limited legal employment opportunities and resources are available, individuals who are re-entering their communities are more likely to reoffend.

Re-entering individuals also face difficulties in finding and securing housing. The high risk of residential instability can lead some to experience homelessness after release (Fontaine, 2013). Most individuals leave prison with limited finances to secure an apartment. Additionally, strict housing policies make it harder for these individuals to be considered as viable candidates for housing. Currently, private market rental housing associations have policies against renting to people with criminal records (Cortes & Rogers, 2010). Also, individuals with past drug or felony convictions are ineligible for public housing (Dougherty, 2012). Studies show that the first month after release is a vulnerable period during which the risk of becoming homeless and/or recidivism is high (Cortes & Rogers, 2010). In fact, the lack of stable housing can increase the possibility of being rearrested (Cortes & Rogers, 2010). Providing access to affordable housing options and lenient policies can help support an individual’s transition back into their respective communities and is an important factor in recidivism prevention.

Returning individuals also face barriers in accessing public assistance. Majority of states ban individuals with drug felony convictions from being eligible for federally funded public assistance and food stamps (Legal Action Center, 2004). The 1996 Federal Welfare Law prohibits individuals convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving federally funded food stamps or cash assistance. Re-entering individuals are ineligible even if they have completed their sentence, overcome their addiction or earned a certificate of rehabilitation (Legal Action Center, 2004). Welfare assistance is an essential transitional resource for those who face economic hardships after release from prison (O'Brien, 2002). Denying re-entering individuals from public assistance causes difficulties for them to support themselves as they leave the criminal justice system and re-enter society. This would increase the likelihood that they will return to criminal activity and drug use.

The costs of unsuccessful re-entry and reincarceration negatively impacts communities, families and individuals. Incarceration has disproportionately impacted minorities, primarily young black men, and individuals with low levels of education (Morenoff and Harding, 2014). A consequence of incarceration is that relationships with families and the broader community are strained. For communities with high rates of removal and return of offenders, this further produces immense social and economic disadvantages (Travis, Solomon & Waul, 2001). Evidence shows that the outcomes of corrections are not cost-effective and do not justify the costs to communities, families and individuals (Datchi, Barretti & Thompson, 2016).

There is a necessity for effective strategies, which address the barriers that prevent previously incarcerated individuals from successfully reintegrating into their communities. Released prisoners are disadvantaged educationally, economically and socially, which further perpetuates inequality (Vishner and Travis, 2003). An approach to reducing recidivism and assisting previously incarcerated re-enter society successfully is prison education and re-entry programming. Many states have responded by offering an adult education, adult postsecondary education, career and technical education, and special education (Taliaferro, Pham and Cielinkski, 2016). A focus on pre-release programs, which prepares individuals to be productive members of their communities, is essential. Providing incarcerated individuals with job and life skills, education programming, mental health counseling and addiction treatment will help overcome some of the challenges they face upon re-entering their communities. Research indicates that inmates who participate in correctional education programs are 43 percent less likely to re-enter prison (Department of Justice Archives, 2017). In addition, each dollar spent on prison education saves approximately four dollars on re-incarceration costs (Department of Justice Archives, 2017). 

Different efforts can be initiated by policymakers to reduce barriers and improve re-entry of returning individuals. Individuals are burdened with a criminal record, no matter how minor the offense and face significant challenges reintegrating into communities. It is important that re-entry preparation begins on the first day of incarceration and continues without disruption into the community (APA, 2017). Local governments should support the re-entering population by allocating funds to expand the programs that assist with the process of re-entry (Bilger, 2016) and provision of medication-assisted treatment (APA, 2017). In order to ensure continuity of care, it is vital to prioritize information sharing between justice systems, communities, and physical and behavioral health providers (APA, 2017). It is important that services provided to incarcerated individuals specifically target their individual needs (Mallik-Kane, 2008). Effective re-entry practices recognize the important relationship that must be established between behavioral, physical and relational health (APA, 2017).


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