What Communities Can Do to Help Ex-Offenders

What Communities Can Do to Help Ex-Offenders

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Reducing prisoner recidivism remains a challenge for lawmakers and community leaders, but some solutions are emerging that help former prisoners successfully integrate into society and avoid returning to prison. About 700,000 ex-inmates reenter to society each year, and communities and agencies across the nation have started programs to help them find jobs and housing and lead productive lives in their communities.

prisonResearchers have found that there isn’t a single program or strategy that solves the problem. What does work though, are integrated, community-based approaches that remove barriers that ex-prisoners face and support the communities where they will live.

Prisoners can get help even while they are incarcerated. Rehabilitation programs, mental health services, education and vocational trainings, and anger management classes can address some of the issues that may have contributed to the prisoners’ original incarceration. Once they are released, however, a new, more difficult set of challenges emerges. Most ex-prisoners find that life outside the prison is much harder than life inside.

The obstacles don’t always originate with the prisoner, according to Paul Heroux, a former state prison employee, in a column for the Huffington Post. Public opinion of released prisoners can lean toward a belief that ex-offenders don’t deserve housing, jobs, and health care support, especially when people who haven’t committed a crime don’t get these benefits. While Heroux argues that this viewpoint has merit, keeping people in prison is “impossibly expensive,” and not providing support upon release hurts communities.

Without this support, Heroux states, ex-offenders are much more likely to commit another crime and return to prison. Going it alone outside prison is also extremely hard. “A criminal record often acts as a continued sentence and makes it more difficult for ex-offenders to get housing, jobs, and educational opportunities,” he writes.

The federal government recently has stepped in to help. In 2015, the bipartisan Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act supported a focus on individualized recidivism reduction programs geared toward each ex-offender’s needs. Also in 2015, a bill was introduced in the Senate to expand the Second Chances Act of 2008, which offers federal grants for programs dealing with prisoner reentry.

prisonSome experts believe ex-prisoners’ new communities play the biggest role in helping them successfully integrate into society. Former prisoners already must deal with having a criminal record as well as the stigma of having served time in prison, and a supportive community can make a necessary difference. Many times, though, the community also will need support.

“These are people who are coming back to highly disadvantaged neighborhoods, with high rates of unemployment and substance abuse,” says Jocelyn Fontaine, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. “Those communities on their own are not ready to receive a higher proportion of people coming home without better support.”

Experts suggest a holistic approach is best, with nonprofits, churches, and government organizations working together to give ex-offenders comprehensive support as they navigate their new lives. For example, Heroux states that a monitoring system, such as parole, is vital for a newly released prisoner. The government, however, does not always have to oversee probation and parole programs. Day reporting centers and religious organizations also can help with this task.

Some organizations already are providing “umbrella” services that experts recommend for ex-offenders. For example, Mz. Shirliz in Redwood City, California, offers a residential, transitional program and a multipurpose crisis resource center to help ex-offenders stay on a path to success. The program maintains a safe, sober environment where residents have access to everything from a computer lab to yoga classes to workshops on how to write a resume. Counselors help residents get copies of their birth certificates, obtain proper identification, and choose appropriate clothes for job interviews.

Safer Return, a program that works with the Illinois Department of Corrections in west Chicago, begins identifying participants while they still are in prison. After the offender is released, he or she can work with neighborhood-based parole agents and other innovative programs. Prisoners often have many simultaneous needs, including food, shelter, and job training, therefore umbrella programs that offer a range of services in one location greatly benefit ex-offenders. Safer Return administrators agree that the program has seen measurable success as recidivism rates have decreased, although some remained concerned with the programs’ high cost.

No program is perfect, and some ex-offenders will return to prison, Heroux said. The public should remember that along with highly publicized prisoner reentry failures are success stories about prisoners obtaining jobs, reconnecting with family and friends, and finding a stable place to live. Experts should continue to measure the outcomes of reentry programs, looking for best practices and ways to apply the methods of successful programs to organizations across the nation.

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