The first few hours after an inmate is released from prison can be frightening. Many walk out without a plan or a place to go, and they have burned so many bridges that they often have no one to call for help. They need transportation, food, and somewhere to sleep. Further, ex-inmates who have been imprisoned for years may not know how to do simple things like paying a bus fare with a card.
In those overwhelming first moments of freedom, ex-inmates can be tempted to commit a crime, such as theft, to get money. Moreover, ex-inmates are easy prey for people on the streets. “You gravitate toward survival, and that makes you vulnerable,” said Katy Steinbruck, director of programs for Offender Aid and Restoration of Arlington, in a press interview. The result is often that the ex-inmate is quickly imprisoned again for a new crime.
Several programs around the United States work to intervene in those crucial post-release days. A recent article in the Huffington Post stressed the importance of reentry programs and the need for governments to prioritize funding for them.
Here are three types of programs that are working:
Many jurisdictions are building these types of programs, which serve as one-stop shops for services for soon-to-be released prisoners. Community workers begin meeting with prisoners in the months before they are released, providing them a connection to the outside world who can help assess their needs and begin working on a long-term plan.
Boston Pre-Release was founded in 1972. Its 200-bed facility serves as a kind of halfway house, giving prisoners opportunities to leave the grounds for work and education programs, as well as counseling. Because the facility is located near public transportation, inmates can learn how to use the system and more easily get to their community programs.
The center offers a wide variety of programs, including 12-step groups for addictions, religious services, GED and English as a second language classes, and life-skills programs.
To help inmates prepare for trades or professions, some prisons offer vocational, high school, and college classes on site. A 2013 study of ex-inmates from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision showed that inmates who complete college-level education programs in prison are less likely to commit additional crimes and return to prison.
One of the largest college-level education programs in a prison is the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison in California. Professors from nearby universities, like Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, volunteer to teach classes, and inmates do not have to pay tuition to earn an associate’s degree. Because inmates do not have access to the Internet, professors copy articles for them to read, and inmates often handwrite essays and other class assignments.
Anecdotally and statistically, this type of program can be effective. Inmates interviewed for an SFGate.com article about the program said they had come to love learning and that attending college classes fulfilled a lost dream.
Inmate and San Quentin student Timothy Nash told SFGate.com that he planned to work in advocacy after his release from prison. He said he also wanted to be a positive role model for his son, who was also in prison. “I don’t want to tell my son, ‘Well, you need to get an education, you need to do this,’ when I didn’t do it myself,” Nash said in a press interview.
As experts struggle to figure out why some programs work and some don’t, they do say that ex-inmates require an extra measure of compassion and understanding as they reenter society. Sometimes even the smallest gesture, they say, can make a significant difference.
California’s Ride Home Program employs ex-inmates to pick up prisoners on their day of release and spend the day helping them with everything from getting a haircut to looking up pictures of their families on Facebook. Carlos Cervantes, a Ride Home Program employee, told the Huffington Post that an inmate’s first day out of prison “is everything.”
According to Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, showing compassion doesn’t mean excusing ex-prisoners’ past behavior, but it does mean accepting ex-inmates as they are and helping them move forward in life. Successful programs help ex-inmates find a new direction in life while providing a “human touch.”
Another program built on compassion is Mz. Shirliz, which is based in Redwood City, California, and provides residential accommodations, vocational training, and a resource center for inmates newly released from prison. Ex-inmates have access to a computer lab and life-skills workshops, as well as yoga classes and a GED program.