Challenges of Prisoner Re-entry
Bruce’s story is compelling, and all too familiar. He is one of roughly 4.8 million offenders currently under some form of community supervision in the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Rising incarceration rates over the last few decades mean that more people are being locked up and that a growing number of inmates are also being released from prison. In 2011, 688,384 men and women were released from state or federal custody, according to BJS—that’s about 1,885 individuals each day. Another 9 million individuals were released from jail. It’s no wonder “prisoner re-entry,” the transition of offenders from prisons and jails back into the community, is the buzzword in correctional reform.
Bruce’s story highlights the many challenges awaiting those who leave confinement. For most offenders, as well as for their families and communities, re-entry is a complex transition. Former offenders often struggle with substance abuse, inadequate education and job skills, limited housing options, and serious health and mental health needs. Family relationships are strained by incarceration. According to an ex-offender project manager in Baltimore, Maryland, the average prisoner returning to the city received $40 on release and owed $8,000 in child support. He had no means of transportation, no place to live, and great difficulty in finding a job. An oft-cited statistic is that nearly two-thirds of released offenders are arrested again within three years.
The sheer volume of offenders—and their likelihood of re-incarceration— has made re-entry a priority for policy makers. Today, a wide array of re-entry programs offer a range of approaches. Some take place during incarceration, preparing offenders for their eventual release; others occur during the release period, connecting ex-offenders with the various services they require; and still other longer-term programs provide ex-offenders with support and supervision as they permanently reintegrate into their communities. The most successful programs begin during incarceration, extend throughout the release and reintegration process, focus on high-risk offenders, are intensive in nature, and are community-based.
While dropping to some extent, incarceration rates still remain high. Since nearly all inmates will be released from prison at some point, perhaps it is time to think outside the cell. To date, prisoner re-entry has focused almost exclusively on activities and programs designed to help inmates become productive members of society. But what of the communities to which they return? Although providing inmates with an education or vocational training and preparing them for a life outside prison are steps in the right direction, such skills matter little if the communities to which ex-offenders return offer them few jobs or opportunities—a tough reality in an economic recession. Individualistic public policies that focus solely on offenders overlook the community context and set ex-inmates up for failure.