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Five Easy Pieces

--Ann Graham

Five specific areas have a profound affect on someone’s ability to reenter the community and make a secure, law-abiding life for themselves. While funders like to focus on programs that feature cognitive behavioral interventions meant to address long-standing defects in reasoning and beliefs, Maslow showed us that these can only be effective when basic needs are addressed.   Prison life itself teaches exactly the opposite of much of what’s needed to make a stable, successful life in the community, like good decision-making skills, self-respect, consideration for others, earning a living, computer skills, supporting children and family, budgeting income, and filing taxes.  Helping former prisoners to develop or re-develop these necessary skills are a part of any effective reentry program and should begin long before the release date.  Once the person is released, the following five areas are key to insuring a positive reentry:

  1. Where to begin. Most people leaving incarceration get little or no help to find their footing in the community.  In Monroe County, only medium to high-risk state prison releasees can get assistance through the Monroe County Reentry Task Force, and even that help is limited.  There are a number of programs in our area that can provide some type of assistance, but they all have specific eligibility requirements, and inmates are not given a map to find their way through the maze of governmental and not-for-profit organizations that could provide assistance. This is the reason why RAWNY is focused on creating a reentry one-stop that will allow anyone leaving incarceration to be connected to appropriate services.
  2. Stabilization Needs. It’s hard to find a job or a place to live if you don’t have a phone, transportation, or a permanent address, let alone a birth certificate, driver’s license, or Social Security card.  Former prisoners can spend weeks or months just obtaining needed documents, appropriate clothing, and hygiene supplies.  The county’s emergency housing shelters are not designed to meet the needs of former prisoners.  In fact, they are meant not to be stable, but to serve as a temporary resting place.  Millions in tax dollars go to keeping people convicted of a crime—even a non-violent crime—in correctional facilities; a tiny fraction of that amount is spent to enhance public safety by ensuring people in reentry are quickly able to stabilize in the community.
  3. Finding a living-wage job. About half of all job seekers find a job through someone they know.  Former prisoners lack the social capital to “network” their way to a job.  And of course, a criminal background check commonly stands in the way of obtaining all but the lowest paying jobs.  Initiatives like Ban the Box and open hiring, and training in correctional facilities that provides industry-rated credentials, are needed to help ensure people in reentry are able to obtain living-wage work.
  4. Behavioral Health Issues. About 28% of state prisoners have a diagnosed mental illness.  It would likely be more accurate to say more than half of prisoners are struggling with some type of mental health issue, from depression to addiction to schizophrenia.  Prisoners do not receive adequate treatment while incarcerated.  The trauma of incarceration itself exacerbates existing mental illness.  Providing high-quality mental health services during incarceration and continuing after release is a necessary component of successful reentry.
  5. Family Challenges.  The lack of a caring family is a serious deficit for many men and women returning to the community.  A supportive family is often the best guarantee that a formerly incarcerated person will be able to succeed after release.  But, a prisoner’s family often feels like they are doing time right along with him/her.  The financial strain is obvious, if the family has lost the income of the incarcerated person, made worse by the expense of visits, phone calls, packages, and commissary money. Once released, the former prisoner may feel extreme pressure to make up for this and find it nearly impossible to get a job that will not only cover his own living expenses but contribute to the care of children not living with him. If the family is living together, family members may struggle to understand the rules of parole supervision that add significantly to the stress of resuming a “normal” life.  It is crucial that correctional agencies acknowledge the important role family can play in a person’s successful reentry and create policies that enhance and support family attachment.
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