Whenever an individual's life gets altered by time spent in a criminal justice facility, whether short or long-term, rejoining the community can have its challenges. Fortunately, evidence-based practices and solutions are available to help people achieve and maintain a law-abiding life.
Challenges Faced After Incarceration
After incarceration, the most significant challenge is securing employment that pays a living wage, offers professional growth, and provides scheduling flexibility for individuals with court-ordered treatment and reporting requirements. However, the negative stigma surrounding individuals with justice involvement makes this task especially difficult. In fact, formerly incarcerated people see an unemployment rate that is five times higher than the general United States population.
Although reentry support can help find employment prior to release, many formerly incarcerated individuals struggle to secure and maintain stable employment due to discrimination and the loss of skills they may have experienced during their sentence. Even those with advanced skills may be relegated to low-paying, menial jobs because of their criminal record, leading some to turn back towards illegal activities as a means of survival.
Another challenge a person is likely to face when rejoining their community is housing. According to Pew Research, in October 2021, nearly half of Americans said the availability of affordable housing was a major problem in their community. This problem is even greater for lower-income individuals and adults with criminal convictions. Similar struggles are faced by more than half of women in jail or prison who have children, where finding quality, affordable housing that meets the needs of them and their children is a major barrier.
The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed this information in their April 2022 Coordination to Reduce Barriers to Reentry: lessons learned from COVID-19 and beyond report that indicates:
- Persons who were incarcerated were almost 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public (a factor that was prevalent before the pandemic)
- Those who have been incarcerated more than once are 13 times more likely to experience homelessness.
- The lack of stable housing following incarceration leads to a higher likelihood of rearrest and reincarceration.
The report also indicates other prevalent issues faced by formerly incarcerated individuals:
- Approximately 65 percent of the U.S. prison population has an active substance use disorder.
- Individuals recently released from incarceration are over 40 times more likely to die from an opioid overdose than the general population.
- People with a history of criminal behavior and felony drug convictions are often deemed ineligible for state and federal programs intended to address food insecurity.
- Women, who make up most of the recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes, more likely to have children, and are often ineligible to receive benefits.
- The weeks immediately following reentry are when individuals are most vulnerable to relapse and recidivism.
Danny Trejo is a well-known example of someone whose path and challenges, from the time he was a child, indicated a lifetime of justice involvement. In Trejo's memoir, "My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood," as well as in many interviews and the documentary, "Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo," Trejo shares details about growing up in poverty, a long family history of substance-abuse disorder, a life full of illegal and violent acts that led to years in youth and adult correctional facilities, and what helped him build and maintain a life free of illegal activity. In 2022, at the time his memoir was released, it had been 53 years since Trejo had been in prison, he celebrated 50 years in recovery from substance use disorder, and he received the Experience Strength and Hope Award from Writers in Treatment for his "brutally honest journey from addiction to clean and sober living."
In 1969, Trejo was one of 197,136 people released from federal and state prisons, according to the Historical Statistics on State and Federal Institutions, Yearend 1925–86. In 2022, three times that many people, more than 600,000, re-entered the community after state and federal justice involvement.
When identifying challenges and criminogenic needs, using evidence-based tools, justice professionals are better able to improve interactions with and outcomes for people with justice involvement. Knowledge of the risk factors and barriers identified in the April 2022 U.S. Department of Justice report, combined with a comprehensive understanding of circumstances that contribute to a person engaging in illegal acts, are critical to implementing interventions that are responsive to the traits and circumstances of each person who is justice-involved.
In addition to knowing the risk factors, recognition of data-informed protective factors that contribute to specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely (SMART) goals will also help drive positive outcomes. Per the U.S. Department of Justice:
- Persons in prison or jail who maintain supportive relationships with family members have better outcomes when they return to the community.
- People who participate in post-secondary education and training programs while in prison or jail are 43 percent less likely to be recidivated than those who do not.
- Every dollar invested in prison-based education conservatively yields $4 to $5 in taxpayer savings in reduced incarceration costs.
- The December 2020 restoration of access to Pell Grants for people in prison in jail represents a unique opportunity to improve reentry outcomes.
- When re-entering the community, people enrolled in health care coverage are more likely to use community-based services that could help reduce their chances of recidivating.
- Medicaid expansion for adults, made possible by the ACA, offered new opportunities to increase health coverage for the formerly incarcerated, contributing to their ability to access care and reduce recidivism risks.
Support from family and friends while in prison or jail and when rejoining the community can improve outcomes. In "Prison Ramen," Trejo shared, "You think about all the people who would have visited you if you weren't a three-time loser. Back when I was in juvenile hall, my mom, dad, sister, brother, and everybody would come visit me. When I hit Youth Authority, visits got thinner. In the pen, my mom was the only one who wrote to me." Increased family connections that are positive and law-abiding can reduce recidivism.
By helping people find ways to maintain positive relations with family and friends, complete post-secondary education, receive vocational training, obtain gainful employment, enroll in health care, participate in treatment programs, and have access to healthy food options, justice professionals will see improved outcomes.
It is also important for justice professionals to:
- Make it a priority to connect with people when they are the most vulnerable: within the weeks immediately following release from jail or prison.
- Utilize evidence-based practices, tools, and interventions that are responsive to the traits and circumstances of each person.
- Increase positive reinforcements.
- Build relations and collaborate with public, private, and non-profit partners to maximize resources.
- Provide diploma, GED, and post-secondary education opportunities.
- Offer prison and jail programs and certifications that are easily transferable and accepted by community employers.
- Align with peer support recovery organizations.
- Improve data collection and use data as a guide.
- Establish intentional and structured quality reviews.
Collaborating proactively with colleagues, community partners, policymakers, and persons rejoining the community, challenges can be turned into solutions that will, ultimately, enhance interactions and outcomes.
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