Every week over 10,000 ex-offenders are released from state and federal prisons and sent back into our communities as our new neighbors. Unfortunately for the public in these communities, studies show that approximately two-thirds of these ex-offenders will be rearrested within three years of their release, a statistic that dramatically highlights how ineffective our corrections system currently is. Without a job, a place to live, and in some cases a family, those released from prison often find themselves right back in the environment that led them to offend initially. What has our corrections system done to prepare them to live healthy, productive, law-abiding lives upon their release? Unfortunately today, not enough.
“This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison…. America is the land of the second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”
–President George W. Bush, 2004 State of the Union Address
Most offenders will be returning from years in overcrowded prisons where they were exposed to the horrors of violence—including rape—isolation from family and friends, and despair. Most were idle in prison, warehoused with little preparation to make better choices when they return to the free world. Just one-third of all released prisoners will have received vocational or educational training in prison.
The number of prisoners released is now four times what it was 20 years ago, yet fewer are being prepared to return to their communities. While approximately three of every four inmates released from prison have a substance abuse problem, only one in five has received drug treatment.
As the number of people released from prison and jail increases steadily, we cannot afford to continue to send them home with little preparation. These policies have harmed too many victims, destroyed too many families, overwhelmed too many communities, and wasted too many lives as they repeat the cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and rearrest. The toll this system takes is not measured merely in human lives: The strain on taxpayers has been tremendous. As jail and prison populations have soared, so have corrections budgets, creating fiscal crises in virtually every state and squeezing money for schools, health care, and roads from state budgets.
It does not have to be this way. Fortunately, there are proven ways to increase the likelihood that inmates will return safely to our communities. There are many things that we can do to help offenders make the transition from prison life to freedom successfully.
One of the most important ways to help is to mentor a returning prisoner. These men and women need relationships with loving, moral people far more than they need any program. Government programs can’t love them; only people can do that. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “To change someone, you must first love them, and they must know that you love them.”
One crucial way mentors can help is to “meet them at the gate,” walking with them as they take those first difficult steps in freedom. As they move from the very structured environment of prison, in which they had virtually no control over any aspect of their lives, their return to their community presents them with a myriad of options and temptations. Such basic decisions as where to sleep, where to seek employment, and with whom to associate confront them the minute they hit the street. As offenders make the transition back into the community, they need someone to provide love, advice, and encouragement, and to hold them accountable for their actions.
Obviously a good job is essential if these men and women are to make a successful transition from prison back to the community. Work helps support their families. It pays for rent, food, clothes, and the other necessities of life. In addition, work puts offenders into daily contact with the mainstream of the community, forming positive relationships with “everyday” people.
Being unemployed, on the other hand, leaves offenders with time on their hands and can often lead inmates into trouble. Our mothers wisely taught us that idle hands are the Devil’s playground. Watching TV or hanging out with others in the neighborhood is a recipe for a return to the wrong lifestyle.
For more information on prisoner reentry, check out The National Reentry Resource Center.