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There is a misconception that after a person leaves the prison system and has “served their time,” they can quickly reassimilate into their former life and pick up where they left off. The reality, however, is that this transition is often rocky; not only can it be difficult for formerly incarcerated people to find work and educational opportunities, but the stigma of being an ex-convict also carries into personal and social relationships.
As a civil rights attorney, I have personally met numerous individuals who have been released from prison and I have seen firsthand the challenges many of them face with fundamental issues such as housing, employment, transportation and putting food on the table. It can be particularly challenging when a released person does not have a support network of family or friends who can assist them.
It is undisputed at this point that the vast majority of incarcerated persons come from poverty. When they return to the same community, they will likely have limited economic options, which is often the main precursor to crime. There are countless reasons why we should be concerned with aiding people who were recently released from prison to find a way to reenter the community smoothly.
First, and arguably most importantly, there is a human and civil rights aspect to it — the concept that everybody deserves a second chance. The negative implication of having been incarcerated sometimes strips individuals of their humanity and creates downstream legal consequences for the formerly incarcerated.
One of the most fundamental principles in our criminal justice system is that after a person has been convicted and has served their sentence, they should be free. However, in practice, having a criminal record can prevent people from exercising certain civil and constitutional rights, like voting, serving in the military, accessing public housing and legally possessing a firearm.
Second, there’s an opportunity to impact society by positively decreasing the rate of recidivism, when a person relapses into criminal behavior. While there are countless potential reasons why someone may re-offend, it is well established that prison reentry programs can help decrease the likelihood. With over 640,000 people returning from prison annually, there must be infrastructure in place to help ensure they have access to safe housing, education, work and healthcare to eliminate some of the racial and socioeconomic factors that contribute to recidivism.
What Services Do Prison Release Programs Provide?
The landscape of prison release programs in the country is wide-ranging, piecemeal and severely under-funded. Nonprofits across the U.S. are attempting to build programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons to begin the process of reentry. Still, because there are so many facets of reentering society, these organizations take vastly different approaches.
Some organizations focus on creating job training and employment opportunities, while some focus on reducing the threat of substance abuse and treating mental health issues. Other organizations take a holistic approach by instilling hope and building community relationships.
One Nevada organization called Hope for Prisoners provides vocational training, job placement, financial advice, parenting tips and mentoring. Hope for Prisoners reported that in 2019, the recidivism rate among formerly incarcerated people who completed its program was 6 percent.
Defy Ventures, a Chicago-based nonprofit, offers programs like entrepreneurship training and business incubators, which allows its entrepreneurs in training to develop a sense of self-worth and grow their business ideas. In 2018, Defy Ventures reported that it had an 82 percent employment rate for its post-release program and the recidivism rate among its graduates was only about 5 percent. I have had the pleasure of meeting the founder of this organization and seeing the work they accomplish in the community firsthand.
Some programs are publicly funded, like Allegheny County’s Jail Collaborative, which offers programs to ex-offenders to reduce recidivism. This reintegration program screens candidates to address potential issues and strengths and assigns a caseworker to help manage these services. Services range from detoxification, job training, high-school-level education and opportunities to visit their children and rebuild family relationships.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reentry programs, programs like these are a critical step to help reduce recidivism and reintroduce people to society. Business leaders can help build dignity for individuals who have recently been released from incarceration.
What Can Business Leaders Do?
As a business leader, there are several ways to support these initiatives. First, businesses can and should be open to hiring qualified candidates who are eager to work but are being held back by a prior criminal conviction. My client and friend Rick Wershe Jr., who served over thirty years in prison for a non-violent drug offense, is now employed at Hale & Monico as a legal assistant and has proved to be a valuable asset to our firm. Open up your pool of potential candidates.
Second, businesses can support programs like those mentioned here in the form of financial contributions. This type of funding is crucial and oftentimes overlooked.
Finally, it also helps to “spread the word” about this issue and these programs. Business leaders telling others in their network about these valuable programs and initiatives will help bring more awareness to the issue, which is always the first step in making positive progress. Find ways to bring awareness to such programs in your community.
Prison reintegration programs are needed in this country, and business leaders can take action and play a role in supporting these programs.