How to Help Former Inmates Thrive
I recently gave a talk at the state prison in San Quentin, Calif. At the event, a former inmate said, “I don’t understand why over the 18-year period of my incarceration, over $900,000 was paid to keep me in prison. But when I was paroled, I was given $200 and told ‘good luck.’ ”
He’s right. For our economy to succeed, we need to equip every American to be effective in the national work force. But the more than 600,000 people who leave prison every year are not getting the support they need. That fails them and fails the economy for all of us.
To prepare for my talk at San Quentin, I spoke with some of the people incarcerated there. I was trying to understand what I had to offer them in a speech — and I discovered how much they had to offer me. They are individuals — with a whole range of strengths, weaknesses and, yes, contributions still to make. And while there’s been a rightful focus on ending mass incarceration, there has been little public discussion of how we reintegrate this growing population.
Criminal justice reform is not just about being fair to the individuals who will be most directly affected, but it’s also about doing what’s right for our nation’s well-being. A 2009 study estimated that the official poverty rate would have declined by 10 percent for the years 1980 until 2004 had it not been for our incarceration policies. And while there hasn’t been a large-scale study of the economic effects of criminal-justice reform, most experts in the field agree that preparing people for life after prison is a critically important public investment that would alleviate poverty and increase worker productivity.
In California, incarceration policies have already changed, and the San Quentin inmates I spoke to said that the increased chance of freedom has changed the way they behave in prison. They said they were more focused on increasing their chances of parole and preparing for life after San Quentin by trying to learn the skills and behaviors that can lead to productive and meaningful lives outside.
When you witness the powerful effect the prospect of release has on changing behavior, it helps you realize how badly we are analyzing the effects of the current system on the outcomes we want for society. And when you analyze the economic effects of our current system, it becomes clear where it is failing.
How is giving a former inmate $200 and not much else — no suitable place to live, no help finding work, no help adjusting to life outside prison walls — preparing him for a productive life? Society imposes a stigma on former prisoners that makes all of that harder. All of this decreases the probability of success.
There are five key areas where we could make a significant difference in improving the chance that individuals released from prison can make a successful transition to mainstream society.
First, we need to enhance educational opportunities for people inside prison and just out of it. Many prisons offer some level of basic education and G.E.D. preparation, but it is often inadequate, and higher education is almost entirely lacking. Fewer than one in 10 inmates has access to college-level classes. Inmates who are interested and qualified should have the opportunity to pursue a college education; it will only improve their chance to succeed when released.
Second, we should remove unfair barriers to employment. Many jobs now require professional certification, like being a barber in Connecticut or a truck driver in Texas, and state certification boards often bar former prisoners. We should eliminate those blanket prohibitions.
Third, we should support transitional assistance efforts across the country. For example, the New York-based Center for Employment Opportunities provides work in four states for people as soon as they are released, and couples those opportunities with skills programs, training and job placement. Efforts like these have proven records of success and should be deployed nationwide.
Fourth, we need to help the formerly incarcerated have access to secure and stable housing. Currently, many states ban former prisoners from living in assisted housing. We should instead give individual housing authorities discretion so they can protect the safety of residents but also offer housing to people leaving prison who are ready to start new, productive lives.
And finally, we should help people take advantage of health care coverage for which they are already eligible. Twenty-eight states expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and while most people just out of prison are eligible for it, too many are unaware or need assistance enrolling.
Of course, these investments cost money, but come with a significant return. Because efforts to help people make a successful transition back to mainstream society both reduce recidivism and equip former prisoners to be effective parts of the work force, it will help our economy over the long term.
Solving this problem begins with people outside prison recognizing the humanity of people inside prison. As one man incarcerated at San Quentin said to me: “Nobody is just the crime they committed. We are all much more than the worst thing we have done.”
People in prison are part of America, as are those who have been released. They are part of our society. And we have a powerful stake in their success.