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Release & Re-Entry


It’s no surprise at this point to learn that the prison door is revolving. Recent studies show that up to 2/3 of those recently released from prisons are rearrested within three years. Recidivism is expensive. It’s also preventable, up to a point.

It’s not hard to see why recidivism rates are so high in the U.S. In 1994, Congress cut federal Pell Grant funding for prison education programs, effectively eliminating college education programs for incarcerated men and women (with the exception of a few privately-funded programs, including one in NY run and financed by Bard College). This despite the fact that about one-tenth of one percent of Pell funding went to prison education programs to begin with and despite the knowledge that virtually every study to address the issue shows that educating people while they are incarcerated dramatically reduces recidivism rates. The genesis of such a punitive (pardon the pun) attitude toward the incarcerated is clear:

Even though crime rates were actually dropping in the 90’s, many argued that judges were letting felons off too lightly and that the ”rights” of victims needed to be taken into account. Thus, beginning in the early 90’s, prison regimes were tightened, even as mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws meant more and more people came into the system and stayed. In this climate few politicians were ready to stand up for higher-education programs for prisoners. Before 1995 there were some 350 college-degree programs for prisoners in the United States. Today there are about a dozen, four of them in New York State.

Education can do a lot, but it can’t fix the recidivism problem alone. Support for those re-entering society upon release is vital, too – job training, help navigating the internet, a place to stay while finding a way to be financially independent and stable. But few to none of these support systems exist in any organized, state-funded way. An unusual exception can be found in Texas, where state officials are reacting to the high societal and monetary costs of recidivism by providing job training classes, drug treatment programs, and psychiatric counseling to re-entering men and women.

Still, even those who most undeniably deserve re-entry help — men and women who were falsely convicted and have since been incarcerated — are not receiving much in the way of support. As the NY Times reported in a huge multimedia feature today, exonerees often re-emerge into a world they don’t know, without familial or community support. They often face depression and PTSD, with many even wishing to return to the predictable daily rhythms of prison life. Some receive compensation from the states in which they were convicted, while others get no financial help at all.

It seems to me undeniable that prison education, in-prison counseling, and re-entry support would reduce recidivism rates and make communities safer. It’s not “soft on crime” to want programs that are efficient and, yes, humane. Yet there’s no move to restore even minimal federal funding for prison education, and re-entry programs fight tooth and nail for what little money there is. Still, we pretend that we don’t throw away the key.

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  • Two thoughts on your excellent post:
    1. At least one half-way house has proven enormously successful at re-integration: The Delancey Street Foundation. Check it out:
    2. While I completely support prison education and an increase in re-education programs, it’s not clear to me that these programs are enough to combat the systematic use of prisons to perpetuate a certain racial and class hierarchy in America.

  • Hans Gruber

    “it’s not clear to me that these programs are enough to combat the systematic use of prisons to perpetuate a certain racial and class hierarchy in America.”
    You really believe that?

  • jon

    Jails are expensive. Courts are expensive. Crime is expensive.
    Eventually, almost everyone in prison will be released. It would be better for released prisoners to be able to function in society, earn a living, not have to resort to further crimes, and not pose a menace to themselves or the rest of society. Current court and prison practices do nothing of the sort.
    The US is a rich country, but our wealth could be better spent than to isolate, brutalize and stigmatize the highest proportion of our citizens in the world.
    Hans has a point – while the prison system perpetuates race and class divisions, it is not the factor. Prisons are in desperate need of reform. Reform can alleviate some race and class problems. But there is much else that would need to happen to minimize those divisions, and the problems that flow from this imbalance.
    But you have to start somewhere, and prisons are a good place to start.

  • American Citizen

    One big problem, for felons, is that many companies won’t hire someone with a record. Unions will keep them at arm’s length too. When your job prospects are curtailed, it makes it hard to get into the swing of things.
    If you’re hiring people I understand why you’d put excons on the bottom of the list. Still, if someone could point to some education completed while in prison, that’d be a help to show they’re trying to do better.

  • Hans,
    Which part of
    “these programs are [not] enough to combat the systematic use of prisons to perpetuate a certain racial and class hierarchy in America”
    do you NOT believe?
    Crack and cocaine sentencing guidelines – a regular theme on this blog – is only one of many examples that demonstrate the racist underbelly of American criminal justice.
    Remember: a black boy born today in America has a better chance of landing in prison than graduating college, etc. etc. etc.

  • Hans Gruber

    Well, isn’t crack more addictive than cocaine? Saying you can’t treat crack distribution worse than cocaine distribution would be like saying you can’t treat cocaine differently than marijuana.
    Your contention is that the guidelines are being used to perpetuate race and class divisions (it’s one thing to say it’s the result but not hte intention of). That seems to me pretty absurd. The guidelines may be a result of entrenched power refleting its biases and all that, but to believe society is intending these laws to oppress certain races or classes? I think you have to be a little crazy to believe that. Are you guys truthers too?

  • The Benefactor Project (.com) is what you’re looking for. Please support it.

  • mpowell

    I kind of agree with Hans that the American voting public does not intentionally use prison to perpetuate race and class divisions. On the other hand, I completely agree that the system does exactly that. I’m wondering how much of the disagreement comes from confusing those two points.
    I think the problem is mostly that in the US we are a punishment oriented, nobody gets something from the government that they don’t deserve oriented society.
    My girlfriend complained once that a no good cousin of hers received veteran’s benefits from getting hurt playing recreational football while in the military. I pointed out that providing for veterans was important, and what good was it to complain about one guy who you think doesn’t quite fall into the category you think deseres those benefits? The overall effect of the program is more important.
    Its the same thing with punishment. People get really upset about doing anything to help criminals. Or giving money to poor people. What they can’t see is that doing those things may make everyone better off by reducing crime and improving the quality of our workforce.
    But no- we live in a tough daddy state. And if you misbehave tough daddy will punish you. People would rather 100 hardened criminals go on to kill again than the government spend money that might be received by someone who didn’t deserve it.

  • The underlying issue is that people want “law and order” (whatever their type of “law and order” might be) but don’t want to pay for it. A classic example is the meth addiction issue, which has affected several families I know here in Texas. Getting people off of meth is expensive, since it generally requires long-term medications, but money for that type of treatment is in short supply. Rehabilitation is seen as less desirable than simply locking the bastards up.
    Given this general “hang ’em high” retributive mindset in many electors, it is very easy to see why the USA locks up an alarming percentage of its population, and why we can expect most of those incarcerated people to re-offend after they are released.

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