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Release & Re-Entry

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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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