Which crimes deserve to be punished by incarceration is a question that’s getting a lot of attention right now. And rightly so, as 2.3 million people are now living in America’s state and federal prison system. While reducing this number is an ongoing concern, everyone can agree on one thing — once someone is released from prison, the goal should be to keep them from ever going back.
Unfortunately, we’re not doing a good job with that either. More than 600,000 people are released from prison each year, and very few of those leave with the skills they need to thrive outside the walls of a penitentiary. This causes a cascade of problems, starting, of course, with the individuals who lose their freedom.
But we all lose when re-entry to society fails. It produces more crime, more victims, more families broken apart, and higher costs to everyone.
While second chance programs certainly exist to help with that transition back into the community, there’s also an almost comical number of obstacles that make getting back to an ordinary life difficult. The nonprofit National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction has outlined more than 44,000 legal barriers that serve to make life after prison more difficult for former inmates. These include laws that make it harder to get a job, start a business, find housing, or simply engage with their community.
When A Second Chance Fails
These barriers contribute to the “us” vs. “them” mentality, which is yet another way that former prisoners are isolated and marginalized. Having served the punishment for their crimes, they now face a second wave of condemnation that is far too often impossible to overcome. The strategies that we have used to promote rehabilitation and increase public safety have proven to do neither.
So what can we do to change this disastrous status quo? You can find examples of programs across the country that focus on using prison time productively to improve a person’s chances of success once they leave. Educational and vocational classes have been found to reduce recidivism and increase post-release employment. According to one study, every dollar spent on those programs saves five dollars in the future cost of prison and law enforcement.
But that’s just the start of the creative ideas that must be brought to the table. Public- and private-sector partnerships have shown promising results in dealing with substance disorders, mental health, and job training. Programs seeking to place former inmates in high-demand fields like health care can provide job training and fill a societal need. Initiatives to help reconnect former prisoners with their families have also made a difference.
We are seeing other second chance improvements. It was more than a decade ago that I created Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership, an educational program in which university students meet weekly with committed youth at a maximum-security juvenile correctional center. The students explore questions of meaning, value, and social justice through life-changing conversations about Russian literature classics.
By discussing personally relevant topics and intimate stories—ranging from family to death, and success to moral responsibility—both sides gain powerful connections and challenge whatever stereotypes they may have had about the other group. As one participant said, “When I walked into that building every Tuesday afternoon, I wasn’t locked up. It’s like for the next three hours I can live, I can be myself, I can open up, I can be me.” ”
Looking at the scale of this second chance problem can be overwhelming. But when you take things on a smaller, individual level, solutions present themselves — by talking, listening, and getting to know each other. You eliminate the “us” vs. “them” dynamic and figure out how to make tangible improvements. It isn’t easy, but it’s the best way to start moving in a direction that we need to go if we’re ever going to make prison rehabilitation a reality.