What Happens after Prison

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Just walking through a prison door can ruin a person’s life.

There is a widespread concern among conservatives that the U.S. is not doing enough to prevent criminality. In fact, GOP politicians have been explicit about their belief that we are not sufficiently supporting law enforcement’s effort to put criminals behind bars. Funding is undoubtedly essential to deter crime and maintain order. Any conversation about rising violence, however, must address that over 80 percent of the people released from prison eventually reenter the system. To truly make our communities safer, we must find a way to integrate those returning to society from state and local jails.

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Both progressives and conservatives levy a broad range of criticisms against the judicial system. While these critiques may be valid, it’s difficult for either party to openly discuss our shockingly high recidivism rate. Conservative commentators often argue that a cultural shift is needed for any lasting change to be made. This argument rings somewhat hollow, though, especially when it’s made by bombastic personalities who are unfamiliar with the difficulties that ex-cons face.

Progressives, for their part, are more vocal about the holistic failures of the criminal-justice system. Democratic politicians have stridently championed criminal-justice-system reforms, such as defunding the police or getting rid of private prisons. Yet such solutions are rarely productive. Criminality is not statistically lower in major Democratic strongholds, nor are their recidivism rates depressed.

We ought to abandon our partisan goggles and grapple earnestly with how our society treats those who leave our nation’s prisons. The answer isn’t a happy one. First, the emotional toll of being locked away for years is significant. Some former inmates leave and cannot navigate public transportation, feel claustrophobic in large crowds, and have difficulties tending to their daily routine.

In the words of an inmate who reentered society,

You are not used to people being up on you and bumping you. Your defenses are up. People in the street are more disrespectful than the people who were in jail. People step on your sneakers, they push you. . . . In jail, people say, ‘Excuse me.’ Everybody knows their place. Here, nobody knows their places. So it was very uncomfortable, I was just afraid to go get on the train all by myself and go to Queens. It literally took me three days before I could travel.

To make matters worse, finding work with a rap sheet can be nearly impossible. Having a record haunts convicts for years after getting out. We all intuitively know that it’s more difficult to get a job as an ex-con, but the numbers are staggering. According to the Harvard Business Review, white Americans with a criminal record get a callback for a job interview only around 15 percent of the time. For black Americans, that number drops to 5 percent. So many formerly incarcerated people cannot find work, the effect can be felt in macroeconomic employment rates.

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Just walking through a prison door can ruin a person’s life. That goes for police officers, too. A new book, Breaking Blue, authored by Sean “Sticks” Larson, a former Tulsa police officer, reveals how officers have had their lives wrecked with false accusations.

Larson reports that a police officer, Scott Hornoff, was falsely accused of murder and spent six years in prison before being released. He was released only because the actual killer confessed out of moral guilt. When Hornoff returned to American society, he was left penniless and without employment. Attorney fees and alimony payments to his wife who had divorced him over his conviction absorbed all of his back pay. Forced into early retirement, former officer Hornoff couldn’t find a job; eventually, he found employment overseas in Afghanistan.

To restate, a person in a position of community authority was falsely accused of murder. When he was publicly vindicated and allowed to reenter American society as a free and innocent man, America wouldn’t take him back. The accusation, the prison time itself, was enough to make him radioactive. Later on in the book, Hornoff says, “When an exoneree gets out, there is nothing. It’s basically ‘there’s the door.’”

Scott Hornoff is not the only one who has lost his life to this system. A report from the Prison Policy Institute found that former prisoners are ten times more likely to be homeless than is the general public. In a separate report, the PPI found that the median income for former prisoners who find jobs is under $20,000 a year. Does this sound like a system of rehabilitation?

There are no easy solutions, and we deceive ourselves by simply blaming “the other side” for our issues. A successful plan would need to break the vicious feedback loop between employers who don’t want to hire former criminals and ex-cons put into situations where crime is the only option. One radical solution is to provide temporary income to those leaving prisons to help rehabilitate their lives. Aggressively pursuing probationary programs is a more modest proposal.

Any discussion of rising crime, particularly in cities, must address the truly staggering scale of the reentry problem. As Larson writes in his book:

Too often we view justice as a load of punishments doled out hard. That’s not the intent of the system. It’s supposed to rehabilitate people. To show them the errors they made and get them back on their feet so they can become contributing members of society. If we miss that part, we miss everything.

Federalism is the laboratory of democracy, and local governments should take ambitious steps on this issue. Maybe paying prisoners to stay out of trouble is a good idea; perhaps it isn’t. Skills training may work, but it could also fail. We don’t know yet, but even if these programs don’t produce results, their failures will pale in comparison to our unacceptable status quo. If our prisons are meant to be rehabilitative, then we ought not give up our fellow Americans merely because they went through that process. It’s not fair to them or to the victims of repeat criminals.

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