We are finally talking. It took over a decade for politicians, prison officials, prosecutors, judges and yes, even the general public, to acknowledge that our criminal justice system is broken and our prison system is in dire need of reform. Legislators are now not only considering enacting laws that will reform the way we incarcerate and punish those who break the law, but are aggressively promoting prison reform programs throughout the country. As reform committees are established and ideas of how to reduce the number of people imprisoned are considered, we must now take an honest look at where we have failed, and the practical realities facing those reentering individuals who must face the daunting task of returning to society, branded now and forever as “felons”.
The movement for the reduction of sentences and the need for legal reform in our prosecutorial system fails to recognize the very basic needs of returning citizens, survival. While sentencing reform may help those who will be entering the system, it is the 600,000 returning citizens each year that yearn for relief and support. Allowing those reentering society to have a decent place to sleep, an edible meal, a drug free living environment, a few dollars in their pockets to get clothes to wear or essentials, may be a good start. Tokens for the bus so they can travel to a job interview may go a long way to helping those looking for employment. Providing vocational and educational support preparing inmates for the outside world is vital in the reentry process. However, the harsh reality remains that inmates remain inmates even after discharge. They are locked inside a halfway facility that has little or no oversight and is driven by profit, inadequately trained staff and rules and regulations which pose hurdles that even a world class high jumper would not be able to overcome.
Let the dialogue of prison reform and reentry begin inside the walls. Providing reentry resources like classes on how to draft a resume, where to go for medical assistance or obtain a social security card, how to find a felony friendly employer and guidance on where to live, are just a few small items that could change a reentry life. Despite the availability of bonding programs and employer tax credits, few inmates are aware of these programs or how to access them, and even fewer employers understand how to benefit from their existence. There currently exist many local and community based reentry programs that do amazing work. Yet, little information is given to reentering individuals about how to access these programs.
Returning citizens are quite frankly thrown into the lion’s den with a piece of meat strapped to their torso and without so much as a shield to protect themselves. With criminal background checks now the norm not the exception, and the internet being used as a filtering tool to remind us of the past, transparency and candor are a felons only true options. Providing reentry counseling, educating inmates of the challenges that lie ahead and providing resources which could help the integration process, are not large ticket items, but merely take someone with some awareness, compassion and time.
In today’s world of technology, returning citizens are left far behind their competition in the employment arena as little or no computer training or education is provided behind bars. It is hard enough for the general public to stay ahead of the technological advancements which invade our lives every day. Now imagine never having used of cell phone or posted something on Facebook. While the world outside of prison changes, inmates are left in a state of societal limbo, doing their time and serving the sentence that society has imposed. However, our blatant failure to understand, recognize and appreciate the realities of isolation from family, friends and society, only works to create a wall which cannot be broken through, even after the gates have been opened and release has been ordered. The process of re-entry must begin the very second that the cell door closes, and cannot end until reintegration and the return to a productive life has been accomplished. For many, this day may never come. It’s time that we begin to accept that none of us are infallible and that mistakes in life can lead, and often do lead, to a warranted punishment. However, we must also accept the inevitability of the return of citizens who have wronged and help them to return to become productive members of society. If we fail as a society in this task, reentering citizens will surely will fail as well.