By Christopher Zoukis
Twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population is located in the United States, and most — 95 percent — of those incarcerated will eventually be released into their communities.
The issues that arise from mass incarceration and high recidivism rates are well known. A family with an incarcerated father is 40 percent more likely to live in poverty. About 65 percent of prisoners haven’t completed high school, with 14 percent possessing less than an eighth grade education. Children whose parents are incarcerated are at higher risk for antisocial and violent behaviour, mental health problems, school dropout and unemployment, according to a presidential report from the Council of Economic Advisors called Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System, released in April.
Education, vocational programs, skill building and other programs, are all vital tools for ensuring that prisoners who will be returning to their communities will be able to lead productive lives. Access to these opportunities will help break the cycles and factors that can lead to further incarceration.
It’s not only lawmakers and prisons themselves that are realizing the benefits of various programs, but local communities too. Community organizations can help to fill some gaps in resources, funding and programming, as well as providing reassurance to current inmates that the community is there for them, aware of them, and will continue to be there after release and during integration.
Just knowing that there is support from people outside of the prison walls can make a huge difference in the mindset and motivation of someone currently incarcerated, and who will soon be released. Programs that bring volunteers inside prisons, such as those driven by colleges and church groups, can also benefit the community, as individual interactions with inmates helps to humanize them. These interactions also allow community members to learn about the criminal justice system, and about the various external factors at play that may have influenced prisoners to end up where they are. This is an important way to help de-stigmatize prisoners and change viewpoints of those who might see prisoners as deserving only of punishment behind bars, and not of rehabilitation, when in reality many have received sentences for nonviolent crimes.
This shift in attitude can be demonstrated in Lubbock County, Texas, where 60 percent of the population in the detention centre are serving time for offenses related to addiction. Sheriff Kelly Rowe has addressed this, noting that while some people need to be kept away from society “the biggest majority of our population, they’ve got a debt to pay, but we don’t need them in a recurring cycle.”
The issue of addiction leading to recidivism needs to be addressed, so that prisoners can return to communities and be successful. In order to address these issues, the Lubbock Country Detention Center offers several educational and rehabilitation opportunities, as well as optional religious services. Volunteers from the community lead many of these programs, which include AA meetings, bible studies, resume-building skills and GED classes. These programs are vastly needed in an area where some prisoners arrive with first-grade reading levels. The programs also encourage prisoners themselves to become long-term mentors within the facility, who are invited to return as mentors after release. Some programs also strive to address transitional housing after release.
Meanwhile other states have also made inroads toward connecting prisoners with their communities. In Nebraska, First Plymouth Church recently presented its Love of Neighbor Award to Nebraska Wesleyan University’s “College is the Key to Inmate’s Tomorrow” program, which pairs college students with inmates. The students help teach inmates, and in turn receive college credits for a course in criminal justice, benefiting both participants.
In San Quentin State Prison in California, prisoners are taught how to code with The Last Mile, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. Students who may have had zero experience with smartphones or computers before the course will learn enough basic coding to secure an entry-level job upon re-entry. Programs like this can provide prisoners with purpose and passion, as well as hope.
These are just a few examples out of many that demonstrate the difference community involvement can make in the lives of prisoners. Community members can provide valuable links to the outside world, a support system during and after incarceration, and assist in delivering much-needed resources like education, to increase the chances of successful re-entry and reduced recidivism. Other communities would do well to emulate these shining examples, as we continue to combat the root causes of incarceration and re-offense, and to help offset the stigma that prisoners can face in their communities upon release, so that they can feel that they are welcome — not isolated — in society.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com