By Christopher Zoukis
Let’s say you are new in town. A bus drops you off near the city. You are given $40, two weeks worth of your medication, and a change of clothes. Good luck. Now you are on your own. Doesn’t sound ideal does it? How are you going to get around? Find a place to sleep? Afford food and shelter? Get a job? Yet, this is the uncomfortable reality for many newly released offenders. While much ado is made about education for prisoners, not as much time is given to education for the people responsible for helping released prisoners stay out of jail. Without knowing the problems these new-back-to-society individuals face, the communities they are released into can’t really help them.
According to the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center’s 2008 Employment After Prison: A Longitudinal Study of Releases in Three States:
- Most respondents in the study reported relying on friends and family after release, more so than on legal employment.
- Nearly half (48 percent) of respondents wanted to participate in programs to increase their job skills, but could not because, largely, they were unaware of where the programs were taking place and what was available to them.
- Encouragingly, released prisoners that had participated in job training while incarcerated, or that held jobs in prison, had better employment outcomes following their release, and those with gainful, living-wage employment were much less likely to return to prison within a year.
The study also noted that the most common work connection was to speak to friends and family, but the most stable work connection following release was to return to a previous employer.
The study reinforces the fact that prison education inside prison walls makes a difference upon release – but it also shows that a lack of education about how to help the ex-offenders once they are in the community is detrimental to success of the released prisoners.
That being said, it is a very tricky balance. An offender that stole from an employer, for example, would not be hired back on. And it would be very difficult to justify hiring an offender that served long or multiple sentence(s) for violent assault, theft, or other crimes that put people and property at severe risk.
What can be done, however, is education in the community to:
- Lessen the stigma of jail: Some offenders do turn their lives around and with a chance upon release, can greatly benefit society.
- Improve job prospects: Encourage employers to consider released prisoners and provide support for the employees to help integrate the offender into the workplace.
- Change the release strategy: With nowhere to go and no money, the risk of re-offending is high. Better strategies are needed for those that need a little extra help getting on their feet after jail.
- Create more prevalent soft skills programs in the community and make them readily available: College education and high school equivalency diplomas are great, but core life skills such as basic cooking, balancing a budget, anger management, communication, hygiene, etc., are tools needed to succeed in any environment.
Prison education is everyone’s responsibility because when employers, communities, prisons, governments, and citizens band together to create awareness, jobs, and skills training, everyone benefits. Let’s not forget how important prison education is for those that are not behind bars. It is this type of education that will help to reduce recidivism in the long run.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.