By Christopher Zoukis
More than 650,000 prisoners are released every year in the United States, and so it’s in everyone’s best interests that they are prepared as possible to reintegrate into society. Especially if they have been incarcerated for years, or even decades.
Effective inmate re-entry programs go a long way to ease the transition.
An example of this can be found in Kristopher Larsen, who recounts an incident in a supermarket after his release from prison. He recalls how the man behind him in line kept accidentally grazing his back. While Larsen kept inching forward — taking this as an invasion of personal space — the man thought the line was moving forward, and kept inching forward with him.
Eventually, Larsen turned around and snapped at the man, asking what his problem was. After 10 years in prison, Larsen admits he was ill-equipped to deal with this sort of every day scenario — he described it as a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), not unlike a culture shock. It’s an example of the psychological and behavioral issues that many release prisoners face, and the effects can be severe. So severe, in fact, that some former inmates may actually wish to go back to the security of their old prison routine.
The adjustment period can be so intense, that in the first two weeks after release, rates of suicide can be more than 12 times higher than the general population, as demonstrated by a report looking at released prisoners from Washington State. And it’s why comprehensive re-entry programs are so needed.
Effective re-entry programs can help previously incarcerated individuals adjust to their new lives and routines, helping with psychological and behavioral issues, as well as connecting prisoners with needed resources, including employment training, new skills, and educational opportunities. These programs not only help prisoners adjust and reintegrate as productive members of society, but also help ensure that rates of recidivism are less.
Larsen is now working to help others, including recently released individuals reintegrate more effectively. He is an instructor for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, whose mission is to “provide high quality services and support for African American and other underrepresented communities in Metropolitan Seattle and throughout the Puget Sound Region,” helping people to achieve their greatest potential, focusing on education, employment, health and housing.
Larsen also works with FIGHT — Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together, which assists incarcerated or recently released Asian Pacific Islanders, and is also involved in advocacy. Their services include vocational training, transitional housing, counselling, and in-prison support groups, and also focuses on issues that might be specific to Asian Pacific Islanders, such as the threat of deportation.
Another program, at South Seattle College, consists of five weeks of training, including mental wellness and family health, as well as learning how to navigate the job market, write resumes, and find housing.
These are only a few of many successful examples of re-entry programs and support groups, but we need to ensure that all prisoners and recently released individuals have access to such programs, which include not only hard skills, such as vocational training, but other transition services as well, including mental health. Without these programs, it is difficult to adjust, with little support, and few opportunities.
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