Each day, over a thousand people are released from state and federal prisons in the United States (Bureau of Justice Statistics). The conditions in U.S. correctional facilities are infamously brutal, with pervasive overcrowding, sexual assault, and inhumane conditions. Outrage at jail and prison conditions in clear violation of international norms (Human Rights Watch) is brushed aside with the idea that the imprisoned are “paying their debt to society.” “Don’t do the crime,” as the saying goes, “if you can’t do the time.” This ignores the fact that most of those incarcerated never saw their day in court and abandons the principle, enshrined in both the U.S. Constitution and international law, that inhumane punishment against the guilty remains impermissible. In addition, those said to have “paid” their “debt” to the injustice system don’t emerge with a blank slate upon release. For those leaving the largest carceral system in world history, prisoner reentry presents a series of challenges that can seem insurmountable. As a result of “the lack of institutional support, statutorily imposed legal barriers, stigmas, and low wages, most prison sentences are for life—especially for residents of Black and Brown communities” (Brookings).
The formerly incarcerated are cut off from many welfare programs intended to get people back on their feet, including food assistance and housing (The Guardian). They are 10x more likely to be unhoused than others, with 54% of those released from prison in New York City moving immediately into homeless shelters. People who’ve been imprisoned are cut off from public housing and housing vouchers, limited to certain areas by parole restrictions, and legally discriminated against by private landlords. “There’s really no reason to expect that someone leaving prison would be able to find housing on their own,” says Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative (Pew).
Many people who were incarcerated don’t have the job skills or education for desirable positions. They also have a gap in their work history, may lack professional connections, and carry the formal and informal stigma associated with being formerly incarcerated. They’re cut off from government benefits and educational opportunities while being surveilled by a punitive parole system that feeds many back into the prison system. Parole is “a major obstacle to successful reentry through an emphasis on surveillance and punishment” (Brookings). In 20 states, parole or probation violations account for more than half of the people entering state prison (CSG). Marketed as an alternative to incarceration, parole and probation, in fact, serve as a “primary driver” of it (Pew).
If you were designing a system to ensure that those leaving prison wound up back inside as soon as possible, you’d end up with something very close to the current prisoner reentry landscape in the United States: a system where people are put on the street with no resources; cut off from housing, healthcare, education, and food; legally discriminated against based on their status; and watched closely by a parole system that will lock them up once again for the slightest infraction. That’s why 75% of those released from prison will be arrested again in the next five years (Harvard Political Review). That shocking figure should be enough to condemn a punitive, broken prisoner reentry system. Instead, it’s used as evidence of the inherent criminality of those oppressed by the government, justifying even more punitive incarceration and parole practices that only make the problem worse.
The obstacles facing people leaving prison are multiplied for people from marginalized identities and political activists. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the largest prisoner-led organization in the United States, is currently fundraising to finish construction of a housing center to provide temporary housing for female activists and political prisoners upon release. Groups like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and the Prison Policy Initiative are doing crucial work to end indefensible conditions. Supporting these efforts and opposing parole and carceral restrictions is crucial in the short term. Ultimately, the way to fix the problems faced when returning from prisons is to eliminate prisons.
• Formerly incarcerated people are denied access to housing, employment, and social services.
• This legal discrimination contributes to 75% of people released from prison being rearrested within five years.
• Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is constructing a temporary housing center for formerly incarcerated female activists and political prisoners.