Category Archives: Re-entry

Great expectations

There are a whole lot of things that contribute to America’s crazy prison population. One of the many nutso things that we do is throw tons of people back into prison for parole violations. These violations include breaking a 9 pm curfew, leaving the state without getting permission, drinking alcohol, and other things which sound more like things your parents would get pissed about than things for which you should go to jail.

On my first day at the transitional housing facility where I worked, there were eleven people living in the house. That was Friday. When I came back the following Monday, there were five people left. What happened? Six of the residents decided to pick up a couple of six packs. The residence supervisor called the cops, and the six parole violators were scooped up and deposited back in jail. They were only in for a couple of days, but by then they had lost their chance to live in the place where I was working, which meant that they were stuck renting a room in one of several rooming houses in the area. Those places were far more expensive and offered none of the support resources that my place did, and they were notorious hotbeds of drug activity to boot.

Definitely stupid to have the little party – they knew it was against the house rules and the parole regulations – but don’t you think those consequences are out of proportion to the action?

New York State recently shifted their policy a wee bit in this area: as of Jan. 1, parole violators are no longer subject to mandatory jail time for their errors. Now the judge or parole board can take various criteria into consideration, such as mental health and access to stable housing. This is a step in the right direction, but it means that judges or parole boards have the option to forego jail time, not that violators have any real protection.

Like so many other aspects of the prison system, it’s easy in this situation to imagine that people are just asking for it when they violate. But what if instead of looking for the best way to punish people for their mistakes, we started looking for the best way to help them not screw up? My guess is that jail time would fall out of the equation real fast.

Check out the NYT piece on this issue here.

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Troop 1500

Words alone cannot capture the experiences of parents and children who are separated by incarceration. This exploration of Troop 1500, a girl scout troop that brings together incarcerated women and their daughters, offers a valuable snapshot of some of the challenges and joys that incarcerated parents and their children face while in prison and after release. Check it out and let me know what you think.

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Collateral damage

There are a whole bunch of things that people who have been convicted of crimes have to worry about and the rest of us do not. The American Bar Association recently released a list of more than 38,000 punitive provisions that affect people convicted of crimes (38,000!), including everything from housing and welfare laws to licensing for certain professions.

One of the biggest challenges for folks getting released from prison – or even people who are only arrested for crimes – is finding a job. In today’s job market, this is a struggle for just about everybody, but for people who can’t get through a background check unscathed, getting a job is incredibly difficult. At the same time, an income is especially crucial for people who are barred from Section 8 affordable housing, unemployment benefits, etc.

A recent Op-Ed for the New York Times argues that we should put caps on the length of time that criminal records are available. In some states, for example, misdemeanors are sealed after five years while most felonies are sealed after ten. The emphasis in the editorial is on making things more equitable for people who were convicted of only one infraction many years ago.

It’s pretty nuts that we still bar some of these folks from jobs today, but we also need to be thinking about the people who have been convicted of multiple crimes, and more recently. Anyone who is getting out of prison, even with RAP sheets as long as their arms, needs employment and/or financial support. If we aren’t willing to think about providing resources necessary to help people stay on the up-and-up after release then we may as well not release them. (By the way, I don’t think not releasing them is a good option.)

And just to end on a personal note, I’ll share an anecdote about my time at the transitional housing facility in Vermont:

I was asked to help one of the residents draw up a budget: weekly, monthly, etc. He was having a hard time paying rent which, at this place, was $75/week including three meals a day. He worked full time, so they were wondering why he couldn’t pay the bills.

After going through his expenses and balancing that with what he was making working full-time at a Wendy’s overnight drive through window (the kind of work available for someone with a criminal record) we calculated that, assuming he made it to all his shifts and if no unusual expenses came up, he could afford to maintain his half-a-pack-a-day smoking costs and still come out ahead ten dollars every week. Ten dollars! With a full-time job! If I was working full-time at a Wendy’s drive through, I’d probably expect to have a little more spending cash myself, frankly.


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