The Safe Return Project, a research and action initiative led by a group of formerly incarcerated Richmond residents, has just published a survey on the major problems ex-offenders in their community face reintegrating into society. Not surprising, the barriers to reentry are stark. While the focus of the report is on Richmond, the results most likely representative the realities of most urban communities in California.
The report ends by making 4 key recommendations for improving reintegration after incarceration. These recommendations may help provide a road map for other urban centers who must deal with the increased influx of ex-offenders schedule to be paroled as a result of the recent Supreme Court ruling on prison overcrowding.
Lack of rehabilitation programs in prisons
The Safe Return Project (SRP) survey found that more than half of all ex-offenders they interviewed had not benefited from a single training or support program while they were incarcerated. Twenty-nine percent had participated in a substance abuse program, and less 22% received any kind of educational, employment or life skills training.
The lack of rehabilitation programs in California’s prisons is disturbing given that 95% of all prisoners will eventually be released. The State of California has dramatically slashed their prison rehabilitation budget over the past 4 years to the point that almost all rehab programs are run purely by volunteers. In places where there are many volunteers, like San Quentin, there are a range of programs, but in most prisons there is little help available. In rural areas like Tehachapi, or in prisons that do not have a thriving volunteer base, counseling, education, and reentry services are simply not available.
The level of preparation that prisoners receive while incarcerated greatly affects their chances of succeeding on the outside. Right now, most prisoners coming home are simply provided a bus ticket and often return in the slippers and clothes the prison issued them. That is the extent of the help they get from a system that is willing to spend up to $50,000 to keep them locked up. If they are coming from state prison, they get $200 to cover transportation home and a few nights lodging. County and federal facilities provide even less money and often no resources for transition.
Like many urban areas, there are no affordable housing programs in Richmond for people transitioning from prison. After release, if an ex-offender cannot rely on family and friends and does not have a job, their only option for housing is a homeless shelter. In Richmond, there is not enough room in shelters to house its current homeless population, so new paroles often end up on the streets or have to go to another city to find shelter.
The SRP found that after almost 70% of ex-offenders they interviewed were essentially homeless, even after they had been out of prison for up to 18 months. The primary reason for the high homelessness rate, as you might expect, was financial in nature with 86% claiming they could not come up with enough money for a deposit and rent. However, almost half of those who were unable to find housing said discrimination had been major factor barrier, while slightly less said they were not eligible for affordable housing programs.
Employment is widely recognized as critical to becoming a fully contributing member of the community, yet unemployment among formerly incarcerated people is extremely high. While the unemployment numbers in Richmond for ex-offenders are especially dismal, there is no reason to believe they are any worse in other urban communities in California.
The SRP found that 78% of ex-offenders in their survey were unemployed. This is more than four times the unemployment rate in Richmond and six times the state rate. Of those who were employment, about half had a job in the first two months after release. For those who are unemployed, they typically rely on family, friends, and programs to meet their needs or are going without.
For people with a record, barriers to gaining employment go far beyond the heightened competition of the current economic climate. Some of these barriers are inevitable, such time away from the workforce, however discrimination by employers plays a far larger role in limiting employment opportunities.
National studies have found widespread employer discrimination against ex-offenders, with 60% of employers indicating they would definitely not or probably not hire someone with a record. A national study this year found blanket “need not apply” policies, with some of the largest employers in the country telling applicants with a past conviction or arrest they should not even apply.
The results listed above are just a few of the statistics outlined in the SRP report. Other areas of concern include lack of services to provide food, acquire a valid ID, obtain medical assistance, assist with transportation, and provide child support services.
Based on their findings, the Safe Return team developed the following recommendations for improving reintegration after incarceration.
Establish medium-term housing program and connection services for residents recently released from incarceration. An example of such a program is the MOMS program in Oakland for recently returned mothers.
Ban the Box: Dozens of other cities, counties, and states have removed the question about criminal history from job applications. Asking this question should only be permitted after the employer has determined that the applicant is otherwise qualified.
Create a one-stop referral service for ex-offenders where individuals can go to get accurate up to date information on existing reentry services, medical and counseling assistance, job placement training, and contact information on employers hiring ex-offenders.
Facilitate regular community meetings of formerly incarcerated people to provide mutual support for developing and implementing a personal plan for success. People who have been through the process of re-entry have critical insight into what it takes to help their peers succeed in reintegrating back into society.
The recommendations made by the SRP are not only sensible, but perhaps necessary if urban areas are to coop with the mandated oncoming influx of released prisoners. Otherwise, these individuals will simply end up on the streets, out of work and likely back behind bars. This is an outcome that neither the communities where they are paroled nor the state can afford.
Richmond’s Paroles’ up against it
The following video is a rather sensationalized media portrayal of life in Richmond, but shows the kind of conditions paroles must overcome to make it on the outside. The ever-growing population of ex-offenders continues to be an onerous burden on the state’s sagging financial condition and why funding for the type of organizations recommended by the Safe Return Project and other reentry groups are so vital.