I never understood nor thought of how challenging re-entry posed until I got out two years ago. As I left, I walked into a new life and a new set of obstacles I was not prepared for. I could not have anticipated the stigma that came from having a record in social and professional settings. I never expected the harsh internal dialogue with myself, nor the troubles I would have trying to get an education, apartment, loan, etc.
These are some of the examples of what we face upon entering the world post-incarceration. Couple this with drug abuse problems, lack of housing, employment, and support of any sort, and there emerges a clearer picture of why recidivism is as high as it is. Preparation for this entrance back into society is the sole purpose of re-entry programs.
My first glimpse at re-entry programs was the mandatory state-sponsored classes imposed on all inmates after arrival at their first camp. Courses such as ‘Re-Entry,’ ‘Motivation for Change,’ ‘Anger Management’ were some of the few we had to take. These classes were required for those eligible for parole as a preliminary start to the parole process (the state mandated these classes for people who were ineligible for parole as well).
Although it seemed very promising that such classes were being mandated so early on, what was disheartening was how ineffective these classes were in actually preparing people for re-entry. Set aside the fact that if someone had a 10-year sentence and finished these classes upon arriving in prison (for the sake of example, we will say three years into the 10-year sentence), by the time they got out, there is little they can hope to remember in those seven years since completing the classes.
The bigger travesty was the content of the classes, however. Most classes lasted between two weeks to two months. The day-to-day events consisted of discussions about superficial matters not always reflective of the obstacles to come and elementary, like paper packets with sections being completed in sequential order. Once you met one of these classes, your counselor would check a box by your name saying you did the class. Sometimes you would receive a piece of paper with a list of non-profits and/or charitable organizations that might be able to help with finances, housing, or employment when we got back home.
That was the extent of follow-up for when we got out. The only immediate benefit I can think of is the lowering of your security level once completed. It should come as no surprise there was a lot of reluctance to partake in this form of re-entry, as everyone inside came to call these classes ‘tax write-offs’ (I say this as an inside joke). Whether true or not, it showed the inherent flaws in this programming.
This is not intended to ridicule the state for inadequacies but rather to highlight where re-entry programs are lacking, what needs to be improved, and how. This is not simply a check-the-box routine, with a certificate to send us on our way. Success here requires support both inside and out with employment, education, therapy, and community. This is a question both state-sponsored and non-profit programs must consider, for there is no simple, cookie-cutter answer for re-entry.
The prison system should not solely comprise of our incarceration but our preparation for re-entry as well. Over the next few newsletters, I plan to take an in-depth look at the approach successful re-entry programs take and the various methods used. By looking at approaches such as the strength-based theory, risk-needs-responsivity framework, and other successful methods in other states, and countries I hope to outline key components for what we need to help people transition back into society.