The 3 R’s: Reentry, Recidivism, and Reality

by Daniel A. Rosen |

The PBS Newshour’s excellent series “Searching for Justice” aired a piece recently about how difficult it can be for returning citizens to secure valid photo identification (“How Obtaining ID Can Complicate the Road From Prison,” February 16, 2021). As one longtime inmate and recent parolee said of the state bureaucracy, “They knew who I was for 27 years, and now they don’t?”

Other former inmates interviewed pointed out the many ways the lack of photo ID can restrict successful reentry. For those who don’t have easy access to public transport, no driver’s license means an inability to get to work. Or worse yet, driving without a valid license, which can lead to a revocation of probation or fines and new charges. Most legitimate employers also require picture ID for payroll and tax purposes and immigration forms.

Louisiana’s corrections department responded to the story with a canned response stating the official policy: all inmates depart prison with two forms of ID. While many corrections agencies do insist that inmates procure birth certificates and social security cards before leaving, the results are often a long way off from policy. And while those documents can be helpful in obtaining identification, having them is certainly not the same as leaving prison with a photo ID.

Often, the clock runs out and inmates get released without these critical pieces of paper. Or mistrustful inmates question the need for the policy and refuse to comply, even if they catch a charge for it. State agencies don’t always respond to inmate requests. And during the pandemic everything is harder; Covid becomes an excuse corrections offcials use to shrug off their obligations to the inmates leaving DOC facilities.

Picture identification is but one small example of our failure as a society to take prisoner reentry seriously. With recidivism rates in the 70% range nationally, you’d think helping former inmates succeed would be a higher public policy priority. Sadly, the revolving door keeps turning, while taxpayers spend $80 billion dollars a year locking people up over and over again.

Over 2.1 million people live behind jail and prison walls, out of sight of mainstream society. Almost 4.5 million more are on probation or parole, navigating post-release supervision requirements imposed on them, trying to rebuild their lives. Over 600,000 prison inmates will rejoin society this year. Half will still be unemployed a year after their release.

Many find it hard to succeed on the outside, with the stigma of a prison record marking them for life. A safe place to live and a steady job are beyond the reach of too many returned citizens. Social safety nets are inaccessible. Often they’ve become estranged from family and have nowhere to turn.

Workbook exercises they completed in a prison reentry class with titles like “Skills for Successful Living” won’t solve those problems. Programs like these allow prison administrators and legislators to maintain the fiction that they’re doing all they can to prepare inmates adequately for the outside world, but the recidivism statistics speak for themselves. It’s not working, and most inmates aren’t leaving prison with marketable skills and reliable job prospects.

Some states seem intent on sticking their head in the sand. Virginia’s corrections department crowed last year that its rate of return to prison was just 23% (See “The Realities of Recidivism in Virginia,” March 2020). In a press release they patted themselves on the backs for a job well done. “Reentry planning begins on day one,” they claimed with a straight face. It’s not hard to manipulate the statistics and deny reality to come up with results like this. But it’s also not true, and it’s not doing anyone any good.

There are some positive developments to highlight at the state level too. Politico recently featured some innovative reentry programs which demonstrate that we can do better (Politico, “5 New Policy Ideas for Fixing Life After Prison“, 12/30/2020). Creative pilot efforts from Colorado to Texas to Arizona are finding ways to invest in inmates’ success, sometimes even before they leave prison.

In Denver, Colorado it means “social impact bonds,” a public-private partnership to fund the provision of housing to chronically homeless people who often landed in jail. New housing was built and clients were provided with social services to address other issues like education, employment, and mental health treatment. So far it’s working, and the private investors are being repaid on schedule.

In Texas it means fostering entrepreneurship through the Prison Enterprise Program, which trains inmates with a mini-MBA class. It’s all funded by private donors, and 200 participants a year complete a business plan at term’s end. Over 500 new businesses have been launched through the PEP. Graduates of the program give back, helping those just released navigate post-prison life, and the effort now has housing available for returned citizens who need it. The recidivism rate for graduates is just 8.3 percent.

In Arizona it means paying a real wage for inmate labor while providing marketable skills. Televerde gives inmates a chance to work in customer service and sales call centers for major tech company clients. And the company pays the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, much of which is put aside into a savings account available upon release. The company also offers their incarcerated workers employment once they’re out; 40 percent of the company overall has spent time behind bars.

These states have admitted there may be better answers than defending the status quo. Others like Ohio and Michigan have followed suit. They’ve decided preventing recidivism is their real job, and are acting accordingly. Paying lip service to reentry needs while collecting a paycheck just isn’t a reality we should accept any longer from prison officials.

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