by Daniel A. Rosen |
March 14, 2022
“Miss D said you could help me find housing,” said the stranger on the other end of the phone. I had to chuckle; it sounded like something she’d say.
“I’m no expert but I’ll try to pass on what I’ve learned,” I promised him. “I just got out four/five months ago, and I’m living in my own rental now, couldn’t do the transition house anymore,” I said, trying to sound encouraging. “Where are you staying now?”
“Wherever I can,” was the answer.
My heart sank a little. I didn’t press for details, but the reality is that any time this is the response, we’re nuts as a society to expect that person to succeed in transitioning back into life after prison. If my new friend makes it work, it’ll be despite the odds.
Two out of three people will end up back behind bars within just a few years – and housing challenges are one of the main hurdles people face. Jobs and mental health care are some of the other key shortfalls. Those formerly incarcerated are 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public. And a new RAND report looking at the unemployed population found that over sixty percent have a criminal history.
These kinds of eye-popping numbers ought to give us real pause. Reentry assistance needs to focus virtually all of its resources on these three overwhelming problems – housing, jobs, and mental health – if we’re going to change the dynamic and the success rate for returning citizens. 600,000 people will walk out of prison this year, as they do every year. 10 million or so will cycle through our jails. Almost all of them will need a job, a place to stay, and some kind of community support when they get out.
Reentry professionals know this already, but it’s unclear if policymakers and the general public are paying attention at all. In DC, the Mayor’s office and the City Council pay plenty of lip service to supporting returning citizens – they have offices and commissions dedicated to the issue – but they seem more concerned with crime statistics and election year politics than anything else. Highly-touted programs like Prison Scholars and Lead Up/Lead Out work for a few, but aren’t scaled to support the many who really need help.
All types of reentry support and assistance are thankfully available in DC, but it’s often not reaching those who need help the most. Those people aren’t logged in to benefits portals on a laptop – they’re stuck in shelters or staying on friends’ sofas, getting public assistance and informal work where they can. DC doesn’t even have a halfway house right now; those being released from federal custody often end up in Baltimore’s overcrowded facility, trying to get to DC for jobs and appointments. The applications for support and help can be overwhelming – go stand in the 2-hour line at one of the benefits service centers and listen to desperate folks shout questions at any employee who passes within earshot. It’s disheartening.
This apartment I got myself was through a subsidized housing program that no one even told me about – not probation, not the multiple community organizations I interact with, not DC’s benefits office. I found out about it by googling around online about housing options: the “Inclusionary Zoning Program” – the name itself is impenetrable. The paperwork took many days to complete: tax forms, employment verification, residency paperwork, financial records, and on and on. When I submitted the whole stack the first time, I was informed it was an outdated list; please resubmit with the correct documents next time. But I had the perseverance and the resources to take a deep breath and do it all over again. As grateful as I was to land in transitional housing after being released from prison, the group home dynamic and indiscriminate exercise of authority by the program staff left me feeling anxious, frustrated, and unwell. I needed space to clear my head.
This is a capital and labor-intensive problem to try and address. It requires jurisdictions to provide the physical infrastructure to house people, of course. But it also means case managers, counselors, and other professionals to patiently sit with folks and walk them through the paperwork and address any gaps in documentation. Otherwise, returnees give up and live on the margins, or end up back behind bars because they couldn’t get the help they needed.
I’ve been so lucky these past months. I have the support of reentry organizations here in the community and of my friends and family. I have a laptop, decent credit, and access to virtually all of my records. I have a college degree, and the navigational skills to figure out all the paperwork. In just a few months since leaving prison I got myself two jobs, health coverage, and an apartment. I didn’t do that on my own, of course. But my reentry has been light years easier than most returnees’. I don’t think my skin color is irrelevant either – as much scrutiny as I’m under, Black men returning home from incarceration have it much harder. I listen pretty intently to what I hear from them in reentry support groups, and I think: I’ve had it easy.
For the last month, all that privilege has finally afforded me the one thing I told anyone who’d listen I really wanted when I got out – peace and quiet. Space and time to myself, to just be still. A place of my own to retreat to and recover in. Prison is never quiet or peaceful or physically comfortable, and that takes its toll over the years. It’s a form of trauma that we don’t spend enough time talking about.
If I sat down anywhere inside the walls, it was on concrete or stainless steel or iron. The mattress was about as comfortable as a yoga mat. The landscape was colorless, devoid of beauty or anything pleasing to the eye. When I moved in here, I started buying cheap grey furniture – and then remembered a promise to myself that color would fill my life after I got out. I went and found the loudest chartreuse decor I could find: pillows, blankets, coasters, dish towels, and the like. It may sound strange, but all this bright yellow/green makes me happy.
To have a chair to sit in or a real mattress to sleep on now, it’s amazing. And the quiet is blissful – I didn’t turn my TV on for almost two weeks after I moved in here. I can have private phone conversations, recharge my psyche, feel safe again. This last month of serenity has been more healing than I even expected. As much as I knew I wanted and needed peace and quiet, I may have actually underestimated its impact on my mental health. I couldn’t know the sense of inner calm until I actually experienced it. No one dictating what time to be in for curfew, what job you can have, when to take medication. Or yelling at you to stand for count. No negotiation about who needs the room, or the phone, or bathroom. In short – agency, the ability to make my own decisions. And to eat as much ice cream as I want.
And it’s not lost on me: almost no one leaving prison or jail is lucky enough to get this.
There’s still trauma. I still feel anxious when I see a cop – it’s a form of PTSD that won’t go away easily, as another returnee also explained so well recently. I was grateful to be eligible for free mental health support through one reentry organization here in DC. Now I have coverage for therapy through Medicaid, but my health insurance is another benefit that took hours on the phone and more paperwork to get right. I’ve said it over and over again: release papers from prison ought to come with a free and mandatory therapist. And we need to encourage those who do have access to these support services to use them; there’s too much stigma about therapy, especially for Black men.
As for me, I’ll be in my little studio apartment, enjoying the tranquility and the ice cream. At just 400 square feet or so, it’s still five or six times bigger than my prison cell. My toilet isn’t right next to my bed any more, and I have a kitchen to cook up whatever culinary adventures I choose at the grocery store (which is my other happy place: so much choice!).
And I’ll keep buying any chartreuse décor or knickknacks I can find – they really pop against all the grey.