Pathway from Prison

05/25/2011 01:30 pm ET

Pathway from Prison
by Stephanie Robinson, The Jamestown Project

Prison reentry is a seemingly intractable issue in need of a comprehensive response. And given the substantial number of lesser offenders scheduled for release over the next five years, our collective approach to their transition back into society will determine whether the impact on our communities is progressive or destructive.

The Obama administration has taken a forward thinking step by committing more than $100 million to prison reentry programs, related programs and Second Chance legislation. However, despite this amount, the President has pointed out that inmates cannot successfully return to society without the creation of an integrated network or 'pathway' of support and relevant services. Such a network should align its resources to promote a fundamental process of change for ex-offenders in habit, mentality, pathology and association.

If we think of prison reentry in any other way than comprehensively, we miss the mark. Out of the approximately 650,000 state and federal prisoners reentering society each year, the Bureau of Justice reports that about half of all former prisoners are returned to prison for a new crime or parole violation within 3 years. Simultaneously, numerous states across the country --including traditionally less tolerant ones like Kansas and Texas-- are currently grappling with the costs of sending too many inmates back to prison. Many of these offenders suffer from drug addiction and mental illness and would be best served by a coordinated network of community-based programs and resources designated for particular problems. Without such a network offering a range of services including drug and mental health treatment, mentoring and life-style management, professional development and other relevant components, most prison reentry programs are destined to fail.

Dr. Keith Reeves, a reentry expert and author of the upcoming, The Declining Significance of Black Males?, says that "mental health issues are seldom managed adequately for those who are incarcerated. So we release them back into communities without treating what in many cases are serious psychological issues that have often been exacerbated while incarcerated."

Additonally, inmates should have a prison reentry plan implemented and coordinated by relevant service providers long before their scheduled release date to ensure a forward-thinking process and effective transition. The plan should identify and involve applicable agencies, support groups, family input, affordable housing options and other key components in preparation for reentry within the incarceration process.

President Obama has also promoted a reevaluation of the laws against hiring people with a criminal record as a way of deterring recidivism, reconnecting families and fighting poverty. Without an opportunity for viable employment, former inmates are put in the unfortunate position of repeating crime as a means of generating income.

Ultimately, throwing money at prison reentry is a shortsighted way of addressing a layered issue. Now that we finally have the will at the top to make significant strides in the area of prison reentry, let us not squander this opportunity with a piecemeal response that closes the pathway from prison.

Stephanie Robinson is President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, an action-oriented think tank focused on democracy. Jamestown supports the PEER program (Project for Economic Empowerment & Rehabilitation), an emerging initiative designed to provide males of color a holistic framework for economic sustainability and rehabilitation.