Incarceration never ends at the prison gate for over 20 million Americans with a criminal record. Instead, such people enter what some scholars termed the afterlife of mass incarceration. Approximately half a million American people come out of prisons every year, joining the ever-increasing population of over 20 million people living with a felony record. Prison is like a ghost, which will haunt you even long after you are released (Miller, 2021). Life post-incarceration can be another form of imprisonment. Ex-prisoners who struggle to adjust to outside life are likely to get into depression and face culture shock and anger. The most challenging thing to deal with post-incarceration is social stigma and several collateral consequences accompanying criminal records. It is challenging for individuals with criminal backgrounds to access similar opportunities as those without criminal records, and it gets even more complicated when you are a black person or people of color, and there is a need for proper re-entry programs to help ex-inmates cope.
Life Challenges for Ex-Inmates
Social and Legal Discrimination
In this study, the researcher interviewed a 41-year-old Black entrepreneur, ex-prisoner, and a father of two boys, ages 6 and 13, concerning his entrepreneurship journey. The researcher interviewed is the Executive Director of the Clean Slate Reentry Program and a ServSafe Instructor through Workforce Development for Central Carolina Technical College in Sumter, SC. In the interview, the interviewee admitted that his journey to entrepreneurship happened because of his experiences after incarceration.
“After catching criminal charges back in 2001, which caused me to seek the road to entrepreneurship. It is tough for people with criminal backgrounds to be afforded the same opportunities as people without a criminal background,” the interviewee responded when asked about what caused him to opt for entrepreneurship.
When asked about what he could do differently based on the knowledge gained thus far, this was the response:
“I would not have gotten into the criminal trouble that I did in my 20’s. I was able to get my record cleared of those charges. But if I had not had those legal troubles, I would not be a strong advocate for the formerly incarcerated. I can sum my experience up by sharing my favorite bible verse.
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Genesis 50:20.”
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The interview reflects the life post-incarceration and the consequences of holding the tag ex-prisoner. Perhaps, the most terrible facet of this reality Miller explores in his remarkable book, “Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration,” is the fact that even individuals who leave incarceration in several ways are on no occasion truly free. No freedom for ex-prisoners. Instead, such people join the club of the “supervised society.” Miller described the group as a uniquely marginalized population. As a sociologist, social worker, criminologist, and ex-chaplain at Cook County Jail, Chicago, and has spent his past 15 years interviewing over 250 people engrossed in a penitentiary industrial complex, Millar is sufficiently prepared to observe the afterlife of incarceration. The author noted that no other disenfranchised population, not poor people of color without a criminal history, not undocumented immigrants, or even mothers on welfare, experience an intense level of legal segregation that formerly incarcerated people do. The extensiveness of the restrictions, which may include a range of things from being ineligible for public housing or student loan to staying in a house/home with a foster child, is noteworthy (Miller, 2021).
Several state and federal laws, over forty-five thousand of them, control the accused’s lives and follow them even after imprisonment. In California, for example, over 1000 laws and regulations, including employment regulation, laws restricting family rights and housing status, and political participation, exist to regulate the lives of the accused (Ide, 2021). Most of these obscure laws and regulations governing the lives of ex-prisoners do not end when they are no longer officially being supervised. A classic example is the story of Sabrina, an ex-offender who could not find any person willing to rent her an apartment because of her past criminal record. Despite her achievements post-release, including successfully working on a campaign to re-establish voting rights for individuals with lawbreaking convictions in Florida, featuring in a documentary and taking a tour in several prisons in Norway, and being employed with strong credit and a recommendation letter from a state representative, Sabrina still struggled to find a house owner willing to rent her an apartment (Clow, Ricciardelli, & Cain, 2012). If an employer needed to fire Sabrina due to gender or race, they would be violating the law, and she could successfully file for litigation. But if the reason to fire Sabrina or any other person with a criminal conviction alone, the employer would fully be within their rights to do so (Scherr, Normile, & Putney, 2018). The tag of being an ex-offender comes with much more stigma than any other social aspect one may themselves stacked.
Challenges Securing Employment
Another major challenge ex-mates encounter in the outside world is finding employment. Even though finding employment is a requirement for parolees, a study shows that it is not as easy as walking into an institution and applying for a position. Ex-offenders are often forced to explain the gap in their employment by probing the reason for their incarceration. Hiring an individual with criminal records often makes some employers pause. Another challenge is the lack of social capital. Rydberg and Grommon (2016) argue that most parolees have lost touch with their communities. Most of the people looking for employment find a job thanks to a person they know, and it paints a challenging picture for an offender who has just been released if they have any connection. It is even more critical because most parolees or ex-prisoners leave prisons with some employment resources, which can take the form of job training or education while still in prison, arranged employment through a monitored release, or employment through any other means.
Most ex-offenders are forced to work low wages as they acquire job skills, making it challenging to maintain living functions with low income. It becomes even more challenging with zero income. Low wages or no employment may lead ex-offenders to opt for criminal activities to cope in society, leading them to violate parole or probation and resulting in another imprisonment (Zakaria, Jaafar & Lazim, 2018) financially. The employment challenges ex-offenders face are even more challenging for the Black community and other people of color since job opportunities are scarce in such communities. Studies show that ex-offenders released into communities with employment opportunities are less likely to engage in a new crime, while disenfranchised communities frequent reoffending. People from all backgrounds can have a positive return to society if they get into a positive environment (Obatusin & Ritter-Williams, 2019). Employment opportunities in ex-offenders ‘ communities also impact how successful they will live their lives post-incarceration.
Study shows that ex-offenders looking for jobs are met with two types of barrier: demand and supply (Zakaria, Jaafar, & Lazim, 2018). From the supply perspective, factors include the skills, experience, and attitude of ex-prisoners seeking employment. For example, employability factors include cognitive skills, limited education, lack of job connections, insufficient experience, mental and physical health challenges, and substance abuse. The demand perspective concerns the economic climate, employer attitudes, and government policies supporting ex-offenders employment. In some states, employers are liable for any criminal action of the employee based on the principle of negligent hiring. Employers are mandated to check the potential employee’s criminal records before making the hiring decision (McElhattan, 2022). A criminal background check has become even easier for employers and is a mandatory pre-employment investigation with technological advancement.
Mental Health and Substance Issues
From the time of the arrest to release, the mental health of prisoners and offender is often unaddressed despite some having history of untreated mental illness. While some prisoners receive mental health treatment while in prison, the care often stops when released and causes immediate harm. Few states conduct mandatory ongoing mental health follow-ups post-incarceration for people meeting the required criteria. Studies show that mental health complications potentially increase a person’s recidivism risk or revert to criminal behaviors. Ex-offenders diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, including substance abuse disorders, schizophrenia, and other mental health complications, face a greater risk of reoffending or engaging in violent crimes post-release than those not diagnosed with any mental health complication (Johnston, 2019). Unemployed and homeless ex-inmates may be preoccupied with getting housing, food, and working to the extent they neglect mental health, which may be declining, impacting their relationships and connection to relevant services, including housing assistance. Such situations may accelerate mental health complications and increase recidivism risk, such as the risk of survival coping, including engaging in petty crimes to get good and other necessities. The primary challenge is that mental health and criminal justice systems are not closely connected (Obatusin & Ritter-Williams, 2019). There is a need to educate the ex-prisoners on how to cope with mental health issues once out of prison.
Substance abuse is another major problem ex-offenders face post-incarceration. Study shows that substance abuse is rampant among inmates, with more 80% of inmates in prison admitting to having abused an illicit substance in their lifetime. According to a recent national survey, about 56% of people in state prisons and 53% of those in federal prisons met DSM-IV standards for a substance use disorders (SUDs). However, a few convicts get evidence-based SUD treatments; hence, they continue abusing substances even after prison (Chamberlain, Nyamu, Aminawung, Wang, Shavit, & Fox, 2019). Less than 20% of people with SUD receive formal treatment during incarceration. Study shows that the most fundamental care, including treatment with methadone maintenance for opioid abuse disorders, are seldom administered in correctional environments even if such drugs are available. Only a fraction of eligible people accesses the treatments.
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The subgroup of ex-offenders with substance addiction is at higher risk of recidivism. Study shows that a significant number of ex-offenders are turned to incarceration either because they have committed new crimes or violated technical rules that govern the parole or ex-prisoners released on supervision (Gonzalez, Walters, Lerch, & Taxman, 2015). Failing a drug test can make one be reconvicted. SUD is a chronic relapsing condition. Even people who stop substance abuse while in prison are likely to resume after being released, which leads to numerous risks. Researchers have documented a highly increased risk of death for individuals released from incarceration, with the major cause of death being illegal substance overdose (Tsai & Gu, 2019). Addressing substance use and related disorders in the criminal justice system is necessary and require new approaches.
Ex-offenders faced challenges securing housing because of their past criminal records and high risk of residential instability. Many people leva prison will have no adequate finances to secure an apartment. Besides, stringent housing regulations make it difficult for such people to be regarded as eligible housing candidates. The private sector rental housing associations have also instituted strict policies against renting for individuals with a criminal history. People with a felony or drug conviction history are not eligible for public housing. Research indicates that ex-offenders are at high risk of being homeless or rearrested during the first months post-incarceration. Being homeless also increases the risk of recidivism (Zakaria, Jaafar, & Lazim, 2018). Making lenient policies and offering access to affordable housing is critical to help ex-offenders successfully transition back to their communities and prevent possible rearrests.
Helping Ex-Offenders to Integrate Back To Their Communities Successfully
The cost of failed re-entry and re-incarceration adversely impacts individuals, families, and communities. Incarceration has disproportionately affected minorities, particularly young African American men and people with low education levels. There is a need for effective strategies to address the barriers that make it difficult for incarcerated people to re-enter their communities successfully. Study shows that ex-offenders are disadvantaged socially, economically, and educationally. A strategy to reduce recidivism and help released prisoners re-enter their communities successfully is prison education and re-entry programs. Some states have responded by providing adult post-secondary education programs, technical, special education, and career programming to help released prisoners get back to society (Miller, 2021). Besides, pre-release programs preparing inmates to be productive community members are critical. Providing prisoners with education programs, job skills, mental health counseling, and related treatments can help them overcome some of the difficulties they face returning to their communities. Study shows that prisoners who participate in correctional education are 43% less likely to be reasserted. Besides, the cost incurred in prison education saves the economy four times the cost of re-incarceration (Leone & Wruble, 2017).
The policymakers can also work on the country’s laws and regulations to reduce barriers and enhance re-entry for ex-offenders back to their communities. People are burdened even by minor criminal records making it challenging to integrate back into society. As such, re-entry must begin day one of imprisonment and continue until one is fully reintegrated into their communities (Hacker, 2021). For instance, local governments can aid in successful re-entry by allocating funds that help in re-entry programs such as housing, medication-assisted treatment, and other services that target the individual needs of ex-offenders.
Overall, individuals with criminal backgrounds face several challenges accessing similar opportunities, including housing and employment, as those without criminal records. It gets even more complicated when you are a black person or people of color. They also suffer mental health complications and substance abuse, among other challenges, making it harder to reintegrate into their communities successfully. There is a need for proper re-entry programs, including providing education and job skills development to help ex-inmates cope with life post-incarceration.