In the United States, the potential for released or paroled inmates of the federal and state prison systems to return to criminal behaviors is high. This is known as recidivism, and it’s a problem that has drawn attention at every level of government. Last year, a bi-partisan group within Congress put forth the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act that aims to expand the provisions of the Second Chance Act and work to provide environments that reduce recidivism in local contexts.
As the senior research associate for the Urban Institute, Jocelyn Fontaine, notes, individuals released from prison are often returning to communities that have been socially marginalized, with high rates of unemployment and substance abuse. In these contexts, the lack of support and incentive to avoid recidivism creates the ideal circumstances for a relapse of criminal behaviors. However, in conjunction with federal initiatives, states and communities are working to actively reduce these incentives in a number of interesting and amazing ways.
1. Prepping for the Real World
A small program started in Chicago’s Cook County jail provides inmates the opportunity to cultivate a useful skill. Via a 90-day course, inmates can learn the basics of the restaurant line kitchen, which they can use in their search for employment following release. This is one of the truly local initiatives, which was started in the basement of the jailhouse with one donated stove and knives secured so they couldn’t be used as weapons. But it is a wonderful project, offering inmates exposure to fresh foods, the concepts of creativity and nurturing others, and an immersive experience that builds pride in self and achievements.
2. Holding Parolees to a Higher Standard
Hawaii has instituted a statewide program. Rather than ordering scheduled drug tests at parole appointments, the paroled individuals may be subject to a drug test at any time, with only a few hours warning. If they have relapsed or violated their paroles in any way, they are then subject to immediate punishment. In the established system, parolees are given too much latitude to relapse into criminal behaviors, and ultimately, the state has had only one recourse—to send them back to prison. The new system integrates a more sensible, moderate approach, resulting in parolees that are 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a major offense.
3. Diving Deep for Self-Improvement
The state of California has a 64 percent recidivism rate. However, an innovative program offers to change that, at least for inmates who are motivated to improve their lives. Teaching currently incarcerated individuals the skills of underwater welding and salvage diving, among other valuable trades, the Marine Technology Training Center’s program has a recidivism rate of less than 15 percent among participants subsequently paroled. That’s because the program teaches self-respect, a lucrative skill set, and a strong work ethic. It allows inmates to build a concept of self that does not rely on breaking the law or substance abuse in order to subsist.
4. CUNY Takes the Honor Role
Education is often one of the swiftest paths to legitimate rehabilitation of inmates. The City University of New York system takes this principal much to heart with the Prison to College Pipeline (P2CP) program. Initiated in 2011 and spearheaded by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Hostos Community College, the program allows young offenders with a high school diploma or GED to apply, write essays, and sit for interviews aimed at admission to a special college degree program. While the program requires that the applicant be eligible for parole within five years of applying, it’s definitely a way forward with many possible benefits.
5. A Way Home
One of the most damaging aspects of incarceration is the removal from any positive support network within family or natural community. This often results in the formation of prison social communities, which only serves to entrench negative behaviors or introduce new criminal mindsets. In Texas, a former convict named Ray Hill has undertaken a project with KPFT, the state-run broadcast channel. He contends that maintaining ties to positive community and family influences is key in fostering good behavior in inmates. However, visiting and connection are difficult for many. So, Ray started The Prison Show as a way for inmates to create, express, and connect with distanced family and friends via call-ins.
While many communities are uncertain how to solve the problems that lead to incarceration, there are an increasing number of researchers and willing helpers to design programs to put a damper on the recidivism rate. We know that socioeconomic marginalization, community displacement, and lack of educational opportunities are three major factors in both primary and repeat offenses. In response to this, programs that foster healthy group connection, teach viable and profitable skills, and provide a chance to gain a broader education certainly provide communities a way to support returning members and even elevate their own socioeconomic prospects.