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How to help someone coming out of the criminal justice system

In 2020, around 2.3 million Americans were in some sort of criminal justice confinement, according to an analysis by advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative. That includes state prisons, local jails, juvenile centers and immigration detention facilities. And according to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 600,000 people will be released from prison each year.

When someone leaves prison, there is a high likelihood they will be either arrested or put back in detention. Non-profits, corrections offices and legal aid groups are trying to lower that high rate of recidivism by mitigating the struggle of adapting to everyday life.

“Everybody wants to think that reintegration is easy,” said Jeff Mellow, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It isn’t. It’s extremely complex. The recent recidivism rates are over 80 percent over 9 years.”

Mellow authored a toolkit to better coordinate groups working on reentry, creating an integrated system of support for former inmates to access things like bus passes and food.

When Jonathan McMillan came out of prison in Denver more than 20 years ago, he felt the extended reach of the legal system weighed heavily on his attempts to start over. His parole officers put arbitrary requirements on him, he said, and threatened to send him back to prison for minor violations like being late to a meeting because of traffic.

“The frustrating piece is the services you get are only going to be as good as the person delivering them,” he said. “When you have [parole officers] in jobs that treat it as just another job, treating humans as another widget, it’s dehumanizing, frustrating and maddening.”

The biggest barrier for him was trying to find work.

“You feel as though you’re walking around with a scarlet letter on your chest,” he said.

McMillan now works as a consultant to help young people stay out of the criminal justice system — a program he said he could have benefited from when he was a young Black man.

Keri Blakinger, a criminal justice reporter with The Marshall Project, felt lucky to have support and housing waiting for her when she was released from prison nearly a decade ago.

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“Even then, it was difficult,” she said. “Getting out of prison is an incredibly difficult time emotionally because the world has moved on while you’ve been in stasis. I’ve seen my peers have kids, become doctors, and meanwhile I can’t remember to leave a cellphone on to get calls.”

She says the tricky part about making the transition from the prison community to the non-incarcerated community is that, while there are groups available to help, there is often no centralized place to find them.

“One thing about reentry that is hard to get your hands around is how localized it is,” she said. “There isn’t a nationwide or even statewide entity [in New York] that coordinates reentry services on a granular, county or city wide level. It’s a patchwork of organizations. What services are available to you is where you are and how that community has put resources into reentry.”

Blakinger said the important work for reentry is done before someone is released, often on parole. She worked with her parole officer, but found the most help via word of mouth from other people in prison who had worked with the upstate New York non-profit OAR.

Criminal justice advocates like Carol Peeples, executive director of reentry resource website Remerg, say people face a number of barriers when they are reentering society that make the likelihood of recidivism higher.

“Housing is the hardest,” said Peeples. “And ID documents continue to be a pill, especially with COVID-19.”

Peeples said she suggests, if there are no other options, for people coming out of prison to look for transitional housing, or group homes as a step towards stable housing.

For those interested in helping former inmates transition back into the community, it’s important to first understand the systemic problems that may arise and how they can be addressed on a larger scale, Peeples said.

“People feel good when they do something for one person, but the systemic barriers are the problem,” she said. “Why was the system making it hard for someone? That’s where people need to get involved.”

Often when someone is released from prison, they don’t have identification except for their prison ID. That is a major barrier to getting started on things like a loan for a car they may need to drive to court-mandated drug tests or Medicaid to afford drugs aimed at helping mental health. ID cards can be costly to obtain, and many people don’t have the money or the necessary transportation to get to a government building to secure one. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues as some DMVs are closed, making it even harder to get a driver’s license.

Peeples said the best way to help people coming out of prison is to donate to community organizations providing resources to people leaving prison. She said she recommends people wanting to help look for nearby, local reentry programs and volunteer time or money.

She said the San Francisco-based reentry program SF-GOSO offers a compilation of resources. Also in California,the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership is a large program with many resources in the West.

Community Bridges, in Phoenix, offers resources to reduce the recidivism rate in the area. Delancey Street Foundation has six offices across the states to help the formerly incarcerated find housing. The Last Mile in northern California gives job training for people incarcerated. Safer Foundation in Chicago aims to help former prisoners find work.

Another group in Chicago, Restoring Justice, offers a website aimed to help those coming out of prison find what programs they need. Other groups like the Prison Entrepreneurship Program help with specific needs like employment nationally.

The Lionheart Foundation has a state-by-state list of local reentry programs. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services also has a comprehensive list of reentry programs by type. But Peeples said local reentry nonprofits or programs aimed at helping formerly incarcerated people tend to be underfunded because the general public often isn’t aware of, or interested in, donating their money.

“Prison reentry programs are hard to fund because it’s not puppies and babies,” Peeples said.

Another major hurdle to overcome for people leaving prison is the criminal record they now have tied to their name. For some, even going back to the police station to get their records can be a re-traumatization.

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“If you don’t know what’s on your background, it’s more difficult to overcome your circumstances with employment and housing with those barriers in place,” Esther Franco-Payne, executive director of Chicago-based Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA). “When the system says you are denied financial aid or your children, it’s impossible for one to live life to their fullest potential. A person should not be looked at for their record.”

Franco-Payne said CGLA works with people who have been arrested or incarcerated to help with criminal record relief like expungement or sealing records.

She said it’s important to start educating people as soon as they enter the criminal justice system in order to break myths about criminal records.

“Even before you’re out, know your rights,” she said. “Break myths like, ‘oh I won’t be able to vote or get a checking account.’ Those may not be true.”

McMillan in Denver says even 20 years after he was released from prison, his criminal record hovers behind him like a spectre of his past, haunting his future endeavors.

“I still have anxiety filling out a job application or a rental. Any time a background check becomes an issue, I still feel a twinge of anxiety. Even though I’m not the same person, it lives in the back of my head,” he said.

McMillan’s best advice for anyone coming out of the criminal justice system is to remember that it will feel like a Sisyphian effort for even small tasks, like finding a job or going back to school.

Jeff Mellow at John Jay College agrees. And both men find it crucial for someone who just came out of prison or jail to keep making the calls, the in-person visits and the effort to get back to a normal life after incarceration.

“What I really think is important when reintegrating back into the community, especially if you don’t have family support, is it can feel depressing,” Mellow said. “It’s not going to be easy, but the goal is not to give up.”