About 3,100 incarcerated people were released from federal prison around the country on Friday, in compliance with a criminal justice reform law passed with bipartisan congressional support last year. While roughly 900 of these inmates were transferred to another form of custody — either state prison or the Department of Homeland Security — thousands of others are now free to rebuild their lives.
It likely won’t be easy. In general, the odds are against former prisoners in the U.S. when it comes to staying out of incarceration. About eight in 10 who were released from prison in 2005 were arrested again at least once by 2014, according to the most recent study by the U.S. Department of Justice. And the risk of former prisoners recidivism is highest the first year after release — about 44 percent of state prisoners were arrested again within a year of release, the Justice Department study showed.
But just as more state and federal lawmakers have backed criminal justice reform like the First Step Act–efforts to help people who have spent time in prison, such as the Ban the Box campaign, have garnered greater attention in recent years.
Here are three other ways organizers and activists are working to get people back on their feet after living behind bars.
Turning vacant buildings into transitional housing
Formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times as likely to be homeless as the average American.
Weld Seattle, a nonprofit based in Washington state, aims to reduce homelessness by using vacant buildings as temporary housing until development officially begins.
Since 2016, the group, founded by Amy and Brady King, has been reaching out to local developers to request the use of vacant buildings that have been purchased but not yet developed into new housing. Weld Seattle asks to use the building temporarily — typically for six months — before demolition or renovations on the buildings begin. Program manager Jody Bardacke says it’s an appealing deal for developers who are not yet ready to break ground on their projects but don’t want to leave their properties vacant because that can make them vulnerable to squatters and crime.
The nonprofit currently has 13 houses under its purview and provides housing to 43 people.
With three bedrooms to a house, on average, organizers try not to fit more than two residents to a room. Bardacke says that if people are going to transition into an independent life, they should get used to living in a “normal” house, as opposed to some other facilities “where they’re just stacking people on people.”
In total, Weld Seattle has housed 125 people and has seen 43 residents move on to independent permanent housing, whether by renting an apartment or by moving in with a family member. In general, the average occupant is only allowed to stay at Weld for about a year and they must pay $500 per month in dues that go toward utilities and the nonprofit’s operating costs. Bardacke says part of the deal for residents is that they agree to stay “clean and sober,” meaning that if they bring drugs or alcohol onto the premises, they face immediate membership termination.
But even if a resident has their membership terminated, Bardacke says they can reapply in 30 days.
“Our goal is to always keep the door open,” Bardacke said. “The thing I always say to people on their way out the door is, ‘My phone number continues to work. I will always answer your call.’”
Suiting up people for free
In 2018, formerly incarcerated people faced an unemployment rate of 27 percent. That’s higher than the unemployment rate was for all Americans during the peak of the Great Depression, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. When data is disaggregated by race and gender, the numbers are even more bleak. Among the formerly incarcerated population, the unemployment rate for white men age 35 to 44 was 18.4 percent in 2018, while the unemployment rate for black women in the same age group was 43.6 percent.
Having proper business attire may not solve the unemployment problem, but it can help former inmates get a foot in the door with potential employers.
The New York nonprofit 100 Suits for 100 Men is committed to giving recently released men, women and gender non-conforming people a “boutique experience.” Founded by Kevin Livingston, the organization has given out more than 13,200 suits since 2011, and more than 800 since the start of this year. 100 Suits largely relies on donated apparel. Celebrities like Colin Kaepernick and Steve Harvey have even chipped in and donated items from their wardrobes.
When they walk in, each client receives a free suit, tie, minor tailoring and, if needed, haircuts and salon referrals. Livingston, who describes his role at the nonprofit as “president, founder, cleaner, seamstress, customer service rep,” says the process can be “transformative” for people who have been historically looked down on.
“When you put on a suit, you automatically stand out,” Livingston said.
Sharp Dressed Man, a nonprofit with locations in Baltimore and Los Angeles, is on a similar mission.
The organization, founded in 2010, has given out more than 8,000 suits since 2010. Volunteer Casey Rowe said the group serves anywhere from 20 to 80 men in the span of two hours each Wednesday afternoon.
In order to be suited up, clients have to bring in a referral form from one of the local partner organizations focused on addiction recovery and transitional housing. It’s at these partner groups that men receive housing, food and guidance, Rowe said. Then, at Sharpest Dressed Man, clients can then get a suit for a job interview or court appearance.
“Some guys just need a suit for court and that’s it,” said Rowe. But he has also seen men who say the clothes made a major difference in their lives by helping them get a job or inspire them to reconnect with their family and friends.
There are “a million different things that the suit can do,” Rowe said.
Healing through tattoo removal
Roughly four in 10 American adults have at least one tattoo on their bodies. But, for former inmates, there may be a connection between having visible tattoos and the struggle to enter the workforce.
Former prisoners with visible tattoos return to prison 3.4 years faster on average than those without tattoos, according to a 2014 study by Kaitlyn Harger, then a University of West Virginia Ph.D. student. The study points to potential causes, such as employers discriminating against applicants with tattoos — particularly if located on the face, head, neck or hands.
On average, tattoo removal costs about $401 per one hour session, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. People might need multiple sessions depending on the tattoo. Yet, through a tattoo removal directory compiled by the nonprofit Jails to Jobs, formerly incarcerated people can find tattoo removal centers near them that will remove tattoos for free or at a low cost.
The organization is centered in Lafayette, California, but its tattoo removal network extends across 42 states. Jails to Jobs founder Mark Drevno believes that tattoo removal can provide “healing” and even “transformation” for former prisoners.
“There’s folks that were incarcerated and the group that they gathered with were maybe white supremacists and they’d have lightning bolts and swastikas and cloverleafs and other things tattooed on them and then they’re able to get those removed. There’s healing in that,” Drevno said. “I had another man who had tattoos on his chest that really disturbed his 5-year-old daughter. And so he just decided, ‘I’ve got to get these off.’”