the released

Re-entering Society: Can Communities Meet Needs After Prison?"


Lesson Objectives:

Students will:

  • Evaluate mental health services in their state's prisons and in the general community
  • Analyze the potential problems of releasing mentally ill former offenders into communities with limited services and limited housing
  • Consider how homelessness provides additional challenges for mentally ill former offenders
  • Develop alternatives to the trend of release and recidivism


Materials Needed:


Time Needed:

  • 45-60 minutes for Part I: Mental Health Care in the Prison System & Challenges of Re-entry
  • 30-40 minutes for Part II: Mitigating the Impact
  • 15-20 minutes for an optional debriefing




Part I - Mental Health Care in the Prison System & Challenges of Re-entry


Step 1: Place students in groups of three with access to a computer and distribute Student Handout 1: The Facts: Mental Health Care, In and Out of Prison, and the Challenges of Re-entry

Alternatives for no computer/Internet access:

  • Assign this activity for homework. Students can look up their state's profiles at home or at the library and take notes on their findings. In class, they can meet in small groups for discussion.
  • Look up your state's information for each of the maps and create a handout for the students. The profiles for each map are very brief.
  • Download copies of the articles "Reentry" and "Breaking the Tragic Cycle."


Step 2: Direct the groups to FRONTLINE's companion Web site for The New Asylums, or distribute a copy of this page and read the complete heading for available mental health care in state prisons.

"Here is the most recent information available on mental health care for all 50 state adult prison systems. Click on each state to find the percentage of inmates diagnosed as mentally ill; an assessment of whether there is an adequate number of staff for mental health care; and details on the kinds of mental health training, if any, that correctional officers are required to receive."


Step 3: Before they click on their home state, instruct the students to discuss in their triad what they expect to discover about their state's mental health care in the prison system.


Step 4: Invite students to click on their state. Have them jot down the quantitative information about their state's profile. (Note: Information may vary from state to state.)


Step 5: Pose the following questions for the triads to discuss. (These questions are included on the student handout.)

  • How current is the information? What is the source of the information? Is this a reliable source? Why or why not?
  • Do you think that an appropriate amount of funds is allocated to mental health in the prison system? Why or why not?
  • What kind of mental health training do correctional officers receive in your state?
  • Do you think prison staff should receive additional training, and if so, what kind of services?
  • Is it appropriate for states to take mental illness into consideration when offenders are sentenced and incarcerated?
  • What percentage of the inmate population is mentally ill?
  • What factors do you think account for this percentage?
  • Do you think there is adequate mental health care in your state's prison system? Why or why not?


Step 6: Direct the groups to the National Alliance to End Homelessness's Web site, or provide copies of this page. Instruct the students to read the brief article "Reentry," and have them jot down salient information.


Optional Task: Ask the students to evaluate this page compared to the last map. Guiding questions can include:

Who is publishing this information? Is it an organization or a government agency?
Do you think the publisher has a particular goal? If so, what is the mission?

Have the students support their observations with evidence from the page.


Step 7: Pose the following questions for the triads to discuss:

  • What is the main challenge that this article addresses about offenders re-entering society?
  • How widespread is the problem of homelessness for this population?
    Why is it so pervasive?
  • How do you think that being mentally ill compounds the challenges of being homeless? Offer at least three concrete hardships faced by the mentally ill homeless.
  • What models are available that have proven to be effective in working with mentally ill offenders?


Mental Health Care in Your State


Step 1: Direct the groups to the National Alliance on Mental Illness's Web site, or distribute copies of this page. Instruct the students to click on their home state and on the detailed report card and pose the following questions for the triads to discuss. (These instructions are included on the students' handouts.)

  • What grade did your state earn?
  • Does this grade surprise you? Does it disappoint you? Why or why not?


Optional Task: Ask the students to evaluate this page compared to the map of mental health care in the prison system. Guiding questions can include: Who is publishing this information? Is it an organization or a government agency? Do you think the publisher supports a particular goal? If so, what is the mission?
Have the students support their observations with evidence from the page.


Step 2: Distribute Handout 2: Predicting the Problems, and establish the following scenarios for the students to address:

This year, more than 700,000 people will leave prison. More than half of them are mentally ill, and one in five people who leaves prison will become homeless. Taking into consideration these facts, take notes on the graphic organizer handout and predict the challenges for society and for the mentally ill when they leave prison. Your notes should include the following details:

  • A heading for the third column that describes the trend your group is presenting
  • Your group's predictions about what could happen when mentally ill offenders are released from prison into their communities. Brainstorm at least two trends your group predicts could develop.


Part II: Mitigating the Impact


Step 1: Combine every two groups so there are now six students per group. Within each group, assign each student one of the following identities in a county government task force, and make sure students understand their roles. (Students can make a placard identifying their position.)



  • Commissioner of Health & Mental Hygiene (an appointed official responsible for health services; oversees hospitals and emergency clinics)
  • County Executive (an elected official accountable to his or her constituents and responsible for the countywide budget; for students who are unfamiliar with county government, this executive is akin to the mayor of a town or city)
  • Commissioner of Homeless Services (an appointed official responsible for tackling the issue of homelessness; relies heavily on emergency shelters and soup kitchens to provide services to the homeless)
  • Police Commissioner (an appointed official responsible for law enforcement in the county)
  • Mental Health Court Judge (an appointed arbiter who presides over an alternative justice system for offenders with mental illness)
  • Chief Psychiatrist for the Department of Corrections (a medical professional who serves mentally ill offenders and determines their eligibility for re-entry into society)

Once the students understand their roles, have them introduce themselves to their groups. The county executive should preside over the "task force meeting." Direct the students to refer to their graphic organizers and share their predictions about what will happen when mentally ill offenders re-enter their communities.


Step 2: Distribute or access FRONTLINE's "Breaking the Tragic Cycle,", and have the students read the first four paragraphs. Ask the "task force" to discuss the following:

  • Identify "the tragic cycle" presented in the article.
  • How does the information in this article compare to the predictions they made in their subgroups?


Step 3: Distribute Handout 3: Working Toward a Solution to the task force groups. (These instructions are on the students' handout.)

  • Direct students to consider options their county can pursue to mitigate the problems they identified when mentally ill offenders re-enter communities with limited mental health care.
  • The "task force" needs to develop two recommendations that represent a consensus of the committee. Encourage the students to advocate for their particular constituencies during this discussion.
  • For each recommendation, the "task force" needs to articulate at least two consequences of these courses of action.


Optional Debriefing: Reconvene as a class. Invite students to sit quietly and write for five to 10 minutes as they reflect on this activity or lead a group discussion. Any of the following questions can also be assigned for an extended writing assignment.


Suggested writing/discussion prompts can include:

  • What was challenging about developing realistic recommendations to balance the needs of the mentally ill offenders vs. the needs of the community?
  • What was the hardest part about reaching a consensus in the "task force"?
  • Given that many local governments are having their budgets cut because of the current economic crisis, how realistic do you think it is to implement your recommendations? What arguments do you anticipate the community may raise about your recommendations?
  • Reflecting back on this activity, is this an issue you have ever thought about? Has this exercise changed the way you think about how communities should deal with mentally ill offenders? Identify one fact you now know about this issue.


Methods of Assessment:

  • Completion of note-taking assignments and graphic organizer
  • Participation in small group and class discussions
  • Completion of county task force recommendations
  • Completion and quality of reflective writing or discussion



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