Prison System in America

E. Families and Reentry

Well over half of U.S. prisoners are parents of minor children, and up to 75% of incarcerated women are mothers of minors. Nearly 3% of all minor children in the United States, and nearly 10% of children of color, have a parent in prison. When a parent is sent to prison, the family structure, financial responsibilities, emotional support systems, and living arrangements are all affected. Incarceration can drastically disrupt spousal relations, parent– child relations, and family networks. There are significant challenges to maintaining family contact while in prison, including visiting regulations, transportation costs to distant facilities, other financial barriers, and emotional strains. More than half of incarcerated parents report never having received a visit from their children.

Nearly 75% of returning prisoners in Illinois and Maryland felt that family support had been important in helping them to avoid prison after release, and strong family support before prison may also reduce likelihood of recidivism. Those who reported positive family relations were less likely to be reconvicted, while those who reported negative family relations were more likely to be reconvicted and reincarcerated. Those with closer family relations and strong family support were less likely to have used drugs since release. Most prisoners have contact with family and children, but it is usually through phone and mail. In Illinois, only 13% of returning prisoners had had in-person contact with family members or children; 29%had visits from spouses/partners.

Distance to the correctional facility is one of the greatest challenges to maintaining contact. Three quarters of family members surveyed said the distance to the facility was the main problem with visitation. For the two thirds who did not visit family in prison, the median estimated travel time to the prison was 4 hours longer than thoseReleased prisoners have an extremely high prevalence of mental disorders and chronic and infectious diseases— much higher than in the general population. Ex-cons face limited and insufficient access to community-based health care upon release. Further, incarceration disqualifies inmates from Medicaid eligibility, and restoring eligibility can take several months—interrupting access to prescription drugs and health care. Between 30 and 40% of released prisoners reported having a chronic physical or mental health condition—most commonly depression, asthma, and high blood pressure. In New Jersey, one third of those released in 2002 had at least one chronic or communicable medical condition. Many more released offenders report being diagnosed with a medical condition compared to those who received medication or treatment for the condition while incarcerated. Only 12% report having taken medication regularly in prison. In Ohio, over half reported depression, but only 35% reported receiving treatment or medication. While 27% reported having asthma, less than 14% received treatment for it (Lynch who did visit. This issue of distance and visitation is exacerbated in the context of coercive mobility. The 500 Hawaiian prisoners housed in Mississippi are unlikely to receive any visitation during their prison stay, and neither are the 1,500 Californian prisoners due there. States routinely exchange hundreds and thousands of prisoners in order to minimize the cost of housing them in-state.

Close family relationships can improve employment outcomes for returning prisoners, and closer family and partner relations and stronger family support result in more employment after release—likely because many releasees are hired by family members. But it has become increasingly common to export and import prisoners across state lines in order to save money, and more difficult for prisoners to maintain family ties and support systems while incarcerated.

F. Communities and Reentry

Released prisoners are returning in high concentrations to a small number of communities in urban areas—having a profound and disproportionate effect on community life, family networks, and social capital in these neighborhoods. These places are characterized by social and economic disadvantage, which compounds the problems associated with reentry. In addition, research shows that high rates of incarceration and reentry may destabilize these communities and result in higher crime rates.

A relatively large number of prisoners return to a small number of cities in each state. For example, recent data show that Chicago and Baltimore received more than half of all prisoners returning to Illinois and Maryland, respectively. Houston received one quarter of all prisoners returning to Texas. Two of New Jersey’s 21 counties accounted for one third of all returning prisoners. Nearly 49% of prisoners returning to Massachusetts returned to just two counties. Five of Idaho’s 44 counties accounted for three quarters of returning prisoners. Returning prisoners are often clustered in a few neighborhoods in these cities. For instance, 8% of Chicago communities accounted for over one third of all prisoners returning to Chicago; 7% of the zip codes in Wayne County, Michigan (8 of 115)—all of which are in Detroit—accounted for over 40%of all prisoners being released in that state.

High levels of social and economic disadvantage characterize communities to which prisoners return. These communities have above-average rates of unemployment, female-headed households, and families living below the federal poverty level. Former prisoners who relocate tend to move to neighborhoods similar to the ones they left, with similar disadvantages, and prisoners returning to neighborhoods that are unsafe and lacking in social capital are at greater risk of recidivism and reincarceration.

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