III. Impact on the Individual
The impact of the era of mass incarceration is experienced, of course, most directly by the millions of people in prison, who struggle to adapt to the conditions in prison, maintain contact with families, anticipate the day they will be released from confinement, and overcome the stigma associated with being an “ex-con.” Over the past two decades, the length of prison stay has increased, the percentage of prisoners receiving services has declined, and the frequency of family visits has dropped, so the individual prison experience is demonstrably different than in years past.
Adapting a reentry perspective on the realities of imprisonment—in other words, realizing that everyone in prison ultimately returns home, and then asking whether they are ready for that journey—would call on prisons to take a more active role in preparing individuals for release. Through this lens, prisons can be viewed as an opportunity to engage incarcerated individuals in programs designed to help develop the skills needed to find employment upon release, maintain a substance-free lifestyle, and reestablish prosocial ties to the community.
The magnitude of this challenge is clear. The majority of men and women behind bars are from disadvantaged communities where there are limited opportunities and resources available. The incarcerated population is at a great disadvantage compared with the general population in terms of educational achievement, access to quality health care, and legitimate employment opportunities. For example, incarcerated individuals have lower levels of literacy, lower high school completion rates, and more limited postsecondary educational experience than the general population (Crayton & Neusteter, 2008). Adequately addressing the needs of incarcerated people and individuals under supervision in the community has the potential to help increase public safety by decreasing the likelihood of the individual engaging in criminal activity or causing harm to those in the community upon his or her release. However, despite the skills and education the individual might obtain during his or her incarceration, upon release, a number of barriers stand in the way of his or her successful transition to free society.
The consequences of a criminal conviction are great and can be difficult to overcome. Many formerly incarcerated people are subject to a network of legislatively defined sanctions after release. These sanctions, known as invisible punishments, were not imposed by the judge at the time of the sentence and are poorly understood by the general public (Travis, 2002), but they pose significant barriers to the individual’s efforts to achieve full reintegration. Also, consistent with the general trend toward greater punitiveness, the network of invisible punishment has also been expanded significantly over the past two decades. Individuals with felony convictions for drug offenses are now ineligible for public assistance and food stamps, can be excluded from public housing, and can be denied student loans. State legislatures and Congress have placed significant sectors of the labor market off limits to individuals with felony records. Most states bar individuals on parole or probation supervision from exercising the right to vote, and some states ban felons from voting for life (King, 2008).
The cumulative effect of these barriers to reintegration can have significant negative life consequences. As was mentioned earlier, the individuals returning from incarceration disproportionately come from, and return to, disadvantaged urban communities, typically communities of color. Prior to incarceration, many of these individuals relied on what limited governmental resources are available to them. However, after incarceration, many of these individuals will be unable to access the network of support that existed prior to their incarceration. For example, they might not be able to return to their families because of policies banning them from public housing. They might no longer be able to access the safety net of welfare benefits. Preventing people with criminal histories from accessing governmental assistance is not only a question of extended punishment but also an issue of public safety. Denying individuals access to services could increase the likelihood that the individual will return to criminal activities to support himself and his family.
One of the first priorities of an individual upon release is securing a place to live. Some have a home to return to and a family to welcome them back. For others, there is no family to return to, either because of broken family ties or an unwillingness on the part of family members to allow the individual to return home. People being released from prison without a place to live will face a number of challenges in accessing housing, both in the public and private housing markets. The majority of housing available in the United States is found in the private housing market. The private market is generally beyond reach for most individuals being released from prison. Landlords often conduct credit checks, or criminal background checks, which would disqualifymost individuals with felony records. Moreover, state legislatures have enacted legislation banning individuals convicted of certain offenses—sex crimes and some drug offenses—from living within designated geographic areas. Other laws require community notification whenever a person who has been convicted of a sex crime moves into their neighborhood, placing another formidable barrier to successful reintegration. The public housing market—both public housing developments and housing made available through Section 8 vouchers—is also off limits to some individuals returning from prison. Under federal legislation, public housing managers are authorized to deny public housing services to individuals convicted of designated offenses. Not only is the individual at risk, but his or her family may be evicted for continuing criminal activity, if it does occur. So, the network of support that in some instances may help with successful reentry is denied to some individuals coming home.
For some individuals leaving prison, the only housing option is a homeless shelter. Research on the connection between homelessness and prisoner reentry has demonstrated that a larger percentage of people living in homeless shelters were recently incarcerated, and many of them will return to jail or prison (Metraux & Culhane, 2004). Many jurisdictions around the United States have sought to interrupt this cycling in and out of prison and shelter, creating transitional housing options for people coming out of prison and supported housing options for people living in homeless shelters.
Contributing to the ex-con stigma are employment bans and hiring practices that prevent formerly incarcerated individuals from obtaining jobs. After housing, employment is one of the fundamental needs of an individual leaving prison. The existence of employment bans are understandable is certain situations. For example, many would agree that it would not be appropriate for a person convicted of a sex crime perpetrated against a child to have a job working at a child care facility. However, many employment bans are blanket policies that affect all people with criminal histories, regardless of their crimes. In the United States, people with felony convictions are denied employment or licenses in over 800 occupations (Cromwell, Alarid, & del Carmen, 2005). Such occupations include cosmetology, barber, emergency services, and practicing law.
Moreover, employers have virtually unlimited access to potential employees’ criminal backgrounds. Employer discrimination against people with criminal histories is not a new phenomenon; however, the advent of online databases— many of which have been deemed inaccurate or as missing information—has increased opportunities for discrimination. In addition, it is customary for applicants to come across a question on a job application or in an interview that inquires about a person’s criminal history. For many formerly incarcerated people, the answer to the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” will be the reason they do not get the job. For that reason, some jurisdictions have joined what is known as the “ban the box” campaign (Henry & Jacobs, 2007). In these jurisdictions, background checks are allowed only after the job applicant has been determined otherwise eligible for the position in question, and the final hiring decision will be made only after an assessment of the nexus between the behavior leading to the conviction and the requirements for the job.
The net effect of these barriers to employment is that individuals who have served time in prison face significantly diminished earnings prospects. According to analysis by labor market economists, individuals with prison records will experience a 10% diminution in earnings over their lifetimes (Western & Pettit, 2000). To interrupt this trajectory toward lower employment outcomes, and the economic marginalization that is implied, some jurisdictions around the country are experimenting with programs that offer transitional employment to individuals returning from prison, helping them get back on their feet until they can find permanent employment.
In addition to connecting with family, finding housing, and securing work, people coming home from prison often face significant challenges in connecting with health care services. The prison population presents health problems that are significantly higher than found in the general population. The prevalence of a variety of communicable diseases—including HIV–AIDS, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted diseases—is between 4 to 10 times higher in prison than in the general population (National Commission on Correctional Health Care, 2002). The rates of mental illness are also higher. Three quarters of those currently incarcerated have histories of drug and/or alcohol addiction. Whatever the quality of health care in prison—and there is substantial variation in these services—the process of reentry poses a challenge in terms of connecting the returning prisoner to appropriate community-based services. In some instances, this is an acute need, as in the case of medication to treat an individual’s mental illness or of continuing care for HIV–AIDS. In other instances, the period of reentry presents high probabilities of relapse to risky behavior, as in the case of someone with a history of addiction, or challenges to mental health when dealing with the stresses of a return to free society.
Finally, one of the greatest challenges facing individuals returning home is to avoid future criminal behavior. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, two thirds of returning prisoners are rearrested for one or more serious crimes within 3 years of their release from prison (Langan & Levin, 2002). Fifty percent of them are returned to prison, half of them for a new crime and half for a parole violation. This overwhelming reality of reentry means that the other efforts to secure reintegration—by getting a job, reconnecting with family, securing housing, and accessing health care—can all be for naught if the formerly incarcerated man or woman is rearrested for a new crime. One aspiration of the reentry movement is that the innovations in reentry programs will result in reductions in the recidivism rates across the nation. Any significant progress in this direction could have beneficial effects in communities struggling with high crime rates. As the size of the reentry cohort has increased over the years, and rates of violent crime have decreased since the early 1990s, the share of arrests attributable to the reentry cohort has increased, meaning that any success in reducing criminal behavior among returning prisoners could yield measurable public safety benefits.