Prisoner Reentry

V. Impact on the Community

The effects of mass incarceration and prisoner reentry also extend beyond the formerly incarcerated individuals and their family members. In many ways, the most profound effects of these phenomena are experienced at the community level, because the ripple effects of imprisonment are felt in virtually every aspect of community life. In every city inAmerica, the majority of individuals sent to prison come from a small number of neighborhoods. These are typically communities of color, which are already facing other challenges of lowperforming schools, poor health care, weak labor markets, inadequate housing, and high rates of crime. In the era of mass incarceration these communities have been asked to take on an unprecedented social responsibility: the reintegration of record numbers of returning prisoners, mostly men, who have been taken out of the natural rhythms of community life and are now expected to regain their footing.

The costs of the high rates of incarceration can be calculated at a community level.Analysts have demonstrated that there are certain blocks in central urban neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration for which taxpayers pay over $1 million a year to house, in prison or jail, the men and women from that block. According to one analysis, in Brooklyn,NewYork, there are 35 such “million dollar blocks” (Cadora, Swartz, & Gordon, 2003). This analysis provides the basis for a provocative policy exercise, namely, asking whether the taxpayers could get better public safety results by investing a portion of the $1 million in strategies other than high rates of imprisonment of the block’s residents.

These communities bear another cost. The high levels of arrest activity, incarceration, reentry, and supervision have permeated community life and have weakened the social networks and relationships that provide the foundation for an orderly society. Some scholars have concluded that the high rates of incarceration have so weakened the forces that exert informal social control that the nation’s prison policies have had the unintended and ironic effect of actually increasing crime rates, even though these policies were originally advanced as a way to reduce crime (Clear, Rose, Waring, & Scully, 2003).

The impact of incarceration on individuals can also translate into larger social problems. Computer software now allows researchers to create maps of communities based on traits such as crime rates; incarceration rates; and other social factors, such as poverty rates and rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Using this technology, and looking at the reentry phenomenon through the lens of public health, one can see how a problem at the individual level quickly translates to a problem for the community. As previously mentioned, many individuals released from incarceration have little or no access to health care upon release. Like other communicable diseases, the rate of STIs among the incarcerated population is higher than that of the general population. Men and women returning from prison return to their partners, some to multiple partners, exposing them to diseases they might not even know they have.Mapping research conducted at the community level suggests a relationship between incarceration and communities with high rates of STIs (Thomas, Levandowski, Isler, Torrone, &Wilson, 2008).

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