Out of prison, many face long odds to stay free

The United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it has more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners.

There have been many attempts for criminal justice reform, locally and nationally. According to the Pew Research Center, former President Barack Obama pardoned and commuted the sentences of more prisoners than any U.S. president since Harry Truman in the 1940s and ’50s.

In Philadelphia, city officials are in the midst of a three-year plan to drop the prison population by 34 percent. Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rate per capita of the 10 largest U.S. cities.

But for the incarcerated who are being released, the big question is: What happens next?

Immediately after release, there are many challenges that an ex-inmate encounters. First, he or she may have to find a place to live and a way to provide food. Also, former prisoners typically are on probation and must abide by strict guidelines and release conditions or they are in danger of being sent back to prison.

“The deck is often stacked against those who have done time,” said Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, the editor of the Reentry Project, a collaborative news initiative intended to raise awareness of the challenges that former inmates face. “There are a number of compounding factors that make establishing a secure and stable life on the outside tremendously difficult. From an onerous community supervision system to a lack of affordable housing in the city to neighborhoods mired in poverty, great stigma and prejudice.”

The Reentry Project examines potential solutions regarding former inmates’ reentry to society in Philadelphia.

Due in large part to the reporting of the Reentry Project, the Generocity jobs board has launched a new feature that will allow businesses that satisfy criteria to feature a symbol on their job postings to emphasize that they welcome the formerly incarcerated.

Many business owners, however, are hesitant to put their trust into the hands of former inmates.

“There is a fear among some employers that those with criminal histories will be less diligent, less reliable, or more dangerous employees, even though evidence — both anecdotally and in research — shows that this is not the case,” Friedman-Rudovsky said.

ShopRite and Fresh Grocer are businesses that given the formerly incarcerated a second chance.

Last year, the Inquirer and Daily News reported on the supermarkets’ efforts to seek out and give jobs to former inmates, specifically former drug dealers. The grocery stores found a correlation between the skills of running a drug business and managing a market.

“We were surprised that some of the people we hired have fairly good business skills,” Jeffrey Brown, who is the owner of several supermarkets across the Philadelphia region, told the papers. “The drug trade is a business; it’s an illegal business. You are buying. You are selling. You have inventory. You have some of the common problems that any retailer has. A lot of them are accelerating into management.”

Between 60 percent and 75 percent of formerly incarcerated people are still unemployed up to a year after being released, according to the National Employment Law Project.

But there are a number of organizations that take in these people and try to help them turn their lives around.

In Philadelphia, the Mayor’s Office of Reintegration Services aids those who have been released from prison within the last five years or are currently on parole or probation.

There are other local organizations that also work on this issue, including Mothers in Charge, which is now a national organization led by Dorothy Johnson-Speight, and the nonprofit organization Why Not Prosper, led by the Rev. Michelle Anne Simmons.

Both of these organizations provide support and guidance specifically for women. Other rehabilitation programs spearheaded by faith-based groups and churches also provide aid to former inmates.

Often, a person who is returning to society has had a lot of time to reflect and is returning with a different mind-set. However the world around them is still the same and the former inmate can fall into old, negative patterns.

“Although you may make many changes while incarcerated, be prepared and don’t be deterred if the world around you hasn’t changed,” Johnson-Speight reminds former inmates. “Continue to be the change that you want to see in this world.”

Even with the programs for those with criminal histories, 77 percent of released state prisoners are likely to be arrested again within five years, according to the Brookings Institution.

Friedman-Rudovsky said three factors can keep the formerly incarcerated out of prison.

“Gainful employment, not just a job, but something that pays decently; access to stable housing; and mentorship/community support. This last one is crucial,” she said.

“Time and again, I hear stories of people who felt like what really made a difference in their not cycling back into prison was having someone on the outside who had been through the post-incarceration challenge themselves and who had beaten those odds,” Friedman-Rudovsky added. “Someone who was willing to guide them and support them in their own transition and be an in-person model for what success looks like.”

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