Politico

5 New Policy Ideas for Fixing Life After Prison


With startling speed, Americans on both sides of the political aisle have rallied around the idea of clearing out prisons, reducing at least some of the 2.3 million people spending chunks of their lives behind bars.

But after release, then what? People leaving prison face huge obstacles in rebuilding their lives. Well over half are still unemployed one year after getting out. According to one study, almost 70 percent are re-arrested within three years. With smaller incomes, little government support and a host of minor but important legal hurdles—many can’t get driver’s licenses or apply for jobs that require professional licenses—some find life after prison harder and more unpredictable than life inside. As Covid-19 has prompted mass releases from jails and prisons to cut down on risky overcrowding, helping prisoners successfully re-enter society has become the next big challenge for criminal-justice reformers. “Because of all of the obstacles, and all the prejudice, because of society’s stance, every sentence is a life sentence,” Bryan Kelley, the CEO of one nonprofit that helps inmates start businesses in Texas, says.

As “reentry” grows into a more pressing issue in national policy, a set of new ideas is emerging about how best to reduce this second, long-term cost of imprisonment. Nonprofits, businesses and state and local governments have all led efforts that have improved the re-entry process for a group of people in a measurable way—whether by boosting wages, increasing employments rates, decreasing homelessness or registering voters.

For this issue, reporters and editors for POLITICO Magazine asked criminal justice experts across the political spectrum to identify programs that have shown real success. These efforts show how changing just one aspect of a formerly incarcerated person’s life can pay dividends not only for that individual, but also for society more broadly, in public-assistance savings and reduced crime. Notably, some of them start even before release, turning the abrupt break of release into a smoother transition into civilian life. Each program can be seen as a model for what can work in other cities and states, and what it took to make it happen.

High recidivism rates and homelessness are deeply intertwined issues nationwide: One study found that more than half of the formerly incarcerated people in New York City homeless shelters had been released from jail in the past 30 days. The solutions can be connected, too. In Denver, city leaders have invited businesses to invest in a solution to homelessness that has also reduced recidivism among people released from jail.

In 2005, then-Mayor John Hickenlooper launched the Denver Crime Prevention and Control Commission (DCPCC) when a new jail in the city opened. When the commission was tasked with finding ways to reduce incarceration, it found the city was spending $7 million a year on just 250 chronically homeless people—most of it incurred by the 14,000 days the group cumulatively spent in jail. Failure to find proper housing can lead to a cycle of homelessness and jail, says Sarah Gillespie, a criminal justice expert at the Urban Institute, a social and economic policy think tank. She is part of a group from the Urban Institute that is evaluating the Denver program. “When you’re living on the street … you end up interacting with police very frequently, and oftentimes those things that you’re doing to survive on the streets land you in jail,” she says.

After a call for proposals from the community and with the help of a former director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab, the DCPCC settled on trying out a new solution that was gaining steam in the public-policy world: a social impact bond. Social impact bonds are public-private partnerships, typically between a local government and a group of businesses that have chosen to invest in a community solution. The government essentially asks the investors for a loan—in Denver’s case, money to provide those 250 costliest individuals long-term housing—that will save the city money in the long run. Those savings, if they are generated, are then returned to the investors.

The idea could have remained an academic idea with no real-world application if not for a little local political outrage. The push for the social impact bond was fueled by anger over a controversial outdoor camping ban passed by the Denver city council in 2012, says Councilwoman Robin Kniech, an advocate for supportive housing who voted against the camping measure. Advocates at the time said the ban would essentially criminalize homelessness. Following the ban, Kniech approached Councilman Albus Brooks, who sponsored the camping ban, to work on solutions to homelessness that would not involve extra policing. Together, with the support of Mayor Michael Hancock, they helped pass more measures for supportive housing, including the social impact bond in 2016.

“Obviously [the camping ban] was a contentious issue,” says Brooks, who left the council in 2019. “The camping issue divided a lot in our city, and I think we saw it as an opportunity to really partner.”

After the legislation was passed, a total of eight private investors made an $8.7 million investment. They made an agreement with Denver that the city would repay them $9.6 million if their money helped reach two goals over five years: a 30-percent reduction in the number of days the group stayed in jail and the provision of stable housing to 83 percent of the participants for one year or more.

Across the city, 210 new units were built and an existing 40 units were repurposed for the program. Once clients are housed in these buildings, they go through Assertive Community Treatment, a wraparound service that provides assistance with education, employment, psychiatric treatment, substance abuse and more. A total of 245 people are currently housed and treated in units funded by the Social Impact Bond, and early results are promising, says Gillespie. From January 2016, when the program started, to June 2020, 346 individuals moved into supportive housing.

It also makes sense for the businesses: As of November 2020, the city has made four payments to investors that add up to about $3.9 million, according to evaluations made by the Urban Institute. Final payments will be made in June of 2021.

But the benefits to the city are far more sweeping and harder to quantify. “The goal is reduced human suffering,” Kniech says. “It’s less homelessness, less incarceration. … It’s about all the things that both those individuals and our community gain when they’re able to participate as healthy members of a community.”

Some of the best reentry programs begin while a person is still incarcerated. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) is one initiative that has inspired copycats across the country because of its success at reducing recidivism and boosting wages for formerly incarcerated people—as well as giving hundreds of successful businesses their start.

Launched in Texas in 2004, PEP recruits and trains a select group of inmates across the state with a mini-MBA curriculum. The program, which is funded by corporate and individual donors, is only open to inmates who are within three years of release, who are not gang members and who have not been convicted on sexual offenses. (The program is open only to men, but it has partnered with a different organization to launch a similar program for women.) Two hundred participants are selected each year from a group of 5,000-10,000 eligible people in prison and more than 500 applications.

The program begins with a three-month course called Leadership Academy, which introduces the participants to the program’s “10 Driving Values,” which are meant to guide participants and hold them accountable throughout the program and post-release. The leadership academy is followed by a six-month-long college-level entrepreneurship curriculum, taught by staff at PEP and featuring lectures and additional instruction from business executives. At the end of the program, each participant pitches a business plan and gets feedback from staff and volunteers.

And a number of those businesses have successfully launched. The program itself points to 500 businesses that have been launched by graduates, some of which have closed since they were launched. Most of those businesses employ just the owner, but several employ additional staffs, and five generate more than $1 million in revenue a year.

It’s not just business support. PEP also has a case management team made up of graduates of the program who help recent graduates navigate post-prison life immediately. That begins with picking graduates up from prison, and continues helping them with post-release documentation, finding housing and securing a job. PEP is helped by a robust network of employers who’ve worked with the program in the past and an army of mentors who help graduates draw up career plans. The program also has six transitional houses for those without stable housing after prison. “Just keeping people out of prison is a low bar,” PEP CEO Bryan Kelley, who is also a graduate of the program, said. “We’re always looking at things we can measure … to see, are we really increasing quality of life post-release so there’s no need to commit crimes and go back to prison?”

PEP’s official statistics show that the chance of a graduate of the program going to prison again within three years of his release was 8.3 percent, compared to the statewide rate of more than 20 percent. Graduates are also greeted with an average starting income of more than $12 an hour, 68 percent higher than the Texas minimum wage, and the average graduate experiences only 23 days out of prison without a paycheck—a period of time that can make a huge difference in the quality of an ex-offender’s life after prison.

One 2019 report calculated that the program generated more than $1 million in savings from increased taxes, savings in safety-net spending and increased child support payments that the program produces.

For Kelley, PEP’s education and business components are important, but in his own life, PEP’s focus on character and the family-like community that helped him navigate re-entry made the real difference. “I don’t know how anyone succeeds getting out of prison,” he said, recalling that he asked a PEP mentor how to pump gas in the weeks after he got out of prison. “Having someone to show you those little bitty things that we take for granted now, that is amazing.”

Starting a new life after prison or jail means not only starting from scratch but doing it all while navigating a new thicket of obstacles, like state and federal laws that restrict employment and housing opportunities. Franklin County, Ohio, has found one way to address those barriers: A legal resource center that helps the public with questions about noncriminal cases. It has been particularly useful for those released from prison and jail who need help with tasks such as sealing their records or obtaining a waiver for job restrictions. It is the first such center in Ohio, and in its first three years, it helped more than 6,000 people.

The center is also one of the few nationwide to hire a social worker to connect formerly incarcerated people with resources, an asset that has made it a model for other places. The Franklin County Self Help Resource Center hired its first social worker in June with funding from the CARES Act to address the growing number of evictions during the pandemic. It’s not the first time a social worker has worked with the team––interns studying social work would have helped the staff in the past––but it’s the first time they’ve employed someone full-time to increase accessibility and show a commitment to improving the lives of their clients. It’s proven especially useful for people returning from jail and prison.

“People really struggle to navigate those barriers around employment restriction, around housing—the system is difficult to navigate and understand, and I think you need to have good resource skills,” says Janeen Buck Willison, a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “I think it is something that could benefit almost any system.”

Located in the Franklin County Municipal Court, the Self Help Resource Center was initially established to provide easy access to anyone who needs help with civil matters, such as finding legal representation. While it is not able to provide legal advice, the center ensures that each client is connected to the right resources in a legal system that is often characterized by confusing bureaucracy and technical language.

“I set a policy for our office when I started about a year after we were created, that no one left this office without at least knowing the next step of where to go,” says managing attorney Robby Southers.

As the center’s first in-house social worker, Sarah Huelskoetter says she coaches formerly incarcerated people on how to navigate stigmas and disadvantages that come from having a criminal record––even when legal barriers are removed. That includes teaching them how to talk to landlords about their past, how to present themselves during job interviews and how to convince employers to see their rehabilitation efforts. She brings a different perspective to these interactions than staff attorneys, who are often trained to look at issues with a narrower, more technical lens.

The Self Help Resource Center has been particularly effective in helping people apply for waivers that allow them to work in otherwise restricted industries, called Certificates of Qualification for Employment, Wilson says. Ohio bars those with criminal convictions from obtaining professional licenses, which are necessary for jobs ranging from massage therapy to cosmetology to roofing. But a law passed in 2012 allows those with convictions to apply for a certificate to eliminate those restrictions. Many people might not even know that such a waiver exists, says Wilson, until someone at the center helps them.

Although the addition of Huelskoetter is still new, Southers says responses have been positive so far. The center has been recognized by the Self-Represented Litigation Network, an organization that supports fair access to civil justice, for its on-staff social worker, and support from the community is widespread as well.

Other counties could easily replicate the center’s success by making social workers more accessible to newly released inmates, Willison says: “It’s when you look at it and you think—yeah, that makes a lot of sense, but a lot of places don’t,” she says. Securing funding for the social worker is one of the biggest barriers to widespread implementation, as is the case for Franklin County’s Self Help Resource Center. Money from the CARES Act that was used to hire Huelskoetter will expire by the end of December, and the center is still seeking a permanent source of funding. For now, they’ve scraped together grants to keep her on board, but the goal is to redirect court filing fees to pay for the on-staff social worker’s salary.

Southers says he’s determined to keep a social worker on staff because it will help clients find long-term solutions to sustain a stable life: “The ultimate goal is that we don’t see people come back to either eviction court or criminal arraignment court. We help them one time and then they’re out of there.”

Televerde, a Phoenix-based sales and marketing company, is addressing the issue of high unemployment rates among formerly incarcerated people by giving them a job––even before their release. The company is an example of how businesses could work alongside the government to lower recidivism rates and improve the process of reentry.

At Televerde, preparation for reentry begins during incarceration. The company has partnered with Arizona’s Department of Corrections since 1995 to hire women in prison to make customer service and sales calls for tech companies like Microsoft, Dell and Adobe. Those hired by the company go through intensive training on sales, marketing and technology, skills that continue to be marketable following their release. Once they’re integrated into the call center, clients over the phone rarely realize the call is coming from inside a prison, says Michelle Cirocco, chief social responsibility officer of the company.

While critics call prison labor exploitative because it can be compensated below minimum wage, Cirocco says Televerde ensures it pays the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which is far more than the national average of $1.41 per hour paid by the state-owned businesses that employ most prisoners. A portion of this money is immediately provided to the employees for their day-to-day spending, while the rest is put into a savings account for their release. By the time of their release, most have about $10,100 saved in their accounts to purchase clothing, secure housing and pay for transportation. Ultimately, many incarcerated Televerde employees leave prison with job experience and financial independence, both of which are key factors to successful reentry.

“There’s the whole idea that … inmate labor is a bad thing,” says Cirocco. “We have to change that narrative to say, inmate labor can be a phenomenal thing when it’s done right in partnership with the state and business.”

When one of Televerde’s 400 incarcerated employees are released, the company offers the individual the opportunity to continue working for the business––a notable offer considering the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people is at 27 percent, which is nearly five times higher than the national rate. Twenty-five percent join the company, while the rest still successfully find jobs elsewhere: Overall, 94 percent of the women who are employed Televerde’s call centers in prison are still employed five years after their release. And even those that weren’t employed by Televerde while they were in prison have a chance as an employee at the company. Forty percent of its employees have been incarcerated.

Cirocco points to herself as a reentry success case thanks to her employment with Televerde. After working for the company’s call center while incarcerated in the late 90s, she took a sales position following her release and worked her way up to become Televerde’s first formerly incarcerated executive in 2011. “That’s when I was leading a team of about 60 people, and more than half of them were incarcerated,” she says. “And it became really all about, how do we help more women and their children have the same opportunities that me and my children had to have a better life?”

Televerde’s success has caught the eye of Indiana’s Department of Corrections, and the company now has a total of seven call centers in Arizona and Indiana, with an eighth one opening in Florida in January.

The benefits of this access to employment are well-documented in a 2019 study led by Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute. Women who had worked in Televerde’s call center while they were in prison made a median salary of $52,668 five years after their release, which is four times more than the earnings of an average formerly incarcerated woman. Job stability and higher wages helped lower recidivism rates, as Televerde participants’ recidivism rates were 91 percent lower than the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ national rate among women released from state prisons.

States, too, benefit from Televerde’s efforts to reduce recidivism rates, as they save up to $9.5 million a year on incarceration costs. And because those hired by Televerde following their release are more likely to have stable jobs with higher wages, states likely save money on social welfare services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Cirocco says she hopes more businesses recognize the talent within formerly incarcerated people and help boost employment among that population. “We can go into prisons and educate people all day long, but at some point, businesses have to get involved in providing people with employment,” she says, “When we talk about diversity and inclusion, this is a population of people that that business has to make sure that they’re included in the conversation.”

It’s an old problem: A person released from state prison wants to rebuild their life, and needs an official identification card to do it. But that seemingly mundane task—obtaining an ID—resembles Soviet-era bureaucratic absurdism.

In the vulnerable time after release from one state institution, the effort to prove who you are to another state institution drags on and on and on. You can’t drive to the secretary of state to get your license because you don’t have a license. Foundational documents, like a birth certificate, got lost over your years inside. Your ability to get housing, or a job, or food assistance, or a library card, or to open a bank account or do pretty much anything to rebuild your life—including voting—is on indefinite hold.

“I had problems [when trying to get a state ID],” said Dione Jamo Thomas, a former juvenile lifer who was released from prison in Michigan in 2017. “They require you to have documentation of who you are. Some offices don’t respect the prison ID [as an ID]. You need three forms of identification to prove who you are.”

This year, Michigan launched a new program to ensure that all people leaving prison have a state-issued identification card, and, if eligible, are registered to vote. It could have a transformative impact on the civic participation of returning citizens, about 9,000 of whom exit Michigan’s prisons every year.

Nationally, there is a confusing patchwork of ID programs for people leaving prisons. But among those on the leading edge, Virginia has issued IDs for everyone nearing release since 2012. After a legislative act in 2014, California has done the same, producing about 18,500 ID cards a year. Georgia, home to one of the largest prison systems in the nation, announced in early 2018 that it issued its first 2,500 IDs to returning citizens.

The Michigan Department of State and Department of Corrections developed its ID program during a coronavirus pandemic that has taken a staggering toll on people in residential facilities like prisons. The program builds on a four-year-old initiative where the secretary of state’s mobile office—a traveling unit that moves to different communities and campuses—visited four prisons a year for one day apiece. People nearing release got photos taken, and MDOC prepared their paperwork. But the mobile office only had capacity to process up to 100 IDs—400 total each year, or scarcely 5 percent of the number of people who needed them.

“It was a good proof of concept, but it was not serving as many people as we wanted,” said Kyle Kaminski, MDOC’s legislative liaison.

That began to change with the results of the November 2018 election. Jocelyn Benson, a legal expert specializing in voting rights, was elected as Michigan’s new secretary of state. Her mandate included the implementation of a package of ‘Promote the Vote’ election law reforms that passed via referendum in that same election with 67 percent of the vote. Those measures included no-reason absentee voting and automatic voter registration for eligible citizens when they receive or update a state ID, unless the citizen opts out.

The latter proved pivotal for people nearing their release date from prison, as the ID program ramped up.

A pilot program began in spring 2020 with a goal of producing identifications for 600-700 people leaving four prisons. MDOC bought cameras and erected photo backdrops in the same style as in a Secretary of State branch office, so there is no obvious tell that the portraits on the ID cards were taken in prison. The two departments split the cost of a full-time staffer to process the IDs, and corrections staff help prepare the necessary paperwork, which isn’t always easy. (For instance, when MDOC doesn’t have original birth certificates on hand, it seeks them out from the health department or, if needed, from other states or countries, all at no cost to the individuals.) The state synthesizes this information into an official ID. For those with active eligibility, that can be a driver’s license—“that’s a little higher-quality document,” Kaminski said.

In September, the program expanded statewide to all 29 facilities run by the MDOC. The goal, as stated in the memorandum of understanding, is to issue identifications or driver’s licenses “to more than 6,000 legally permissible persons exiting prison each year.”

“This hasn’t gotten a ton of recognition because of everything else going on, but this is a pretty big and important shift,” Kaminski said. “This has been a historic problem in most states, and might be a model for other states to utilize as well.”

As the ID program was implemented, Covid-19 took a terrible toll, especially in prisons. To date, nearly 20,000 people in Michigan’s state prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus—about half the total incarcerated population. With the state expediting parole since the pandemic began, more than 7,000 people have been released since spring, putting a higher-than-expected demand on the brand-new ID program, which has struggled somewhat to keep pace with the need, especially due to chronic job vacancies and staffing shortages caused by the virus.

But also, eligible returning citizens who got new state IDs were registered to vote just in time for Michigan’s hard-fought presidential and senate election. As they prepared to return to their home communities, they received a flier from MDOC full of exclamation marks to make sure they knew their rights. The banner headline: “YOU CAN VOTE!”

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