More than 700,000 inmates will be released from prisons around the United States this year. Some having finished their sentences; others will be released due to overcrowding. These men and women will be released, like it or not. What kind of neighbors will these inmates make? What has been done to prepare them to live healthy, productive, law-abiding lives? All of us have a stake in seeing that the inmates make a safe and successful return to their communities.
By Tammy Dodd
Unfortunately, not enough is being done to help them make that transition. Most of these inmates will be returning from years in overcrowded prisons where they were exposed to the horrors of violence – even rape, isolation from family and friends and despair. Further, little is done to change the moral perspective of these inmates. Most inmates do not leave prison transformed into law abiding citizens. In fact, the very skills inmates develop to survive inside prison make them anti-social when they are released. Inmates are given a bus ticket to their hometown, gate money from as little as $25 and sometimes a new set of clothing. Most times this is the only set they have. When they leave prison it will be difficult, if not impossible to find employment. If we don’t help prepare the inmates for their return to the community, the odds are great that their first incarceration won’t be their last. The statistics tell the story. A study of the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that over the last 25 years the rate of re-arrest has been around 68%. These people are being released and we can’t afford to keep letting them come home unprepared. The strain on taxpayers has been tremendous. It would benefit us all to help these returning prisoners succeed.
There are proven ways to increase the likelihood that these inmates will return safely to our neighborhoods. There are many things that the community can do to help inmates make the transition successfully from prison to the free world. One of the most important ways to help is to mentor a returning prisoner. These men and women need relationships with loving, moral people. The moment an inmate steps off the bus they face several critical decisions: where they will live; what they will eat; what they can do to get from one place to the next; where they should start to look for employment; what they will wear to interviews should they actually get one; what job can pay enough to take care of their necessities.
These inmates are also confronted with many other challenges such as obtaining various identification cards and other documents that they will need before they begin normal everyday lives. To an inmate who has been incarcerated any length of time these challenges can cause feelings of intense stress. To someone who has no control over their lives for many years each of these problems can be overwhelming.
Fortunately, in Georgia before an inmate is released from prison they are required to register with a program called “top step.” The program not only provides them a packet with these important documents upon release it also gives them the paperwork necessary to go to any Georgia Department of Labor and register under the Top Step program. This program works with employers to help find employment for inmates and probationers.
Job training and education alone won’t transition an inmate from prison into a law abiding citizen. Only with a change of heart can an inmate be transformed into the employees and neighbors we all desire. One crucial way mentors can help is to meet the inmates at the gate walking with them as they take those first difficult steps into the free world. As they move from the very structured environment of prison in which they had virtually no control over any aspect of their lives, the return to community presents them with a myriad of options and temptations. Basic decisions such as where to sleep, where to seek employment, and with whom to associate with confront them the minute they hit the They need mentors to provide love, advice and encouragement and to help them be accountable for their actions. Where do the inmates without family members or friends to take them in live when they are released from prison? Prisoners are only a small portion of the people competing for very limited numbers of low-cost housing. There are often long waiting lists for the few units that become available.
Inmates that have just got off the bus don’t have the option of waiting – they need a place to sleep that night! Many of these inmates end up in homeless shelters. While these shelters are much better than sleeping on the street they are not conducive to success for these inmates. The beds at some are only available at night so the residents are forced out to wander the streets during the day. This time to roam is not good for inmates who are used to having every minute of the day planned for them. If they are fortunate enough to find affordable housing, it is often not near public transportation which presents a whole new problem. Helping inmates find affordable housing is one of the most important ways a mentor can help them make the transition safe and successful. A mentor provides stability and companionship in the hours after release which can cement the relationship between mentor and inmate at a time when it is crucial to establish trust. Most people have had a teacher or friend or somebody close to them who believed in them. That is what these inmates desperately need yet some have never had someone like that in their lives . Mentors can change that. Mentors can also help the inmates learn decision making skills and teach them how to keep track of their bills and pay them on time. In prison inmates don’t have to handle any of these things. On the street such things may quickly overwhelm them. Inmates need help when they are first released to learn to make good choices, handle responsibility, to be accountable. To do the right thing even when no one is looking. Inmates need a gentle nudge by caring people that they have come to trust in order to be a responsible member of the community. The more people get involved in mentoring returning prisoners the more they will see we care about their future as well as the future of our communities. Our future depends upon seeing a decline in crime. Mentoring a returning prisoner is a real way to do something about it.