7 Life Challenges Ex-Offenders Face When Released
There Is No Such Thing As ‘Get Out Of Jail Free.’
Getting out of prison is a great thing, right? It isn’t as easy as it may sound. It may be that only a saint can successfully overcome a prison sentence.
Twice this week I have made the journey into the heart of the maximum security population at the Lansing Correctional Facility. These trips were for Transition Team Meetings (TTM) designed to coordinate the release of an inmate.
A TTM is where an inmate reviews his law breaking history, his history while incarcerated, and his plans for not repeating history upon parole or release. Besides the inmate, this meeting is usually attended by several others who have authority or influence over the inmate: the Unit Team Coordinator (the inmate’s interface with internal resources and policies), a Parole Office representative, a Mentor Coordinator(s), and myself as a volunteer Mentor.
A TTM indicates to an inmate that his release is imminent. This is a tough moment for most inmates. Although they have anticipated their freedom, the reality and responsibility of that impending freedom falls on them as if by the load of a dump truck.
Getting out is the easy part of a prisoner’s release. Being out is the real challenge. It is the challenge of freedom that greatly increases the chances of recidivism [recidivism is defined as being incarcerated for a new crime or having parole status revoked for a technical violation].
The debt these inmates have paid to society comes with a crippling compound interest that can be overwhelming. Unless an ex-offender finds solutions to the problems he encounters upon release he is likely to find himself dead or back in custody.
Here are seven life challenges we all face. You may have never considered how much more difficult these are for those who have ‘paid their debt’ to society and are being released from prison.
Many of my incarcerated friends have few social or work skills. They have been raised in unstructured environments. Many see prison as just part of the family business: most of their family is, has been or soon will be in prison. They have never been shown any other way to process life than the one that led them to prison.
Many of the men we work with were raised inside the institution of prison. They entered as juveniles and remained as adults. After 20 or more years the world has changed: technically and socially. The world to which they are released is vastly different than the one they once knew.
Few ‘graduate’ with any savings and few have any hope of family or friends who will help them find the simple things necessary for life.
Each inmate is released with as little as zero dollars and as much as $100 above their own savings. They are released to the curb of the prison or to the bus station. From there they are on their own.
Because of their time in prison, they either have no family or relationships they can lean on to help them forward in their release. The may become isolated and often do not have the simplest guidance of how to do simple things like use a credit card, buy a phone, set up a bank account, or hunt for a job.
The first week out is critical to their success. The burdens placed on them will be addressed a bit farther below. Here consider that they have no place to sleep (including no pillow, no sheets or blanket). They have no clothes other than what they wore out of the prison (not good for job interviews). They do not have personal grooming items (toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, soap, towels, etc.). They have no transportation or driver’s license (many have never had one. Others have huge fines to pay before it can be restored). They have no food. They have no medical or dental resources (many have medication needs).
While they have been incarcerated debts for court costs, school loans, and child support remain and grow with interest. Upon release they must pay significant registration fees, parole supervision costs, and many other costs and fees. Should they fail in any of these debts they will be in jeopard of losing their freedom. Many have debts in the thousands and tens of thousands.
In addition to the daily burdens we all have, they must register (as violent and sex offenders), report to their parole officer in person, attend and report visits to AA/NA. Many have lifetime restrictions of where they can live and must register and report at their residence and their workplace. Often these get to wear GPS bracelets that report there whereabouts at all times.
Explaining the gap in their resume is difficult. Because of their criminal record, they often don’t even get the chance. Once an employer sees the check in the ex-offender box, they seldom even get a conversation.
Meaningful work is one of the most redemptive elements for their becoming re-established and overcoming their old history and writing a new one. I am amazed at how many genuinely enjoy good honest work but feel these dreams have no hope of attainment.
Their need to help others may surprise you. Most of them want to help others succeed in and out of prison. They have a heart for volunteer work and doing something with their lives that expresses meaning beyond their own consumerism.
Although I am often asked, “How do you deal with the kinds of people you have to deal with in prison: Sex offenders, murderers, thieves, drug abusers, rapists, kidnappers, ….” and so on?”
The truth is that I don’t. Just like Christ doesn’t define His relationship with me by my past neither can I define my relationship to them in light of theirs. Like Christ sees me in the light of my restored relationship with Him, I choose to view these men in light of who they were intended to be; who they can be.
Helping them see their future and forget their past is critically important. Often, I remind them that they are perfectly positioned for success. Their first response is, with questioning eyes, to wonder how that could possibly be. That is totally opposite to the hopelessness and embarrassment they experience.
Then I ask them to visualize someone who is a hero to them. Next I ask, “Do you admire that person because they had no challenges in their life, or because of the challenges they overcame to succeed?” Always, they respond with the latter.
That’s why it is important for you and I to also see that these ex-offenders are in the perfect place in their lives to write an epic story of success.
You might learn that lesson as well if you don’t like the difficulties or setbacks you have endured. You, too, are perfectly positioned for success. That’s how all of your heroes have succeeded and that’s how you, too, will succeed.
In my life I have had epic failure. Rather than letting that be an anchor that holds me in the past, I choose to let it be the launching point for epic success. That is, Christ in me, my hope of glory!
Now, you go write a new history.
What Do You Think? How are you writing your success story? Who are you helping to write a success story?
Please scroll down to the comments section below and leave your thoughts.
Chief Engagement Officer
FURTHER READING AND INFORMATION
Here is a variety of resources that deal with employment and a criminal record.
- Pager, Devah, The Mark of a Criminal Record, final report to the National Institute of Justice, December 2002, NCJ 198320.
- Pager, Devah and Western, Bruce. Investigating Prisoner Reentry: The Impact of Conviction Status on the Employment Prospects of Young Men, final report to the National Institute of Justice, October 2009, NCJ 228584. (The report includes several related articles published in academic journals.)
- The Gospel Imperative of Obama’s Fair Chance Business Pledge by Johnathan Kana at Think Christian
- Koch Industries, Facebook to Help Obama Find Jobs for Ex-Cons
- Why Do So Many Ex-Cons End Up Back in Prison? Maybe they don’t. This article challenges conventional thinking on recidivism.