Every year in the United States, nearly a million people are released from prison. Upon release, they are faced with massive barriers to entry into secure employment — within the first two years after release, the formerly incarcerated are unemployed at a rate over six times that of the average American worker according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Even after these initial years following release, nearly 30% the formerly incarcerated remain unemployed, a rate higher than at the peak of the Great Depression.
This situation is not specific to certain ages or classifications, nor can it be attributed to a lack of effort or ability among the formerly incarcerated. Among working-age people, the formerly incarcerated are 10% more “active” in the labor market than the general population, meaning that they are significantly more likely than their peers to be actively searching for a job or retaining employment. Further, they prove more effective on the job in various longitudinal studies of “ban the box” initiatives: more quickly and frequently promoted, equally likely to perform unacceptably, and less likely to quit in the near-term. Even when controlling for age, race, and gender, it is clear that the “ex-convict” label is the uniting factor that keeps earnest, qualified people out of the work they are more than capable of performing.
And yet, this monolithic framing of the argument — filled with group percentages, with blanket terms like “the formerly incarcerated” — still feeds into a feedback loop of dehumanization that is endemic to the contemporary prison system. While it is overwhelmingly true that those released from prison are generally capable of attaining productive employment, it is equally important to acknowledge the individual experiences of those behind bars, to provide a sense of trajectory and hope to each person, and to guarantee every incarcerated person the opportunity to move toward the programs and opportunities that befit her circumstances.
While there may not be any single ‘best practice’ response to this situation, policymakers and those with experience within the system agree that an integrated approach applied on a community basis is the best path toward ameliorating the situation. The Harvard Institute of Politics’ 2019 “Successful Reentry: A Community-Level Analysis” report outlines this model succinctly: “community-based programs that provide training and placement services to returning citizens using a holistic approach in which they focus on both training and job placement are the most effective in ensuring returning citizens’ successful reentry into society.” They note that “community reentry programs must emphasize placement into high quality jobs with upward potential.... [by incorporating] educational, particularly vocational and GED- based, and entrepreneurship programs” and recommend that “community organizations [...] partner with prisons to better advise incarcerated individuals” from the beginning of the re-entry process.
As straightforward as these recommendations may sound, it remains incredibly difficult to align all these institutional actors — recovery & vocational training organizations, job placement services, jails & prisons, etc. — in a single program, much less one whose basic intent isn’t to monetize the relationship network. Fully realizing this vision requires cultivating the endorsement of local agencies, the trust of community aid organizations and non-profits who are often overextended as is, and the investment of employers prepared to take what is understood as an initial “risk” in hiring ex-offenders.
Sources: Prison Policy Initiative, Harvard Institute of Politics, Prisoner Reentry and Recidivism According to the Formerly Incarcerated and Reentry Service Providers: A Verbal Behavior Approach, RAND Corporation, Society for Human Resource Management