This guest post comes from Kyesha James who is currently a senior at SUNY New Paltz. She majored in Sociology with a concentration in Criminology. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and is passionate about criminal justice reform and advocacy.
While watching the documentary, The Road From Crime, it dawned on me that there is a heavy stigma against reformed individuals trying to re-enter back into society. The documentary made me realize how much of a struggle it is for ex-offenders to come into society without any barriers. These groups of people are denied access to a lot of opportunities because of their background. Employment is one of the main constraints individuals have; without income or support from anyone else it is hard to support oneself. This causes many to reoffend because they end up going back into their prior situation, like breaking the law again. Unemployment is one of the main reasons why the majority of individuals offend in the first place. So to be put back in that same situation upon release could create old negative thoughts. Besides unemployment, the word “offender” itself, according to the documentary, creates barriers for individuals released from prison because it puts them in a box. It is almost as if they have no citizenship, they have no rights and they have no freedom. It’s like telling a dog they are free, and then put them in a backyard. They are free to run anywhere in that backyard but they can’t leave the gate. Its false advertisement: if you want to let individuals free, we must take titles off of them, create programs that have full case management and pass a law that make demands on certain employers to hire individuals with backgrounds.
The individuals interviewed in the video discussed desistance and how it can have a positive effect on individuals. With desistance, a domino effect can be created; if you have people around you that are succeeding, it inspires you to succeed. For example, in the video Greg had Terry, who came from the same exact state that he was in, but Terry found a way out. This is what motivated Greg to believe he could do the same thing. This gave Greg faith that he could succeed. This kind of motivation happens in the re-entry programs where there are workers who have been incarcerated and who have turned their life around. These employees tell their clients their background and how successful they are now. But they don’t show them the exact steps to get there. Also, everyone’s situation is different, so the reason why the worker got the job might have been because of certain credentials, compared to someone without any work experience.
When I first started interning at the Osborne Association reentry program in Poughkeepsie, New York, I was so excited. I thought to myself, “Wow I will finally be able to help people with criminal history find jobs.” This was easier said than done. As I have worked at this organization for several months now, I noticed the difference between helping individuals find places that are hiring and getting them a job. The reentry program is a non-profit organization so it is hard to help these reformed individuals get on the correct path in life, financially, mentally and socially. They do try their best and the effort is noticed but at the same time it takes more than this reentry program to prevent these guys from reoffending. The reasons I say this is because I have witnessed many guys become frustrated with the program due to their lack of success with employment. Many of them have a family to take care of and some of them have no way to support themselves at all. They have completed the classes the program have to offer, they have attended the job fairs that were recommended to them, and developed a professional resume but still have not received means of employment.
Listening to these individuals cry for help is uncomfortable to me because I realized that it’s not the program that can do much helping, it is the government and it is the employers who have the right to turn these individuals away because of their background. Why turn them away? Denying them a job and benefits only increases the amount of violence that will occur in society. These individuals will do whatever it takes for them to survive. There is nowhere for these men to go, especially if they grow up in a low-income community. The majority of people stay in these social classes because they become comfortable with their current situation.
The Osborne Association does a lot to help the clients there but they can’t provide the amount of assistance needed because they do not have a full case management staff. They are not able to support their clients in a manner that will allow them to progress and succeed after they are released from prison. They do not have a full case management program because of finances; this takes away from a lot of success within the program itself. Not having full case management means that they don’t have enough money and workers to help individuals with housing, health insurance, and just directing them to helping resources on an everyday basis, which an organization that has the funds would be able to. The problem with this is that there are not many organizations who have the funds that actually exist. The government doesn’t provide a lot of funds for non-profit organizations. Instead the money is being invested in putting police on every corner to surveillance the blocks and neighborhoods of low-income communities.
Many other reentry programs have the same problem; this means that a lot of the people who enroll in these reentry programs only get help being directed in the correct direction for employment, they are told who to contact for health insurance, housing, and direct assistance with forms but they are not taught how to. Many of these individuals who receive information about who to contact never contact anyone because they are intimidated. They don’t know how to fill out certain forms for housing and Medicaid. I wouldn’t say that reentry programs do not help at all but I will say that they need more funds then they already have. The government still has a lot of work to do with trying to allow ex-offenders a second chance in society. If they want them to change their lives around, they can’t come home to the same messed up government. This leads me to think, “Are these reentry programs really beneficial?” Now, I know there are a lot of people who think, “Well, yeah, they give a lot of assistance when it comes to people being released from prison and not knowing where to start.” But then my question is “What happens when years later after being released they are still at the same program, looking for the same employment opportunities?” I have discussed this issue with many of the clients at Osborne. The reasons why they are frustrated and many of their complaints were, “because I don’t have any money.” My question is “How do we make these opportunities available for them?” Could the government itself have a say about employers hiring ex-offenders? Or is it entirely up the employers?
What really hurts the most is seeing my siblings struggle. Every day I think about ways to help them become successful, but I don’t have enough resources to do so. I am still trying and will never give up on them because I do know that there will be a time that I can say they have finally made it. And when I say finally made it I mean they can finally say they have a job, they can finally say they have their G.E.D. It hurts to see them struggle and what hurts me the most is seeing my brother, who was the most recent to come home out of all of them, get denied from numerous jobs and programs. He is 26 years old, he has a child, and he lives with my mom. Although he lives with my mom, he has no one to support him because my mom is a single parent trying to survive on her own as well. My brother was released thinking that he would get into a program called Ready Willing and Able in order to have some kind of income. When he was released he couldn’t enter the program because they said he had to be currently living in a shelter. He went to another program and they told him the only way he could enroll was if he was on public assistance. So then he called me to see if I could help him: I called numerous places and majority of them either told me he had to have his G.E.D and others told me he was out of the age range. This was very upsetting, because I could tell he was upset and getting frustrated. For one he had no one to show him how to fill out applications in order to apply for public assistance he also needed help filling out documents to even enroll into any of the programs that he tried to. What made me angry is knowing that I couldn’t help although I was trying to. His parole officer finally got him into a program, but the program only keeps you off of the streets. They do drug testing and they teach him certain employment skills. But they don’t help him find employment and they don’t help him with his G.E.D. I say all of this to say that it hurts seeing people who are trying to change their life around be forced to stay in the negative situation that they are in. My brother has reentered prison a number of times and what made him go back to doing crimes were situations such as this one. I really want to change this, I am working on ways to find out how this would work but I know there is a solution to this big dilemma.
I believe all of this could change if the situation is discussed more in society and if more people realized that the government is the solution and not a reentry program itself. It takes more than just these programs to reenter individuals back in society the way they need to be. It also takes a lot of time and patience but if we all work together as a community it can get done.