By Forrest Lee Jones
Journalism Guild Writer
Even with a new skill set and good behavior, returning home after years of incarceration can be difficult for former inmates and the communities they return to, according to a report in Ebony magazine.
“As we work to reduce mass incarceration, we must not neglect to address the barriers the formerly incarcerated will ultimately have to face,” the op-ed by Zachary Norris says.
“Once they leave the iron gates and stone walls of prison, they should not have to begin a new sentence on the outside. Without ample opportunities and reinvestment in poor and struggling communities, life after prison easily becomes nothing more than extension of a sentence.”
This past year, there has been bipartisan support for prison reform in Congress, which demonstrates the nation getting serious about prison reform, the Jan. 29 story notes. However, there is a critical element missing from the conversation of mass incarceration reform, which is how to reinvest in communities that will help people succeed once they come home, writes Norris, who is executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Reducing mandatory sentencing for nonviolent offenders is front and center in the national debate on prison reform, but there is little discussion among the nation’s policymakers and leaders about ensuring successful re-entry for the formerly incarcerated, says the report.
“We know that this country’s long history of racial injustices has led to communities of color being overwhelmingly targeted by the criminal justice system and disproportionately suffering from poverty,” according to Norris. “To effectively end this cycle of criminalization, incarceration and poverty, we need a serious plan to reinvest in mental health care, housing, food and employment services in the communities most at risk.”
A study done by 20 community organizations entitled “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration of Families” revealed how financial and other barriers faced by the formerly incarcerated can dramatically impact not only their future, but also that of their families.
For example, families overwhelmingly provide housing, food and employment opportunities for their previously incarcerated love ones. Among those surveyed in the “Who Pays?” report, 48 percent of all families and 58 percent of those living under the poverty line were unable to afford the fees and fines and debt which deepen their economic despair.
The study shows the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees alone for those facing incarceration was $13,607.
“It’s no surprise then that nearly two out of three families (65 percent) with an incarcerated family member were unable to pay their family’s basic needs, with nearly half unable to afford enough food or pay for their housing,” according to Norris.
The study showed a strong connection between poverty and criminal behavior, both making it nearly impossible to set formerly incarcerated people up for success.
“Aside from the economic devastation, other unmitigated factors prove equally harmful to the re-entry process. The stigma, isolation and trauma of incarceration have a sizeable and terrible impact on the families and communities of the formerly incarcerated,” says the report.
The “Who Pays?” report concluded that 50 percent of all formerly incarcerated persons and 50 percent of the family members surveyed suffered negative health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, hopelessness, depression, anxiety and nightmares.
By Forrest Lee Jones