Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
“There once lived a woman with deep brown skin and black hair who freed people from bondage and ushered them to safety. She welcomed them to safe homes and offered food, shelter, and help reuniting with family and loved ones. She met them wherever they could be found and organized countless others to provide support and aid in various forms so they would not be recaptured and sent back to captivity. … Some people know this woman by the name Hurriet Tubman. I know her as Susan.”
This is from Michelle Alexander’s introduction to “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women,” the story of the life and ongoing work of Susan Burton, the founder of A New Way of Life and co-founder of All of Us or None.
Alexander’s tribute to Burton and description of A New Way of Life’s lifesaving work—welcoming people to homes, offering shelter and food, helping them reconnect with their families, meeting them where they were, and organizing to help them stay out of prison, to grow, and be free—could also be a synopsis of the support systems that should be in place for people returning home from prison. Instead, a new report from Illinois is a reminder of how, for people coming home, there are barriers to almost everything one needs for a stable, healthy life.
Over 600,000 people were released from state and federal prisons in 2016. In Illinois, nearly 30,000 people are released from state prisons each year. A report this month from the John Howard Association (JHA) details “five observations on reentry.”
The report describes how the organization, a nonprofit with a mission of monitoring conditions in the prison system, learned from and tried to assist a group of young men recently released from prison. What the report’s authors are admirably clear about is how little they were able to help—lacking casework or mental health training, staff members were often unable to successfully navigate the bureaucratic hurdles the men faced.
The major problems the organization identified—a lack of housing, affordable public transportation, adequate mental health care—are well-known. And they affect millions of people, people returning from prison and people who have never been incarcerated. But the expectations placed on returning people, particularly those under supervision, are so steep, and the costs of failing to meet them can be so high that they highlight the fact that the infrastructure required to make stability and safety a reality for people returning home is enormously lacking.
“Despite rhetoric by federal, state and local authorities that reentry is a priority, the policy changes and resources required to meet the immense challenge of reintegrating a recently incarcerated person back into the fold of society have not been provided,” according to the report.
This is even the case with something as basic as government IDs, where the government has a monopoly on providing what is needed. The JHA report describes the organization’s efforts to help two men recently released from prison in getting their state IDs. It took three weeks just to gather the documents they needed to apply for IDs.
“The absurdity of this situation cannot be overstated. Researchers, public safety officials, justice reform advocates, and law and policy-makers all uniformly agree that having a valid State ID upon leaving prison is critical to success because it allows people access to vital resources such as housing assistance, jobs, social services, healthcare, educational opportunities, and more. Yet, obtaining a State ID continues to be practically impossible for many leaving prison.”
The absurdity is heightened when the people seeking government-issued identification have been in government institutions for the preceding years or decades. “Given that the State of Illinois is already required to verify the identities of every person entering its prison population, it follows that the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, working in tandem with IDOC and other state and county agencies, should be able to come up with a solution and system to ensure that people leave IDOC facilities with a valid State ID.”
Another problem the report looks at is Illinois’s system of supervision over people released from prison. “Mandatory supervised release” (MSR) is the equivalent of other states’ parole supervision. The report’s conclusion is that it functions almost exclusively as a form of surveillance rather than as a support system. “In working with young men following their release from prison,” says the report, “we did not see any evidence that MSR works effectively to improve public safety, either by assisting law enforcement in detecting or preventing new crimes, or providing the young men with support and rehabilitative resources to aid in their reentry and reduce the likelihood of recidivism.”
The recommendation? A transfer of the resources spent on MSR. “If the ultimate goal is reintegration, the sizable resources that we now spend on supervised release might be productively transferred to job programs inside and outside prison and economic and housing assistance upon release.”
Approximately half—between 10,000 and 15,000—of the people released from prison in Illinois are sent back within three years, according to state figures quoted in an NPR report from July. But it would be a mistake to understand the problems of re-entry as exclusively problems of re-entry, rather than symptoms of broader failings.
In an article in Jacobin in 2017, prison abolitionists Dan Berger, Mariame Kaba, and Daniel Stein wrote:
“Abolitionists know that most people who are incarcerated will eventually be released from prison. Thousands of people are released from prisons and jails every single day. This is not something that we have to imagine as a goal for the future. It is a reality that pushes all of us to consider what conditions will support people’s freedom once they return.”
Problems of re-entry, they wrote, are not specific to that discrete period of struggle. Instead, they wrote, they work “with an understanding that many people were marginalized from society well before their incarceration. This strengthens a commitment to ameliorate the conditions for all of those in our society who live on the periphery and beyond, before and after they are criminalized.”