Almost three-quarters of released inmates go back to prison within 5 years, data shows
A program in Boston is lowering those rates
Participants praised the program, saying it's helped them avoid re-entering prison
Ten years after being released from the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston, Gregory Walton voluntarily returned to sing its praises to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“(Prison) was actually one of the most positive experiences of my life,” he told Lynch.
Lynch sat at the head of a rectangular table, surrounded by a group of former and current inmates. One by one, they introduced themselves and casually shared anecdotes about their time in the prison, as if they were all saying what they were grateful for at a Thanksgiving meal.
“It helped me find out who I really am,” said one inmate, who is due for release this month.
“I learned how to read in here,” admitted one of the oldest female inmates.
“They gave me the motivation to push through, and not to go back to where I was,” added another.
Lynch listened carefully and occasionally jotted down notes. She was in Boston January 13, a day after President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address, to learn more about the county’s re-entry programs. Those programs, she says, have been tremendously successful in lowering recidivism – the rate at which former inmates end up back behind bars.
The most recent national figures on recidivism from the Bureau of Justice Statistics come from a study that tracked 405,000 inmates released in 2005. The study showed approximately 67.8% of state prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years, and 76.6% were arrested within five years.
“It’s hard going back to the reality of the real world,” Walton explained.
After being released, many inmates struggle to get a job and have a hard time finding housing because of their criminal record. That lack of financial support can cause some former inmates to resort to illegal means to make money. Mental illness is also two to four times higher among prisoners than it is in the general population. And nearly three-quarters of those who are released from prison have a history of substance abuse. Without a strong support system during and after incarceration, it can be easy to fall back into bad habits.
But the re-entry programs at the Suffolk County House of Correction have proven successful, helping newly released prisoners reintegrate into the community. In 2015, the recidivism rate for program participants was below 40%. That may still seem like a high percentage at a glance, but it’s impressive when compared to the national figures.
Justice Department looks to Boston program as example
When Lynch went around the table, she addressed each inmate by name and asked questions about their plans when they got out. She specifically wanted to know which programs were helping, or had helped them plan for life after prison.
All the inmates referred to at least one of Suffolk County’s re-entry services: the Boston Re-entry Initiative (BRI); the Common Ground Institute, and the Community Re-entry for Women (C.R.E.W) program. These services are designed to provide strategic support to inmates while they’re in prison and after their release.
There are similar re-entry programs in all 50 states, but the Department of Justice is looking at BRI as a prime example because of its proven success rate. Part of that success has to do with the strong network of people behind the initiative. Many of the inmates commended the case managers and staff for standing in their corners.
“Some of the things you have all mentioned that are so similar, are the sense of community and family that you find in the program,” Lynch said. “And that sort of connection you made here is something we are looking to replicate in other programs.”
Outreach and support for a smooth transition
BRI emphasizes “mentoring, information sharing, treating addiction and employment opportunities,” according to a description on the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department website. The initiative is a partnership of local and state agencies that offers face-to-face outreach and continuous support to ensure a smooth transition back into the community. CGI is a 10-week instructional program that teaches inmates vocational skills during incarceration, and gives them an opportunity to earn important trade certifications. Female inmates participating in C.R.E.W. take an eight-week class that focuses on education, life skills, health care and job placement.
“If I did have to be in jail anywhere, I’m happy that it’s here,” said Tarneisha Reynolds, a current inmate and graduate of C.R.E.W.
The Department of Justice has made more than $400 million in Second Chance Act funds available to programs like BRI, and is working to raise awareness about the importance of re-entry programs. The Obama administration has also created the Reentry Services Division, which has increased mental health and substance abuse treatment programs for prisoners, and implemented services to improve work and educational opportunities inside prison.
A success story
Walton was part of BRI, and years after his incarceration, he was happy to walk back into the prison as an example of the program’s success.
“Prison isn’t just a place where bad people go and stay,” he said. “Prison can be a place where people who have made mistakes can then get their lives together and come back into society and be a valuable member.”
He now has a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an IT service provider. He is also a husband, a father of two, and a homeowner.
Walton’s story and others are what brought Lynch to the table. At the end of the gathering, she looked into each inmate’s eyes and thanked them for helping her learn about the re-entry programs that work, so she and her administration can improve the criminal justice system.
“I am tremendously proud of you,” she told them before they returned to their cells. “Tremendously proud and impressed.”