Volume 7, Issue D ::: September 2005
Re-Entry and Corrections Education
by Kathy Goebel
“America is the land of second chances, and when the gates of prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”
President George W. Bush,
State of the Union Address, 2004
For the vast majority of incarcerated offenders, prison is a transitional placement. They are not “home” in a corrections facility; they are moving toward release. Inmates and those who provide prison-based services must fight the tendency toward institutionalism.
The focus should always be on positive steps toward successful transition back in to the community.
After serving their sentences, the majority of offenders transition from incarceration back to their communities. Ex-offenders struggle to find their place in society while coping with the social pressures and economic hardships that led them to crime in the first place. The cycle of arrest, confinement, and release across our country is nothing new, yet it is even more important today, because more than 630,000 offenders return home each year: four times the number that came home 25 years ago (Harrison & Karberg, 2004). Almost every person incarcerated in jails in the United States, and approximately 97 percent of those incarcerated in prison, will eventually be released (Hughes & Wilson, 2003).
The impact that released offenders have on public safety cannot be ignored any longer. Of the large number of offenders released each year, an estimated two thirds will be rearrested within three years of their release (Langan & Levin, 2002). Re-entry has major implications for community safety. “Too many are harmed: People are victimized, families are destroyed; communities are overwhelmed; and the lives of individuals cycling in and out of incarcerations are wasted” (Solomon et al., 2004, p. 4). A greater proportion of offenders are being released without postprison supervision or services to assist them with finding jobs, housing, and needed support (Petersilia, 2000).
The high social and economic costs associated with ever-higher rates of incarceration are staggering. With the exception of health care, spending on corrections has increased more rapidly than any other item in state budgets (National Association of State Budget Offices, 2004). In this country, expenditures on corrections have gone from $9 billion in 1982 to $60 billion in 2001 (Bauer, 2001). The fiscal impact is further amplified because prisoners are spending longer periods of time incarcerated and experience fewer opportunities to take advantage of education and training programs that could assist in their transition upon release (Lynch & Sabol, 2001).
Returning offenders face myriad challenges as they transition to their communities (Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council, 2005; Harlow, 2003; Holzer et al., 2003; Lynch & Sabol, 2001; Mumola, 1999; Travis et al., 2003):
- Three quarters of offenders have a history of substance abuse.
- Two thirds of offenders do not have a high school diploma or equivalency.
- About one third of all offenders were unemployed before they were incarcerated. A criminal record hinders both their employability and their earning capabilities.
- One third of incarcerated offenders reported having some physical or mental disability, with a rate of serious mental illness that is two to four times higher than that of the general population.
- About two thirds of offenders returning to the community have children under the age of 18, and incarcerated parents owe an average of $20,000 in child support debt when they are released from prison.
Given this stark picture, the current emphasis on re-entry must continue to be a high priority for corrections educators and the criminal justice system as a whole.
Phases of Re-Entry
Re-entry efforts should begin while offenders are still in correctional facilities and preparing for release, continue through their immediate transition back into the community, and then help to sustain them with support services such as job search assistance, substance abuse counseling, and mental health treatment. The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) is a federal effort to improve outcomes for adults and juveniles returning to communities from correctional facilities. The goal of SVORI is to reduce the likelihood of reincarceration by providing tailored supervision and services. SVORI has designed one re-entry model comprised of three distinct phases that are described in detail below (Lattimore et al., 2004).
Corrections educators usually work with offenders during the prerelease phase. The emphasis of many programs is to prepare offenders for their transition back to their homes and neighborhoods. Literacy skills, classes that prepare learners for the tests of General Educational Development (GED), life skills instruction, employment training, parenting classes, and crime intervention programs make up a large portion of the prerelease programs that are sometimes available to eligible offenders. However, resources continue to diminish as the offender population increases, thus limiting access to needed educational programs.
The intense demands of the release phase usually preclude offenders’ involvement in educational programming. Offenders during this stage face many pressures as they reunite with family, begin searching for employment, come in contact with previous acquaintances and the temptations of old habits, as well as comply with community supervision requirements. In the ideal situation, during this phase offenders would be provided with information on available community resources.
During the sustained support phase, ex-offenders should be connected with community-based educational programs. Linkages between the institutional education and community-based programs require extensive work and continued nurturing. Ex-offenders’ previous assessment results and their participation in educational programs while incarcerated should be documented and made easily accessible to them as they begin community-based education programs.
Employment is critical for returning offenders, but finding and retaining employment is incredibly difficult. Many offenders have limited education and little employment experience. A felony conviction often restricts the type of employment an offender can be offered. A disproportionally large number of offenders return to low-income and predominantly minority communities that have relatively few unskilled jobs available. Corrections education needs a sharp focus on employability issues. The Reentry Policy Council urges service providers “to teach inmates functional, educational, and vocational competencies based on employment market demand and public safety requirements” (2005, p. 1). Training must correspond with jobs that are in high demand or with those employment sectors forecasted to provide new job opportunities in the community. It is critical that corrections educators and corrections officials create direct linkages with employment service providers in the release phase. We must design educational services that meet the employment challenge. Housing, health care, employment, family stability, and drug treatment are all critical needs that often take on crisis proportions for ex-offenders. However, all of these life challenges are related to education. Inmates who address their educational needs during confinement do better when they return to their families and communities and are significantly less likely to be reconvicted (Harlow, 2003; Steurer et al., 2001).
“Rather than draining community resources, safety and morale, prisoners who return to the community with support systems in place can become productive members of society, thus saving resources, strengthening family and community ties, and expanding the labor force and economy” (Solomon et al., 2004, p. 1). Corrections educators toil to bring this vision to reality.
Bauer, L., (2001). Justice Expenditure and Employment in the United States. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 202792.
Harlow, C. (2003). Education and Correctional Populations. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 195670.
Harrison, P., & Karberg, J. (2004). Prison and Jail Inmates at Mid-Year 2003. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 203947.
Holzer, H., Raphael, S., & Stoll, M. (2003). “Employment barriers facing ex-offenders.” Urban Institute Reentry Roundtable Discussion Paper. New York: New York University Law School.
Hughes , T., & Wilson, D. (2003). Reentry Trends in the United States. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Langan P., & Levin, D. (2002). Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 193427.
Lattimore, K., Brumbaugh, S., Visher, C., Lindquist, C., Winterfield, L., Salas, M., & Zweig, J. (2004). National Portrait of SVORI. Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. http://www.urban.org/Template.cfm?Section=
Lynch, J., & Sabol, W. (2001). “Prisoner reentry in perspective.” Crime Policy Report. Vol. 3. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
Mumola, C. (1999). Substance Abuse and Treatment, State and Federal Prisoners, 1997. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 172871.
National Association of State Budget Offices. (2004). 2003 State Expenditures Report. pp. 55-63. Retrieved on March 30, 2005, from http://www.nasbo.org.
Petersilia, J. (2000). “Prisoners returning to communities: Political, economic, and social consequences.” In Sentencing and Corrections: Issues for the 21st Century. National Institute of Justice: Papers from the Executive Sessions on Sentencing and Corrections. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.
Re-Entry Policy Council of the Council of State Governments (2005). Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council. New York: Council of State Governments. Chapter B, PS 15 pp. 1-15.
Solomon, A., Johnson, K., Travis, J. & McBride, E. (2004). From Prison to Work: The Employment Dimensions of Prisoner Reentry: A Report of the Reentry Roundtable. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center.
Steurer, S., Smith, L., & Tracy, A. (2001). Three-State Recidivism Study. Latham, MD: Correctional Education Association.
Travis, J., Cincotta, E., & Solomon, A. (2003). Families Left Behind: The Hidden Costs of Incarceration and Reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center.
The author thanks John Linton, Education Program Specialist, Character, Civics and Correctional Education Unit, Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, US Department of Education, for his assistance with this article.
About the Author
Kathy Goebel began her career as a special education elementary and middle school teacher. After 10 years in the K-12 system, she shifted to adult education as a basic skills instructor and later director of education at two correctional facilities in Washington state. She is currently the Correctional Education Program Administrator for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.