Photography Provided by Safer Foundation
Prison isn’t just a punishment —it’s a place apart with its own culture and rules. The experience of prison changes not only the inmate, but the families, friends and the community from which the convicted individuals come. More than 80 percent of inmates leave prison, and yet almost no preparation is done by anyone in any of these groups to support successful reentry.
The Safer Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, helps inmates navigate the barriers to re-entry, according to B. Diane Williams, executive director.
B. Diane Williams: It is our role to help people with criminal records help themselves. They are not coming to us asking us to fix everything for them; they are asking for some tools and support for fixing those things that need to be fixed.
All of our programs help people with criminal records, and our primary focus is employment. But we recognize that employment alone doesn’t work, so we form linkages with other programs, and we provide additional services ourselves so we can better prepare people to go to work. It’s really a much broader picture —what people call a reentry picture—than just an employment picture.
If you think about this, people who have been in prison for any period of time … what they know about [their] community is exactly what they left when they went to prison. They don’t know any differences, any shifts, any change. If there were not ATMs when they went to prison, they have no idea what an ATM is.
So when they come home, they expect exactly what they left, because nobody has begun to prepare them for what they might experience; and that might be differences inside their households, on their blocks, in their communities at large. They’re looking for what was when they left. What was is what got them in trouble in the first place.
If you’re in the institution for a very long time, you get to make very few choices. So if you aren’t preparing to make good choices when you go home…you find yourself falling into the same bad choices that you made before you went in.
But according to Williams, it’s not enough to wait for a person to leave prison and see how s/he fares. The work has to start before the inmate gets out.
BDW: We go inside the prisons in a number of different ways. One example is we go in what we call Welcome Panel format, which means we have people [with us] from the community to which that person’s returning; people willing to help them make that transition home.
Whether we do that face-to-face or through a video or teleconferencing format, we try to connect with them before they come home so that, when they come home, they have a support system. They know there’s someone there to help them with the transition.
The word “rehabilitation” is seldom heard anymore. The fact is, people are more likely to leave prison with bigger problems than when they went in. That means they are not ready to successfully re-enter the community.
BDW: Some of the people who come to see us…need help before they can go to work. They need substance abuse treatment or they need medical treatment.
When we are comfortable that somebody is ready to go to work, the first step for them will probably be one of the work crews that we run. We have bids on projects … and have responsibility for cleaning the street and snow removal and those kinds of things. We have a number of other opportunities where we are cleaning areas around train tracks … We’re moving into the area of urban landscaping and things like that so our people can get to work right away.
By definition, these are low-paying opportunities. But the intent is to prepare them with both the soft skills and hard skills they can then use for permanent employment. Our goal there is to look for higher paying, better-benefit kinds of opportunities for people.
Safer Foundation provides job-readiness workshops and classes, but former inmates need more than just job preparation. They need to be able to navigate what Safer Foundation calls “invisible barriers.”
BDW: When we talk about invisible barriers, they’re everywhere. There are those people who don’t even know that they have a certain perspective on people with a criminal record; there are people who believe that everybody in our prisons have significant mental health issues, have killed lots of people, have raped lots of people, have committed very violent crimes. And what we know is that a great majority of people are not in prison for violent crimes.
Employers assume that they are going to disrupt the workplace. Employers assume that they’re going to bring violent tendencies into the workplace. They assume that they are not going to contribute.
If you interview the employers who hire our clients, they will tell you the exact opposite. The employers will tell you that they are the people most appreciative of the opportunity. They are the ones employers find most flexible; they will do whatever is needed to be done in a given environment because they really appreciate having an opportunity to have that job.
There are blanket scenarios that prohibit people from going to work, and the healthcare industry is a perfect example. If you have a retail theft, you can’t go to work in direct patient care in a healthcare facility.
When that law first came about, we had many people coming to us asking for help. One particular nurse had been on her job for 20 years and they let her go.
To help bridge the gap between the behavior that landed someone in prison and the reality of their behavior after conviction, some states are using “certificates of good conduct” issued by parole board or courts. These official documents tell a potential employer that the individual has “cleaned up” her/his act. With tens of thousands of people leaving prison every year, this makes re-entry into the workforce more likely…
BDW: We work with probably about 300 employers, but we have 10,000 people coming to us who want jobs. The last three years we placed 2,500—3,100 people each year. Not everybody who comes to see us is ready to go to work, but we could certainly place more people if we have more opportunities.
There is a word called “hope” that is often deemed as hokey. I will tell you that, if people don’t have hope, they don’t try. So one of the things we have to do is that we have to prove to people that opportunities do exist.
I believe that the American people at large are people with good hearts who want to do the right thing, and this is the right thing. To hold somebody accountable for bad decisions for the rest of their lives is not the premise for this country. And yet it is the behavior of this country today.
The people that we serve are their brothers, their sisters, their nieces, their nephews or their next-door neighbors. These are ordinary people who want to have ordinary lives but have made some bad decisions or have been put into some bad situations. While they are not perfect, neither is anyone else on this planet perfect. But we can have a higher level of productivity in this country if we support these people in living their lives in the way they really want to live them.
The American myth of individualism tells people who are struggling with addiction, abuse, mental illness or poverty to simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In reality, specially designed services and other kinds of support are essential to the process of transformation. This column is the third in an occasional series that will explore what it takes to Forget the Bootstraps in order to live a better life; it focuses on the American prison system and the complexities of re-entering society after incarceration.