All too often, criminal convictions can follow people for years after they’ve completed their sentences. Though the rationale for a prison sentence is that people pay a debt to society, upon reentry, formerly incarcerated people find themselves paying interest on those debts: they are faced with substantial barriers to reintegration, most notably to their ability to find employment and housing. In most states, employers and landlords are still able to screen applicants’ criminal records, and often refuse to employ or house those with records. Lacking avenues and access to meeting their basic needs, formerly incarcerated people have difficulty becoming productive members of society, and can turn to reoffending to meet their basic needs.
In many other countries, the prison system also serves as a rehabilitation system. Take for example Norway, which focuses on a rehabilitative prison system. In addition to its incarceration rate standing at just about a tenth of what we see in the United States, justice-involved people in Norway also see less repeat contact with the criminal justice system. Their five-year recidivism rate (defined as reincarceration within three years of release, including for probation and parole violations) is 20 percent, in comparison to the U.S.’s staggering 76.6 percent. These numbers are not accidental: Norway has actively designed a justice system that helps people rehabilitate and reintegrate into society when they have committed a crime. One of the avenues through which Norway has created a rehabilitative system is by focusing on education for incarcerated people. Recognizing that many of justice-involved people have low educational attainment, their program focuses on getting people through secondary school subjects and preparing them for college.
Seen in this light, there is no denying that the American prison system sets the people who go through its doors up for failure upon release. And this failure isn’t just individual; ultimately, it is a huge social and financial failure.
Parents make up a whopping 63 percent of those incarcerated in federal prison. Combined with the U.S.’s high recidivism rate, that means that more than 7 out of 10 children are effectively robbed of a parent for years of their lives, stripping them of the support, guidance, and resources that parents provide. Beyond that, two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for a non-violent offense. Families are the fabric of society, but being justice-involved is an intergenerational burden, and innocent children’s lives become part of the interest that the incarcerated pay on their debt to society.
These ripple effects of prison are felt not only in families, but throughout communities as well. Studies have shown that those who live in communities with high rates of incarceration suffer from more mental health issues than those who come from communities without high incarceration rates — not because of any inherent predilection or pathology, but because of the stress that comes with living in communities under constant scrutiny and supervision. That whole communities are so negatively affected by the justice system should be proof enough for rethinking the way we do justice in America — our current justice system is a public health hazard.
The problems with the American prison system are systemic and overarching, but one of the concrete ways we can begin to address them is through education. Currently, programs like the Bard Prison Initiative and Hudson Link for Higher Education focus on providing college opportunities to incarcerated men and women; in the last few years, we’ve seen more investment in college-in-prison programs on local and federal levels. Studies have shown that focusing on education while the justice-involved are still incarcerated leads to a 43 percent reduction in recidivism, and higher chances of employment when they are released. Put into simple economics, the study found that every dollar spent on prison education translated into savings of $4 to $5 on imprisonment costs down the line.
At College & Community Fellowship, we focus on giving formerly incarcerated women pathways and support to furthering their education to help them succeed in reentry. In our 17 years of service, our students have earned 338 college degrees with a three-year recidivism rate below 2 percent. We do this by investing in our students’ academic careers by sticking with them from intake to graduation and beyond. We recognize that education, much like reintegration, is a lifelong process, so we focus on harnessing the strengths of our students to build an enduring, vibrant community of women pursuing higher education. When women come out of our program, they often choose community-strengthening careers in public policy, social work, and counseling, and having seen the ills of the carceral system first hand, they are well equipped to help build strong communities.
The United States spends $80 billion a year on incarcerating people. Imagine if part of that 80 billion were instead used to invest in communities, improve education, and create economic opportunity. The amount of human potential lost to our carceral system is staggering, and society as a whole stands to benefit when we rethink the way we enact justice in the United States. Ensuring that reentering individuals can reintegrate into society is a smart investment. For all of us.
Vivian D. Nixon is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit committed to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. An alumna of CCF’s program, Nixon advocates nationally for the return of college-level education to our nation's prisons and is an advocate for formerly incarcerated individuals impacted by mass incarceration. She is a Columbia University Community Scholar and a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, and the Soros Justice Fellowship. Nixon received her B.S. from the State University of New York and is currently a creative non-fiction MFA candidate at Columbia University. Vivian Nixon has written articles for Vice, HuffPost, and Boston Globe among other outlets. She has appeared on several MSNBC news shows and is a regular speaker on criminal justice reform panels. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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