When the Cell Doors Open and They All Come Home

Rev. Fred Davie, The Urban Agenda

As a relatively young program officer at the Ford Foundation early in my career I made a visit to Sing Sing I will never forget.

I went behind the walls of that correctional facility not as a prisoner, but as someone who had traveled along the same well-worn paths as too many of the men who were incarcerated there.  Like them, I confronted the challenges of racism and scrutiny that accompany being an African-American male of limited economic means.  Like some of them, I faced additional discrimination because of my sexual orientation.

But there was one major difference that set me apart from them that had nothing to do with the bars that separated us. I was going to exit that prison with an excellent education and the kind of opportunity only a job or career that pays a livable wage can bring.

Each year hundreds of thousands of former offenders in this country are released from prison, and right now there as many as 14 million of them who are of working age. Like our nation’s veterans, once these men and women head home, they are forgotten. Their average annual income at the time of arrest is only $12,000, and given the limited pool of jobs available when ex-offenders leave prison, their lifetime earnings are almost 30 percent less than the rest of the working world. We also know that within three years of release, two-thirds of them are re-arrested, and nearly half are re-incarcerated within three years of release.

I’ve spent well over a decade since that day in Sing Sing helping to develop strategies and solutions that break down the roadblocks that deny former offenders a substantive second chance when they return to their homes and communities and practically guarantee another arrest or return to prison. What I’ve learned, and what numerous studies have shown, is that the key to making it on the outside is getting a job that pays well. This is why tens of millions of dollars are spent each year in this country on faith and community-based programs that help ex-offenders find employment. Between 2005 and 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor provided $395 million in grants to 121 of community organizations around the country. But much more is needed.

Faith-based and community-based organizations are uniquely positioned to help former offenders find and keep jobs that are essential to a successful return home.  Faith organizations are the backbone of strong neighborhoods, and have earned the trust of the people they serve, whether or not they’re congregants. Still, each community is different, and as such demand different approaches to helping former offenders land – and stay -- on their feet. To determine which are the most effective, Union Theological Seminary and IFC International co-commissioned a report on the best practices that helped former offenders.

The findings of that report, released by Union last week at a Congressional briefing, showed that the key common denominators are: training and establishing relationships with prisoners before they’re released; collaborating closely with employers and knowing the job market; individualizing services based on thorough assessments of their clients’ needs, backgrounds, strengths and interests; and offering cognitive-behavioral therapy-based mentoring services that help them stay positive in the face of powerful forces of negativity.

Now that we know what works, it’s time for more faith-based organizations around the country and here in New York City, to help their neighbors after they’ve done their time. But they need the funding – billions of dollars to get the job done. Many of them are involved with prisoners while they’re incarcerated, cultivating or deepening their faith through bible study and prayer services to sustain them while they’re doing their time.

But, the real work begins when a sentence comes to an end. With the blessing of volunteers, faith-based organizations have the people power to provide mentors to former offenders. And as members of communities of faith, these mentors would have the spiritual standing to provide the self-affirmation and positive outlook it takes to reorient your life once you decide to make a positive change.

What faith and community organizations might not have are the resources to build the infrastructure to support a meaningful mentoring program that will help lower rates of recidivism and keep our brothers and sisters on a steady pathway to reintegration into the workforce and their communities.

A bi-partisan recognition is growing that we must make a lasting and sustained investment in evidenced-based re-entry programs.  Programs that work. Truly, the time is now.

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