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The Importance of Community Support for Prisoner Re-Entry Programs

To be successful, re-entry programs must work to facilitate more interaction between former inmates and potential role models in their new neighborhoods.
East Garfield Park, Chicago. (Photo: justine chang/Flickr)

East Garfield Park, Chicago. (Photo: justine chang/Flickr)

After weeks of alternately tense and heated public meetings about the proposed construction of a prisoner re-entry center in Jersey City, New Jersey, the controversial plan has finally been scrapped.

The New Jersey Parole Board had pledged $4.2 million for the establishment of the Sacred Heart Community Resource Center, a place for formerly incarcerated people to find jobs, housing, and health care. But former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who runs the program, told the the Jersey Journal on Monday that he had re-considered the location of the new site after realizing that it did not have the support of the surrounding community. There were safety worries, and complaints that neighborhood members hadn’t been informed of the plan until it was almost a done deal. At a community meeting that night, “Why does it have to be here?” was reportedly a common refrain.

Being shouted down during this week’s meeting—not to mention being apparently kicked out of a previous meeting altogether—was a tough way for McGreevey to learn this particular lesson about the significance of community support on the success or failure of a prisoner re-entry program. But others have certainly spent even more time, effort, and money in coming to the same conclusion.

State, county, and city agencies were failing in their job of coordinating and delivering whatever services those former prisoners needed most.

Last month, the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center released the results of a multi-year research project on the “Safer Return” re-entry program in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood, where unemployment is high, and about a third of people living there have been to prison. The group established the program and then studied its impact from 2008 to 2013. The Institute’s findings were full of insights on both what worked in the program, and, just as importantly, what didn’t. One of the problem areas was that community role, which is so crucial in helping returning prisoners thrive.

Back when the Urban Institute researchers were designing this experimental program, almost a decade ago, they zeroed in on what they saw as three fundamental problems in existing re-entry programs. They saw prisoners and prisoners’ families who were frequently ill-prepared for the transition from incarceration to home life, with the emotional and logistical complications it would bring. State, county, and city agencies were also failing in their job of coordinating and delivering whatever services those former prisoners needed most. Finally, “on the community level, entire neighborhoods were unable to meet the complex needs of returning individuals,” the researchers write. “[C]ommunities were weakened by the individuals’ past criminal activities and their ensuing absence during incarceration, and then burdened by their return.” They wanted to somehow facilitate more interaction between the former inmates and potential role models around them, especially role models who had navigated the transition themselves—and having them meet prior to the inmate’s release. An important goal of the program was to prevent people from feeling idle, or isolated, after gaining their freedom.

The developers also stressed the importance of preparing the community for the re-entry as being just as significant as the process of preparing the inmate him or herself. The plan proposed Community Advisory Councils to assess how prepared a community was to welcome a new parolee in, and to gather feedback from the people living there with door-to-door surveys. The idea was not to simply encourage people to allow a parolee to come back to the community, but to inspire them all to take part in working toward his or her success—through jobs, mentoring, and social support. And if those jobs and social opportunities took the form of “beautification and restoration projects” in the neighborhood, like tree pruning and graffiti removal, then all the better.

This rather utopian plan played out for five years, and it served over 700 former inmates in the East and West Garfield Park neighborhoods of Chicago. Many people did get access to public services, new jobs, and new connections to their community that they had not previously had. Fewer parolees returned to prison during the program’s run. Where the program failed, the study found, it failed to enact those best-laid plans: there were tensions among managers, disorganized coordination and delivery of the services the clients needed, and frustrations with how the program was “being conceptualized and developed while it was being implemented.” Not surprisingly, the researchers advised better communication and more flexibility among re-entry coordinators in the future.

On the community level, the door-to-door surveys during the Safer Return program did show support and sympathy for incarcerated people coming home; they didn’t see that transition as a risk to their own safety, as this week’s Jersey City protesters did. The community was overwhelmingly welcoming of returning prisoners, “in spite of their own circumstances and limited capacities.” (The study notes that the sample did include a lot of people who have themselves been previously incarcerated, so that helped.)

Still, though, the researchers found that that good will was not, in the end, taken full advantage of—and that was an important aspect for future improvement. “Safer Return didn’t sufficiently engage families, community members, or existing social services providers,” the study concluded, and there should be more effort “to fully tap the potential of families and the larger community.”

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.