Reducing Recidivism, Part 2: Barriers Beyond Bars

By SPP Conservation Nursery Coordinator Jacob Meyers

Last week, I published Reducing Recidivism, Part 1: Why Forgiveness is Key. I chronicled the minor hurdle of putting pen to paper and writing a blog, and how this led to some deeper insight into the challenges of combating recidivism. What follows are more or less my original thoughts on recidivism after attending a summit to address this glaring issue:

On September 21st, five Evergreen students piled into a Prius and slowly started making their way through the traffic on I-5. Normally they would be working in various prisons on various programs, but today they were on their way to Seattle for a shared activity.

Along with two others who would join them at the Jackson Federal Building, this group of individuals work for Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP). They were in Seattle to attend a summit on recidivism. Breaking the Chain: Addressing Recidivism was an event sponsored by the Seattle Federal Executive Board to bring together providers, federal, state, and local agencies working in the reentry field.

The first speaker was the Vice Chair of the Seattle Federal Executive Board, Pritz Navaratnasingam. After some thanks and a short welcome, the second keynote speaker was introduced: Steve Sinclair. Sinclair, Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, also serves as Co-Director of SPP. According to him, 31.4% of offenders released in 2013 were readmitted within 3 years. Individuals releasing after their 1st incarceration recidivate at half the rate compared to those releasing after multiple prison terms. Too many people are returning to prison, and the more times a person is in prison, the more likely they are to keep coming back.

Steve Sinclair addressing the summit on September 21, 2017. Photo taken from the Washington State Department of Corrections Facebook Page.

Looking at the national picture, the numbers become even more startling. A study by the National Institute of Justice tracked the release of 404,638 individuals from 30 states found the following:

  • Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.

Additionally, about half (49.7%) of prisoners released violated parole or probation or were arrested for a new offense that led to imprisonment within 3 years of release.

If you’re like me, you might be shaking your head, left wondering how these numbers can be true. Fortunately, the Community Services Panel at the Recidivism Summit helped to shed some light on the difficulties one faces upon re-entry. One major factor is mental health. Out of 3.5 million people currently on parole, half of them have substance abuse problems or a mental health diagnosis according to the panel. To compound the problem, oftentimes men and women are not given enough medication upon release – frequently only having a few days or a week supply of potentially critical medication. Transportation can also be a problem. 30 days of bus passes can fly by very quickly when meeting regularly with parole officers, trying to find a job, healthcare, or acquire identification.

One of the biggest obstacles of all can be the stigma surrounding incarceration. Many employers simply won’t hire previously-incarcerated individuals, and many landlords won’t offer housing to people with criminal records. The stigma of incarceration by itself can probably go a long ways to explaining why some people resort back to their old ways of crime and drug use. Mr. Sinclair summed it up succinctly, “It’s not what you do in prison, but how you transition out of prison.”

Finally, during the Employment Panel, John Page offered this insight:

“You can’t have conversations about employment or re-entry without having conversations about race and education.”

Page, a community facilitator at the Fair Work Center (a non-profit dedicated to helping workers achieve fair employment), has over 20 years of experience working on issues of race and social justice, stressed that education is a major factor in determining who ends up in prison in the first place. Unfortunately, U.S. public schools have been failing minority students for quite sometime. And recent research shows that in many school districts, the gap between white students and their black peers is significant (Reardon et al., 2017). In Seattle Public Schools, black students test more than 3-and-a-half grade levels behind white students (Seattle Times).

With all of these challenges, it becomes a little more apparent as to why recidivism rates are so high. Upon leaving Breaking the Chain: Addressing Recidivism, I was left with several thoughts circulating through my head:

  1. As a society, we’re still not doing enough to mitigate recidivism.
  2. There is a critical window upon initial release from incarceration, a short time in which most people “make it or break it”.
  3. With more than 50 organizations and well over 100 individuals attending, Breaking the Chain: Addressing Recidivism was inspirational mainly in showing that there are countless individuals working tirelessly to reshape how we as a society think about incarnation and re-entry.
  4. The work we do at SPP is extremely important in not only providing technical skills and job experience before release, but also by imparting the value of education, curiosity, and critical thinking.

It’s a daunting situation, but it’s a challenge that must be met. Thankfully, I have great company and inspiring allies. I am sticking with it.

On December 13th, 2017, Conservation Nursery technicians at Stafford Creek Corrections Center and I are preparing 70 some trays for sowing. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

Technicians Shabazz Malekk, Terral Lewis, Aaron Bander, Bui Hung (left to right) and I are discussing our sowing plan for the day on December 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

Shabazz Malekk, Aaron Bander, and I are determining the number of seeds to sow in each plug on December 13, 2017. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

SPP Graduate Research Assistants outside of the Jackson Federal Building in Seattle, WA on September 21, 2017. From left to right: Amanda Mintz, Keegan Curry, Bethany Shepler, Sadie Gilliom, Jessica Brown, Alexandra James, and Jacob Meyers.

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