In America, two-thirds of the inmates who are released from prisons each year are arrested again within three years. Half of the inmates who are released will end up back in prison. These are incredible statistics.
Why is the recidivism rate so high? How can we help keep inmates who get out of prison to stay out of prison? What can be done to help prisoners reintegrate into society with more success? These are some of the questions Elizabeth Gudrais explores in her article The Prison Problem, which was published in the March-April 2013 edition of Harvard Magazine.
The article highlights Bruce Western, who is a professor at Harvard who is seeking the answers to those questions. Western is currently examining what happens to inmates after they’re released from prison. See study at Hardvard Magazine.
Addiction and Mental Health
At any given moment in the United States, there are some 2.3 million people who are incarcerated. This country has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. And this persists even as the crime rate has dropped.
The main driver of the explosion in prison population (in the 1970s it was somewhere around 300,000 — a number that prison activists said was too high even then) has been the War on Drugs, which in addition to locking more people up for nonviolent offenses, has led to mandatory minimums and longer prison sentences across the board. While we may lag behind in math and science, we lead the world in innovating new ways to maintain our prison system.
It’s estimated that more than 25% of Americans have a diagnosable mental disorder and 10% have the disease of addiction. Dual diagnoses are common, as more than 50% of people with a mental disorder suffer from substance abuse problems.
Within the prison system, mental disorders, addiction, and dual diagnoses are even more common. More than 66% of prisoners have substance abuse problems, and more than 50% are believed to have mental disorders.
Addiction can surely lead to crime, but little is done to help inmates battle the disease of addiction or a dual diagnosis, and even less is done to help prisoners sustain a sober lifestyle with continued treatment for addiction and mental disorders after they’re released from prison.
Without treatment, a prisoner’s chances of ending up back in prison are even higher, because it’s even more difficult for them to cope with life outside prison walls. If we want to reduce the recidivism rate, we need to help prisoners reintegrate into society with more resources, more positive mentorship, and more treatment for mental disorders and addiction when needed.
Our current reactive approach is a disgrace and proof that the government doesn’t take addiction or subsequent crime seriously.
Did you know, it costs more money to send someone to college for a year than send them to prison for a year? As a country, we are financially better off, sending inmates to college instead of prison. Wrap your head around that one for a minute.
If you have ten minutes – Please watch this video about The Lead Program in Seattle and the amazing results they have had in Seattle.
Challenges to Reentry
Western and his colleagues agree that when prisoners are released, they are ill-equipped to handle living in the “real world.”
They’re used to prison life, where all their decisions are made for them. Most don’t have a home to go to, and they often live a transient lifestyle. A job would provide more stability, but finding one sometimes seems impossible, as employers are reluctant to hire anyone with a record. When a prisoner is released, he needs a stable place to live, a job, and health care, often to treat addiction problems, for the best chance at successfully returning to society.
Unfortunately, the resources to help prisoners are too few. Right now, the focus of our criminal justice system doesn’t seem to be focused on real rehabilitation – just punishment. Minorities who are poor are incarcerated at the highest rate of any group of people. Poverty and living in an area with high crime rates increase a person’s chance of being incarcerated. When we send those same people back into the same environment, we’ve done nothing to “break the cycle” and have only added the challenge of a prison record to the obstacles they already face.