On Parole. Life After Prison
How Many People are Affected?
We know approximately how many people are being released from prison each year. The number varies depending on who you ask, but it usually falls between six and seven hundred thousand. We also know a lot about how many return to prison for various reasons. What we do not know much about is what kind of life they will have. There is a lot of academic talk about re-entry programs and what should be done but preciously little about their individual experiences. There are a few success stories about people who have managed to stay out and lead relatively normal lives. They are the ones that get all the press. Even among them, only few will tell you the transition has been easy. We rarely hear from the many more who struggled or failed altogether.
A Variety of Approaches
What makes it particularly difficult to provide guidance is that the rules for release vary, sometimes dramatically, from state to state, even county to county.
In addition, individual states' implementation of the social safety net makes it even more difficult to make general statements that will work everywhere. In some states social services treat prisoners about the same as everyone else. Other states have a lifetime ban on welfare altogether for certain crimes. In still others, lack of access to housing or temporary welfare makes it almost impossible to get settled especially if you do not have the support of family or friends.
Are you familiar with incarceration?
Incarceration as Punishment
Before we get into what release looks like, let us just briefly talk about the justice system that brings us to that point.
Incarceration as punishment has undergone several fundamental changes over time. The various strategies have ranged from rehabilitation over hard labor to warehousing. Until recently, the prevailing trend has been to keep offenders out of public circulation for as long as possible. The nothing-works, not-in-my-backyard or the three-strikes-you're-out attitudes are examples of this. In its practical implementation, the strategy has led not only to unprecedented overall incarceration rates but also to a disproportionately high rate among socially disadvantaged groups. The Second Chance Act of 2007 was supposed to help with that, but I think most will agree there is still a long way to go.
Jail refers to local facilities used for short term sentences or before sentencing. Jails are typically run by local counties or municipalities. Offenders who are denied bail or who cannot afford bail are also held here. Some also serve short sentences in local jails.
Prison refers to facilities after sentencing. Prisoners convicted of Federal crimes stay at Federal prisons. Prisoners convicted of state crimes stay at state prisons.
However, the vast majority of convicts, more than half, are not held in prison or jail at all. They serve their sentences under community surveillance or probation. That does not mean they are free, though. They are still under the jurisdiction of the correctional system and have to follow the rules laid out in their probation. Another 10% or so have served time in jail or prison and are released on parole. They are the subject of this article. The rest are incarcerated. Most of them will eventually either complete their full sentences or be released early on parole. Only a very small number actually serve full life sentences.
Types of Sentences
Some states do not make parole available. All will have to serve their full sentences, even life sentences. This is called determinate sentencing.
Most states, however, still allow sentences to be indeterminate, a range of years, 20 to life, for example. Some prisoners sentenced in this way may be released on mandatory parole after a certain amount of time has passed. Others may have to face a parole board making the decision on an individual basis.
All states allow sentences to be suspended. The convict will serve his sentence on probation. It is still a sentence but only needs to be served if the defendant commits a new crime or otherwise violates the terms of the release. Provided they successfully complete their probation period, they may never again set foot in a jail or prison beyond their initial arrest.
The Federal justice system no longer offers parole. All will have to serve the full sentence.
There is a lot of research about what lands people back in jail shortly after release. Approximately 50% within one year, two out of three return within three years. Many prisoners report that they feel abandoned by or otherwise disconnected from their families during incarceration.
For others, it is a challenge to go from a very structured life to a life full of surprises, decisions you suddenly have to make on your own and other obstacles you have to navigate on a daily basis.
Still others find it difficult to adjust to new technology or practices the rest of us find mundane.
For some, the predictability of prison suddenly begins to look pretty good. Freedom can seem too overwhelming.
The Release Plan
For the fortunate ones, preparation for release begins shortly after arrival. All kinds of educational and remedial programs are being offered. Programs are also available to deal with mental illness or addiction. Skills, both academic and practical, can be learned in various ways, even college courses. Others are not so fortunate. For them self-rehabilitation is the only option. A few have successfully managed to do that. Most have not.
Everyone who is released on parole whether mandatory or by parole board decision will have to prepare a release plan. Release plans apply to people who are released on parole as well as probation. They usually have two major components:
1. General provisions
2. Specific provisions
General provisions usually include rules about travel restrictions, maintaining employment, staying out of trouble, home visits, etc. The plan also spells out where they will live and how they plan to support themselves.
Specific provisions can include random drug tests or searches, community service, staying away from certain people or places, etc.
A parole officer will inspect the place where they plan to live and inform the parole board of his or her findings. The parole board may require the prisoner to have taken a course in job hunting. Some will also have to take a mandatory life skills course. A life skills course mostly teaches you about how to interact with other people.
One of the best resources for general information about re-entry written by someone who has been there himself.
The fortunate ones will have family members pick them up at the gate upon release. The less fortunate, will have enough money to get to a halfway house via public transportation typically within a day or two. The release plan will also include a time frame for when to make contact with the assigned parole officer.
Parole can range from daily contact with the parole officer to weekly, even monthly. Some places even allow you to check-in via computer. Some have been known to check in via periodic postcards.
The Parole Officer
Just to make the experience even more uncertain, every parole officer is different. They usually fall somewhere on a spectrum from corrections officer to social worker and anywhere in between. Most are correction officers first. Many are overwhelmed by huge caseloads and will default to their correction officer role. A few find great joy and satisfaction in connecting the parolee with all sorts of community resources. Others find their joy in enforcing every detail of the rules from punctuality to curfew. Some will try to provoke you to see how short your fuse really is. If life skills training seemed useless, this is where it could come in handy.
Even with family support and definitely without, the challenges start to pile up pretty quickly. On day one already, you will need food, shelter and possibly clothing. If you are lucky, you will be given some guidance where to obtain such necessities of life, but that is far from guaranteed. In some places, a single application will get you hooked up with food stamps, Medicaid and temporary cash assistance. In other places, welfare bans may leave you at the mercy of charities for all or most of your needs.
Every release plan will contain a requirement to find employment. All states have job centers with all sorts of resources available. Making a good faith attempt to land a job is not only a condition of parole, it is also likely to be a condition for certain welfare services. Getting a job – any job is the priority and it needs to be a regular job with a steady and predictable paycheck. Independent contractor or free lance work does not qualify.
Some professions are off limits for felons. Employers may be prohibited from hiring you even if they wanted to.
Some prisoners are mandated to spend a period of time, typically 90 days, in a halfway house. Like with everything else, halfway houses come in all kinds a varieties. Some are run by the local justice departments, but many are run by private contractors or faith-based organizations. In one account, about half of the parolees simply left because the conditions were so terrible that the possibility of returning to prison suddenly seemed the least of two evils. Most are OK, though. Among the best are shelters run by the Salvation Army and other faith-based organizations. Faith-based does not guarantee a pleasant experience, though.
Housing assistance comes from a Federal agency, but is administered by the individual states. Again, every state has its own implementation. Federal housing assistance is not available to felons, but the rule is enforced in different ways throughout the country. In New York City, for example, it is not enforced much. City shelters would simply overflow if it were. In other places as described in the video on this page, even helping family members carry groceries into a public housing project can get the family threatened with eviction.
Finding a place to live in the private market can also prove to be a challenge. Like most employers, landlords will require a background check and the felony will be revealed and the promising prospect may suddenly no longer be available.
Some prisoners will have received inadequate care while in prison. Many suffer from mental illness or addiction and are in need of treatment.
The good news is that Medicaid is one of the few services most prisoners do have access to.
If you are released into the care of family members, these also will be impacted by your presence. For example, the presence of weapons no matter who owns them could be a parole violation. Random inspection visits are not restricted to your room, but include the entire house. Essentially, everyone in your house is on parole. Are they willing to put up with that? Is it fair to subject them to that?
Clearly, it is a difficult task to compile a set of rules that will apply in every case. Unfortunately, one of the best sources of information is provided by the ones who return to prison following a parole violation.
As always, I encourage you to share your own experiences or views in the comments section below.
Best State Specific Resources
- Reentry Programs for Ex-Offenders - By State | Help For
A complete list of reentry programs for ex-offenders by state. We offer help to felons and ex-offenders. Find housing, food and other help for ex-offenders.