OPINION: Outreach programs give former inmates new opportunities
In the U.S., over 2 million people are being held in incarceration. Overwhelmingly, these prisoners are being held in state prisons, rather than federal prisons, meaning the burden of prison overcrowding has mostly been on the states.
Even worse than this massive population of inmates in prisons, federal reports describe the state of them as “dilapidated” and “overcrowded."
This underfunded criminal justice system goes hand in hand with the national rates of recidivism, or the likelihood of a released ex-convict re-offending and returning to jail. Within three years, almost two-thirds of all released prisoners will re-offend and be returned to prison, a ratio that is ridiculously and threateningly high.
By five years, that rate reaches three-quarters, meaning that within half a decade, it is statistically unlikely that an ex-felon is not sent back to prison. In Arizona, the prison population is at 38,021, a decrease of about 600 inmates from 2015, but the total incarcerated population still outnumbers the amount of beds available to these inmates.
There are almost 3,000 more inmates than there are beds to board them, a sign of overcrowding at the state level that is difficult to solve without significant funding and legal reforms.
The rates of recidivism not only continue to flood the prison systems of the U.S.; they also threaten American citizens and residents, as these felons continue to offend, be arrested and held in a system that does nothing to help end the cycle of violence. They are then released into a world where the statistical average is to reoffend.
If the U.S. is dedicated to ending prison overcrowding and lowering the national crime rate, it should dedicate itself to prisoner outreach programs. These programs help contact inmates and offer them support groups, high school diplomas, job experience and counseling that can help them once they are released.
For example, the Delancey Street Foundation helps drug addicts and former gang members learn marketable skills that can get them employed and build relationships that will help keep them away from prison. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program offers inmates job experience and wages higher than the minimum wage, helping ex-convicts build a life away from either crime or the prison system. Astoundingly, the recidivism rate among members of the Entrepreneurship Program is a surprisingly low 7 percent.
These programs have been encouraged across the country, with a similar program beginning in Arizona. Erickson Companies, a major construction company in the western United States, has partnered with the Arizona Corrections Department to hire convicts in construction projects, offering them job experience, building skills and giving them the opportunity to adjust to life away from incarceration.
The program is only open to “non-violent male DUI offenders," so the risk of violence or confrontations are extremely low, but the workload offers these prisoners a chance to get more experience and look much more valuable on the employment market.
For the past two years, there have been no recorded incidents or escape attempts. Erickson manager Larry Butts was very positive about the program, saying, “It’s like a really long internship. We’re able to train these guys, work alongside them and at some point they’re going to get released. We’ve given them a skill ... and a second chance."
This program is one among many others in the Arizona Corrections Industries, an office that helps employ and rehabilitate former convicts, and it is credited with dropping Arizona’s recidivism rate by 31.6 percent.
By offering ex-convicts job experience and teaching them a trade, they can re-enter the workforce without being unduly hampered by their time behind bars. Also, they will not feel as strong of a need to return to crime to stay afloat.
Arizona is helping lead the way in encouraging employment and support groups for former prisoners and giving powerful examples for other states to follow in order to lower the dangerously high recidivism rates in the U.S.
Alec Scott is a Sophomore studying Political Science and German Studies who volunteered for the 2014 Ron Barber Congressional Campaign. Follow Daily Wildcat on Twitter.