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To Aid Successful Re-entry, New York Must Expand Prison Work Release Programs

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In designating a National Reentry Week, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has cast a light on an often over-looked aspect of the increasingly mainstream conversation on the effects of mass incarceration. "Too often, Americans who have paid their debt to society leave prison only to find that they continue to be punished for past mistakes," Lynch said, going on to identify the difficulties people face in obtaining education, housing, jobs, the ability to vote and, in some jurisdictions, even a driver's license. According to the Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 95% of all people entering state and federal prisons eventually return home.

Lynch's recognition is a historic first step, but we must use this momentum to push beyond the rhetoric toward reforms that will actually ease the immense structural barriers facing people returning from prison. According to the American Bar Association, there are upwards of 47,000 laws or local ordinances that penalize those with criminal justice involvement and restrict their full reintegration into civic and social life. The sheer volume of these restrictions may seem paralyzing to reformers - the Kafkaesque "re-entry" maze is certainly confounding to many people leaving prison - but we must take action.

Today, the two greatest challenges facing returning residents are affordable housing and lack of employment experience and marketable skills. For this reason, many state prisoners are released directly into New York City's shelter system each week, and eventually come to rely on public assistance because of an inability to secure employment.

To that end, New York State must step up and do something substantial to increase reentry success. Reinstituting the work release program - one that has already been tested, and requires no additional research to justify - would address both issues simultaneously. By allowing people to acquire work experience and accumulate some savings to use toward housing expenses, we can provide them with the basis for successful re-entry.

Prior to the late 90's, all New York State prisoners were work release eligible. If a person was within 24 months of parole eligibility, they could apply for work release. No distinction was drawn between violent versus non-violent charges. According to a March 28, 1994 New York Times article, citing New York State Correctional figures, there were 24,200 work release participants in 1993. By 2010, that number had declined to 1,910. During the 1990s-era hysteria around crime and punishment, then Governor George Pataki, greatly restricted eligibility to the program, by eliminating access to people charged with violent crimes. Ironically, those who may benefit most from the work release experience became excluded--long termers and lifers (people who are parole eligible but have a maximum sentence of life). Subsequently, Governors Eliot Spitzer, David Patterson and Andrew Cuomo have failed to undo these restrictions. This oversight betrays the recent rhetoric around reentry and second chances. National Reentry Week offers an opportunity for Cuomo, and the State Legislature to revisit these decisions and to afford more New York State prisoners access to this valuable, socially responsible program.

How it worked: A person within 24 months of parole eligibility would apply to the Temporary Release Committee at his/her facility seeking admittance into the program. If accepted, they would be relocated to one of various correctional facilities in the community in which they will be eventually paroled and would be required to seek local employment. Once employment was attained, they would report to work each day and return to the facility in the evenings to sleep. Often participants were allowed to stay with pre-approved family members three to four days per week, thus strengthening essential familial and community ties.

This program was important prior to its restriction and can be again. First, it served as an opportunity for people, many of whom lacked full-time employment prior to going to prison, to gain practical experience in the workforce; it also allowed for the opportunity to save moneys which could go towards housing costs. It provided a transitional, supervised, landing back into society for men and women some of whom having been away for decades. Currently work release is available only to people convicted of non-violent crimes, most of whom are doing much shorter sentences and presumably are removed from the work force and family contact for a shorter period than those charged with crimes of violence.

While it is true that some prisons offer "programs" (DOCCS' term for required activities such as, vocational, therapeutic, educational mandates) that might seem at first glance to be job-readying, few of these actually foster marketable skills. Couple that with the average pay (or incentive, as DOCCS refers to it, least it be accused of labor exploitation) of 12 cents per hour, and, after basic commissary purchases, the average state prisoner has little or nothing left for savings. Most will be released back into society with little more than $40.00 (an amount extracted from any source of income a prisoner receives) and a bus or train ticket back to their home county. Those returning to New York City arrive at Port Authority--one block from the heart of Times Square. Housing options for people returning to their communities after prison are abysmal at best and nonexistent at worst. A criminal record restricts some people from residing in public housing, even with family.

Recidivism is expensive financially and in human cost as well. In 2011, 23,710 people were released from state prison. Of that number, 10,007 eventually returned, or 42.2% (2,041 or 8.6% with new crimes, 7,966 or 33.6% for parole violations). While there is no way to determine the reasons for DOCCS' 33.6% violation rate, those of us in the reentry field are well aware that access to adequate housing and gainful employment represent the two strongest indicators for recidivism. It's far cheaper, more efficient and moral to provide true rehabilitative opportunities for current marketplace job experience. Even with low numbers of participants, work release has shown to be beneficial to people seeking reentry and to local economies. From 1995 to 2010, prisoners participating in work release "have earned $148,079,927.73, paid $40,856,515.59 in Federal, State and Local taxes, and inmates have been forced to save $48,277,965.01," according to DOCCS.

Work release then represents a clear, sensible opportunity for New York State to address two challenges to successful reentry. Let's not forget that National Reentry Week represents people, our people who have paid us a debt and now must to be made whole. There are ample opportunities for local, state and the national government to be of the people and for the people--47,000 opportunities.