Three presenters at the workshop examined the many needs of people reentering society from jails and prisons. These needs have many implications for the communities in which releasees reside and for efforts by government and nonprofit organizations to meet those needs.
LIVING IN A HIGH REENTRY COMMUNITY
Individuals who are returning from jails and prisons are not evenly distributed geographically, observed Jamie J. Fader, associate professor and graduate chair in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University. Instead, they are spatially concentrated in a relatively small number of communities that are generally impoverished, urban, and lacking in jobs and other resources. These neighborhoods experience a high degree of churn as individuals, especially men, cycle back and forth between community and confinement. These neighborhoods often develop reputations for being homes to individuals formerly incarcerated, leading to stigma, economic stagnation, and population loss. This churn can also lead residents to not trust each other and to avoid interacting, which erodes the development of important social ties in the community that are needed for residents to work together. The features of such a community can in turn affect the likelihood of recidivism by returning residents.
These observations are known from past research, said Fader, but much less is known about the day-to-day experience of living in a high reentry community. She presented a case study of a high reentry community in Philadelphia known as Frankford that she has been studying for almost 4 years. Frankford is one of a handful of Philadelphia communities identified by the Urban Institute as contributing to and absorbing a disproportionate number of individuals leaving incarceration. Fader began her research in September 2014 by attending community meetings and gaining the cooperation of several community leaders, including a state representative, several faith leaders, and the editor of the local newspaper, the Frankford Gazette. She has regularly attended civic association, zoning board, and police–community meetings and has engaged in a wide variety of community events like fundraisers and historical society presentations. She also has conducted in-depth interviews with a sample of men ages 25 to 34 who either live in or grew up in Frankford and are likely to have had contact with the criminal justice system.
She emphasized that she is not able to disentangle causation in many instances. For example, she said that she could not claim that being a high reentry community caused a decrease in home prices or population loss, even though these are probably related. Features of the community could also have made it an attractive place to site halfway houses, recovery houses, and treatment clinics. “Causation probably goes in both directions,” she said.
Frankford, which is in the lower northeast section of Philadelphia, is an impoverished, racially diverse, and population-dense community with high rates of crime and violence. The 19124 zip code, which contains Frankford and a small part of adjoining Juniata, has more than 69,000
residents. One-third of them are white, 42 percent identify as black, and 38 percent identify as Hispanic of any race. Racially diverse neighborhoods are rare in Philadelphia, which is one of the features that interested Fader in Frankford. The neighborhood’s most distinctive physical feature is the Frankford El streetcar over Frankford Avenue, which Fader described as the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the United States. Below the tracks is a mix of small businesses serving low-income customers, including check cashing outlets, prepaid wireless stores, small convenience stores, and shops for individual servings of beer, wine, and liquor. Until the 1960s, Frankford Avenue was a place where residents would travel on Saturdays to go to the tailor, the butcher, and upscale department stores. But since the Roosevelt Mall opened in 1964 in northeast Philadelphia, many of those businesses have moved out. During the day, the commercial corridor under the El is populated by a diverse array of residents and people passing through the area. At night, Frankford Avenue is mostly unoccupied except for drug sellers, sex workers, or people who are visibly drunk or high.
Frankford’s declining business base represents a larger decline in key social institutions in the past decade, Fader reported. For example, the community’s YMCA, police athletic league program, the Salvation Army, and the Frankford Group Ministry, a program that served at risk youth for several decades, closed as the neighborhood declined. The Frankford Community Development Corporation teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and dissolved its board until it was recently revived. Both Catholic churches in the community were closed by the diocese without any notice in 2013, although the community still contains more than 50 churches, counting storefront venues. These churches help absorb the rising need for services, particularly food and shelter.
A recent analysis of key indicators conducted by nextcity.org identified Frankford as one of seven Philadelphia communities facing the most challenges compared with other neighborhoods in the city. Frankford’s status on the list was driven largely by the declining income of residents, population loss, and a loss in home prices between 2011 and 2015 of more than 25 percent. Although crime rates have gone down in Frankford, they have not gone down as much as in the rest of the city. Frankford is home to a bustling drug trade and associated gun violence that is frequently in the news and contributes to stigma surrounding the community. “A number of drug sellers I’ve interviewed in other areas of the city say that this neighborhood is one of the last places in the city to make a decent living selling drugs,” said Fader. “The Frankford Terminal makes for convenient access to the community by outsiders looking for sex or drugs, and the physical presence and noise of the El tracks makes illegal transactions less visible to the police.”
The community is served by the 15th Police District, which is the busiest in the city. Residents who come to community meetings with the police share stories of direct intimidation, threats, and violence by drug sellers. As drug violence has intensified, many longstanding residents have left the community, but others remain because they cannot leave or are unwilling to cede the neighborhood to bad elements. One resident told Fader, “I feel like I’m living Escape from New York,” a film about a dystopian future where New York City has been turned into a maximum security prison and the inmates run the island. Abandoned buildings make for good drug stash houses or residences for house squatters who often live without heat or hot water, Fader explained. Absentee landlords who are registered in Florida and New York are unresponsive to neighbors’ complaints and fines from the city’s licenses and inspections office. Creative criminals scour obituaries in the newspaper, identify unoccupied houses, break in and replace existing locks, and attempt to illegally hook houses up to water and gas, after which they sublet the house to others.
Much of the housing stock is too large for single families, and these structures now house dozens of regulated and unregulated halfway houses and treatment houses. These are interspersed with single-family homes, which has led to a debate among the residents about their having to absorb a disproportionate share of the city’s service needs and about the relationship that these houses might have to criminal activity. The community, which used to be home to factories and a busy armory, lacks zoning, which also allows for drug treatment clinics to operate there. At one residential intersection, residents often see 30 or more people lined up outside a Suboxone treatment clinic. Children must pass the adults in this line every day to go to school, and at the end of the day, cigarette butts and plastic soda bottles lie in the gutters.
The individuals who attend civic association and other community meetings are likely to be far more engaged in the community than the average resident. These individuals, who have made up a fairly stable group during the 4 years of Fader’s study, play a critical role in framing the community’s strengths and challenges. They have established a consensus of what problems should be addressed and how, and they communicate these messages to powerful stakeholders such as city councilors, state representatives, police captains, community liaisons, and representatives of city offices.
Crime is a major topic of conversation at neighborhood meetings, but the sentiment directed toward drug dealers and those engaged in quality-of-life offenses is very different, Fader said. Drug dealers are framed as outsiders and as being responsible for gun violence and preventing safe passage of children in public spaces. Residents call for better police
response and harsh punishments for drug traffickers, including prison sentences and property seizures.
By contrast, residents offer members of several groups that are criminalized in other jurisdictions—including the homeless, sex workers, and individuals battling addictions—insider status regardless of how long they have lived in the community. Residents and local leaders actively seek to protect them from the criminal justice system, framing them instead as victims and working to address their problems through local outreach efforts. Returning citizens are also viewed as worthy of protection as long as they are not a visible part of the drug-dealing scene and especially when they present with needs related to housing, food, or addictions. The driving ethos surrounding these individuals comes from faith traditions, Fader observed, although no one church or denomination dominates this discourse. Instead, because local service agencies are shuttered, faith-based organizations are seen as needing to work together to meet the great level of need that exists.
Many lay community residents who are active at meetings are also active in local food banks and hot meal programs inside churches. Meeting the needs of the community is generally viewed as the responsibility of community members, not necessarily public agencies.
Fader noted that residents and government agents are often at odds about how to address public order offenses. Police and prosecutors generally accept the “broken windows” philosophy and make the case that low-level offenses lead to more serious crimes and violence, she said. Residents, by contrast, seek to protect sex workers, the homeless, and those with addictions from exposure to the criminal justice system. For example, when the Frankford Gazette reported on a homeless man sleeping in a car, residents were more concerned about him than frightened.
Solutions posed by residents for these problems generally favor public health outreach efforts rather than more enforcement. For example, the office assistant at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church announced one morning that a new person was sleeping on the church’s steps. Instead of viewing this person as contributing to visible signs of disorder, the staff and leadership at the church saw him as presenting an opportunity to get another person into residential treatment. When individuals at community meetings have called for harsh treatment of people who commit public order offenses, Fader has witnessed subtle signs of disagreement, such as head shaking and quiet statements that locking people up does not work. A small but active group of long-term residents has worked tirelessly to weave together a patchwork of outreach efforts. The faith community has also taken on a disproportionate burden of dealing with reentry-related needs.
A concern that long-term residents have expressed is that younger residents are not getting involved in such activities. They worry that the
civic associations and other organizations will not be able to carry on their work without a fresh crop of recruits. Residents are also concerned when news outlets report that crimes occurred in Frankford when they actually occurred in other neighborhoods.
Fader’s research is still under way and is based in a single community, so she cautioned about drawing policy implications from her findings. But she argued that because reentry is spatially concentrated in a handful of communities, resources should be distributed to the communities that absorb a disproportionate share of returning citizens. She also suggested, based on her observations in Frankford, that the city invest its resources in already existing programs rather than developing new programs in the community. “There’s already a web of support in place through the faith community in Frankford that could be greatly enhanced through additional funds,” she said. Fader explained:
Since the city is engaged in a number of initiatives designed to reduce reliance on jails and prisons, the savings from these efforts could be productively reinvested into communities. This would lead to further savings by reducing the criminogenic nature of high reentry neighborhoods and slowing the revolving door of incarceration and reentry.
In addition, such investments could improve the neighborhood’s reputation, slow the loss of taxpaying residents and businesses, and create local jobs.
Fader suggested that police in these communities reduce their focus on arresting individuals engaged in quality-of-life offenses when residents support using a public health approach instead:
The residents of Frankford rightly view police as a scarce and invaluable resource needed to address drug sales and gun violence. They’re willing to work in tandem with police to provide intelligence about drug operations. At least in this community, they are not supportive of incarcerating individuals who are homeless, hungry, exploited, or suffering from addictions.
Finally, she noted that high reentry communities are characterized by a lack of social ties, which are an important source of information on employment opportunities and create venues for residents to control crime in their own communities. Community-based organizations can help build these ties, but these organizations need continued support to do so, including the support provided by younger people in the community.
Families serve important support functions for people coming out of correctional facilities, observed Johnna Christian, associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. They play a role in employment, housing, medical care, and, more generally, the meaningful reintegration of a releasee into a family and community. Family relationships are not always protective and positive, Christian acknowledged. Family relationships can be messy, complicated, and shifting, supportive some of the time but not at other times. Nevertheless, with family, people know who they are and who they belong to. “There’s a sense of someone claiming you.”
In criminal justice, the focus of reentry is often on recidivism, on whether a person has been rearrested or reincarcerated. But this is a “narrow way to think of a successful life, a happy life, a good life,” said Christian. “Reintegration looks at how people leave incarceration and come back to a family, to a neighborhood, to a community, to a job that doesn’t just pay the bills but gives them some sense of satisfaction, of meaning.”
Family is especially important in what Christian called the process of “desistance” from crime, which requires people to form a new identity and a new sense of who they are. Rather than looking at themselves with a stigmatized label—“I’m a criminal”—they say, “I’m a dad, I’m a brother.”
Families also generate social capital and buffer material hardship. When someone reenters a community, that person needs a place to stay, transportation, and social support. Someone may have been separated from their families for 10 or 15 years, which usually requires a long process of reintegration into that family. In addition, informal connections can be critical in employment, as when people find out about job leads from family members or friends.
Christian has been involved in a study of African American males ages 22 to 55 who are reentering communities in a northeastern city. Their incarceration ranged from 2 months to 15 years. Of 21 with whom she had conducted in-depth interviews before the workshop, 62 percent had been released for less than 1 year, and 38 percent had been released for more than 1 year.
She identified three categories of familial support:
- Support available, offered, and accepted;
- Navigating support options; and
- Limited support options.
The first context she described is one in which support is readily provided. Support is a resource that requires time, connections, money, and other things people need. Because of the disproportionate involvement of racial and ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, a large burden for support falls on women of color. For many families, the needs of a formerly incarcerated person may require the last reserves they have.
She quoted one man in this context who was incarcerated for 2 years and had been released for 3.5 months:
I feel as though she, she been asked me to move with her since I was incarcerated. She said she help me with a lot of things. Help me find a job, help me get on my feet. At first I ain’t want to when I first got out, and I feel as though I could do everything on my own, that I ain’t need no help with some things, like, and then I feel as though I was surrounding myself with the same people when I first came out so I just feel as though I needed to get away.
The support system for this man was fairly robust, Christian said. His aunt and his mother had been strongly connected to him during his incarceration. Once he was released, his aunt helped him construct a plan for where he could go and how he could find a job. At first, he was reluctant to accept her help, which is common for adult men who do not want to depend on others. Nevertheless, he appreciated that she offered support rather than him having to ask for support.
As an example of navigating support options, Christian quoted a man who was incarcerated for 7.5 years and had been released for 2 weeks:
I’m staying here and I staying there. I’m not stable right now. I’m staying at a friend’s house, sister, relative houses, like that. I’m back and forth. It’s only been 2 weeks, so they ain’t tired of me yet. Once you get 30 days, 60 days, they like, “Oh, you ain’t find a job yet?” You know how it go.
He had been cobbling together options for support and had been careful not to overstay his welcome. Another thing he told Christian is that “You can’t keep feeding a grown man for free.” He recognized that staying with others was a short-term remedy, and he had some belongings at a friend’s house and other belongings at his brother’s house. This is an example of agency and resiliency, in that he had found a way to navigate a precarious situation. But his situation is troubling, in that people were expecting him to have a job within 30 to 60 days after spending 7.5 years in prison. “These are very unrealistic expectations, but nonetheless they’re there,” she said.
Her final example was of limited support options. She quoted a man who had been incarcerated for 10 months and released for 4 months:
I never really had a strong network, you know. My family’s there, but they’re all trying to make a way for themselves. I don’t want to put a
strain on her [his sister] with that relationship. We have a pretty good relationship, and I think I can do things on my own, but you know, unfortunately it means I have to go through the system. I have to, you know, work my way up.
This man had minimal support from his family, which is a common reality for people whose family ties have disintegrated over time or were not there originally. In such cases, individuals may need to define family more broadly, turning to nonprofit organizations or other social support systems. At the time Christian interviewed him, this man was 23 and living in a homeless shelter. He had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, grew up in the foster care system, was on probationary supervision, and had a sister who lived in another state. “It’s troubling to imagine where he might end up with this type of limited to no family support.”
Christian emphasized that familial relationships are both complex and dynamic. Expectations of reciprocity are important, where releasees are dependent on someone else who may not be able to reciprocate. Recidivism is also a factor, because more than 80 percent of people released from state prisons are rearrested within 9 years of their release. That may reflect surveillance of their activities rather than their criminality, she said, but continued involvement with the criminal justice systems is common.
Christian concluded by pointing to several planned future directions for her research. She said that she intended to examine distinctions in context by relationship type, noting particularly that romantic relationships fall into a unique category. She planned to capture family perspectives and experiences, including the implications for support networks. And she intended to explore how systems can offer support without unduly increasing surveillance and control of families who are already deeply embedded in systems that do not always have their best interests in mind.
MAINTAINING A COMMUNITY CONTEXT
Clinton Lacey, director of the District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, took a broad perspective on issues of reentry based on the positions he has had during his career. Given the political retrenchment taking place when the workshop was held, “It’s a scary time,” he said, but it is also “a time of great opportunity for us to continue to do what we do, for researchers to do their work, for activists to do their work, for practitioners, for all of us to play a role.”
In the 1990s, Lacey worked with teenagers coming out of Rikers Island, and since then he has continued to work as a practitioner in direct service and as a policy advocate. He called attention to a study done in New York State revealing that seven neighborhoods in New York City
were responsible for nearly all of the incarcerated individuals in Rikers Island. Furthermore, more than three-quarters of everyone in the New York State prison system came from those neighborhoods and from a few other outlying areas. What these communities had in common, Lacey pointed out, were poverty, failing schools, inadequate health care, inadequate housing, and bad relationships between police and the members of the community.
At that time, Lacy and his colleagues were serving several hundred teenagers per year from those neighborhoods.
I remember one individual—and I speak of him because he represents thousands—a young man named Alex. A Puerto Rican young man who was literate in English and in Spanish, he slept on the couch in his mother’s apartment where his sister and her two kids also lived. He had never had a job, or the only job he had had was a lookout at a crack spot. And during that work he had gotten shot in the leg [but] never received proper medical attention.
Shortly thereafter he was arrested and went to Rikers Island, where I met him. He had some pretty serious emotional triggers. When he came home, he had all these issues I just talked about. He had housing issues, he had health care issues, he had behavioral health care issues, educational issues, he was on probation. He had all these things that he was confronting…. Most of all, he was marginalized in his own community, with not great prospects of a different future for himself.
Thousands of others have similar stories, not just in New York City but across the United States, said Lacey. Later, he worked at the W. Haywood Burns Institute for Justice, Fairness, and Equity, which addresses racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. He traveled around the country and saw the same story playing out:
Wherever we want to talk about, you can pinpoint the neighborhoods, you can map it out. And when you map out the neighborhoods where people are involved with the justice system, you see the laundry list of issues that we all know exist.
The lesson Lacey took from those experiences is the need to maintain a community context. Change needs to occur “through a community lens, with community people at the table and forming the conversation.” He drew the same conclusion in his next position, as deputy commissioner of probation at New York’s City Department of Probation. He became involved in a major initiative of justice reinvestment, and again the community context was paramount. “How can we help or get justice systems to reinvest their dollars and resources from incarceration and other justice system apparatus and put resources back into communities?” Particularly eye opening was an effort to map the “million-dollar blocks” in New York City, where millions of dollars are being spent to incarcerate mostly
black men, many for nonviolent drug offenses, “to the great destruction of already struggling communities and families.” While the Department of Probation did not have money for justice reinvestment, it worked with community-based organizations to create the Neighborhood Opportunity Network.1 “The city got millions of dollars, and we started to do what is the biggest point I want to make today: we invested in the capacity of the communities that were being impacted.” The idea has been to invest in families, returning citizens, people under supervision, and people in the community. He explained:
We had a fundamental belief that the answer was in the community, that the answer didn’t reside inside of probation, that it didn’t reside inside of the Department of Correction, that it didn’t reside in the justice system. The answers were in the communities that were often blamed as the source of the pathology in the first place.
An example of the success of this approach is an initiative called Arches, which is a transformative mentoring initiative done in partnership with nonprofit organizations.2 “Credible messengers,” mainly people who were formerly incarcerated, were hired to be mentors, life coaches, and sponsors of people ages 16 to 24 who are on probation. According to research done by the Urban Institute, the young people who participated in the project experienced a 59 percent reduction in recidivism. In addition, the program built the capacity of people living in the community, “people who were going to be there after we’re gone,” said Lacey. This approach gives communities the expertise, resources, and support to do restorative justice work.
During his 3.5 years with the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Lacey has extended the same approach not just to young people but to their families and others with whom they live and interact upon reentry. In Washington, DC, the credible messengers have become case managers who are responsible for the community supervision of youth, with funding coming from money that would have been spent on expensive residential placements. They are full-time employees with a living wage salary and full benefits, with funding from a nonprofit organization. “They now have a voice at the table and are developing the case plan and supporting the young person,” Lacey observed, adding:
They’re the eyes and ears and support after 5:00 o’clock or at 3:00 in the morning. They have a say in our policies. I don’t want to romanticize it. This has been a struggle. There’s been pushback [from those who say]
2 More information about Arches is available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/prob/html/community/arches.shtml (accessed January 11, 2019).
“You’re bringing in felons to tell us how we’re supposed to serve these delinquents.” … But we’re pushing it, and it’s growing.
A next step, he said, would be to go into prisons and help create credible messengers who are still in prison, creating “a new vision for transitioning.”
Lacey explained that this approach can take different forms in different communities, where credible messengers might be known as “cultural brokers” or “wounded healers,” adding that it also bears risks, in that credible messengers can become an exploited group of people. They need support and perhaps credentialing, so that they are not the last people hired in an organization and the most dispensable. “For many of them, this is their first real full-time job. They’re struggling with a bunch of stuff—we all have our struggles—but they have some really heavy struggles.” What they bring to the table must be supported, not just glamorized, he said.
Lacey also cautioned that much of the reinvestment from prison has been going to probation and police forces, not to the million-dollar blocks. “There’s an alternative. We know what the answers are and what can be done for fewer dollars in a better and healthier way.”
The idea that arresting and locking up criminals will make people safer is not true, Lacey said, explaining:
I would argue that the current paradigm of justice and incarceration has done more harm than good. We know that the punishment model is a failed model. We know that putting people in cages does harm to them, their families, and their communities. We know that mass incarceration via the war on drugs has been a disaster [and] a destructive experience for the communities that we’ve talked about today.
Lacey called for a reexamination of the impact of incarceration. Recidivism cannot be the only measure of whether the system is working, he said. He offered:
We need to shift the conversation to what heals people, what restores people, what empowers people to have options, to make other choices, to be positive parts of the community…. Ultimately, we need to re-imagine what justice is and what a justice system can be. We need to suspend reality and imagine something different, something healthy, something caring, something—I’ll use an unscientific term: “loving.” We need to imagine what love can look like in policy and how that can translate into practices and policies.
In response to a question about appropriate responses for people in different age groups, Lacy pointed out that children are clearly different than adults, but there is a period between about 16 and 24 where the distinctions are not so clear. “We draw this line, and we’re willing to be
humane and compassionate with children. But once you’re an adult, all bets are off.” He recommended carving out a new space for people in this intermediate stage, a “third place or a new zone for this group of developing human beings.” In Washington, DC, for example, the director of corrections has created an 18- to 24-year-old unit. “He’s allowing people to do a different type of programming that’s age appropriate.”
Also in the question-and-answer period, Christian pointed to the irony that the criminal justice system erects barriers against forming relationships like those with credible messengers, such as parole requirements against associating with other people with a felony conviction, even if that means someone within one’s own family. “The system can hinder these types of informal relationships that could help people in the desistance process,” she said.
CHANGING COMMUNITY ATTITUDES
In a response to a question about how to change people’s attitudes about incarceration to be more about healing than punishment, Fader said that she draws on her experience as a professor who deals with students whose attitudes are still malleable. In response to what she characterized as a “righteous, lock-them-up mentality,” she tries to lay out the evidence and reason through issues of costs and effects. She said:
Are we reducing crime, are we making communities safer by locking people up? There’s [plentiful] evidence showing that we’re not safer because we lock people up, and most of the people who we do lock up end up coming home. We have to start asking: Who do you want to be your neighbor? Do you want somebody who’s been stripped of everything for years coming back? Or do you want somebody who’s ready to become a law-abiding, taxpaying citizen?
The same approach can work with politicians, she added. “They can often be cajoled with evidence, especially around cost.”
Lacey agreed that using data and research to make the case is important. Leaders and systems also need to be held accountable. No other industry gets rewarded for failure like the justice system does, he said. Mass mobilization is one answer. “We’ve got to organize numbers of people to vote and organize to call attention to this issue on a level that it hasn’t reached before.”
Christian noted that jails are addressing problems that are not criminal justice problems. They are problems of inequality and racism. Trauma starts in utero, but “it’s much easier to cycle people in and out of jail than to develop preventive programs that address maternal health and well-being.”
Fader made the same point:
Why is the criminal justice system responsible for dealing with mental health problems? Why are we using the justice system to deal with addiction problems? Because those systems have contracted, the safety net has eroded, and the criminal justice system has been there to take responsibility for those individuals.
But the criminal justice system is the “least best system I can think of to help in any of those regards,” she noted. Yet, it is the one system people have been willing to invest in, so it has become a catch-all for the problems caused by society’s underinvestment in people.