For most Americans, prisons are a necessary but almost forgotten institution. Without any interaction with the system, most of us have a vague understanding of how they work, or at least how they’re supposed to. 

In some sense, the justice system seems straightforward: these individuals broke the law and must be punished for them. They forfeit certain rights because of their infraction and then are released when they’ve been properly punished. 

But for those who actually experience the prison system, and their families and loved ones, the reality is slightly different. Often, former inmates find themselves in a world very different from the one they left years before. Without a job, money, or connections, it’s hard to imagine anyone truly succeeding in rebuilding their life. This is why rehabilitation programs before and after release are so important. 

The United States has incredibly high incarceration rates. While 0.7% of the population may not seem very high, this is about 1 out of 150 people. In raw numbers, that’s almost 2.3 million people. And at the same time, many of these individuals are released only to be arrested for another crime and return to the prison system. According to a 2019 report, the recidivism rate for state prisoners was 83% over a nine-year study period, that means that five out of six of released prisoners will be arrested for a new crime. These numbers were lower for federal prisoners who had rates of 39.8% and 64% for nonviolent and violent prisoners, respectively. 

Instead of just locking people away for years, prisons need to provide extensive rehabilitation programs in order to prepare the prisoners to be productive members of society. Unfortunately, these prison rehabilitation programs are often reduced or simply shut down due to inadequate funding

But some prisons continue to have proper programming. Of particular importance is the support after release and some groups, both non-profits and prisons, have programs to support their former inmates in their rebuilding efforts. 

For example, The Lionheart Foundation has a state-by-state listing of re-entry programs, the GEO group, a group that runs many of the private prisons around the country has a program called the Continuum of Care, the Oasis Center in Dallas, Root and Rebound, and more. 

Effective reentry programs help to give former offenders the opportunity to work, providing income and meaning in their lives. Some provide mentorship, housing placement, workforce development, and employment placement among other supportive services. 

While employment is an important part of reentry, further support and educational programming is needed. A promising program, the High-Risk Revocation Reduction (HRRR) Program in Minnesota, provides support in housing, employment, domestic violence prevention, mentoring, transportation assistance, and access to the community hub (which includes programming such as substance abuse, Alcoholics Anonymous, life skills and more). Other programs can be found in a 2018 report from the National Institute of Justice

Part of our justice system should be preparing and helping former convicts reenter society so they can live productive lives and avoid falling into former habits. Their rehabilitation must start while they serve their sentences, giving these Americans something to focus on and work for. By providing practical programs such as vocational training, we make it possible for these individuals to leave prison with marketable skills for good steady jobs. 

One way to help individuals is to reduce unnecessary occupational licenses. Many states have a wide variety of occupations which require licenses. While some occupational licenses are important, such as those for doctors and nurses, others are arbitrary and only serve as barriers to individuals interested in entering specific professions. 

Formerly incarcerated individuals often face even more barriers to work due to their records as some licenses require “good character” standings as well, despite not having any need for such requirements to protect public health and safety. IWF has been telling the stories of many such individuals with our Chasing Work campaign. 

Americans need to support these individuals who are trying to rebuild their lives. The prison population shouldn’t be a forgotten portion of American life. We need to ensure that prisoners are given the proper training and opportunities to improve themselves and their prospects upon their release.