Family support alone not enough for reentry from prison

Broader set of supports crucial to post-incarceration success



In a recent speech about criminal justice reform, Georgia politician Stacey Abrams said something that those of us who work with people making the transition from incarceration back to society have long known, but don’t often say out loud: “Family isn’t enough.”

When it comes to building a life after incarceration, family support is incredibly important. But it is rarely enough to ensure success. Abrams, who came to national prominence after she narrowly lost a bid to become governor of Georgia in 2018, knows this first hand.

Abrams’s mother was a librarian and her father worked in a shipyard. Both were Methodist ministers. They raised their six children on the dictum that if they studied, attended church, and took care of each other they would be successful in life. That advice worked for Abrams and four of her siblings who went on to become a professor; US District Court judge; biologist; and social worker. But it failed Abrams’s fifth sibling, who enrolled in Morehouse College after high school, but dropped out just one semester shy of graduation.

In her speech, given at the annual fundraising breakfast for the Osborne Association, a New York-based national nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, Abrams shared her younger brother Walter’s story. Although he was an excellent student, he was often in trouble at school. By the time he was a senior in college, he was addicted to alcohol and drugs. His behavior eventually landed him in prison, where he served a 12-month sentence. While there, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He received health care treatment that stabilized his illness and he achieved sobriety for the first time in his adult life. But after his release from prison, despite his desire to work and stay sober, Walter stumbled. A parole violation led to another stint in prison, and Abrams said she doesn’t know if he will be able to stay out of prison.

“It’s not just the medication. It’s the stability that allows you to remember to take it. It’s the support that says that when you get fired from your job when they finally do a background check and realize you were in jail and they tell you, ‘I’m sorry we can’t retain you.’ It’s someone other than your family to say, ‘We love you and we will help you,’” Abrams said. “Despite the fact that he has five brothers and sisters who would give anything for him, parents who will stand with him, a child who loves him, we are not enough to solve Walter’s problems … because he does not have the support system. We try. We love him. We offer. But we’re family, and family isn’t enough. You need organizations, you need government that sees the humanity and the potential in every person.”

This is what we see as well. Project Place has been working with people transitioning out of incarceration for 15 years, and there is no question that a supportive family is important but formal support services are vital. These services include work readiness programs, job experience through social enterprises like Working Opportunities for Women and Clean Corners…Bright Hopes, and comprehensive post-incarceration career planning that begins when a person is still behind bars.

Four years ago, Joli Sparkman was a student in our post-prison work readiness program. Today she is a social worker for Bethany House Ministries, which provides support to prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. After accepting responsibility for their behavior and learning healthier ways of coping, someone who is building a life after being incarcerated can do anything, according to Sparkman. But they need a place to live, a job, and support from people willing “to take a chance on them.”

Sparkman’s observations track with the statistics. Support services for those newly released from prison result in much lower rates of recidivism. In 2011, a group of criminal justice and health care experts formed the Worcester Initiative for Supportive Reentry (WISR) after the Massachusetts Department of Correction reported that 44 percent of everyone released from prison would be back behind bars within three years. By 2016, rates of recidivism among WISR participants who had been out of prison for at least three years had been cut in half to 21 percent.

WISR begins working with people between 30 and 90 days before they are released from prison. By the time someone is walking out of prison, WISR has created a plan to support them with housing, health care, and employment. A 2017 report on the WISR observed that the most helpful service was to identify where a client was most likely to face difficulty, and connect them with appropriate supports immediately upon release. So 96 percent of WISR program participants were provided with stable housing the day they were released from prison. The remaining four percent received housing the next day. Three out of four participants who were referred for mental health services received them, 93 percent of those referred for substance use treatment accessed services, and 97 percent were enrolled in MassHealth. Most people stayed in the program for nearly two years, with the median length of time being 1.7 years.

Here at Project Place, where we’ve developed an integrated, evidenced-based approach that identifies individual barriers to success and tailors supportive services accordingly, we have a 67 percent job placement rate and a nine percent recidivism rate. The return on investment is impressive. Many of our programs are funded by state and federal taxpayers. It costs approximately $8,000 per year to provide needed services for each re-entry client, while the annual costs of incarceration in the Massachusetts Department of Correction is approximately $53,000 per inmate.

One of the points made by Abrams is that many states in the south, where her brother lives, have next to no advocacy programs like the Osborne Association. That’s not the case in Massachusetts, where there are resources available to people transitioning from prison through community-based organizations like Project Place, Bethany House Ministries, and creative partnerships among nonprofits and government agencies such as WISR.

But we don’t make it easy.

Meet the Author

Suzanne Kenney

Executive Director, Project Place
Sparkman, who is earning her master’s degree in social work from Boston College, called 17 different programs before she found one that would work with her upon her release from prison, as most programs only work with men. So when we think about criminal justice reform and making a productive post-prison life possible, we can feel good that the system is working for people like Sparkman. But it shouldn’t take 17 calls for help before getting a response. It should only take one.

Suzanne Kenney is the executive director of Project Place