The U.S. leads the world in the total number of incarcerations, imprisoning Americans at a rate of 629 people per every 100,000. And even though the current rate is the lowest in 20 years, the U.S. in 2022 had more than two million people in prison, according to World Population Review. And that number “is equivalent to roughly 25% of the world’s total prison population.”
Social workers are helping these men and women while they are incarcerated. And they are instrumental in helping them prepare for release — and success — as they leave prison.
Right Help, Right Time
A March 2016 study from the United States Sentencing Commission, which surveyed people who in 2005 were either released from federal prison or placed on probation, found those released had a rearrest rate of 52.5%, while people released directly to a probationary sentence had a lower rearrest rate, of 35.1%.
In April of 2020, Pastor Tony Lowden, then executive director of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry, spoke to a virtual meeting of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.
He began by stressing the importance of beginning helpful efforts right away so people don’t end up returning to prison.
“When we find a way to make sure that from Day 1 they enter into our programs, we have a game plan to get them to change their behavior and their culture, as well as put together what I call a GPS Plan — a transition accountability plan — where that individual, the moment they get ready to go home, they are prepared to go home,” Lowden said.
His recommendations include turning a prison “into an evidenced-based program facility” where all inmates complete the program and lessen the risk they will end up back in incarceration.
Lowden suggested that could include having charter schools inside prison facilities so prisoners can leave with a high school diploma; having professionals help with behavior and family reunification; and “bringing in companies and employees who can hire these returning citizens the moment they get out.”
Basic essentials should be set up so when a person is released from prison he or she knows where they are going to live and work, who they can contact to get the process started for SSI and medical benefits, and who they can contact for their emotional needs and support services, said Anna Scheyett, PhD, MSW, LCSW, a professor at and former dean of the University of Georgia School of Social Work at the Athens campus, where she also is extension specialist in the Department of Agriculture.
“The more pieces put into place beforehand, the better it will turn out,” she said. “They need the ability to think beyond ‘the day I get out of here.’”
Also important is communicating with the person’s family beforehand, because what happens may not be like “their expectation that everything will be great,” Scheyett said. “It may not be like that. It often takes time, it takes effort, it takes enough social workers to do it — and enough social workers in prisons so we can help prepare and have a good handoff.”
Having a criminal record can bring numerous challenges, like with finding a place to live, and that’s something that can put people at risk of recidivism, she said. Some other prior activities like drug use also can bring that risk, “and if people start using the same amounts, they could end up overdosing.”
Another risk of recidivism is if the person has challenges with personal relationships after release, relationships that were friendly or solid before they were incarcerated.
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