"America is the land of the second chance - and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."
- George W. Bush
Prisoners receive their sentences and recede to a place far out-of-sight and out-of-mind for most citizens until their release. The controversial concept of prisoner rehabilitation concerns the ability of the correctional system and other rehabilitative agencies to effectively reintroduce a past offender as a law-abiding, productive member of society. Tennessee released 14,735 prisoners in 2010 in need of a source of income and aid in developing a stable, sustainable lifestyle. Our state’s effort to prevent recidivism, or the relapse of an individual into criminal activity that prompts their return to prison, consists of programs designed to provide past offenders the guidance, training, and opportunities necessary to lower their chances of reoffending.
History has seen a wide variety of perspectives concerning the effectiveness of prisoner rehabilitation and what forms it ought to take. It was not until the 1960s that the rights of offenders were recognized, and improvements in rehabilitation became a priority. The repeal of the Hands-Off Doctrine, which had directed federal and state courts to refuse the appeals of prisoners, demonstrated the beginning of the recognition of the rights of prisoners and marked a monumental shift in confidence in the concept of rehabilitation. More recently, the Second Chance Act of 2007 solidified this shift in perspective from desiring stern punishment to seeking more effective means of rehabilitation. Signed into law by President George W. Bush, the Second Chance Act aims to provide funding aid to programs helping prisoners overcome the numerous barriers the reentry process presents.
Prisoners face many obstacles upon their release that may challenge their will to remain free. Easy access to criminal records for employers facilitates discrimination towards offenders seeking gainful employment, making it extremely difficult for offenders to find work. In addition, several state and federal statutes prohibit employing offenders in certain fields. Difficulty finding employment upon release compounds reentry issues, just as a lack of financial resources limits housing opportunities and access to proper nutrition. Moreover, legal barriers to finding affordable housing and food exist. Certain convictions prevent offenders from receiving federal housing assistance or obtaining federally subsidized housing; similarly, some types of past criminal activity exclude offenders from eligibility for food stamps and other public health benefits. All of these factors combine to slow the progress of a rehabilitating offender and sometimes drive him or her back to the habits that originally led to their criminal activity.
Federal and state prisons work to rehabilitate prisoners prior to their release with various programs that facilitate reentry. Federal prisons offer job training and educational programs designed to teach valuable, applicable skills to past offenders and make them more appealing to potential employers. In addition, federal penitentiaries offer drug treatment programs that help those suffering from addiction recover from their dependence and become drug-free. Being “clean” not only allows past offenders to obtain employment after their release, but also makes them eligible for public food and health programs that deny participation based upon illicit drug use.
State prisons offer these programs as well as other more innovative initiatives. In Tennessee, initiatives like PPAWS and The Good Samaritan Network offer a different approach to rehabilitation that works in tandem with the standard programs. PPAWS connects pairs of prisoners with young dogs from local shelters; the inmates house train, crate train, and teach basic manners to the animals. The responsibility of caring for a dog for six weeks while it awaits adoption teaches valuable skills in responsibility that will be applicable upon reentry into the workforce. The Good Samaritan Network, a joint effort between AmeriCorps VISTA and the Tennessee Department of Corrections, pairs inmates nearing their release date with mentors living in the community in which they will reside. The mentors not only provide insight on career opportunities, transportation, education, and other vital information, but also serve as a friend to the past offender during a difficult transition. Coupling these rehabilitative programs that prepare the prisoner prior to release with those programs that aid with difficulties experienced after release arguably provides the best defense to recidivism.
Numerous nonprofit, for-profit, and government agencies work to aid prisoners in the transition from prison back to society. Nationally, groups like the Lionheart Foundation and the Salvation Army support prisoners during their incarceration and assist past offenders in obtaining gainful employment and other necessities. The Lionheart Foundation’s emotional literacy program, "Houses of Healing", aims to help prisoners take responsibility for their criminal actions, recognize and correct their negative tendencies, and develop productive habits that will carry over to their lives after their release. The Salvation Army manages rehabilitation centers that often act as halfway houses for recent parolees. These centers provide faith-based services, career skills instruction, job opportunities, and material aid to past offenders in order to facilitate their challenging transition back into society.
In Middle Tennessee, several local nonprofits labor tirelessly to provide rehabilitative services that alleviate the burden of reentry for former offenders and lower their chances of recidivating. The Tennessee Offender Reentry Resource website lists numerous organizations that provide job skills training, substance abuse treatment, legal help, transportation assistance, material aid, and various other services. Many of these organizations have seen tremendous success in lowering recidivism among their clients. For example, Project Return, Inc., which focuses on services that help the past offender achieve self-reliance, has a 14% recidivism rate amongst its clients compared to the state average of 39% and the national average of 52%. Programs like Project Return, Inc. and the numerous other organizations that work with past offenders in our communities help keep the Tennessee recidivism rates well below the national average. A lower recidivism rate not only results in more productive citizens in our community and less crime, but also lessens the burden of incarceration costs on taxpayers; currently, it costs over $500,000 per day to house Tennessee’s inmates.
- Donate to or volunteer with local nonprofits addressing the issues of prisoner rehabilitation or training. On the GivingMatters.com Learn page, click "View Organizations" or "Category Search" to find out more about organizations working to address these issues.
- Donate toiletries and personal hygiene products, or gently used business suits or shoes for job interviews, to local nonprofit agencies serving formerly incarcerated clients.
- Provide job coaching or skills training to ex-offenders interested in pursuing a career in your field, or volunteer your time teaching interviewing and networking skills.
- Consider supporting a local business that actively coaches, mentors, and employs ex-offenders.
- Advocate for increased prisoner rehabilitation efforts over harsher punishments.
VERA Institute of Justice
The Pew Charitable Trusts: State of Recidivism Report
U.S. Department of Justice
Tennessee Reentry Collaborative
Tennessee Department of Correction, Prison Puppies Achieving Worthy Service (PPAWS) Program
The Salvation Army
Tennessee Offender Re-Entry Resource Online