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‘Prison After the Prison’: The Questions People Face After Release | FIRSTHAND: Life After Prison

The Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago

‘Prison After the Prison’: The Questions People Face After Release

Photo: Michael Izquierdo, WTTW News

You’ve served your prison sentence – now what?

That’s the dilemma facing the thousands of people in Illinois reentering their communities after a period of incarceration each year.

“They’re systematically excluded from full participation in society,” said Lee Ragsdale, director of the Reentry Guide Initiative for the Education Justice Project (EJP) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “A lot of people call it a permanent punishment, a felony conviction; it’s something that’s going to follow you around for the rest of your life.”

The organization publishes guides and runs a website to help formerly imprisoned people resume their lives equipped with answers to the big and small questions they are likely to face.

The preparations for returning to society can be daunting, fraught with difficulties ranging from seemingly simple tasks, such as collecting personal documents, to finding transportation, a job, and even a place to live.

Willette Benford, the City of Chicago’s director of re-entry, calls these challenges a “prison after the prison.”

“Why, if someone has served their time, can’t they get housing?” she asks. “Why can’t they get a job with a livable wage? Why can’t they get comprehensive health care? Why not? If we are a nation committed to second chances, or even a fair chance, why are we relegating people to a second-class state and then penalizing them for not being able to succeed?”

Despite these problems, Benford, who has served time in prison herself, believes the conversation surrounding reentering residents is moving in a positive direction. Whereas in the past, people may have been left to fend for themselves, now there are public and private resources aimed at easing the transition back into the community.

And that’s being done by elevating the voices of people who have lived those challenges, she says.

“If we’re creating policy about us, without us, then we’re doing a disservice,” Benford said. “That conversation can keep going because we can tell you about the barriers that are faced, the permanent punishments that are in place, and how we can overcome them.”

Preparations for a post-prison life can and should begin well before a person’s release date, advocates and officials say. Once a person is released, they are met with immediate questions that need answers and some long-term decisions that will need to be made.

Below is a list of the questions people building a life after incarceration will face:

What preparations can be made ahead of time?

Even before getting out of prison, there are steps people can take to prepare for reentering society. One of those is beginning the process to acquire important documents, such as a birth certificate, Social Security card, and state ID that will be necessary when seeking housing or a job.

The EJP, which publishes an annual reentry roadmap for people getting out of prison, suggests beginning that process up to a year before a scheduled release date.

They also suggest writing out a resume that includes any schooling, classes, or certificates received while in prison.

What is the actual process of release?

In Chicago, Benford said people leaving prison are dropped off at Union Station with a few dollars and a laundry list of tasks that must be completed.

Those responsibilities might include reporting to your parole officer, signing up for anger management classes, or enrolling in a drug treatment program.

“But what is not provided is what you need or how you can be successful upon reentry,” she said.

According to Benford, Chicago is working on creating a 211 hotline that will allow people leaving prison to chat live with someone about available resources.

But even knowing what steps you need to take might not be enough, she said.

“All of these things that you have to do in order to reenter, and you’re reentering without anything,” Benford said. “Some people may have support from family or things like that, but what about the many who do not? That is a recipe for disaster.”

How can you find housing?

For those who can’t move in with family or friends upon release, the EJP suggests finding a halfway house or transitional housing, some of which may allow people to live there for months or even years.

They recommend asking the housing leaders specific questions before moving in, including the cost, length of stay, programs or services offered, and who is actually able to live there.

“Formerly incarcerated people are the only group of people who it’s still socially acceptable to discriminate against,” Ragsdale said. “So when we talk about not having access to housing, there are people who are banned from living in public housing because of the nature of their conviction.”

According to Ragsdale, there are also numerous people who are left in prison past their release dates because there isn’t enough available housing for them.

Pablo Mendoza, an EJP advisory committee member and who spent more than 20 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections, called the housing search a “highly difficult” process. To start, he said people leaving prison who want to find their own place to live need to have a surplus of money – possibly several hundred dollars – just to cover the cost of move-in applications.

While it’s illegal in some places to discriminate against people applying for housing based on a criminal conviction, Mendoza said such a background can often lead to repeated rejections.

Benford, too, said she was denied housing due a criminal conviction in her past. She testified in favor of the Just Housing Amendment, which in 2019 prohibited housing discrimination in Cook County based on a person’s criminal history.

“It made me know that, regardless, even after a law is passed, implementation is key to being able to make sure and ensure that someone isn’t discriminated against based on their background alone,” she said.

According to Benford, Chicago is developing 85 units of permanent supportive housing early in 2023 that will be set aside specifically for residents returning from prison.

What about a job and health care?

The EJP recommends enrolling in Medicaid prior to being released. This can be done online or through the mail, but the process can take a month.

People should also request their medical records from their detention facility and try to schedule physical, dental, and eye exams before leaving prison.

Finding work can be harder. Ragsdale said one person who was released recently had to apply for 85 jobs before he could get an interview.

“There’s such a stigma attached to having been incarcerated that, unfortunately, a lot of employers aren’t willing to give people a chance,” she said.

Mendoza said he was turned down by numerous jobs because he was unable to get a driver’s license upon his release. Other times he’d get through the interview process and be told he would be getting a job offer, only for that offer to be revoked after a background check revealed his incarceration.

“It was a difficult process,” he said.

There are second-chance hiring practices aimed at making it easier for people who’ve been in prison to find employment, and Ragsdale said there are also federal tax benefits available to incentivize companies to hire people getting out of prison.

Benford described the market of eligible workers returning from prison as “untapped potential.” She said it’s discouraging when someone is turned down for a job because of a conviction on their record that’s years old and has nothing to do with the job they’re applying for.

“You begin to criminalize an individual for surviving, for wanting to take care of their family,” she said. “You push individuals into desperate situations, then you criminalize or penalize them for being in that situation.”

Once released, are there specific requirements you must meet to remain out of prison?

Yes, and these can vary widely depending on a person’s specific conviction and type of release.

In Mendoza’s case, he was barred from meeting with certain people and drinking or smoking marijuana. He had to complete mandatory programming, such as anger management classes, and would meet with an officer about once per month.

“There are a lot of restrictions that all get you sent back,” he said.

Ragsdale said there can also be significantly stricter conditions imposed.

Some people have to wear ankle monitors or are confined to house arrest, even after serving their prison sentence.

She also said the most common reason someone on supervised release (formerly known as parole) gets sent back to prison isn’t a new offense, but rather a “technical violation,” such as being late to an appointment or missing work.

“That’s really contributing to the recidivism statistics in the state,” she said.

Can you vote in elections if you’ve been convicted of a crime?

Yes. While those convicted of felonies are not able to vote in Illinois while incarcerated, if you are a legal U.S. citizen and at least 18 years old, your voting rights are restored upon your release from prison, though you must register again.

According to the EJP, people on parole, probation, mandatory supervised release, or electronic monitoring can also vote. However, those who are released on furlough or live in an Illinois Department of Corrections Adult Transition Center are not able to vote.

What other challenges do people face after incarceration?

Beyond reconnecting with family and friends and adjusting to a changing world – Mendoza, for instance, said he had basically never used the internet prior to his incarceration – another major issue is mental health.

Mendoza referred to post-incarceration syndrome, a disorder he said is not yet formally recognized in medical circles but is brought on by the strain people experience while living in prison for significant periods of time.

“When I wake up with shaky hands every morning, it’s because of that trauma,” he said. “There’s nobody talking about that, they’re just talking about, ‘Get back, get up, and go to work.’”

Chicago has existing trauma-informed centers of care for behavioral mental health services, according to Benford, who added that the city is working to add one such center in each of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

Ragsdale said the EJP can refer people to mental health groups, but it’s difficult to know how effective they’ll be. She said there are examples of formerly incarcerated people who have banded together in Chicago to try to talk through these issues on their own.

“People…are suffering from this trauma, creating these groups for themselves,” she said, “and trying to educate themselves about trauma-informed treatment and the effects of trauma.”