By any standards, folks who are re-entering their communities after incarceration do not have an easy time integrating back into their neighborhoods. The extraordinary difficulties include internal baggage they carry from the experience of prison, family and social disruption, absence of opportunities in the community, and reputations (with themselves and others) as criminals and outsiders. They ordinarily get no reliable help sorting out their lives and making decisions about what to do about overwhelming adjustment and survival demands. They are stereotyped by the media and made invisible by the larger establishment social structure (us), becoming abstract numbers or bad people in some other neighborhood.
Close up contact with people going through this experience indicates the re-entry population is largely made up of individuals who want very much to be successful as workers and family members and citizens, who are very resilient and creative in managing their lives, and who are up against incredible odds every day. Without immediate family, church, or organizational support they can easily become homeless and isolated, without work or other source of income, and without hope. As we know, African Americans and other people of color are vastly overrepresented in this population, and with criminal backgrounds have extreme barriers to achieving such essentials as housing and work, at the outset. (See Michelle Alexander's report, The New Jim Crow*)
Reentry for individuals is an internal, interpersonal, cultural, and social transition from a highly controlled, predictable, and dangerous world in which compliance is paramount, to a highly unpredictable, confusing, also dangerous world in which expectations are subtle and conflicting. Immediate housing is essential to a successful reentry experience (as are work, family stability, and help sorting out the experience). Many of the individuals don't have immediate family or transitional living arrangements available, so public housing is the "safety net" option. The admission policies of the Chicago Housing Authority can only be described as draconian, when viewed from the perspective of the re-entering individual. Local policies have been developed, perhaps not intentionally, that are far more rigid and extensive than those federally mandated. CHA rules currently indicate that applicants to public housing or vouchers will be denied if they or a household member has engaged in any drug-related or violent criminal activity during five years prior to application. This is a much broader sweep, and open to wide interpretation. Further, dialogues reported between applicants and CHA officials suggest there is a great deal of interpretation, no transparency, and no monitoring of how applicants are responded to. Often, according to many stories of attempts to access public housing and individual legal challenges, the “five year period” is interpreted as applying to dates of any arrests, dates of incarceration, or dates of any involvement with the criminal justice system, including post-incarceration probation. The policy effectively bars any applicant who has been involved with the justice system during the past five years. A vast literature on re-entry, focusing on recidivism, consistently shows that the most vulnerable period for individuals released from jail or prison, and the highest rate of recidivism, is within the first two years after release. CHA applicants in this population are those with fewest resources or support systems. The CHA policy ensures that this population, most in need of stable housing immediately on release from prison, will not be able to successfully apply.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Reentry Committee has developed proposed policies that would potentially reduce some of the barriers that currently exist:
1. Applicants will be denied only if there is proof of conviction of a drug-related or violent criminal act during the twelve (12) months prior to application
2. The date a proven criminal act occurred is used as the start date for the 12 month period; arrest records can not be used as proof; no denial is allowed for any offenses that occurred prior to the 12 month period; and establishment of an advisory committee to review applications
3. Applicants should be notified formally of a denial based on criminal record, and have the opportunity for a mitigation hearing within 30 days of the denial
Taking into account the vast numbers of individuals returning from prison to the Chicago communities that they left each year, and the importance of achieving stability within the first year or two for reducing recidivism, we should take a serious look at the current policies and consider the recommended changes. We will all benefit from a more stable and productive reentry population.
*Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press