Fighting recidivism through education and rehabilitation

Last week, I shared some thoughts about the prison system and the release of felons into society. My main question was simple: what becomes of an individual, released from prison, who cannot work? The article was met with many comments and questions. I’d like to add some statistics and facts to further emphasize that prison, while necessary for offenders, also needs to include education and rehabilitation. But maybe we also need to educate employers and the people in charge of our justice system.

As I previously stated, the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. At year-end 2009, there were 743 adults incarcerated per 100,000 population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics for 2011, there were 2,266,800 adults incarcerated throughout federal, state and county jails.

Additionally, 4,814,200 adults at year-end 2011 were on probation or on parole. In total, 6,977,700 adults were under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2011 – representing about 2.9% of adults in the U.S. resident population. Also in the system were 70,792 youths in juvenile detention in 2010.

Most people believe that if they stay on the “right” side of the justice system, they will never have to experience jail. Yet more and more people are being sentenced to prison terms throughout this country.

The likelihood of going to state or federal prison

The United States Department of Justice has compiled statistics on the likelihood of becoming a prisoner in this country. Frankly, the statistics scare me.

  • If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated one out of every 15 persons (6.6%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.
  • Lifetime chances of a person going to prison are higher for men (11.3%) than for women (1.8%). Likewise, chances are higher for blacks (18.6%) and Hispanics (10%) than for whites (3.4%).
  • Based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32% of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17% of Hispanic males and 5.9% of white males.
  • In 2010, it was estimated that 19.8 million people (representing 8.6% of the population of the United States) have at least one felony conviction. This is almost double what it was in 1980. Within some minority populations, those possessing a felony conviction exceeds 25%.

What happens after release from prison?

According to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, there are more than 650,000 men and women released from federal and state prisons each year. These men and women return to their communities with the hope of securing employment and housing, and the prayer of not returning to prison. Sadly, the unemployment rates among ex-prisoners are between 25-40%. It’s not rocket science to see that that high unemployment rates are a key factor in recidivism. In fact, the one-year post-release recidivism rate is 44%.

Generally, at the time of release from prison, the parolee is required to seek and maintain employment. During check-ins with parole and probation officers, the parolee must provide proof of that employment. If a parolee is assigned to a halfway house prior to full release, he or she is required to have employment within 30 days of their release. Should the parolee fail to become employed, for whatever the reason, their supervision may be terminated and they can be returned to prison for violation of their parole guidelines.

Where does this leave an ex-convict who is finally released from prison?

Policies which seek to prevent a convicted felon from working are not only discriminatory but also cause a skyrocketing effect for recidivism rates throughout the country. Simply put, if you refuse to allow an ex-convict opportunities for employment, that individual will return to that which they know – crime. The biggest loser in this scenario is the taxpayer, but the ultimate loser is our society.

Education and rehabilitation

I have been in this business far too long to believe that everyone can be saved, changed, educated or rehabilitated. But I also know that for the men and women who are willing to work within the system, to accept the incentive programs offered, there must be something offered to them to serve as rehabilitation other than a locked down cell.

Prisons and employers need to work together to form a system that can punish, while providing a light at the end of the tunnel. You’ve got to give them hope.

The key for employers is to be open minded enough to accept the prospect of hiring someone with a less than sterling past. Employers who have a history of hiring ex-convicts insist that, generally speaking, ex-convicts can make exceptionally dedicated and motivated employees who are grateful that their employer has taken a chance on them. Many have had hands-on vocational training while incarcerated and are in need of less on-the-job training.

A convict with an alcohol- or drug-related conviction who has successfully completed a substance abuse program may have a strong argument that he or she has put their troubles behind them, unlike those who haven’t undergone any rehab treatments while in prison.

Government benefits for employers

The U.S. government provides many benefits to companies who actively seek to hire ex-convicts. Here are some examples:

  • Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). This gives an immediate contribution to an employer’s “bottom line” by providing eligible employers with a federal tax credit for hiring an ex-offender.
  • Job Training Partnership Act. This can reimburse some training wages. There are also additional services that vary by state.
  • Prisoner Reentry Initiative (PRI). This awards grants to employment-centered organizations that provide mentoring, job training, and other transitional services for ex-offenders.

In addition to the above listed benefits, some states offer a free service that provides individual fidelity bonds to employers for job applicants with a conviction record.

The bottom line

If we used tax money to build a better justice system and facilitate rehabilitation with the goal that parolees can be taught to make it in the outside world, it just might pay off in the long run. If more prisons would offer continuing education classes and work-related job skill classes, we might be able to insure that a percentage of the men and women leaving prison will not be coming back.

Prison is for punishment. But if we can educate and rehabilitate while punishing, we may be able to finally get a handle on the outrageous recidivism rate of crime in this country, stop the revolving prison doors, and provide the people returning to society a life that will keep them out of prison for good.

Cait Boyce is the co-author of the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman. She has worked in the legal profession for over thirty-five years, specializing in prisoner rights and fighting for the parole of non-violent criminal offenders.

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Of rehabilitation, human dignity and second chances

A quartet of dogs greeted me at the door upon my arrival last night. I had been away for two days attending a function in San Francisco. By the level of canine joy, one would have thought I’d been gone a month. But a bit of sadness also permeated the space.

“Chris?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“I no longer have a job,” was his downtrodden response.

For some time now, Chris had been working with a friend, a fellow falconer, as his assistant. Very hard and physical work for my sixty-year-old spouse. And even though he may not have loved the job, which he certainly didn’t, he loved working with his friend. He loved being useful. He loved being able to earn a living that did not require him to ask that dreaded question, “Would you like fries with that?”

But last week, while laying flooring, he and his friend were discussing falconry as they worked. The owner of the property seemed thrilled about the conversation and soon stopped leaving the room. He asked questions about the sport as the two friends worked and Chris explained that they flew Gyrfalcons. So the day ended, happy homeowner and his new floor, and two tired workers.

The homeowner decided he was curious enough about falconry and Gyrfalcons to sit at his computer and Google what the three had discussed. Then the inevitable happened. After just a bit of searching, his eyes landed on a video of one of the men who had worked in his home all day – a man he had enjoyed talking to and asking questions of. Christopher Boyce. A convicted felon.

The homeowner immediately called the flooring company to lodge a complaint that a felon had been sent to work in his home. Not that the work had been bad – in fact, the work was excellent. But still, a felon…

For the record, Chris has not been convicted of any crime since 1981. That’s thirty-two years without an incident on his record. He was cleared by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to be the tarmac manager at a local private jet port here in our town. A jet port where he welcomed the governor of the state, Senators and members of Congress, even Hillary Clinton. Last year, Chris received his contractor’s license and a home inspection license through the state, both after an extensive background check. He was also able to be bonded.

But he can’t get a job. Any job.

For more than thirty years, I have worked with inmates and people being released from the prison system. For all of those years, I have watched them struggle to reenter society and make lives for themselves that did not include a return to prison.

In my younger years, I was naïve. Twenty-one years old and unaware of the general dangers of society. I taught life skills classes to men who had just been released from some of the toughest prisons in California. Some of these men had been released from death row when the death penalties were being commuted, and some were just hard timers who had spent their lives in one prison or another from the time they were young.

Life skills. What a joke! Most of these men had been out of the system for so long that they no longer knew how to get a copy of their Social Security card and couldn’t work even if they could find the card – because no one wanted them unless they were being paid to want them.

What I learned during those years made me want to continue working with at-risk youth and adult parolees. What I learned caused nightmares and still makes me uncomfortable and angry.

The U.S. government and the various state agencies throughout the country paid employers to hire convicted felons. For each felon they hired, they received grant money to “assist with the payment of wages.” Of course the employers didn’t look at it that way. To them, it was free money, cheap labor. When even the slightest word of kindness could have helped change a life, it was never offered.

What I did hear time and time again was “You’ll do this job for what I decide to pay you, you’ll work when I decide to work you, you’ll get paid when I decide to write the check, and if I hear one word of protest I can have you rolled up and sent back to the joint.” I heard it from employers every time I tried to place a parolee on a workforce. I heard it repeated by other parolees that they were nothing more than slaves.

So where does it stop?

The U.S. is number one in the world in the rate of incarceration of its citizens, with 702 out of every 100,000 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons or in jails across the nation. More than two million people are now in prison or jail in the U.S., a record number.

While the U.S. accounts for just five percent of the global population, twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners are in American prisons and jails. Included among these prisoners are more than 3,600 death row inmates.

More and more prisons are becoming “lock down” institutions, meaning that men and women and kept in a cell for twenty-three hours per day with one hour allowed for “daylight time.” Educational classes are dwindling. The prison libraries are closing. Contact with the outside world is diminishing.

These are my questions: What happens at the end of a sentence? What happens when the door rolls open and that man or woman walks free? How do we integrate these people back into society, into a workforce, and into a life that will keep them from returning to prison?

Rehabilitation and education. Without these two crucial elements, prison will be a revolving door for most of these people, one that will cost the American taxpayer on the average of $247.31 per inmate per day.

My husband is a prime example of the fact that not everyone released from prison is a criminal. With an IQ of 150, Chris earned a college degree while incarcerated. He is quiet, an easy person to like, and a hard worker. He is a man who wants little in his life other than to be able to support his family and live a life that is responsible to society and respectful to those around him, and a little time to fly his falcons and run his dogs.

But on Friday, despite being a free man for eleven years, he was denied that privilege again.

Chris is lucky because he can talk it through with me. We can put our heads together and try to figure out where to go from here, where to look, who to ask. Chris is very lucky because he has a support system.

But what about the next parolee who only wants a future?

Cait Boyce is the co-author of the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman. She has worked as a legal professional and advocate for prisoner rights for over thirty-five years.

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Christopher Boyce, Cait Boyce and Vince Font radio interview

On October 5, the three of us—Chris, Cait and Vince—appeared on John Aberle’s radio show Life Unedited, which broadcasts Saturdays on WCHE 1520 AM in Philadelphia. We spent the better part of an hour talking with John about the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman.

To listen to the full interview, go here or click the image above.

Check out the Interviews & Press page of this website for more TV and radio appearances by Christopher Boyce and Cait Boyce.

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Wired interview with Christopher Boyce

“A smart young dropout is welcomed into a promising career in the top secret world of U.S. defense contracting, but he’s quickly shocked to discover the deception practiced by America’s intelligence agencies at the highest levels. Disillusioned and outraged, he takes matters into his own hands and begins exfiltrating highly-classified documents right under the nose of his employers. Today, that might describe NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But back in 1975, it was 22-year-old Christopher Boyce.”

Thus begins the article written by Australian journalist Patrick Gray, which appeared on September 27. You can read the full interview here. Gray also broadcast audio from the interview with additional commentary on his Risky Business podcast, a show that focuses on a variety of intelligence and security topics. To listen to part one of the interview, click here. Part two can be found here.

Get the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman here.

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