About half of people leaving prison or jail will return. These five nonprofits want to change that.
For many incarcerated individuals, being released from prison or jail is far from the end of their story. Reducing recidivism — getting rearrested or returning to prison — is a critical issue for criminal justice organizations working to ensure that individuals can pursue their fullest potential and contribute to society.
Recidivism in the United States is approaching 50% — one of the highest rates in the world. About 70% of people released from state prisons are arrested again within five years, and 40% end up back in prison within just three years.
Rates can vary widely by state, in part due to how each state addresses the many interconnected factors involved in lowering recidivism. The ability to obtain reliable housing, continue education, and become an active member of the community all play critical roles in determining the likelihood that a person will fall back into criminal activity to survive. A recent report by the Council on Criminal Justice found that securing sustainable employment after incarceration, for example, can cut recidivism by 61%.
Reducing recidivism doesn’t just benefit individuals on parole. It has tangible benefits for their families and surrounding communities. Incarceration often doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is the result of generational cycles of poverty and disadvantage. Setting formerly incarcerated persons up for success spreads those benefits to younger generations. It also allows communities to retain the array of unique skills, experiences, and talents they otherwise lose when so many individuals don’t remain in their communities.
The Stand Together community works with many changemakers who are using new and innovative strategies to keep individuals from returning to incarceration. From offering job training programs to establishing mentorships with local police to providing trauma counseling, these leaders are starting from the bottom up. They’re improving community safety by investing in individuals to decrease the likelihood of them falling back into crime.
In doing so, these organizations are doing more than just keeping prisons from becoming rotating doors: They are working to recognize and uplift the dignity in each individual, no matter their past.
1. FreeWorld: Building blocks for a better future
While other organizations may attempt to reduce recidivism by working from the top down, FreeWorld starts at the foundation, addressing the factors that often force individuals to fall back into criminal activity.
The organization provides the building blocks that are necessary to obtain reliable, well-paying employment. Many don’t realize just how many basic necessities recently incarcerated people struggle to access, including, for example, a Social Security card, birth certificate, mode of transportation, education, and job training opportunities.
“I don’t think that many of our students have ever had a legitimate first chance in life,” says Founder Jason Wang. “You get born into a world of poverty. You never had a chance to begin with. And so at FreeWorld, our tagline is ‘Providing Legitimate First Chances.’ We’re going to invest in you. We don’t care about your history. We don’t care about your past. All we care about is your future.”
Freeworld provides recently released individuals with the assets they need to achieve safety, security, and community, freeing them to pursue the futures they want for themselves.
2. Hope for Prisoners: An early start to a long road ahead
Reducing recidivism starts while individuals are still behind bars, a fact that Hope for Prisoners recognizes well.
The organization works with prisoners about to be released to prepare them for the often overwhelming process of reintegrating into the outside world. This includes team-building exercises, social skills coaching, and trauma counseling. The organization then sticks with individuals for up to 18 months after their release to ensure their success has longevity. They also build mentorship bonds between individuals and their local police forces to establish a sense of trust and collaboration.
“My proudest accomplishment is being able to help men and women successfully transition back into their homes,” says Founder Jon Ponder. “We’re impacting the next generation of family.”
3. The Last Mile Program: Using tech to find purpose
“Give them tools, give them support, and they will not re-offend,” says Last Mile Program co-Founder Chris Redlitz. “It’s going to change the dynamic of families across the country.”
The Last Mile Program has a uniquely specialized approach to preventing recidivism. They teach coding and technology skills to individuals while they are still in prison. Doing so gives those individuals job training to increase their chances of obtaining employment post-incarceration, as well as a crucial sense of confidence and belief in the value they have to offer society.
“Before I started this I had similar opinions [to society], that it was an easy remedy to just lock ‘em up,” Redlitz recalls. “We talk a lot about second chances, but many people in prison basically didn’t have a first chance. Silicon Valley is probably the ideal place to start this, because Silicon Valley is all about failure, dusting yourself off, starting over again.”
4. Jumpstart: Help both inside and outside
Keeping individuals from ending up back in prison is a long game, starting before their release and continuing long after they’re free.
Jumpstart works on both sides of the fence to ensure long-term success. They begin to work with individuals before they are released from prison and remain with them long afterward. Their “Inside Program” focuses on fostering character development through a peer-to-peer mentorship program. Their “Outside Program” addresses many of the logistical challenges inherent to reintegrating into society, including access to affordable housing, comprehensive health care, reliable transportation, and recovery from substance use issues.
“We really have to start from the bottom with them,” describes CEO Cary Sanders. “Most of them only have the clothes on their back.”
Jumpstart provides everything a recently incarcerated person needs to get back on their feet, including clothing, basic hygiene items, housing, transportation, and employment opportunities. From there, they have the structure they need to pursue the opportunities and life they want for themselves.
“If someone comes in and has the right character and buys into the process, when they graduate from our program, they’re able to buy a home,” Sanders says. “That’s how comprehensive it is.”
5. The Frederick Douglass Project: Finding our neighbors, face-to-face
Recidivism isn’t just a matter of crime rates and access to basic needs like employment and housing. A crucial yet fickle factor to address is how recently incarcerated persons are welcomed back into society by communities who may view them with prejudice.
Whether consciously or not, much of society may view formerly incarcerated people as inherently untrustworthy, immoral, or even broken. This can have reverberating effects on their ability to obtain reliable employment and housing, share their talents, and build relationships as respected members of their communities.
The Frederick Douglass Project brings groups from schools, churches, workplaces, and other organizations inside prison walls to sit down face-to-face with incarcerated individuals and have open, honest conversations. The goal is for more members of society to recognize the dignity and nuance inherent in each incarcerated person’s story. In doing so, those individuals themselves can come to gain a greater sense of self-esteem, as well as hone their capacity for connecting with others come release.
“We have much to learn from incarcerated people in terms of their resilience, their strength, their courage in dealing with what is really, basically a human rights catastrophe on a regular daily basis,” says Founder Marc Howard. “They manage to do it with dignity, with integrity, showing character, determination, and persistence.”