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Beyond Release: Successful Reentry is Real Freedom

Feb 3rd, 2020 | Category: Peer Voices

Reentry is the successful reintegration back into society from jail or prison. This necessarily involves skillful planning and patience. Both the individual leaving confinement and the community should understand that this is the beginning of a process, that if successfully consummated, leads to overall wellness. Most important of all, it is the change in behavior that prevents return to incarceration. 

The process of reintegrating will often have many issue areas that should be equally addressed. Among those unfamiliar with traveling this “journey,” there seems to be a general misunderstanding that housing, employment, and rehabilitation programs are all that is needed to reduce recidivism rates. While these will be useful for long-term wellness and change, the biggest challenges will come through a recovery process.

What is Recovery?

Recovery in reentry is not limited to the alcohol and substance abuse context in which we mostly use the term. For the individual returning from incarceration, recovery also encompasses health, home, purpose, and community. It is my position, as a formerly incarcerated and homeless person in long term recovery, that each of these four areas must be addressed to prevent return to old behaviors. 

Substance Use Disorder and/or Mental Health

Health concerns should be the top priority of anyone getting released from a correctional institution. This includes substance use disorders and mental health issues that may require taking prescribed meds. Making good decisions that promote healthy living and long-term wellness are vital – especially upon initial release. I have personally experienced and witnessed people getting released and immediately returning to drinking or using, stop taking meds that were helping on the inside, and “hooking up” with a partner that is not a healthy fit in their lives. 

If the health needs are not immediately addressed, it matters very little that gainful employment or housing is found. Ask anyone who has had a substance use problem or their family: addressing anything else before substance use disorders and mental health issues is putting the cart before the horse.

Once these health issues are addressed there becomes a strong sense of stability and belonging – belonging in the community. For many getting out of confinement, though life on the inside is traumatic, there was a certain “strange” security inside. You don’t have to make healthy decisions because they are already made for you in terms of eating, sleeping, and meds. However, a returning individual who stays in the process of change early on, begins to make their own choices that align with living a healthy life on the outside. 

Safe Housing

After health needs are addressed and the individual becomes stable, safe housing can and should be sought. Here, I cannot overemphasize the term “safe.” Far too often, probation and parole agencies require the released individual to return to a home and environment that may have been a huge contributor to the initial criminal behavior. Some neighborhoods are just plain toxic to a person wanting and needing change.  

Many POs do not understand that having an address, any address, just so that the PO can contact them and know where they are, can be harmful. Prolonged periods in high crime areas will often retraumatize and set the reentering person up for failure. Rigid policies that require releasees to stay at a particular address until they can get their own housing, must be re-examined. 

With no other population is this area of recovery clearer than with African American males. Most are forced to return to government housing, aka “the projects” and other areas where employment options are bleak and criminal behaviors are the norm. Here, African American males are almost expected to be incarcerated and it is sometimes viewed as a rite of passage or badge of honor. 

Also closely related to safe housing are transportation challenges where public transportation is lacking or nonexistent. These are unavoidable areas of recovery that, if timely addressed, increase the releasee’s chances of long-term wellness. Sometimes transportation precipitates better housing options, other times, vice-versa. But either way, stability and a legitimate opportunity to reintegrate back into society are inextricably linked to safe housing. 

Purpose and Meaningful Daily Activities

Steady employment is number two in terms of most important areas of recovery for a person getting released. Second only to health matters, employment boost a person’s confidence and sense of independence faster than anything else. Having come from an environment where there are no choices in if and where you work, just the opportunity to seek employment where I chose was exciting. And getting a paycheck that allows you to go to a store of your own choosing, rather a limited commissary selection is priceless. 

On the other hand, when a releasee has enormous employment challenges, it can be depressing and feel like you are not truly free. There is a tremendous difference between release and freedom. 

Though it is important, employment is not the exclusive source of meaningful daily activity for someone transitioning back into the “free world.” Educational opportunities, family activities, and hobbies are also sources of gaining a newfound purpose on the outside. I must also note that purposes can change throughout the process. But just having a purpose makes all the difference in moving forward and putting incarceration behind you. 

In the Community 

Recovery in the community is, in my opinion, the easiest of all recovery areas. It is also the most challenging. Coming back into the community at large is all about developing new relationships and resuming old ones. The challenge is determining which relationships should stay and which should go. 

Sadly, some family relationships will not be conducive to recovery and long-term wellness. The same can be said of friendships and some romantic relationships. Accurately assessing which relationships are mutually beneficial and promote long-term wellness is key. There will be people who can relate to the releasee’s history but have no clue of that person’s destiny. 

Some former friends were only there because of what I was doing and where I was going. Some people were only in my life because we were both against the same thing, we were in it together for the fight. And there are a select few that have been and still are in my life because they genuinely want the best for me. If the releasee gets these confused, it could be trouble. 

I try to always remember that some people are only in my life for a season. Letting go is not easy and change can be frightening, but in the end, it is all about not returning to old behaviors.

ViaHope, based here in Austin, describes this phase of recovery as building recovery capital. That means having support in all phases of wellness. 

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