Bar News - September 20, 2013
Opinion: Recidivism’s Common Denominator: A Personal Perspective from the Social Services Trenches
By: Susan MacNeil
“Recidivism” is a word that encompasses more than the notion of relapse into undesirable or criminal behavior with negative consequences. It is a state of being for those men and women who seem unable to stay out of jail or prison.
Experience has shown me that recidivism almost always occurs when an offender returns to his or her “home” environment – the place where the harmful behavior began. If offenders could remain in a more supportive environment for one year post-release, I believe that recidivism rates would plummet.
Until 2006, when our agency began a housing program for men and women living with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, known as the Cleve Jones Wellness House, I had no firsthand knowledge about what it means to exist behind bars.
For seven years, at the Cleve Jones Wellness House, I lived with men and women trying to make their way out of the criminal justice system, and I noticed a common denominator that almost always guaranteed failure.
Regardless of their previous crimes, the residents I worked with failed to change their behavior when they were allowed to return home before they’d had the chance to gain new skills and rebuild their lives elsewhere. After returning to their former environments – full of the people, places, and things that contributed to the behavior that led to their incarceration – it was only a matter of weeks before they decided to “go fishing” (scope out potential burglary opportunities), “visit my mom” (for 10 minutes before hooking up with drug contacts), or “test myself” (an excuse for giving in to temptation).
If it takes repeated attempts to break old habits, imagine what it takes to actually invent a new life, with values and aspirations thought to be impossible. These roots can only grow with the repetition of real-world success and rediscovering lost talents toward a promising future. This is different from attending pre-release educational classes, because tapping into motivated thinking is easier in a secluded environment than in the real world.
The most daunting tasks facing Wellness House residents were finding a job and permanent housing (given their criminal history), reclaiming driver’s licenses (without money to pay fines, and thus, lack of transportation), reconnecting with family, getting by financially while waiting up to five years for SSDI, navigating bureaucracy, and loneliness/guilt/shame. It wasn’t enough that their residency at Wellness House guaranteed food, a furnished room, transportation, medical and therapeutic care, companionship, case management support and financial assistance.
The tools to reinvent themselves were freely provided, yet they’d forgotten how to believe in a better life. And so in the end, it didn’t matter how much they were given, or the pride they felt in meeting our high expectations. In their first three months at Wellness House, they performed exceedingly well, motivated by freedom and hope. If only their expanding worlds had been more deliberately confined for a longer period, without the threat of negative influence, substantive rebuilding could have begun.
Our population sampling was a small one, but the behavioral commonality cannot be ignored. I believe that disallowing offenders from returning to their home environment for 12 months after release could be a tremendous step forward in reducing recidivism. This would require allied support organizations to connect with prisoners at least six months prior to their release date to set up stable infrastructure to provide momentum upon reentry into the host community, as well as working closely with probation/parole.
Who pays for this arrangement? Support agencies are already funded to meet the defined needs of their clients – housing, mental health, medical issues, case management. Spending money, time and energy sooner than later is a high-yield investment resulting in traction.
One day I asked for help with a project from a resident who was newly out of jail. He listened to my request and replied, “Two soups and a fireball.” My quizzical look elicited a lesson in jailhouse etiquette, illuminating how inmates barter coveted canteen items in exchange for being agreeable. If only that was all it took to address the complicated problem of recidivism.
Susan MacNeil has been the executive director of AIDS Services for the Monadnock Region (ASMR) since June 2000. ASMR celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2013, but the Wellness House program closed in July 2013.