Ex-cons get little help upon release

Prisoner gripping onto bars

On any given day, there are between 200,000 and 400,000 ex-prisoners living in Philadelphia, nearly 20 percent of the city’s population.

Close to 40,000 ex-convicts are released into the Philadelphia region each year, and most will not receive the organized traditional services they need to transition back into society, a researcher in the School of Social Policy and Practice has found.

Ram Cnaan, associate dean for research, professor and chair of the Doctoral Program in Social Welfare, assessed Philadelphia’s ability to provide social services to ex-prisoners re-entering society and says more interagency collaboration and information sharing is needed. These organized traditional services—including employment, housing, health, education, counseling, legal and mental health assistance—help keep ex-prisoners from returning to prison. “Not every ex-prisoner needs all of these, but a majority of them need many of those services,” Cnaan says.

When a person is released from prison, there is no one to guide him or her on where to get these required services. Where aiding agencies do exist, Cnaan says they are uncoordinated. There is a program in West Philadelphia that directs ex-prisoners to services, which Cnaan says is a “beautiful project,” but “too small, and only one.”

These services are often needed after an extended stay in prison, when Cnaan says a person’s contacts with society are severed. Upon release, he or she may not be able to perform the most basic tasks. “Your ability to navigate bureaucracy was never very good and now you come [out of prison] and people tell you that you have to stand in line, you have to fill out forms, and you don’t know how to do it,” he says.

One ex-prisoner said it took him six months to get a copy of his Social Security Card. When he finally realized he had to go to the Social Security Office, he was denied a card because he didn’t have any identification.

While other societies have enacted systems to ensure that ex-prisoners are released into a beneficial environment, Cnaan says the United States is “the most incarcerated society in the history of the human race,” and simply punishes. In Oman, for example, if a person goes to prison, his family receives an allowance from the government so that the family does not become destitute or feel as though they are enemies of the state.

If a person goes to prison in Israel for more than a year (for a non-security related crime), he is entitled to 72 hours of family-leave every month thereafter. “So you’re never disconnected from your family,” Cnaan says. “You know what’s going on, you’re a part of them, you visit them, you start planning your future with them.”

It also makes sense financially to help ex-prisoners stay out of prison, he says. Philadelphia spends nearly $290 million annually to house 9,000 prisoners. The State of California spends billions to house its over 160,000 prisoners, as does the federal government.

The United States, though, is slowly starting to change course. President Bush signed the Second Chance Act in April, saying, “Our government has a responsibility to help prisoners to return as contributing members of their community.”

In Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker formed Opportunity Reconnect and Reentry Legal Services to help ex-offenders cope with their transition back into society. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced earlier this year a program that gives companies that hire ex-prisoners a $10,000 tax break for three years.

“This is a wonderful first step,” Cnaan says. “There is a growing understanding and awareness of working with ex-prisoners but we are years away from a meaningful change.”

More programs to alleviate the transition from prison to society are needed, specifically service integration and public awareness. “The amazing thing is that most of the eight services, they’re always there and, with one exception, they all told us, ‘We can accommodate many more,’” Cnaan says.

Originally published on July 3, 2008