It’s impossible to appreciate a problem, let alone solve it, without understanding its scope – the shape and scale of what’s happening. And a complex problem like mass incarceration, typically defined by the 2.3 million people incarcerated at any one time in America, requires substantial unpacking.

The effect of incarceration on former prisoners has been a very common topic of discussion for many years. In most cases, it is believed that many prisoners will find themselves right back where they started, in jail. According to an April 2011 report by the Pew Center on the States, the average national recidivism rate for released prisoners is 43%. But according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) about 68 percent of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of their release from prison, and 77 percent were arrested within five years.

In recent history, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. has increased dramatically, resulting in prisons being filled to capacity with bad conditions and environments for inmates. In many prisons, crime continues inside the prison walls. Gangs exist and flourish on the inside, often with many key tactical decisions being made by leaders who are in jail.

While the US justice system has traditionally focused its efforts at the front end of the system, by locking people up, it has not exerted an equal effort at the tail end of the system: decreasing the likelihood of reoffending among formerly incarcerated persons. This is a significant issue because ninety-five percent of prisoners will be released back into the community at some point. This brings to mind the #CLOSErikers campaign advocating the closure of New York City’s notorious Rikers Island correctional facility, and focus on building communities to break the cycle. One of the astonishing facts showing the misplaced priority of the NYC government includes spending $209,000 of taxpayers money detaining a person at Rikers Island for a year, some of which got there as a result of a broken cash bail system. Vera Institute of Justice puts it better here: The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration(more from Vera on Recidivism)

Also, according to a national study published in 2003 by The Urban Institute, within three years almost 7 out of 10 released males will be rearrested and half will be back in prison. The study says this happens due to personal and situational characteristics, including the individual’s social environment of peers, family, community, and state-level policies.

Many other things need to be taken into consideration as well, such as the individual’s circumstances before incarceration, the things that happened while they were incarcerated, and the period after they are released from prison, both immediate and long term.

One of the main reasons why they find themselves back in jail is because it is difficult for the individual to fit back in with ‘normal’ life. They have to reestablish ties with their family, return to high-risk places and secure formal identification; they often have a poor work history and now have a criminal record to deal with. Many prisoners report being anxious about their release; they are excited about how their life will be different “this time” which does not always end up being the case.

It is now more evident that the American criminal justice system reassess its punitive approach at all levels and work on reforms based on values and community. The statistics clearly exposes the ineptitude of the current approach. Citizens must see this as a new reality to fight.

References: Wikipedia, Vera, BJS#CLOSErikers.

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