In 2016, the Department of Justice, with the support of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, announced the country’s first National Reentry Week, an effort to shed light on ways to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully return to their communities. From April 24 to 30, hundreds of events took place across the country to inform the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated about opportunities, as well as their rights. I attended an event in Washington, D.C., for instance, that brought students with incarcerated parents together with policymakers and advocates to investigate ways to help the students, and their parents, succeed. A key theme that emerged from the discussion was the importance of education—for the students, for the parents, and for those tasked with helping both groups grow. This conversation was both therapeutic and informative, and it left everyone walking away more knowledgeable than before they came.
Yet so far there’s been almost complete radio silence on the issue of reentry in 2017—and it’s a galling omission that strips away a key component of our ongoing criminal justice movements.
To understand what’s at stake for so many Americans when it comes to issues of incarceration and reentry, it’s helpful to rewind a few years. Recently, there’s been a growing awareness of the disturbing nature of the American criminal justice system; something that’s meant to rehabilitate people after a wrongdoing all too often has the opposite effect, driving them into a lifelong affair with prison. This was brought to greater attention in 2016, when Ava DuVernay’s universally acclaimed documentary 13th depicted the insidious relationship between the 13th Amendment and a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately affects black Americans.
But the film also highlighted how the plight of prisoners and the formerly incarcerated is often overlooked. While prison and sentencing reform can play a large part in poor post-incarceration outcomes for prisoners, we also need to look at policies and practices that impact the incarcerated once they exit prison gates. What do I mean by this? For starters, there are barriers to reentry at almost every turn; housing, education, and employment can all be restricted based on a person’s criminal history. And with over 600,000 Americans exiting incarceration in federal and state prisons each year, to say nothing of the over 10 million in local jails, this is hardly a small issue. Can you imagine your own life without access to an apartment, a job, or a chance to go to school, especially if your social network wasn’t equipped to help you? Increasing access to these basic services has been shown to significantly reduce recidivism, an outcome that shouldn’t be too hard for most to agree ought to be a priority of our country’s criminal justice system.
Which is why the lack of conversation around reentry this year is so devastating. A search for “National Reentry Week” on the DOJ website leads you to an archived page of events from 2016, and a glance at the department’s Twitter feed shows a slew of court decisions—but no mention of Reentry Week. A search for #reentryweek on Twitter yields promising results, though outside the agency, with individuals and organizations hosting events and putting forth information about how to best support returning citizens—including, surprisingly, some US Attorneys.
While it’s unclear if these were officially sanctioned as Reentry Week events by the DOJ, there was at least one official administration Reentry Week event. On April 26, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Boyds, Maryland. There was no mention of her visit from her usually active Twitter feed, but the department put out a press release on the website. According to the statement, the facility is home to several education programs, including “a full-time GED, vocational and special education programs, and [it] assists incarcerated individuals with skills assessments, job searches and further education planning before their release.” The statement also asserts that education can be a powerful tool for reentry, and that it would be a priority throughout the year, not just during Reentry Week.
But while encouraging, at least on its face, the statement leaves some questions to be answered about the administration’s and department’s stance on reentry and prison education.
For one, the tone of the release and the visit itself don’t seem to reflect the administration’s actual position on the criminal justice system or on criminal justice reform. President Donald Trump, for instance, ran as the “law and order candidate,” and he wrote in his 2000 book The America We Deserve that “[t]he perpetrator is never a victim. He’s nothing more than a predator,” in reference to violent offenders, going on to say that criminals are currently treated as victims of society. However, with the growing number of incarcerated individuals who are nonviolent offenders with no criminal history prior to incarceration, does the president’s view still stand, or even make sense? The DOJ’s omission of Reentry Week from its website could certainly be the result of a busy transition season—but I have a hunch that the more likely reason is that that it would run counter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ hardline stances on enforcement.
And second, the location of the visit was convenient in that it was close to Washington, DC, but also odd, given that there are currently three other correctional facilities in Maryland and one in Virginia participating in the Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell pilot. The program is one of many projects under the Experimental Sites Initiative run by the Office of Federal Student Aid to assess the efficacy of certain changes to federal student aid policy. It’s in the first year of implementation. There’s currently a ban on prisoners receiving Pell Grants, but the trial allows a limited number of incarcerated students to access Pell funding to further their postsecondary education while in prison. To my mind, this would have been an opportune time to host a Reentry Week event at one of the four local correctional facilities participating in the program. Does snubbing these sites for a visit mean that the department is rolling back its support for the program? Or was this just oversight? I can only speculate on these questions, but I hope that the pilot program is allowed to get off the ground rather than be cut by the administration.
Late last year, as I sat in the student union at the University of Maryland listening to Salem El-Amin, a formerly incarcerated man, speak about his second chance, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future would bring for reentry efforts. While he was in prison, he had the opportunity to take courses and earn a GED and a college degree. After his release, he began working with the Living Classrooms Foundation’s Project SERVE in Baltimore to help local youth engage with their communities through education, work, and volunteerism. His work targets previously incarcerated and at-risk youth for job training and social services.
My question then was: Will we allow these programs with proven success to continue to exist? Sadly, this is the question we must still ask ourselves—and our institutions—now.
The conflicting messages being sent about Reentry Week don’t signal promising federal support in the coming years. Because this was a priority of the previous administration—it even launched a Second Chance Fellow program, designed to help with reentry—I hope that advocates and communities are equipped with at least some tools to continue helping formerly incarcerated citizens successfully reenter society. Tackling this issue has always been a cross-sector task, but assuming it’s a low priority for the new administration, now it will lie largely in the hands of nonprofits and businesses. As we help our fellow Americans write the next chapter of their lives, we shouldn’t forget that doing so is a continuous process, with the need for ongoing revisions and feedback—and we must be there for these individuals when they need it.