Prisoner reentry is a tricky business.
The general thinking is that all reentry programs have the potential to help, and if it doesn’t work, then no harm no foul, right? Actually, no.
Make no mistake, any program can have the opposite effect than was intended – and many of them do. Not only does the research back me up here,1 I also know from personal experience.
I started a reentry nonprofit in 2014 called the Turning Leaf Project. I was in way over my head in the early days. Most “I was in way over my head stories” start out like mine did, with a hope and a dream and a glint in the eye. And of course, no one ever finds out they are in way over their head until the train has already left the station. That was certainly true in my case.
This is the story of how I did harm.
I distinctly remember thinking that we would probably have a 0% re-arrest rate.
Turning Leaf started out as an alternative to prison program. That means that people were coming out of jail with a court requirement to complete the program or else they would go to prison. I wasn’t worried. I had read all the research and had been working with people in jail for years. I saw something in them no one else did. People just needed to be believed in and loved and respected and helped to see the error of their thinking and ways. Cringe. I had a plan to set them up with jobs and housing and support after their release.
I distinctly remember thinking that we would probably have a 0% re-arrest rate. So it wasn’t a reg flag to me when prosecution required any person allowed in Turning Leaf as an alternative to prison to face more prison time if they failed. That is, not completing the program would end up in additional prison time than if they had never enrolled in the program to begin with.
You’re probably starting to see where this story is going. I didn’t have a 0% re-arrest rate. Not even close. It was more like 50% at the end of the year. Each one of those people who failed out went on to serve more prison time than if I hadn’t tried to help them.
Okay, but that was their fault. I mean, they’re the ones who opted into the program and failed. I can’t control other people’s choices. I can only give people an opportunity and they’re either willing to take advantage of it or not…right? Well…sort of. This type of thinking is dangerous. It lets well-meaning people [like me] off the hook.
I dangled a carrot of help in front of a lot of desperate people. Let’s get serious, who wouldn’t take any opportunity not to go to prison? It’s not fair to say they made a rational choice. Going to prison or enrolling in a program isn’t really a choice. No one is going to choose going to prison, end of story. I made that choice for them when I offered them a way out.
So let’s talk about my choice for them.
- Did I have any concrete evidence that Turning Leaf could help them stay out of prison? Nope.
- Did I have a verifiable personal track record with helping people out of prison change their behavior? Nope.
- Did my staff [of one] have any experience in prisoner reentry? Nope.
- Did I have any reason to believe that we were qualified to make this decision for these men? I’m sure you already guessed the answer.
I wasn’t equipped and Turning Leaf was not equipped to truly help the men who enrolled in 2015.
13 people served more prison time because of my arrogance and carelessness and naivety.
I didn’t have enough experience or resources. For many of the men who enrolled in those early days, the help I offered wasn’t the help they needed. That was my failure, not theirs.
I’m hard on myself and I should be. It was a learning experience and it made us into the organization we are today. But it’s one of my few regrets anyway, because 13 people served more prison time because of my arrogance and carelessness and naivety.
There are many others with me in the arena of doing harm.
Take Project Greenlight for example. Piloted in a New York state prison, the 8-week reentry program addressed issues like housing, employment, drug treatment and criminal thinking. For all intents and purposes, this program should have reduced recidivism. But it didn’t. It made things worse. Greenlight participants showed a higher rate of parole revocation and rearrests than non-participants.2 And the only reason we know that is because the project was designed to be evaluated.
Let’s talk about Scared Straight for a minute.
These programs involve organized visits to prison by children involved in or at risk for criminal behavior. The idea is that the visit will give the kids an up close and personal look at where they’re headed – prison – and scare them into seeing the error of their ways.
If fear was an effective strategy to help people change major behavioral issues, I’d 100% be out of a job.
Scared Straight programs don’t work and can increase juvenile offending.3 Yet, we still use them.
My home state of South Carolina runs a scared straight type of program (PROJECT Right Turn), which tours youth around the prison as a key “prevention and intervention effort” and an “invaluable resource” to help them understand the consequences of their behavior.4
Taxpayers are literally paying to run a program that makes it MORE likely that young people will go to prison.
We implicate people in the failure, shifting blame from program designers to program participants.
It goes on. When we mix people who have few problems in programs with people who have a lot of problems, we make it more likely that the ‘few problems’ group will be-rearrested.5
When we enroll people in programs they don’t need, when we focus on things that don’t reduce recidivism, when programs are under-funded, under-staffed, too short in duration or without proper expertise and supervision, we do harm.
We miss opportunities to help people change. We implicate people in the failure, shifting blame from program designers to program participants. We point the finger with three pointed back at us as we tsk tsk a person’s inability to get it together.
How many programs appear to do good but are really actually making things worse for people?
There’s too much at stake
When prison reentry programs cause harm, they aren’t just toxic to the participants. They cause harm to all of us because there’s more victimization and all the problems that come along with having more crime in our community.
I did that. I did all those things.
Like I said, prisoner reentry is a tricky business. We should respect it as a discipline that requires a deep understanding of the principles of effective correctional interventions and criminal psychology.
There’s too much at stake not to require courts, which are mandating programs, and people designing and providing reentry services, to be informed. There’s too much at stake not to rigorously evaluate the programs we put into place to see if they’re doing harm. It’s immoral, irresponsible and it’s dangerous.
I did harm in my early days with Turning Leaf and I carry that burden with me. I think about the men who were done a disservice by my attempt to help them. Now that I know better, I do better.
I share this story for them so we can all do better.