The day the prison doors swing open and an inmate walks free can be as unnerving as it is joyous.
Many prisoners, while no doubt eager to reclaim their freedom, arrive at that moment with no place to live, no money and no job prospects.
Perhaps that's one reason that, within five years of release, about three-fourths of inmatesare arrested again.
"Leaving prison is a scary time for most inmates," says Christopher Zoukis (www.PrisonerResource.com), a prison-reform and inmate-education advocate who is serving time at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg Medium in Virginia.
"While no one wants to admit it, the idea of such a radical change in daily circumstances can be quite jarring."
Support from families can be critical at such a time, Zoukis says. They can take several easy steps that can make the process much smoother and more successful:
Make reentry a priority.Ideally, reentry planning should start at least a year out from the prisoner's expected release date. "But, frankly, the prisoner should be using all of their time in prison to create the foundation for a new life," Zoukis says. "This means education, vocational training, psychological classes, getting in shape, and the like." From a family member's perspective, making reentry a priority consists of talking about it, thinking about it, and planning for their loved one's eventual release.
Secure housing. If possible, family members should make a room available for the newly released prisoner to live in. This way there is not only a place to live, but also support close at hand. This support is essential because the prisoner will need a period to adjust to their new surroundings, especially if they have been in for some time. If living with family isn't an option, then other housing should be secured before the prisoner's release.
Secure employment.This one can be difficult, but family members should ask around in an attempt to find initial employment for their incarcerated loved one. This doesn't need to be a high-paying job, but one the person is well suited for and which can help give them not only money, but structure. By being able to pay their own way, they will feel in charge of their own destiny.
Create a support network.The final essential element is a support network. A good start here is to have a primary point of contact, such as a parent or spouse, who is helping secure housing and employment. Others in the support network might include a mentor or other community member to help them get used to life on the outside; a therapist or counselor, such as a psychiatrist or a religious leader; and other positive community members willing to help out.
"The entire community benefits when a prisoner successfully returns to society," Zoukis says. "With the right help, they have a much better chance of becoming productive, law-abiding citizens rather than returning to a life of crime."
About Christopher Zoukis
Christopher Zoukis, author of the forthcoming Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016) and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014), is a leading expert in the fields of correctional education and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He is founder of www.PrisonEducation.comand www.ChristopherZoukis.com, and a contributing writer to The Huffington Post, the New York Daily News and Prison Legal News. He is incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He can be found online at www.PrisonerResource.com.