How much of your day, heck, how much of your year is spent thinking about how those released from prison are doing? If they’re able to get a job? If they’re finding housing? You’re certainly not alone if you answered somewhere around the zero-second mark, but what if I asked whether or not you think we should work to reduce recidivism rates? I imagine many would think it the moral direction. Well, if someone released from prison can’t find housing or get a job, it’s not hard to imagine the odds of them going back to prison increase.
Addressing the issue probably isn’t in most people’s wheelhouse; thanks to The Journey Home, a signature initiative of the United Way of Dane County implemented in collaboration with JustDane, it doesn’t have to be. Executive Director Linda Ketcham explains, “The Journey Home is a program that’s really focusing on areas where people often hit barriers when they come out of prison, connecting them with support in the community, which might be making new connections with friends, creating new friendships. It might be support groups, like AA and NA. And then we also focus on connecting with educational resources, so if they’re wanting to complete their GED or HSED because they didn’t get their diploma, we can connect them with that and connect them with other educational training programs.”
It goes without saying that reacclimating to society isn’t a natural transition. It takes work on both the released person’s part and society’s part: the former seeking to stay out of prison and the latter offering services and resources to guide the released person away from a life they might’ve adjusted to over their time in prison or jail. This starts with building new relationships for support and reestablishing once-healthy relationships fractured over that time.
The Journey Home program provides a once-a-week support group, The Phoenix Initiative, which aims to motivate those involved with the justice system to move beyond the parts of themselves that got them in trouble in the first place. The Journey Home also offers a “monthly service fair. A one stop shop where people can come and meet other agencies. There’s usually an inspirational or motivational speaker—someone who’s been through the challenges themselves.”
One group of released persons that have a unique task ahead of them are parents. Oftentimes, there’s a whole family dynamic that’s been built back up while the released person was away, and the released person needs to work to be a part of that system. “Parenting Inside Out is an evidence-based curriculum working with parents, particularly dads, who are returning home from prison or jail working to help strengthen their relationship with their kids,” says Linda. “Also with any other caregivers that are involved with the kids. That might be the other biological parent; it might be a grandparent the kids have been staying with. It really engages the whole unit in the class.”
For many released persons, the nature of their crimes will make things more difficult in their futures. Certain offenses equate to having an additional set of rules on top of the ones the rest of us are meant to follow. This is where the idea of building social capital comes in. Circles of Support, part of The Journey Home, works with volunteers in the community to create circles of four to six people who agree to meet weekly with someone who’s newly released to fill gaps in the released person’s network.
“So many times, one of the gaps that people coming out of prison have, particularly when you talk about racial disparities in terms of access and various things, they might not know people who own businesses who are hiring or who own property or who know landlords. It’s this idea of being able to build social capital, building relationships and friendships with people in the community who have those ties and have those connections within the community.”
Each of these programs feeds the mission of The Journey Home: to reduce recidivism rates. According to nglawyers.com, “Of Wisconsin’s 23,775 prisoners in 2018, about 37 percent behind bars were there due to one of these revocation-only admissions. Black Wisconsinites are particularly affected by this system. The Census states that fewer than 7 percent of state residents identify as Black. But from 2000 through 2018, 60 percent of prison inmates there for a revocation-only violation were Black.”
Linda informed me that 66 percent of those released from prison in the state of Wisconsin go back within two years. However, those who go through The Journey Home have a recidivism rate of only between 7.0 and 14.9 percent. “That’s one of the measures we look at,” says Linda. “But we also look at how many people found jobs who needed them. How many people found housing.”
The majority of those in prison are there because the way they learned to live wasn’t compatible with the social contract that we’ve collectively grown to accept. More often than not, these contractual terms make sense when addressing the safety of a community; persons convicted of rape, murder, violent crimes, and DWIs—which made up almost half of the prison population between 2010 and 2014—are pretty universally seen as harmful to others without some form of intervention.
But these crimes are not indicative of the entire prison population, and, regardless, if we’re to see time served as fulfilling some aspect of answering for a crime committed, then rehabilitation needs to be part of that process. Otherwise, how can we claim to be giving an individual another shot at integrating into society? When prisons were overcrowded during COVID-19, and prisoners were released after being denied parole for 30 years, where were these people expected to go? Their friends are gone. Their families are gone. The Journey Home isn’t just providing a solution to an oft-ignored problem, they’re fulfilling a role that a just and equitable society would already have in place.
Kyle Jacobson is a lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.