Eight Ways to Support Formerly Incarcerated Citizens Reentering Society

Society and business practices can play a part in helping formally incarcerated individuals succeed in reentering their community

From Success:

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 77 million Americans—or one in every three adults—carries a criminal record, whether that’s an arrest, a charge or a conviction.

Some 650,000 people are released from prison each year. That’s a weighty portion of the population attempting to reenter society and facing challenges due to their judicial record, including a lack of employment and housing and difficulty accessing higher education and voting rights.

Changes in society, personal perspectives and business practices could help ease these transitions and ultimately disrupt the American system, which currently has the highest recidivism rate in the world.

How to help formerly incarcerated citizens reenter society

1. Cover the basics 

When incarcerated individuals return, they may have difficulty with meeting their fundamental needs for housing and work. 

“If we’re telling people, ’OK, you did the crime, now you gotta do the time,’ then what’s our responsibility [when they get home]? Do we continue to punish them for the rest of their lives? Right now, yes,” says Kevin McCracken, executive director of The Last Mile, a nonprofit fighting recidivism and activating the potential of justice-impacted individuals through education and technological training. 

A variety of approaches could address this problem, including eliminating background checks for employment or housing and/or allowing returned citizens to apply for sealing or expungement of their criminal records under certain circumstances. 

2. Ban the box

Although 15 states have mandated the removal of conviction history questions from job applications for private employers, hiring entities in these situations can still conduct background checks once they make a job offer. That means returned citizens in most states must indicate their judicial involvement on job applications—an answer that can take them out of the running even decades after they’ve been convicted or served time. 

According to Tim Hamilton, chief administrative officer of Texas-based nonprofit Prison Entrepreneurship Program,  “When you check that, there’s a pretty high likelihood your application is going in the trash.” Instead, he advocates for “having an open, honest interview process where guys can go and talk about, ’Hey, I did make a mistake, but this is what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed, and how this benefits you.’” Although the conversation may ultimately lead to the same outcome, “at least it removes a barrier,” Hamilton says. 

3. Understand the needs of returned citizens 

Returned citizen Josh Nowack, co-founder of Breaking Free Enterprises and board member for nonprofit business ownership training program Inmates to Entrepreneurs, employs fellow returned citizens. He pays at or above the $20 California minimum wage and gives them time off during the workday to meet a probation officer, meet with their lawyer, go to a custody hearing for their children or take care of other legal matters.

“All too often, especially at these minimum wage-style jobs, you don’t have the wherewithal or ability to just take off and do what you need to do to take care of business,” he says.  

4. Support returned citizens who start businesses

Difficulties in getting through interview processes and working within the boundaries of traditional jobs lead some returned citizens to pursue entrepreneurship. Supporting these individuals is simple: “I think most entrepreneurs, especially if you’ve been incarcerated before, want you to do business with them,” says Claudia Shivers, founder of Queen Coffee Bean and Inmates to Entrepreneurs board member. In Shivers’ case, that could mean buying a cup of coffee from her shop, buying a bag of roasted beans or helping get her business corporate contracts to supply coffee. 

5. See the individual 

When deciding to patronize or do business with a returned citizen, it’s important to acknowledge the individual. Ruben Mauricio, owner of Denver City, Texas–based RPM Diesel Service LLC, received a 10-year sentence for marijuana possession and engaging in organized criminal activity. However, while in prison, he graduated from the Texas-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit teaching life skills and business basics in and outside of correctional facilities. He later went on to win PEP’s 2019 Barbed Wire to Business pitch competition. 

“Everyone who’s incarcerated wants to start a business for money and power. I went in with all the wrong intentions—for selfish reasons,” Mauricio recalls. However, he stayed entrenched in the program for three years, listening to its character-based curriculum over and over while waiting for parole. “I believe the main reason for my success is not the business; it’s the core values that are inside the individual. It’s the values that are inside the person that will determine whether you’re successful or not.”

“It wasn’t until I was able to understand the reasons I made the decisions I’ve made was because of the way I perceive the world and the way I reacted that I had a—I think the word they use is ’paradigm shift,’” he continues. “If that’s the wrong way of thinking, what is the correct way to think? I have to be able to pull that weed out of my brain and plant something that works.” 

Doing so paved the way to his current endeavor. Upon his release and after training in semi-truck repair, he took out a title loan on his pickup truck and pawned his wife’s wedding ring to found his business in September 2018. 

“We thought at first it was just going to be enough to feed ourselves. Never did we think we would blow up. Five years later, we have nine service trucks and 22 people. We’re on course to gross $9 million this year,” he says. 

6. Accept that you may not know if a business owner has been judicially involved 

As his business has become more successful, Mauricio says he’s been less transparent about his past. “At the ground level, people are more forgiving. But the higher I go, it’s definitely not the same,” he says. “I honestly believe my story needs to be heard, and stories like mine need to be heard. But I’m feeling pressure now that I never used to feel.”

7. Try to walk in the other person’s shoes

Returned citizens and business advocates agree that a key to easing returned citizens’ reentry is seeing a person’s humanity, not a criminal record. “If you don’t understand me, how can you help?” Mauricio asks. “Try to put yourself in my shoes and understand where I came from, why I made the decisions I made. Now if you could do that, humble yourself to do that, then you can also help me find a way out.”

8. Get involved 

With a national recidivism rate around 70% and organizations like Prison Entrepreneurship Program reporting a two-thirds reduction in that rate, it’s clear that reentry and anti-recidivism programs can make an impact. 

Mauricio points to the multiplier effect that a broader effort might have: “In the big scheme of things, there was very little that created such a big change. If you could play the numbers like that, if you could get a bigger pool of free-world people who could [volunteer], the change could be kicked up a lot more. Go to prison and meet some guys.”