For over 30 years, Na’im Al-Amin navigated a difficult path through juvenile detention, county jail, and prison. After his second release, determined to change his life, he earned three degrees from Kansas State University. Yet, his record became a barrier to his dream of becoming a lawyer. “Employers only saw the marijuana felony conviction,” he says. “Despite my education and years without trouble, they wouldn’t give me a chance. I almost turned back to drug dealing.”
Na’im’s story reflects a harsh reality for the nearly 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. Upon release, many face immense challenges reintegrating, especially finding sustainable employment. Without effective programs and community support, the risk of recidivism is high. Fortunately, community partnerships can play a crucial role in breaking this cycle by taking five key actions:
1. Prioritize Quality Jobs:
Over 600,000 people transition from prison annually, but many end up in low-paying positions. Research shows that programs offering training and placement into high-quality jobs with upward mobility significantly reduce recidivism. Dwight Tostenson, co-founder of the Redemption Project, emphasizes the importance of meaningful employment. “Without it, ex-offenders struggle financially, potentially returning to crime,” he says. Addressing racial disparities is also critical. Studies show Black and Hispanic people with records face even greater difficulty securing jobs. Aedan Macdonald, of Columbia University’s Justice Through Code, highlights the need for companies to address systemic racism and its impact on mass incarceration, particularly on Black and brown communities.
2. Facilitate Smooth Community Reentry:
Many former prisoners return to disadvantaged neighborhoods with high crime rates. These communities often lack essential resources. Community-based organizations play a vital role in bridging the gap. Na’im, during his final prison sentence, designed SWAGG INC (Serve Witness And Give Guidance, Inspiration Never Ceases) to address this need. This non-profit builds partnerships with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters to provide reentry planning, employment, education, and entrepreneurship support starting a year before release. “We manage that relationship to help clients successfully discharge,” says Na’im.
3. Offer Holistic Support:
Employment is just one hurdle. Formerly incarcerated individuals often face challenges with healthcare, education, mentorship, and social services. A multi-pronged approach is crucial. Patrice Funderburg, Executive Director of The Center for Community Transitions, emphasizes the need for wraparound services. “Many lack digital literacy, financial literacy, and basic job application skills,” she says. “Mental health, housing, and education also play a role.”
4. Leverage Lived Experiences:
Community partnerships are invaluable because they operate within the communities where formerly incarcerated individuals live. Often, their staff includes people with lived experiences. Stanley Richards, Deputy CEO of The Fortune Society, is one such example. He advocates for those impacted by the criminal justice system, drawing on his own past. “We provide a one-stop shop,” he says. “People can find a safe community and rebuild their lives through our services and engagement.”
5. Partner with Second-Chance Employers:
With an unemployment rate of 27%, formerly incarcerated individuals represent an underutilized talent pool. Only 5% of hiring managers actively recruit them. “We’re not asking for favors,” says Richards. “We want employers to give our participants a fair chance. They are skilled, energetic, and committed individuals who can add value to any workforce.” Organizations like JP Morgan Chase and Gap Inc. are partnering with community-based organizations to provide opportunities for skilled and motivated individuals with past records. While the data is promising, more needs to be done. “We want to change policies and educate the public about the potential of formerly incarcerated people,” says Richards. “The current job market presents a unique opportunity for companies to partner with organizations like ours to integrate these individuals into the workforce.”
By implementing these five strategies, community partnerships can empower formerly incarcerated individuals to build new lives, contributing to safer and more prosperous communities for all.