Thinking Outside the Box

It’s been a little over a year since Rhode Island’s “Ban the Box” law went into effect, making it the sixth state in the country to remove information about criminal history from private job applications. While this law was an important step in ending employment discrimination for people with criminal records, its effects remain largely symbolic – potential employers can still ask about incarceration history during a job interview and the substantial gaps in employment from prison time often raise red flags on an application. So while “Ban the Box” is a positive gesture, the problems ex-prisoners face upon release remain substantial. Barriers to reentry such as court fees, low educational attainment and general ill preparedness for civilian life affect countless Rhode Islanders upon release from prison. These problems can only be solved through a total re-envisioning of our preconceived notions regarding prison time. Programs like 9 Yards, led by Open Doors Rhode Island, can help reduce recidivism by minimizing the worst consequences of prisoner reentry.

Roughly 9 million people are released from jail each year, and upon release they immediately face barriers that prevent them from successfully re-entering society. The major challenge is employment, with many unable to find jobs due to discrimination over their former prisoner status or a lack of human capital (Roughly 40 percent of prisoners lack a high school diploma or equivalent). Furthermore, job-finding troubles compound the massive debt that convicts incur in the form of court and legal fees. That’s because these fees – which arise from the basic processes of undergoing a trial, such as document filing, and can cost thousands of dollars – are extremely burdensome on ex-convicts with no income. Hence when individuals are released from prison and are rendered unable to find a job, it is very likely that they will be unable to earn the wages needed to pay court dues. As a result they often end up failing to meet their payments, leading to a vicious cycle of rearrests, more fees, and reincarceration. Given that recently released inmates are often already in debt for child support and other things, having to pay back unaffordable court fees or risk another round of imprisonment is an impossible bind. The result has been the rise of modern “debtors’ prisons”. For example, roughly 17% of Rhode Island inmates are currently imprisoned because they have not paid off court debt, partly explaining why Rhode Island’s recidivism rate is 54 percent.

While court costs are certainly prevalent all over the country, Rhode Island imposes them at a steeper level than other New England states – a single offense in Rhode Island can cost as much as $1000, and missing just one payment costs $150 and several days in jail. One man, Ricardo Graham, was incarcerated for 40 days over a $745 court fee. This time away from work cost him his job, making him unable to keep up with any future court payments. Similarly, Harold Brooks started accruing court fees in the 1970s, and went to jail over five times before being able to pay them off, thirty years later. These horror stories typify how the criminal justice system is using tactics like court costs to work against prisoners, rather than rehabilitate them. Given that employment, earnings, and education levels are already lower among people who go to prison, and incarceration time often only exacerbates these challenges, it is time for the prison system to change its approach. Nick Horton, director for 9 Yards, a program that helps prisoners reenter society by teaching them valuable skills while incarcerated, believes that prison time, rather than worsening existing challenges among inmates, can be utilized to help convicts. “Prison holds the key to its own reform.” he explains, saying that the extended free time inherent in a lengthy prison stay, rather than being used for idle punishment, can be productively used to help solve the very problems that put people in prison to begin with.

Roughly 9 million people are released from jail each year, and upon release they immediately face barriers that prevent them from successfully re-entering society.

In particular, 9 yards seeks to help the large number of violent offenders who are especially in need of active rehabilitation. These are people for whom Rhode Island’s “Ban the Box” law has not, according to Horton, “had much of an effect on the job market” on the ground. That’s because these serious offenders tend to slip through the cracks of the system upon their release, putting in particular need of support. Accordingly, 9 Yards provides various kinds of support to these prisoners while they are behind bars, in the hopes that they will be better able to succeed upon reentry. This support can be educational assistance in the form of classes, occupational training, or personal assistance in the form of behavioral or family therapy. After participating in the program for nine months, prisoners improved an average of two grade levels, prison rule infractions decreased, and eight participants completed a combined total of 40 college classes. Together, they earned a B+ average.

These results are especially remarkable because unlike other prison reentry programs, 9 Yards does not try to avoid what are called “high-risk” individuals, or those unlikely to succeed in rehabilitative programs (and who are often avoided to make a program look more successful). “9 Yards is unique in selection” says Horton, “because we select based on a random, controlled study that chooses people who are serving long sentences.” Because of this, many of the participants had committed some sort of violent crime. The outcomes are staggering: of the 15 initial participants, 11 graduated and, according to Horton’s assessment, were “on the right path” six months after release. Another huge change Horton noticed in the prisoners is personal. He explains that for many of these people, 9 Yards is the first time anyone has shown real investment in their future. As he puts it, “[i]t’s a dramatic change to come to people and say, ‘you have the opportunity to succeed’”.

In the long term, Horton hopes that 9 Yards will grow and eventually become institutional policy. This will be possible, he says, because 9 Yards does not seek to completely restructure prison – instead it uses the basic design of prison to its advantage by using the time productively. However, improving the educational and personal skill of prisoners is only half of the equation. “What we’re trying to do can’t succeed until society changes on a larger scale”, Horton notes. He is likely correct, because for all the success in educating prisoners, citizens on the outside still have drastic prejudices against an already vulnerable subset of the population. A welcoming community must complement any potentially successful reentry and rehabilitation program. Otherwise, court fees and employment discrimination will continue to trap offenders in a vicious cycle of recidivism.