The transition from prison back to society is rarely smooth. Without resources, job prospects, or places to stay, the formerly incarcerated struggle to reintegrate. These are the stories of formerly incarcerated individuals merging with society and trying to find their place.
In the Fall of 2016, Oliver Terrero, 19, was riding the train in a panic, trying to get to Washington Heights. He had felt, as though by intuition, that his grandmother was on the verge of dying, and he was rushing to her apartment in the hopes of saving her. Exiting the subway, he hailed a cab and believed the cab driver was a government agent who had been sent to kill him. The two rode in tense silence, and Oliver crowded close to the driver, preparing to defend himself. The cab driver struck Oliver in the face, and Oliver grabbed the steering wheel, crashing the cab into a parked car. The two wrestled inside until the driver was unconscious. Oliver tried to escape on foot, but was quickly subdued by bystanders who saw the incident.
Oliver was arrested and eventually transferred to Riker’s Island, New York City’s primary jail complex. He spent several days in a cell. It took him a while to realize he had been hallucinating.
“It was a lot of fear. A lot of paranoia,” Oliver says. “Thinking that I was going to have to defend myself. I didn’t know how long I was going to be in the situation. And there was a lot of confusion.”
The night before he was arrested, Oliver had been smoking marijuana with some friends. A drug test revealed the “marijuana” he had shared with friends had actually been K2, a synthetic cannabis linked to episodes of psychosis. After two days in a cell at Rikers, a counselor recommended that Oliver be transferred to Elmhurst Hospital. And after a day in the hospital, Oliver was bailed out by his family.
Although it had happened in a moment of drug-induced psychosis, Oliver was in serious trouble. A family friend put him in touch with the Fortune Society, a Queens based non-profit that assists the formerly-incarcerated with an array of services to help them re-enter society. Through Fortune Society, Oliver was recruited into an Alternatives to Incarceration program, where he takes classes that are designed to prevent recidivism. As long as Oliver completes the requirements of the program as mandated by the court, he will avoid going to prison.
Shortly after he arrived at the Fortune Society, Oliver met John Runowicz, the director of Fortune’s Creative Arts program. An ethnomusicologist who served prison time himself, Runowicz believes that the arts are an important part of reentry for those who have spent time behind bars.
“There’s an aspect to the arts that allows for the processing of emotions that can lead to problematic behavior,’ Runowicz says.
In a 2014 study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) called The Prison Arts Resource Project, the authors conducted an evaluation of 48 evidence-based studies that evaluated the impact of arts programs in U.S. prisons. Many of the studies found that inmates who participated in arts programs showed significant increases in motivation, self confidence, self-esteem, and work ethic. Inmates reported that the arts helped them relieve stress and feel happier, which led to better relationships with other inmates and prison staff.
“This is a population that has little going for them in terms of the inner resources to make it on the outside,” says Amanda Gardner, one of the authors of the NEA study. “I think [art] gives you an idea of how to persevere. I think it gets you in touch with some of the issues you’ve got going on inside.”
Gardner said that of the 48 studies surveyed, the outcomes were generally positive. One of the studies featured in the Prison Arts Resource Project, California Prison Arts: A Quantitative Analysis, was published in 2014 by Dr. Larry Brewster. The study surveyed 110 male inmates in four California Prisons about their lives before and after participation in prison arts programs. A majority of the inmates surveyed said that the arts programs instilled in them a larger amount of self-discipline and confidence, and helped them relieve stress, feel happier, and gain valuable insights. Gardner says that arts programs can have similarly positive impacts for the formerly incarcerated.
Runowicz asserts that beyond their emotional impact, participation in performative arts like theatre and singing can provide real-world benefits for the formerly incarcerated.
“If you’re looking for a job and you’re used to speaking in front of people or interacting with people because you were in a theater production, or you got up at an open mic and sang, or you danced, you’re going to be better prepared for that interview,” Runowicz says.
Still working through the stages of the Alternatives to Incarceration program at the Fortune Society, Oliver Terrero will soon take a class on job skills training. He’s kept very busy, running back and forth across the city to his various programs. but he takes time out whenever he can to play the piano.
“It’s like writing on a journal,’ Terrero says. “If I feel angry, I don’t have to keep on feeling the anger and keeping it inside. I can play the piano and transmute that emotion into something else.”
After prison, many formerly incarcerated individuals feel invisible, relegated to jobs at the back of restaurants and warehouses, away from the public. But at ConBody, formerly incarcerated trainers are visible and working to reestablish themselves as members of society.
Behind an authentic-looking prison gate in the back room of ConBody, a boot-camp style gym in lower Manhattan, trainer Sultan Malik yells instructions at a sweaty man who struggles to keep up. Malik spent seven years in solitary confinement at Auburn Correctional Facility, an imprisonment that, according to his trainer profile, made him an expert in exercising in limited space. Now, he is one of 16 formerly incarcerated trainers who work at ConBody.
“That’s our mission statement,” says owner Coss Marte. “To hire as many formerly incarcerated individuals as possible and give them a second opportunity.”
Marte is someone who understands the importance of that opportunity. In 2013, he was released from Lakeview Correctional Facility in Brocton, NY, after serving a four-year sentence for selling drugs. Before his arrest, he claims to have made roughly $2 million a year running a drug-delivery service in New York. When he walked out of prison, he was determined to stay out. Saddled with the stigma associated with being formerly incarcerated, he struggled to find legit work.
“I was going to every store you could think of and filling out job applications,” Marte says. “I just knew once I checked that box ‘yes’, that I had a felony, that I wasn’t going to get a call back.”
The challenge of reintegration is real. Ninety-five percent of people currently behind bars will be released at some point in the future, and more than 600,000 people are released from prison each year, according to the Department of Justice. Of those released, three-quarters will be rearrested within five years, and six of ten will be re-convicted. The overall incarceration numbers are relatively massive: the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate. The U.S.’ 1.5 million prisoners represent one quarter of the world’s prison population, even though the U.S. comprises roughly 5 percent of the world’s population. Harsh sentencing for drug offenses and longer sentences for violent and repeat offenders help spike the incarceration rate. Roughly 1 in 100 adult Americans are behind bars.
The graphic below illustrates the unemployment rates, based on a quarterly measure in the study period of 2005-2009, among a cohort of 6,561 offenders who were released from IDOC custody throughout 2005. It is possible to see the impact of unemployment on recidivism, which is a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, especially in the first year. High rates of unemployment usually leads to higher rates of recidivism when an individual is released from prison. The longer formerly incarcerated people stay out of prison, the more likely it is that they won’t go back.
Those coming out of prison must confront a variety of societal and personal obstacles as they struggle to adjust to life on the outside. Ex-offenders are less educated, more likely to have a history of substance abuse or mental illness, and less likely to be gainfully employed, according to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service.
“The only opportunities for people who’ve been incarcerated are low paying jobs,” Marte says. “Here [at ConBody], we treat them like they’re worth something. We treat them like they have a skill they could offer people, and that’s what we want–to bring out their self-worth.”
Researchers and practitioners working in the reentry field believe that employment is a key ingredient in determining the success or failure of a person’s transition from prison to society. Positive employment outcomes can help pave the way to better housing conditions and improved relations between formerly incarcerated individuals and their families and communities. But finding a steady job after prison can be a major challenge. Many employers are reluctant to hire someone with a prison record. Most people who are recently released also have other attributes anathema to employers, such as low educational levels and limited work history. They may have competing demands from drug treatment programs and curfews, or other restrictions on mobility that can exacerbate the problem of finding and keeping full-time employment.
Transitional jobs are seen by many as a promising employment model for former prisoners and other disadvantaged groups. In transitional jobs programs, participants are placed into temporary, paid jobs shortly after release, and given resources to help in the search for permanent work. In New York, organizations such as the Center for Employment Opportunities provide those coming out of prison with 75 days of temporary employment.
Prison reform advocates are trying to make ex-prisoners more appealing to employers by changing the prisons. According to the DOJ, building an education program within the federal prison system could lower odds of returning to prison by 43 percent. The Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program allows eligible formerly incarcerated individuals to receive money for education in the form of Pell Grants.. The grants would make it easier for formerly incarcerated individuals to get a job and help their families after release. And the Federal Bureau of Prisons is encouraging inmates to develop marketable job skills and occupational training. Inmates who worked in prison industries were 24 percent less likely to recidivate and 14 percent more likely to be re-employed after release, according to the DOJ.
Other solutions are being implemented to combat recidivism. Over the years, the Prison Bureau has made sure that formerly incarcerated individuals receive access to government-issued identification documents in order to facilitate reentry into society. In Nov. 2016, the Prison Bureau announced that it would begin covering the costs of obtaining these documents prior to an inmate’s release.
For other inmates, the return to society is not made easy. When Coss Marte left Lakeview Correctional Facility in 2013, he had a family who would house him. But Marte knows that many are not so lucky.
“Some of my employees today, they live in a shelter,” Marte says. “We are giving them an opportunity, but when they go back home they have nowhere to sleep. I slept on my mom’s couch, I had something.”
While Marte struggled to find employment, he started putting on fitness classes in a local park. He had developed his routine in his cell at Lakeview, where he had lost more than 80 pounds, and helped other prisoners lose a combined 1000 pounds. As is the case for many who went to prison after a lucrative career of selling drugs, the allure of his former life was never far away.
“People looked at me like I was crazy,” Marte says. “‘You went from making millions of dollars selling drugs, and now you’re in a park trying to hustle a workout?’ I was fortunate enough to not go back to” selling drugs.
Marte stayed the course, promoting his workout to anyone who would listen. His classes grew, and soon he was able to rent out studio space. Only four years after his release, Con Body boasts two locations, and employs ex-offenders almost exclusively.
“If they weren’t working here, I don’t know where they would be,” Coss says. “It gives them the opportunity just to keep themselves on the right path.”