The process of reentering mainstream society from the prison system takes a great toll, both financially and emotionally on the individual and those connected to them. Citizens reentering society after incarceration, who have fulfilled their sentences and seek to restart their lives, are given little to no tools to do so from our current criminal justice system.
On November 15, The UT Community Engagement Center gathered key advocates and community members across faith, non-profit, and governmental groups for the third Front Porch Gathering to discuss challenges of and strategies for reentering community members. Reverend Daryl Horton and other congregant members of the criminal justice ministry at Mount Zion Baptist Church hosted the event.
Ms. Deborah Harper, a reentering community member who faces difficulties securing housing and basic necessities even five years after her release, graciously provided opening remarks for the evening by sharing her own story. After waiting 18 months to qualify for a Section 8 housing voucher, she found it entirely insufficient to secure most of the available apartments in the Austin area and spent the following nine months searching for a rental that her allowance could support. Although Ms. Harper struggled to secure identification, her personal documents, housing, employment, and other needs after her reentry process began, she reflected on the critical importance of non-profits, churches, and particular faith ministries in providing support for her transition. Her transparency and candor in sharing the challenging process to reorient herself to the world set the tone for the evening’s conversation and encouraged those gathered to engage in the work with urgency and intentionality.
The CEC worked to identify thought leaders who have faced the reentry process themselves, or work closely with the criminal justice system through local institutions to lead small group conversations following Ms. Harper’s introduction. Lauren Johnson (Travis County Re-Entry Roundtable), Eldridge Nelson (4Cs – Mount Olive Baptist Church), Professor Helen Gaebler (UT Law School William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law), and Elizabeth Schmelzel (UT Law School Pro-Bono Clinic) were present to guide the process, inform conversations and share their own experience and insights.
The more than 50 people present formed four small groups to explore the larger issues surrounding sustainable employment, safe and affordable housing, and access to medical care and other critical resources. However, each topic revealed deeper, more entangled barriers to the reentry process. Obtaining governmental identification, such as a driver’s license, social security card information, birth certificates, and other records, becomes a costly and frustrating process to navigate when citizens are released with only $40 and a bus ticket. Participants expressed related concerns around employment, housing affordability, and the general rising cost of living in Austin that has further complicated and limited the process for reentering society.
Two defining guidelines arose from the gathering over the course of the evening: the importance of language in identifying and working with people reentering and the urgency to humanize people’s experiences with the criminal justice system. As UT Social Work student and reentry advocate, Reggie Smith, stated, “I’m not an ex-offender. I’m not an inmate. I’m a citizen reentering society.” Other participants concurred that labels like “inmates”, “felons”, and “ex-offenders” do not affirm the life histories and efforts of those reentering society, and more supportive language should be adopted. This was one piece of the larger issue of addressing the US criminal justice system that is intent upon dehumanizing those serving time and “reducing them to a number” rather than providing supportive, rehabilitative, and therapeutic care. There was wide agreement around the urgency to share the stories of people reentering society as a platform to turn attention to positive criminal justice policy reform at the local and state levels.
While there was a consensus regarding the lack of resources for people facing reentry difficulties, specific organizations and programs beyond those provided by churches were noted for their support:
- Goodwill Industries
- Communities for Recovery
- Travis County Reentry Roundtable
- Foundation for the Homeless
- Getting Ahead While Getting Out model available in some prisons
The evening’s participants also emphasized the importance of connecting issues of reentry and affordability to the networks of people impacted beyond the reentering person. Those gathered shared concern for building support systems for children of incarcerated parents or parents reentering society who need special support to live healthy lives. Struggles with securing employment were connected to concerns over the lack of a living wage, and ongoing discrimination from employers and landlords alike for people with a record of any kind. Some groups proposed launching a campaign to tell the stories of those facing reentry struggles as a way to capture the attention of policymakers and the business community, and motivate change. The Front Porch Gathering unearthed and in some circumstances reiterated that the challenges of reentry are closely connected to at-large policy concerns deserving attention, action, advocacy, and research.
The next Front Porch Gathering will be held on Tuesday, February 21, 2017, from 6:30pm-8:00pm to discuss “Those Who Stayed: Assessing gentrification and the Black Population in Austin’s Black Culture District,” at Huston-Tillotson University.