The U.S. Prison System Has a Revolving Door Problem

The United States leads the world in incarceration, both by sheer number and by percentage.  We imprison more people than any other country in the world.  This issue is gradually receiving more attention, and potential reforms have been floated on both sides of the aisle in Congress.  What is not as well-known is the fact that the United States also has a high recidivism rate.  This means that when people leave prison in this country, they have a high likelihood of returning.  Why is this?  Are some people simply “born criminals”?  The answer lies in the difficult maze that our government and our society force former prisoners to navigate.

One of the biggest obstacles faced upon release from prison is unemployment.  Many people return to impoverished communities where jobs are not readily available.  Add that to the fact that most employment applications require people to indicate if they have a criminal history or not. 

Another factor that contributes to the high rate of recidivism in the United States is the ban on most forms of public assistance for convicted felons.  People who are convicted of felonies are banned by federal law from SNAP[1](formerly known as food stamps) and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).  Felons are also frequently barred from public housing, and in some cases, sharing public housing with family members who have no criminal record. 

These limitations illustrate the nearly impossible lifestyle requirements that those with criminal records are subject to.  If you are convicted of a crime in “the land of the free”, you appropriately go to prison in many cases.  Upon your release, you are told that you have paid your debt to society, but find out that that debt will follow you for the rest of your life.  When it comes to employment and the social safety that many other people enjoy, the odds are already stacked against you.  Given this, our society should not be surprised that a recent study found that two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested within three years. 

Two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years of release. 

As Christians, what are we called to do?  There are a number of different paths we can take to help rehabilitate our formerly incarcerated neighbors.  We can invite them to our churches, consider hiring them if we are employers, and try not to judge their entire being based on past mistakes.  However, we must not lose sight of the fact that recidivism is a structural problem. 

We can, and should, open our doors to former prisoners.  We can do our best to help them reintegrate into society, and make them feel included in our communities.  But we should also work to change the laws and policies that make it so difficult for former prisoners to start a new life.  If we limit ourselves to just trying to help people once they are out of prison and ignore the structural injustices that in place, we are doing ourselves and our society a great disservice. 

Some people might argue that the limitations imposed upon former prisoners’ lives are quite reasonable.  Why would they want to hire someone who had been convicted of a crime?  Why would they want to worship with someone who had spent time in prison for violating the laws of both God and man?  Why should their tax dollars go to providing food and housing to someone who had consciously forfeited a lawful life in our society? 

These are not unreasonable questions.  They are, however, not questions that Jesus would have asked.  Jesus repeatedly called for his followers to care for those who were on the margins of society, including those in prison.  Jesus preached redemption for all, not blanket condemnation for sin. 

This does not, however, mean that we should blindly accept all former prisoners into our lives. Asking potential employees about their criminal history in and of itself is not problematic.  The problem is that when people are required to identify themselves as having any criminal record at all on the first page of a job application, it makes it easy for an employer to immediately disregard such applications without a second thought.  By checking a box that indicates a criminal record, everyone who has been convicted of any sort of crime is painted with the same brush, and the consideration of individuals is not encouraged. 

Too often society does not allow those who have been convicted of crimes to keep the dignity of their humanity.  It is this loss that is causing so much pain in our population today.  A person’s qualifications, education, trauma, and a host of other factors are all wiped out when the question is cut down to “formerly incarcerated” or not.  This is what we should seek to change in our country and in our communities. 

As Christians, should we love all people, including former prisoners?  Absolutely.  Should we trust all of them implicitly, and disregard their previous crimes?  Not entirely.  We should view them as individuals not entirely defined by their past. We should also seek to change the laws that govern our society to reflect this.

Changing the legal burdens placed on returning citizens is not enough, and accepting those people in our immediate communities is not enough.  Both are required to build the world that Christ called us towards. 

-Joshua Russell is a graduate of Furman University and lives in Washington, DC.

[1] Most states have lifted this ban, but usually only on first-time, non-violent drug offenders. The federal ban remains in place.