Incarcerated persons face a variety of obstacles that frequently go unmet or underserved by our current legal and service systems. Few organizations work with incarcerated persons and, for better or worse, there are stereotypes at play: that such individuals are “bad” or otherwise undeserving of assistance; that they are taking advantage of the system; that their complaints are less “real.” It is important that we as legal professionals look at these individuals as worthy of our assistance and deserving of humane and dignified treatment.
Obstacles to Successful Reentry
One of the primary obstacles to successful reentry is the lack of resources one has while incarcerated, which makes planning for release extraordinarily difficult. In today’s society, where so many tasks are completed online or in person, incarcerated individuals have neither luxury. They cannot search for housing on the Internet, and they cannot walk in for a job interview. Rather, they have to wait until released—often to a homeless shelter—before being able to start the process of putting their lives back together.
Frequently, correctional facilities provide few resources for individuals who want to prepare for reentry. Resource books are outdated, counselors are not familiar with available resources, and the individual is in a facility far from their home community, making it difficult to receive assistance from friends and family.
Additionally, incarcerated persons have extremely limited access to counsel. Not only are prisoners not served by most agencies, but they have a limited right to counsel in many cases that occur within prisons. In New York, for example, when an incarcerated person is facing a disciplinary hearing—something that can result in years of isolated confinement—they have no right to counsel at the hearing. There is also no right to counsel at parole board hearings, as is the case in many states throughout the country.
As we know from the multitude of news reports that have come out over the last several years, prison conditions are oftentimes deplorable. When a person lives in such conditions and feels that they have no voice or support in challenging the environment, it can adversely affect their outlook upon reentry. There are numerous reports, for example, of people who have left incarceration hoarding food, fearing to be alone in their own homes, or experiencing anxiety reactions when grabbed unexpectedly. These behaviors and issues can make successful reentry all that more difficult and, unfortunately, the resources available are extremely limited.
Because so few programs focus on incarcerated or reentering persons, it is vitally important that service providers and volunteers be familiar with your community resources, legal service agencies, treatment programs, court DIY programs, and referral programs so that you can help direct the person to the correct place from the get-go. As with all of our indigent clients, formerly incarcerated individuals have limited resources and can seldom afford to pursue a bunch of leads to services and programs that, ultimately, cannot assist them.
Role for Pro Bono Volunteers in Helping People Successfully Reenter After Incarceration
This is a unique, but blossoming area for pro bono attorneys and volunteers. Assisting individuals in successfully reentering society after a period of incarceration is incredibly important to fight recidivism and drug/alcohol abuse, and to ensure that those with mental health needs receive appropriate and timely treatment. It also demonstrates that a second chance is available, which can go a long way in helping people feel valued and invested in their communities.
One of the primary needs upon reentry is housing—stable housing. Many individuals are released to shelters, but even those who have homes to go to are frequently homeless within a short period of time. In 2014, less than one percent of Americans were homeless; yet, formerly incarcerated persons were homeless at far higher rates—as high as “7.5 to 11.3 times more prevalent” than in the general population. Formerly incarcerated persons face federal and state laws prohibiting them from housing options as well as the social stigmas which discourage private landlords from renting to persons convicted of crime (this is particularly true of people who have to register as sex offenders).
Employment and Expungement
Reentering individuals frequently have unstable or nonexistent sources of income. Attorneys can help individuals seek available benefits, including veterans’ benefits, public assistance, educational grants or loans, and even transportation vouchers. Such assistance—along with stable housing—will provide a base from which the individual can seek employment and pursue other goals, such as a college degree or regaining visitation or custody of children.
Attorneys are also extraordinarily helpful in seeking expungement of criminal records. Criminal records are frequently used to screen out employment candidates with a common application question that asks whether the applicant has a criminal record. To date, more than 150 cities and counties have adopted policies to “ban the box”—to remove the question regarding criminal records from employment applications.
Since employment is such a vital component of successful reentry, helping individuals navigate employment laws is critical to ensuring that they are pursuing viable options. All states have some form of licensure restriction based on incarceration (for example, people convicted of theft charges cannot work at banks, persons convicted of sex-related offenses cannot work at day care centers, etc.). Attorneys can help individuals identify any legal restrictions to the desired employment and, if necessary, pursue legal avenues where the person is wrongfully denied a certificate or license.
Driver’s Licenses and State IDs
Another important task upon release is obtaining a state ID card or driver’s license. Some places, like New York City, have made this relatively easy by creating a policy for providing free ID cards. More often, however, there are legal obstacles to gaining proper government ID, which counsel can easily help a person navigate.
Medical and Mental Health Care (Including Drug and Alcohol Treatment)
The statistics are jarring: 61% of state prisoners have a mental health problem, 74% suffer from substance dependence or abuse, and 27% suffered from past physical or sexual abuse. These issues are often compounded and worsened with incarceration, thus making care and treatment upon release imperative. Unfortunately, due to difficulties with employment and housing—and thus, minimal access to insurance and other resources—incarcerated persons have a tremendously difficult time accessing such resources. However, due to their indigence, these individuals may qualify for assistance or services. Attorneys can help individuals determine whether they are eligible (and apply) for public assistance programs (such as Medicaid, Veterans Administration benefits, SSI/SSDI).
Attorneys can also provide legal advice and assistance to individuals who would like to regain their right to vote. Consider working with an agency or group to organize a voter registration information session and drive.
There are many projects that provide assistance to those who have returned from prison or jail. One example is the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which hosts a monthly clinic that provides assistance for expungement, employment, housing, background checks, occupational licenses, and driver’s licenses. Another is Legal Aid of Western Ohio, which provides assistance in criminal record expungement through its Reentry Coalition Program, removing warrants and addressing repayment plans for child support.
Attorneys are encouraged to seek out the programs in their respective communities to see how they can assist those who have returned from prison or jail. Such assistance helps ensure that the individual has a better chance of living at liberty without re-offending, and that they can access the resources needed to succeed and thrive.
 “Incarceration & Homelessness: A Revolving Door of Risk,” National Health Care for the Homeless Council, http://www.nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/infocus_incarceration_nov2013.pdf, Nov. 2013.
 Michelle Natividad Rodriguez and Beth Avery, “Ban the Box: U.S. Cities, Counties, and States Adopt Fair Hiring Policies,” National Employment Law Project, http://www.nelp.org/publication/ban-the-box-fair-chance-hiring-state-and-local-guide/.
 Doris J. James and Lauren E. Glaze, “Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates” U.S. Department of Justice, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mhppji.pdf, revised 12/14/16.
 In Florida, Kentucky and Iowa, all persons with felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised, and all persons in Maine and Vermont have the right to vote, regardless of felony record. All other states have some option for re-enfranchisement. Visit https://www.aclu.org/map/state-criminal-re-enfranchisement-laws-map for more information about your state’s options.