How to Prepare for Life After Prison
Published May 23rd, 2021
A prison sentence doesn’t end when a person is released from custody. No, it extends way beyond that. And for some, the transition can be harder than they thought.
It’s not a secret that the US has one of the highest recidivism rates among developed countries. According to Department of Corrections data, about half a million inmates are released from prison every year. But a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 83% of released prisoners in 2005 were arrested again within 9 years. About 45% of them were arrested within a year after their release.
The above data just shows how prison can change a person’s life. It does not just take away their freedom. Most of the time, it changes their whole being – and not always for the better.
So if you know someone who’s just been released from prison, you may find it hard to deal with them. But remember that this is hard for them too. They need to make huge adjustments while dealing with social stigma. The least you can do is make it easier for them to reintegrate back into society.
Understanding the Prison Experience
To help an inmate successfully reintegrate into society, we need to understand the prison experience first.
What Happens to Prisoners Once They Are Released?
When prisoners complete their sentence or are granted parole, they are released from prison. In most states, they’ll be placed under some sort of monitoring. Those who qualify are sent to halfway houses where they get to stay for a couple of months until they can adjust to life outside.
But most newly-released inmates usually have nowhere to go. Sometimes, they’ll be given pocket money enough for a bus fare. If they’re lucky, they might also get a tent as their temporary address. But stable housing is usually the least of their problems.
For many, having a criminal record is a kind of sentence in and of itself. Admit it or not, there is still a strong social stigma towards ex-prisoners. That’s why most of them find it hard to secure a job. Not a lot of people are willing to employ a former prisoner. Besides, many former inmates are struggling with mental health issues. This makes it a lot harder for them to secure a job or stay in one for a long time.
With nowhere to go and no one willing to hire them, it’s no wonder that depression is common among newly-released inmates. According to a study, more than 30% of newly-released inmates suffered worsening depression weeks after their getting out of prison.
All these (stigma, mental illness, unemployment) can do a number on someone’s self-worth. Some cope by turning back into their old addictions. While others are forced to steal or commit robbery just to get by. There are also reports that some former inmates purposely commit crimes just so they can go back to prison. Between homelessness and prison, the latter seems like a much better option. At least they’ll have a roof over their heads and they won’t have to worry about their next meal.
How Does Prison Change a Person?
Prison, as they say, is a world on its own. It doesn’t follow the social or hierarchical norms that we’re used to. Imagine having no say in where you sleep or what to eat. Add to that the threat of violence at every turn. This is why a prisoner’s self-preservation instinct is always on high. They anticipate danger and thus have learned to never let their guards down. If they want to survive, there’s no other option but to change.
And if someone is in that environment for a long time, those changes can become permanent. As per this BBC article, imprisonment changes people to the core. The person who went in won’t necessarily be the person who’ll come back out. Psychologists and criminologists refer to this as the “prisonization” effect. This, in turn, contributes to a “post-incarceration syndrome” upon their release.
One of the most significant changes you’ll notice is the inability to trust someone. In prison, letting your guard down can get you beaten up or even killed. If you’ve been practicing a high level of distrust for so long, it becomes ingrained into your personality. It’s not a light switch that you can just turn on and off whenever you want. As such, most former inmates have this kind of perpetual paranoia. They’ll always be suspicious of anyone no matter how good their intention is.
Many people also become more “emotionally distant” after a stint in prison. According to psychologists, this kind of emotional numbing is a trauma response. It’s their way of protecting themselves from the physical, verbal, and emotional abuse they regularly experience in prison. This may work while they’re in prison, but this can make them more socially withdrawn and self-isolating in the outside world. Not exactly an ideal behavior for reintegration into society.
How to Help Someone Prepare for Life After Prison
Life after prison can be hard and frustrating, especially during the transition phase. There are times that people may not fully accept them once they get back to the community. The stigma will always be there.
That’s why it’s important to know how you can help them reintegrate into society after serving time in jail. Here are some tips on how you can help someone adjust to life after prison.
Help Them Manage Anger Issues
Prison walls are built with violence and fear. In this environment, displays of aggression and anger are usually their only way to protect themselves. And you can’t expect them to get rid of that notion right upon getting out of prison, especially if they’ve been inside for so long. They need time to wrap their heads around the fact that they are now out of prison and thus can let their guards down.
This is where they need your help. They can’t address these issues on their own. They need someone to help them control their anger and aggression. You can bring them to therapy or have them join a support group for people with anger management issues. It also helps if you’ll avoid doing things that may trigger an outburst, at least for the time being.
Expect a Culture Shock
Being locked up in prison for so long can make someone feel left out upon going back home. It’s like living abroad for a while then you go home and find out that everything has changed. They’ll most likely experience culture shock. But you need to understand that they’re still getting used to a new environment. They’ll have to reacquaint themselves with new technology, the latest fashion trends, and even a new language. All these can become too overwhelming. If they have someone to guide them through all these cultural norms, transitioning would be much easier.
Help Them Stand on Their Own
One of the most important things newly-released inmates have to learn is how to be independent and provide for themselves. In prison, they never have to worry about housing, food, clothes, and other necessities. But in the outside world, they need to fend for themselves. Halfway houses and reentry programs might help prepare them for a life of independence. But they can only do so much.
Besides, a criminal record can severely limit a person’s employment opportunities. So getting a job and providing for themselves will be a real struggle. Because of this, you might be tempted to just giving them money. While it may help for now, it won’t help them stand on their own feet in the long run. Instead, help them plan their next steps. Encourage them to look for jobs or pursue educational opportunities and basically take back the life that prison has robbed them of.
As we’ve said, life after prison can be difficult. So try to be realistic when setting expectations for them. You can’t expect them to just pick up where they left off. Be more patient and let them take their time. Rushing them will only make things worse. They’ll be able to keep up eventually.
Teach Them to Deal With Rejections
Rejections are part of our lives. It comes in many forms. Whether you’ve been to prison or not, we’ve all had our share of rejections. So expect that rejection is not uncommon, and it should not be a hindrance for your loved one to have a better life after prison.
Help them learn to accept the rejection, move on, and continue improving themselves. Keep reminding them that they’re not a failure and that they should go easy on themselves.
Teach them to turn their frustrations into motivations. Your goal is to help them change and be a better version of themselves, so they must keep moving forward.
Incarceration can significantly alter someone’s life, especially after their release. The adjustments, social stigma, unemployment, and low self-esteem can lead them down a very dark path. This is why many inmates tend to suffer from depression after their release.
In this situation, getting emotional support from their loved ones can mean a lot. You can also help them seek medical advice from a professional so they get proper treatment.
Join a Support Group
Joining a prison support group while adjusting to life after prison can be helpful. People who have experienced incarceration can support your loved one in many ways. For one, they’ll be more understanding since they too have been through all this.
Although support from family and friends is a big help, former inmates know where they’re coming from. They can help your loved ones get through this tough time and come out better and stronger.
Of course, it still depends on how willing and motivated that person is to start over again. But don’t be discouraged if things don’t happen the way you want them to be. Remember, some things take time, and they will have theirs.
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About The Author
Judy Ponio is a firm believer in the power of sharing knowledge. Having extensive experience in the prison industry, she wants to share what she knows with the world. Judy also loves to write about political and legal topics.