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Integrating the Social Safety Net Into America's Prisons

The First Step Act is a good first step in facilitating incarcerated Americans’ reentry into society. The next should be facilitating the enrollment of the incarcerated into social safety net programs upon their release.

 Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison interact in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners August 28, 2007 in Ione, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

President Trump signed the First Step Act into law on December 21. The legislation represents the culmination of years of energy on both the left and the right to reform the criminal justice system.

While most of the attention has been focused on the legislation’s contribution to sentencing reform, far less has been paid to its attempts to facilitate the reentry process for incarcerated Americans back into society. Among other changes, the First Step Act provides $250 million over the next five years to empower the Bureau of Prisons to expand access to programming designed to boost the employment prospects of returning citizens. In doing so, the First Step Act ostensibly acknowledges the difficulties with maintaining economic stability that many, if not most, of those who come into contact with the criminal justice system face.

However, the depth and persistence of these difficulties demands more robust reentry measures than those currently provided by the First Step Act.

Undercompensated and Unemployed

Economic instability defines the lives of incarcerated Americans every step of the way.

"In light of the harrowing economic realities that incarcerated Americans face before, during, and after incarceration, future attempts at reform should integrate the social safety net into efforts to facilitate the reentry process."

The Brennan Center for Justice estimated that 80 percent of incarcerated Americans enter the criminal justice system having lived in poverty. Even those who are employed struggle with poverty prior to their incarceration.

Once incarcerated, the economic prospects of these Americans worsen as they are forced to settle for wages that are everything but fair and competitive.

As fires spread across California in August, national attention turned to the 2,000 inmates who fought them for $1 per hour. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to poorly compensated labor in the country’s prisons. The Prison Policy Initiative calculated that the average incarcerated American working in state and federal prison earned an average of $0.86 per day working in “non-industry” prison jobs in 2017. While incarcerated Americans working through the Department of Justice’s UNICOR/Federal Prison Industries, Inc. earned mere cents on the dollar, the program itself reported over $250 million in total sales from their labor during the first half of the 2018 fiscal year.

To make matters worse, incarcerated Americans are prevented from saving these meager earnings. Although states arguably should be absorbing these costs themselves, incarcerated Americans rely on prison commissaries to purchase their own food, clothing, toilet paper, eye drops, and soap. The cents incarcerated Americans earn each day are funneled back into the abusive system that devalues their labor in the first place.

The economic prospects of incarcerated Americans hardly improve upon their release. Stigma against the formerly incarcerated has a domino effect, translating into reduced likelihood of receiving a call back after submitting a job application. Fewer callbacks lead to fewer opportunities to obtain employment, which were already limited for the incarcerated even before incarceration: A recent study from the Prison Policy Initiative estimated that the unemployment rate among the formerly incarcerated is 27 percent.

Even those who are fortunate enough to obtain work do not necessarily have employment that provides for their needs. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, median earnings among those who found employment within the first year of their release, a critical window for successful reentry into society, barely exceeded $10,000.

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Incarceration has enduring implications for the economic stability of the formerly incarcerated. Incarceration among men was shown to be associated with reduced hourly wages (11 percent lower), work time (9 weeks fewer), and annual wages (40 percent lower). Earning potential is depressed in the longer term too with incarcerated Americans earning $179,000 less by age 48 than they could have had they never been incarcerated.

Such instability exposes the formerly incarcerated to increased risk of food insecurity, homelessness, and chronic illness.

Integrating the Social Safety Net Into the Criminal Justice System

In light of the harrowing economic realities that incarcerated Americans face before, during, and after incarceration, future attempts at reform should integrate the social safety net into efforts to facilitate the reentry process.

Federal law should require prisons at the state and federal level to either assist the incarcerated in signing up for or to automatically enroll them in the social safety net programs for which they are eligible prior to their release, regardless of whether they participated in those programs prior to their incarceration or not. These facilities should also be required to assist incarcerated Americans in satisfying whatever work requirements might be attached to each specific program. Ideally, however, federal law would exempt the formerly incarcerated from work requirements for a reasonable period of time (or, more radically, abandon work requirements for all Americans entirely). The formerly incarcerated should be able to successfully access these programs immediately upon their release. Access to food and health care through the social safety net will allow the formerly incarcerated to reenter society with greater economic stability, thereby preventing fewer from falling through the cracks into poverty. Formerly incarcerated Americans, as a result, will be better supported during the period immediately following their incarceration when they are arguably most vulnerable.

Formerly incarcerated Americans can benefit from the anti-poverty measures of the social safety net. In 2017, low-income housing assistance and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program kept 3.2 million and 2.9 million Americans, respectively, out of poverty. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, better known as food stamps), which has been consistently regarded as one of the most powerful anti-poverty programs, kept 3.4 million Americans out of poverty that same year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the programs that comprise the social safety net helped more than 44.9 million people stave off poverty in 2017 alone.

Evidence shows that the social safety net promotes work, which makes it an asset to the formerly incarcerated Americans facing tenuous employment prospects. Medicaid enrollees who participated in the expansion in Ohio and Michigan reported that Medicaid facilitated their search for work and made maintaining employment easier. SNAP helps those employed get more out of their work, stretching their incomes further. It increases their income by 10 percent or more, ensuring that other needs do not fall by the wayside.

That the effects of incarceration extend far beyond a single individual offers the strongest argument for streamlining enrollment into social safety net programs among the incarcerated. A staggering one in seven adults has seen an immediate family member incarcerated for more than a year. This rate is especially high (25 percent) among low-income families, which can have devastating economic consequences on a family when the incarcerated family member is the primary income earner.

"More must be done beyond educational and vocational training programs to improve the economic prospects of the incarcerated."

Children feel the incarceration of family members, especially their parents, most acutely. As of 2010, 120,000 incarcerated mothers and 1.1 million incarcerated fathers were the parents of 2.7 million children. Ensuring access to the social safety net for formerly incarcerated Americans can benefit their children as well. SNAP has been shown to improve children’s physical health, emotional health, social skills, and likelihood of graduating from high school. Medicaid is associated with decreased chances of dropping out of high school, increased chances of pursuing higher education, and higher incomes as adults in children who received its benefits. Shoring up the economic stability of incarcerated parents through immediate post-incarceration access to the social safety net can have positive reverberating effects for their children into adulthood.

According to the White House, one of the purposes of the First Step Act is to provide the incarcerated with “job skills, drug treatment, and education that prepare them to reenter American communities as productive members of society.” Indeed, the First Step Act is on the right track: According to a 2015 study from the Manhattan Institute, more aggressive and robust job training was associated with a 20 percentage point reduction in recidivism among the non-violent offenders that participated in the study. However, more must be done beyond educational and vocational training programs to improve the economic prospects of the incarcerated.

Bringing the social safety net into America’s prisons as part of the reentry process is a good place to start.

Ebony Slaughter-Johnson

Ebony Slaughter-Johnson

Ebony Slaughter-Johnson is a Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies. She researches history and the criminalization of poverty.

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