Fifty dollars. That is the principal assistance the formerly incarcerated receive when they are released from prison. It is the seed money they rely upon to reestablish housing, transportation, and employment, and an amount that has mostly disappeared by the end of one's first day out.
In Maryland, the rate of recidivism, defined as re-imprisonment within three years of release, is 40.5 percent, down from 48 percent in 2007, according to Mark Vernarelli, spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. While the state continues its efforts to decrease that rate, the formerly incarcerated face a number of mundane challenges that are rarely appreciated but can seriously impact their ability to successfully reintegrate into civil society.
Russell Green-Bey and Antonio Alford are mentors and advocates with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker non-profit organization committed to peacemaking activities, according to their website. They are also former prisoners who say that had it not been for their association with AFSC, the need to meet the basic requirements of life would have likely pushed them back into criminal activity. The line between being a criminal and being an active citizen, it seems, is as thin as a $50 bill. "The $50 is going to disappear the same day," Green-Bey said.
For both Green-Bey and Alford, the cab ride from prison to home and a fast food meal wiped out most of that $50, leaving them with few resources to address a number of daily needs many people do not have to even think about.
For example, former prisoners often lack valid state identification. Lacking proof of residence – mail with your name and address – and out of money, these prisoners face a serious obstacle to obtaining state identification, a basic form of documentation often needed to establish housing or employment.
There are other elementary needs that prisoners lack. "People already expect you to have clothes," said Green-Bey. "You have no clothes coming out of jail because there's no clothes in prison anymore."
What is in prison, however, are industrial workshops where mass-produced, flat-pack office furniture is produced. Prisoners work in these shops full-time, but only receive 95 cents per day.
"They expect you to save up your 95 cents until you come home … then you can't survive inside," said Alford. "A lot of people rely on that $20 a month."
While prisoners receive three free meals a day, both Green-Bey and Alford commented on the small portions of those meals, only enough to keep you alive and working they said. The last meal of the day takes place at 4 p.m., forcing prisoners to use their meager wages on additional food, as well as necessities like soap and deodorant.
For those who save their wages, it takes two months to receive them upon release, said Alford. Additionally, many prisoners have nowhere to stay once released which impacts their ability to find work. "Not having an address or a phone number that an employer can mail information to or call you to even offer an opportunity is definitely problematic," said Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris, a professor of sociology at Morgan State University. "Persons are released, and if they are going into shelters, they may move around from shelter to shelter so that the phone number or address isn't consistent which can lend itself to difficulty with employment."
Prisoners whose relatives live in public housing cannot look to them for a place to stay, as doing so would put those relatives at risk of losing their housing, said Pratt-Harris. People with criminal records are excluded from public housing by law.
Ninety percent of all prisoners will eventually be released, according to Pratt-Harris. However, as Alford's and Green-Bey's experience with AFSC shows, "It's really the non-profits, the faith-based organizations, who are actually stepping in where the state is short to offer some of those services for persons at the point of release," said Pratt-Harris.