By Rep. Helen Miller and Roger L. Baysden
There are over 2 million people behind bars in America and the numbers continue to grow. That’s more than the entire populations of Vermont, North Dakota and Alaska combined.
While major strides have been made in our country to better understand the needs of offenders, the United States still remains the single largest warehouser of inmates in the world. Far too little discussion is occurring on how to best address the needs of the 1.8 million offenders that will be released from our penal system and return to the communities from which they have come.
The education field argues that offenders need to earn their GED; the treatment corner of corrections argues that treatment is the most important element to a successful re-entry. From the religious community, we hear that focusing on the kinder and gentler side of people will help in their transformation. Others say it is family intervention that is sorely needed.
However, there is one common thread that runs through all of the disciplines that will assure a successful re-entry into the community and serve as the spring board of the escape from the past. What is that? A paycheck.
It is the only thing that will ultimately set the offender free. It is the nucleus for all other things; it is the freedom that allows for the good things to emerge from the offender. Without money in his or her own pocket, offenders are destined to return to a life of crime, just to satisfy the basic needs of life -- food and shelter. To an offender or any one, a paycheck offers hope, and work serves as an esteem builder. The combination of a paycheck and a job is the very bedrock of our society. There is no greater help or training that we can offer an offender than the freedom to be successful, thus enabling them to declare their independence of crime.
Work and skill development embraced by offenders will contribute more to the ultimate success of a released offender than any other single solution that an individual incurs in or out of prison. This includes life skills support while incarcerated and after their release. Moreover, we know that offenders can be and are highly productive people in work programs, thus reducing idleness in the prison and preparing offenders for jobs in the community upon release.
Supporting this contention, that work is the prime component for a successful re-entry into society, we need to look no further than a three-year study on what reduces recidivism.
The University of Baltimore via a federal grant, studied offenders who were discharged from Iowa prisons between 2000 and 2003. The prime measure of success in the community was their contributions to social security, or payroll deductions. This allowed the research group to determine any interruptions of pay for work, the frequency of the interruption, and the duration. Additionally, offenders were broken into two categories, those who work in prison industries or private sector programs verses those who did not have exposure to hands on training by either of these work programs. Inmates who mowed grass, worked in the kitchens, laundries or other housekeeping areas were categorized as non-industry work.
Not surprising, prison industry (private sector) trained offenders, had the lowest recidivism rate in each of the five states that were studied. In Iowa, offenders who worked in industries after three years had a 4.9 percent recidivism rate verses a 35 percent recidivism rate for those who worked for Iowa Department of Corrections. Another startling statistic is that since 1992, Iowa inmates have paid over $23 million in family support, taxes, restitution, victim’s compensation and room and board. Nationally, the figure is over $434, million since the inception of these programs.
The challenge of the courts, corrections, and society at large is how do we balance the safety of the public with punishment that fits the crime? If we ask the public what they want to happen to those who are in our prisons, they will quickly tell us either to fix them or keep them.
The U.S. population is growing older and there is a dire need for workers across the United States. Now is the time to focus on work as the primary means of self reliance and fulfillment upon release and to begin the journey of work-focused training as a top priority for our offenders.
Miller is a State Representative (D-District 49). Baysden is the director of industries for the Iowa Department of Corrections.