During the 2013 fall quarter, four LSJ students had the opportunity to gain first hand experience working with men and women who had recently left prison and were facing difficulty reintegrating back into normal life due to a vast set of bureaucratic and societal hurdles.
When asked, all the students pointed to a lack of professional skills, limited professional opportunities, extensive issues with legal debt, and the pervasive social stigma that is associated with having a criminal record as factors complicating the lives of those who have served their time.
The four students–Marianna Wood, Lisa Buckner, Kelsey Engstrom, and Varsha Govindaraju–all worked with organizations that were with directly involved in the issue of prisoner re-entry or worked on broader social issues that encompassed many of the problems facing the previously incarcerated.
Marianna and Lisa both got involved with the rehabilitation and educational efforts spearheaded by South Seattle Community College by volunteering at an event called the “Transition Resource Fair”.
When asked why she chose continue her work beyond “Transition Resource Fair”, Marianna said, “As a volunteer at this event I assisted previously incarcerated individuals with resume building and participated in mock interviews for attendees. Talking with the attendees and seeing the community of organizations helping with issues of re-entry helped me make up my mind to get involved.”
During their time with South Seattle Community College, Marianna and Lisa both worked to compile information regarding housing and employment resources available to individuals transitioning back into society. Both women commented on the scarcity of resources and opportunities available to those seeking re-entry mostly due to the wariness of potential employers and lack of availability in transitional housing.
Kelsey’s work with the ACLU demonstrated for her that there is often a significant gap in the availability in basic services, especially those tailored to aiding the navigation of the bureaucratic obstacles those in the process of re-entry face.
As Kelsey said, “Working on the Legal Intake and Referral Line, I have found satisfaction in being able to provide frustrated individuals with tangible resources for their problems. Most clients are significantly surprised and pleased that they can speak with a human being and not a recorded answering machine.”
The hurdles many face are significant, she said. “I have spoken with a handful of ambitious individuals who have completed educational training programs in an effort to contribute to society, but upon completion they discover that their criminal records will prohibit them from working in medical or educational fields. There are so many bureaucratic and cultural barriers that face previously incarcerated individuals that even the basic need of finding housing seems impossible.”
Varsha worked with Columbia Legal Services to aid socio-economically disadvantaged individuals. As she said, “In the process of working with socio-economically disadvantaged people, you automatically encounter issues of re-entry.” As many of the other student noted, limited employment opportunities are often compounded by lingering and staggering legal financial obligations.
Varsha said, “Difficulties I have seen range from having one conviction holding them back to having so many they can’t pay off their legal financial obligations. The most common barrier I find is poor individuals being charged the same fines over and over,when obviously, they cannot pay. This model is supposed to deter, but in fact increases recidivism.”
All four students remarked that their work made it quite clear that the bureaucratic obligations of the re-entry population often contribute to their already significant burden.Their work, they hope, would help guide individuals through their transition back into society and facilitate access to employment, housing, and legal guidance so as to help prevent unnecessary recidivism.
This article was written by Chase Beauclair.