Any prisoner facing release and reintegration into society faces many obstacles. Society is changing rapidly and seemingly simple things like smart phones and bus systems can make one feel totally disoriented. Add to those a lack of resources and perhaps debts like child support payments and the deck seems stacked against him or her.
Many people are concerned about this situation and the resulting recidivism rates. But there is no standard, national system to assist released inmates. Options vary widely by state. And the “grants” some sites claim are available to individuals are hard (if not impossible) to identify in reality.
But don't lose hope. People that do care are out there offering help. There are government programs that are available to most people whether they have a criminal record or not. And there are many, many successful private programs.
More than 700,000 prisoners are released back into society each year. A positive attitude and a willingness to search out support resources can be the start of a promising new life.
Discover your program today!
Update May 2018
If you’re an ex-offender in California it may get easier for you to get a job in the near future. There are bills going through the California legislature which would stop licensing boards in the state from denying licenses to ex-offenders whose records include only nonviolent arrests or convictions. Today, many of those boards withhold the licenses to ex-offenders even after they have taken and passed rigorous training programs to qualify for jobs like paramedics, social workers, barbers, firefighters, building contractors and more. About eight million Californians would be affected by the new laws if they pass …. and that would be very helpful in a tight job market. Stay tuned and see if other similar moves are happening in your state.
Update April 2018
Be sure to find out whether the state you (or the person in jail whom you are trying to help) are in has laws that allow people to request that as many as two convictions be sealed. One of those convictions can be a felony. The records would be sealed from view by landlords and employers but would be able to be viewed by police and those who work with child protective services. About 20 states have such laws now. The ability to make such an application typically begins ten years after a person is sentenced or at the time of their release from prison.
Update August 2017
One good place to check for some extra assistance with reentry is, perhaps surprisingly, the Social Security Administration. They publish information regarding State Facilities that have agreed to a prerelease program that can help you get back on your feet. They can help you get a replacement social security card if you need one. And they help identify resources in your area like assistance with job searches and other benefits which could include cash, assistance with healthcare, housing, food and other necessities. And their “prerelease agreements” allow you extra time to apply for those benefits. For more information about benefits you may be able to apply for see Benefits after incarceration on the SSA website.
Sometimes grants are available from the U.S. Department of Labor to help ex-offenders return to the workforce. Typically these grants go to organizations that assist ex-offenders rather than to the individuals themselves. It is worth checking grants.gov to see if there are any current grants available. They might be offered by the federal government or by individual states so it is also worth checking your state’s website and searching for “grants”. Please note that often federal and state grants and loans in general are available to all people and do not exclude ex-offenders as applicants. So don’t hesitate to apply for a grant just because it isn’t specifically labeled as being for so-called “felons”.
While you are working to put your life back together you might at some point talk to a company that helps you to repair you credit history. These can sometimes be helpful but you must be very wary and don’t fall for false promises. Be particularly careful not to let one of them talk you into getting a “credit privacy number” to use instead of your social security number. This is NOT a magic wand and they may be selling you something that is not only useless but also not legal. Sometimes they are even just selling you someone else’s Social Security Number. So steer clear - the last thing you need is to unknowingly commit fraud.
Another caution: we mention above that it’s hard to find the grants that supposedly exist. We have seen sites that claim if you have a low income you can qualify for a “grant for felons”. Then they either don’t say where to apply or they suggest you just search on grants.gov. We can assure you, you will find no grants for felons on that government site. The U.S. Department of Labor actually does award grants, but they offer them only for organizations that will offer services like Case Management, Mentoring, Training, Education Opportunities and Follow-up Services.
So you might well find grants for re-entry programs that will be run by non-profit organizations. That won’t help you personally unless you can find the organization that gets such a grant.
Will felons ever be able to vote? It’s possible as things are happening in that regard across the country, state by state. In some states like Florida, convicted felons are banned permanently from voting, even after they have successfully finished their sentences. But now a case has gone to the Supreme Court in the first move toward creating an amendment to the Constitution and getting it on the ballot. If they are successful it could happen that righting votes would be restored to those felons who have not only done their time but who were sent to prison for nonviolent offenses.
That is actually a very good thing to look for: private non-profits that exist to provide services to recently released prisoners. If you or a friend can access the internet be sure to search “re-entry resources” and the name of your city, county and even state to find out what may be available. Many states are initiating new programs because they’ve figured out that it is less expensive to offer assistance than to have individuals return to prison life. And other programs have demonstrated that the recidivism rate is significantly lower for those who do receive help assimilating back into the community. Some examples of the types of programs you might find include:
- It can be very tough for recently released prisoners to find employment — though that’s often key to helping them turn their lives around. There are some resources that can help. Goodwill is in many cities and offers many services to those who have served time and are ready to move forward. They help develop some basic skills, offer job training and job placement assistance. There is also an organization called CoFFE!. That stands for Cooperative of Felon Friendly Employers. It manages a nationwide database of employers who are willing to hire ex-offenders. It’s used by many state and federal agencies to help felons find jobs.
- The federal government employs well over four million people and they have a good online system for searching and applying for government jobs. Most importantly they do not prohibit agencies from hiring ex-offenders. Specific jobs may have restrictions regarding specific offenses but there is no general rule against hiring ex-offenders.
- Newark, New Jersey’s “Office of Reentry” helps ex-offenders get into a job quickly rather than first focusing on lots of training. They send them to job-placement programs that help them with resumes and interviewing skills and get them in to see employers.
- In New York another program that makes employment a top priority is sponsored by the Center for Employment Opportunity. They get ex-offenders into short-term transitional jobs that are partially paid for with state funds.
- In a number of cities, such as Houston, there are programs that encourage prisoners to become entrepreneurs. They learn to “think like an entrepreneur” while still in prison so they have a better chance outside.
- Elsewhere something seemingly as simple as “a ride home” can make all the difference to an ex-offenders re-introduction to “normal” life. These programs exist in a number of areas including New York, Louisiana, California and many more. In fact just recently the Stanford Law School’s justice Advocacy Project introduced a program to assist federal prisoners who receive executive clemency from President Obama (typically those serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes).
Of course take advantage of any programs offered by the prison system to provide training and assistance related to creating a resume, having necessary certificates and transcripts on hand, learning interviewing skills and more.
Also take advantage of education opportunities, especially those that can help you get your GED or take college level courses. With regard to college, a new test program has been announced that will make Pell Grants available to inmates. A low income is the number one qualification for a Pell Grant, which can be up to $5775. The article Qualify for a Pell Grant provides more information about who is eligible. Further education will make it easier to get a job and will also demonstrate your seriousness to those assessing parole opportunities. And Pell Grants can be used not only for accredited college courses but also for trade schools!
If you can get into a program that deals with starting your own business, by all means do it! You already know how tough it can be to find a job, and the “ex-con” label definitely doesn’t help. But groups like the Prisoner Entrepreneurship Program offer an alternative to the right individuals — what they call “reformed inmates who thrive on challenge and accountability.” PEP is a nonprofit that has been around since 2004, connecting convicted felons with executives, business school students and other entrepreneurs. They don’t just focus on starting businesses but also on employment preparation and opportunities. Their boot camps and re-entry programs have achieved impressive results. All PEP graduates have jobs within 90 days of their release from prison, and they have starting wages on average 60% above the minimum wage. Almost all are still employed after a year, and graduates have started more than 200 businesses —- six of which have annual revenues of more than a million dollars. PEP operates in Houston and Dallas, but other states and cities offer business-related programs as well. Don’t hesitate to look into one if this is an area that interests you. You may be able to do more than you ever imagined! And remember that it’s not just college classes that can qualify for a Pell Grant — trade schools and business “boot camps” qualify as well.
If you are interested in starting your own business and/or already have plans to do so there is a lot of information and assistance out there. The Small Business Administration is a great place to start! They do not treat ex-offenders any differently than other entrepreneurs — their goal is to help anyone get their business up, running, healthy and growing. Their services are free and they offer one-on-one mentoring by ex-executives. They have online tutorials and guides to putting together business plans. They also show you specifics about how to start certain types of businesses. They do not make loans directly but they do guarantee loans for certain lenders which makes it easier for borrowers to get credit. We offer a guide to the SBA and how to use it. You will also find a wealth of information in Small Business Financing Opportunities and Grants to Start a Business.