The Challenges of Prisoner Re-Entry: Q&A with Mike Thompson

The HRC’s Sam Catherine Johnston speaks with Michael Thompson, Director of the Justice Center, to learn about the challenges of prisoner reentry. As part of the Council of State Governments, the Justice Center serves policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels from all branches of government.. In response to requests from policymakers for comprehensive recommendations and policy goals, the Justice Center established a Reentry Policy Council. The Council brings together leaders from housing, health and human services, workforce development, health, mental health, the criminal justice system, law enforcement, and the court system to help ensure the successful transition of people from prisons to the community.

Q: What are the challenges to implementing prisoner re-entry policies?

The majority of people released from prisons and jails return to certain types of neighborhoods. These neighborhoods usually lack the four things that are crucial for a successful re-entry: a safe place to live; a job; connections to health care and mental health services; and meaningful and positive relationships. Within these communities there is often a diminished capacity to provide these services to anyone, let alone to provide integrated services for ex-offenders.

*Research from the US Department of Justice (1997) shows that more than 10% of people entering prisons and jails have experienced homelessness in previous months. For people with mental illness, the rates are closer to 20%.

Q: How do you handle the re-integration of ex-offenders when a community does not want them to return?

Some community leaders are willing to reintegrate a person with something like a drug possession charge. It is harder to re-integrate people who are viewed as high risk, such as a 22-year-old man with an armed robbery conviction who is illiterate, has not finished school, and has acute health needs.

Sex offenders are another challenge. There are very high rates of homelessness among sex offenders because they are limited to where they can live. Criminal justice leaders will request housing assistance for sex offenders, but housing providers are often reluctant to prioritize them when waiting lists are so long. In some cases, housing providers have federal or other prohibitions against offenders who have committed certain sex crimes.

Q: What can a community do in these cases?

You need to get everybody to come together, including political leaders, criminal justice system authorities, housing providers, and community stakeholders. You have to tell them: “We have a choice: either these people are going to go underground and live under bridges, or we are going to find a safe place for them to live.” To be successful, you must involve all stakeholders to develop a strategy to deal with sex offenders.

Q: How do you provide continuity of care from institutional to community settings?

Re-entry starts the day someone is incarcerated. Many factors make continuity of care very challenging. Prison or jail-based health and mental health care providers often do not know someone’s history of care.  They are often starting from ground zero when connecting the person to mental health treatments and medications.  Prisons and jails are the only places - with the exception of state-run mental health hospitals - where a person has a constitutional right to mental health care. People do not have this right in the community, but they do in prison. Prisons spend billions of dollars every year to provide mental health care.

Upon release from prison, in theory there should be a handoff to a community-based provider. Ideally the community-based provider would come into the jail, but that is very rare. Usually, the correctional facilities are hundreds of miles away from the community of return.

In terms of heath care, the person needs to be linked to a public funding stream such as Medicare or Medicaid to cover these costs once he returns to the community.

Q: What are the biggest challenges you are facing right now?

The first challenge is to identify the subset of people who will benefit most from a new approach to re-entry. This requires agreement among providers and the criminal justice system on who comprises that subset. The second challenge is to make sure the services provided adhere to evidence-based models. The third challenge is to track the people receiving services and measure impact. Far too often we simply do not have a practical way to track this information.

Visit the Justice Center website.

Visit the Justice Center's Reentry Policy Council website.


US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics and US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, "Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1997," Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (Ann Arbor) , ICPSR 2598; and US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Survey of Inmates of Local Jails, 1996," Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (Ann Arbor) , ICPSR 2598.

Publication Date: 
Rockville, MD, USA