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The U.S. economy sets up ex-prisoners for failure. The consequences are disastrous.

The United States, a land of chronic captivity, struggles to help ex-prisoners be free, with crippling consequences for people, communities and the economy.

There are so many people locked up in this country that close to 1,600 people a day are released.

The months and years after they get out are a fragile time, when suicide,overdose and homelessness rates spike. “It’s like being in critical condition,” said Ray Miles, who works as a vocational counselor for reentry services at the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh. “You need life support, cuz you ain’t got s—.”

How we treat people coming out of prison is a measure of the morality of our economy.

There are resources meant to help. Many prisons, jails and city governments have a patchwork of programs that prepare prisoners for life after release. In Pittsburgh, for example, ex-prisoners can get vouchers that pay for training to drive a truck, or work in a kitchen or in health care.

But Mr. Miles and others involved in prisoner reentry say that these programs, while well-intended, often fail to help former prisoners overcome low wages and other structural weaknesses in the U.S. economy. Such workers must also contend with the prejudices of employers, laws designed to shield citizens from “ex-cons,” and the comparative lure of the narcotics trade.

The key to helping ex-prisoners is good wages and the security of a guaranteed income, the path to a dignified, sustainable life.

What really works, these advocates say, is helping ex-prisoners (who usually do not have college degrees) find the remaining blue-collar jobs that still pay as well as or better than selling drugs, especially truck driving, landscaping and construction. Also important is holding them to the same standards as everybody else, and, when appropriate, paving the way toward admission to college. The key is good wages and the security of a guaranteed income, the path to a dignified, sustainable life.

“Employers often don’t treat you right because they perceive so much leverage,” Mr. Miles said. As he shepherds people to a place where they can pay their bills, buy a car and feed their children, Mr. Miles is walking his own path. He first burglarized a home when he was 12, and spent two decades in and out of prison, struggling with reentry into society. “It’s hard when you get out, and it took me a long time to figure things out,” he said. “But that’s true for a lot of people.”

Incarceration nation

The United States has 4 percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of its prisoners. The United States “holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Another 10.6 million Americans are jailed temporarily every year.

This massive incarceration system, which often locks people up for decades, grew in part out of the slavery economy in the 19th century, when state governments built prisons and locked up freed African-Americans for trivial infractions, and then offered their labor at cut-rate wages to factory owners.

The so-called convict-leasing system eventually expired, giving way to a system focused on punishment, but it fostered a society and culture where incarceration was an end in itself, one that was widely accepted and sometimes even romanticized in popular culture.

The United States has 4 percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of its prisoners.

With that background, it is perhaps not surprising that the United States never reoriented prisons toward rehabilitation. The consequences have been disastrous. The total cost burden of incarceration in this country is over a trillion dollars, nearly 6 percent of gross domestic product. That number includes costs like lost earnings, lost education, higher divorce rates, recidivism and unemployment after reentry. If not for mass incarceration, the poverty rate in the United States would be 20 percent lower.

The only serious study conducted of employment among ex-prisoners estimated their unemployment rate to be 27.3 percent, five times the rate in the general population. “That means that if you’re getting out of prison, you’re living in the Great Depression,” Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative told me. In addition, it is difficult for ex-prisoners to find housing. Employers balk at background checks. And they do not have full civil rights. Because of state laws, over five million Americans with felony convictions are not allowed to vote.

The benefits of improving programs for people coming out of prison would be considerable. With millions of Americans living under correctional supervision “and tens of millions more who have exited supervision, the potential benefits of effective reentry policies are far-reaching,” the Brookings Institute wrote in a 2016 paper.

Stealing dignity

The scale of people who need help certainly suggests we should tell more stories about prisoner reentry. There are countless books and films that cover the experience of incarceration, from “Oz” to “Orange is the New Black” to the books Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael G. Santos and American Prison by Shane Bauer. But the aftermath of incarceration “is an undercovered story, while 600,000 people leave prison every year,” said Ms. Betram of the Prison Policy Initiative. To put it broadly, they struggle. In the United States, 76.6 percent of prisoners are rearrested within five years, compared to 20 percent in Norway, where the concept of imprisonment is geared toward rehabilitation instead of punishment.

How we treat people coming out of prison is a measure of the morality of our economy. “Often when leaving prison, the person finds himself in a world that is alien to him and that does not recognize him as trustworthy, even excluding him from the possibility of working to obtain a decent livelihood,” Pope Francis said in a 2019 speech to leaders of Catholic prison ministries. “By preventing people from regaining the full exercise of their dignity,” they are exposed again to the lack of opportunity that often contributed to their committing a crime in the first place.

The aftermath of incarceration “is an undercovered story, while 600,000 people leave prison every year.”

Mr. Miles agrees. “The problem is that what’s available is those service jobs that pay $8 to $10 an hour,” he told me. “That’s not enough to always keep you away from selling drugs.” When Mr. Miles, now 42, was a teenager, he got into burglary because he liked the money, and because it was what all his friends were doing.

Together, they robbed houses and mugged people. “We knew people were buying drugs at the wine store, so we’d wait for them and pretend to sell drugs and then take their money,” he told me. After an initial stint in prison, he moved on to selling crack cocaine. “I dealt drugs so I could have something to eat,” he said. “That’s why I resented kids coming from good homes to sell drugs. We’d beat them up because they didn’t belong. They didn’t need the money. We needed the money.”

For over a decade, Mr. Miles sold drugs. It was a volatile, risky life. Friends were murdered. In a fight with an employer, he set the man’s truck on fire. One time, at a traffic stop, he hid drugs in his rectum, causing bleeding. “It took me forever to get my act together,” he said. In 2011, he decided to give up crime, and, a few years later, earned college degrees from the Community College of Allegheny County and from Carlow University. The second was a bachelor’s degree in social work, cum laude, in 2018.

The gnawing uncertainty of the U.S. service economy and its minimum-wage gigs contributes to people going back to crime.

There were some bumps in the road that illustrate how difficult it is to reenter society. When he started going to college, Mr. Miles still needed money to buy lunch and bus tickets. He decided he would sell a thimble of crack every day. “I’d go to the bar once, and whatever somebody had, $50, or $70 or $100, I’d take that money, and that’s all I was doing.”

Soon after, he was hired on contract as a peer support specialist for a healthcare organization. “I had to challenge my identity as a robber-dealer-gangbanger,” he said. “Because that is what I was doing, and that’s who I thought I was.” What really changed things, Mr. Miles said, “is when I got hired and knew that for 12 months, I’d have a paycheck. That’s what really makes a difference for people. When they know they’re going to have that stability for a while.” The gnawing uncertainty of the U.S. service economy and its minimum-wage gigs with employers like Taco Bell, Walmart and Uber contributes to people going back to crime, he said.

Instead, what Mr. Miles and his fellow travelers in Pittsburgh are trying to promote is work in better-paying jobs like construction, transportation or landscaping. “But it’s hard because we’re talking about people with few skills and degrees,” he said.

Culture shock

Truck driving, in particular, is a good job for the formerly incarcerated. “Trucking companies don’t care as much about criminal records as the health care and finance industries,” said Kathleen Devey, who works for the All-State Career School, which trains ex-prisoners for driving, nursing, welding and other careers. The hardest thing for ex-prisoners to learn is the new structure of a steady job, and complying with drug tests and other requirements, she said. “And sometimes people are afraid of success, because it means that they’re risking failure.”

Another group Mr. Miles works with to help train ex-prisoners is Landforce, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that does landscaping work for other nonprofits and government offices. Employers “get nervous about what people’s convictions history is,” said Thomas Guentner, director of land stewardship. “There’s a lot of popular myths, and we have to defuse those.”

People coming out of prison do not have jobs or immediate income. They have lost their support system.

People coming out of prison do not have jobs or immediate income. They have lost their support system. They do not have a home. “They’re also very used to saying yes sir and no sir, and we need to give them a positive structure instead of a punitive structure,” said Mr. Guentner.

Many times, ex-prisoners “have been incarcerated for so long they don’t really know where home is,” said Jasimine Cooper, director of workforce development at Landforce. “The culture shock can make you feel like you want to go back.”

One of the largest practical barriers can be the lack of a driver’s license. “How can you get a good job without the means of transportation to get to where you need to be?” asked Ms. Cooper.

Some companies have identified people with criminal records as an untapped asset.

Landforce helps people get driver’s licenses and also master the art of talking about their criminal records. “They have a lot of shame, and we teach them to own your record,” said Ms. Cooper. “You don’t need to tell your whole life story, but you do need to be able to tell your story, and talk about your record.”

Some companies have identified people with criminal records as an untapped asset. Flagger Force, which provides traffic directors to local governments, makes it a practice to hire people with criminal records. “Employers get scared for the wrong reasons,” said Kori Amos, a human resources manager at Flagger Force, which employs close to 1,500 people. “There are a lot of people who call themselves HR professionals who don’t know how to properly read a background report.”

Offering alternatives

At 17, Maceo Watkins was imprisoned for selling drugs, even though he was a good student. Mr. Watkins was offered an academic scholarship in high school, he said. “I got offered a free ride to Penn State, but instead they sent me to the state pen,” he joked.

After getting out at 24, he found work as a carpenter. But the lure of selling drugs was too high. “I was making $45,000 a year, but I could make twice that selling crack cocaine on the side,” he said. People selling drugs “are trying to provide for themselves and their families like anybody else. They’re trying to pay for daycare, and buy presents for their girlfriends.” Since then, he added, he has realized that “a father’s presence is more important than presents.”

“I’m just trying to do what I can to help the next man,” Mr. Miles said.

After getting out of prison three years ago, Mr. Watkins got a license to drive trucks. But he has eight children by five different women, and wanted to spend more time with them. So he started a contracting company that does everything from plumbing and construction to gardening and hedge trimming.

“I’m doing better than my little brother who has a master’s degree,” he said. “He’s trying to find a gig to pay back his student loans and he works for me sometimes.”

The best solution for people coming out of prison, said Mr. Watkins, “is the trades, the stuff they don’t teach in schools anymore, like how to be an electrician or a plumber. Instead, they’re saying ‘college college college,’ but that’s not the answer for everybody.”

The work he does now is more stimulating than his old life, he said. “Selling drugs is easy work. You don’t have to do any marketing. Drugs sell themselves. People will come and find them.”

Mr. Miles is busy with his life’s work, helping people walking in his footsteps. “I’m just trying to do what I can to help the next man,” he said.

The last time we talked, Mr. Miles was trying to help a recently-released prisoner who lacked transportation to All-State Career School. “I found out there might be federal money to pay for a bus pass,” he said. “If there’s not, I might even buy the bus pass myself. Now there’s a risk he might burn me. But I believe in the process. Who wants to be in prison? Nobody wants to be in prison.”

More reporting from John W. Miller:

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