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Recidivism Will Only Decrease if Successful Reentry is Embraced as an Antidote for Mass Incarceration

Lewis Conway
I thought serving my time in prison was my punishment. A lack of pathways to successful reentry meant I faced a life sentence long after leaving prison.
Lewis Conway
Lewis Conway,
Former National Campaign Strategist,
American Civil Liberties Union
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May 29, 2020

While there are many policies drafted and bills legislated, really the only components that comprise successful reentry to the community are skills, support, and shelter. Thinking about what I needed when I came home from prison looks much different now than it did 20 odd years ago. Back then, I thought serving my time in prison was my punishment; I didn’t know I was facing a life sentence after leaving prison. And for many people reentering society after leaving incarceration, that’s what reentry is — a life sentence.
When the corrections officer stopped by my bunk to tell me I was being paroled, my world stood still, and my head spun. All of a sudden life after prison was real, and my time inside was finally over. After 2,095 days, I was finally going home, and I had no idea how unprepared I was for freedom. I thought it was going to be as simple as the woman that taught the pre-release class said it would be. She said all I had to do was be honest about my past and be willing to work hard. So, as I sat in that hot, stuffy gym with 750 other men waiting to be released from prison, I thought I had it all worked it out. It all seemed so simple.
Walking out of prison I was handed a check for $50 and a bus voucher. The voucher allowed for travel to Dallas or Houston, and from there I had to purchase my own bus fare to Austin. I was expected to provide myself with clothing, food, travel, and shelter with that same $50. To say I was being set up to fail is being gracious. I was released on Thursday afternoon and didn’t have to report to my parole officer until the following Monday morning, so I spent the weekend with family I hadn’t seen in years and convinced myself that everything was going to work out fine.
When I reported to my parole officer that Monday, he informed me I was to spend the next 60 days on an electronic monitor. The monitor was supposed to be affixed to my ankle, but it was too small, so I was forced to wear it on my wrist. The conditions of my release mandated that while I was on parole I was to be gainfully employed. Who did my parole officer think was going to hire me with an electronic ankle monitor on my wrist? How did he think I was going to explain that to a prospective employer?
He didn’t seem to think about how the monitor would affect my life or even whether it would affect my ability to comply. He didn’t care that I was unemployable. He didn’t care how many times I was denied an interview after my application was reviewed and I had disclosed my conviction. When I sat in that prison gym before my release, I came up with a plan to apply at McDonald’s and work my way up from there. Aim low, I told myself. Don’t get your hopes up. Now, with a monitor on my wrist, I was worried that even this plan wouldn’t work out.
I had convinced myself if I aimed low enough, I was bound to hit my target and everything would work out fine. There was no sense in aiming high, those days were far behind me. Those halcyon days of youth had been stripped from me, right along with my dignity and self-worth. Aim low, I thought, so when I didn’t hit the mark I could remind myself it was because I was a convicted killer. Not formerly incarcerated, but a felon convicted of voluntary manslaughter, undeserving of anything other than failure.
What I needed was someone who had been to prison and was successfully navigating reentry to mentor me. I needed someone to tell me that applying for a job, for housing, or for a loan was different for folks with a felony conviction. Having someone tell me that being a father, a son, and even a brother was totally different after prison would have made an enormous difference in my life. My family needed to be informed about the limitations that were going to be placed on me and my ability to find employment, housing, or treatment. My church needed to see me as who I had become, not who I was. Creating pathways to successful reentry is just as incumbent upon the community as the individual, as transformation and redemption is expected, if not demanded, from formerly incarcerated individuals.
There can be no sustainable drop in rates of recidivism until we embrace successful reentry as an antidote for mass incarceration. Society must embrace the reality that 95 percent of the people currently in prison are coming home, and we have to find a better way to onboard them back into our families, our neighborhoods, and our communities.

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