Prison time complicates career goals, says speaker

If you think finding a job during or after college is intimidating, just imagine trying to find work after being released from prison.

The difficulties many ex-prisoners face upon re-entry into society-including finding good employment-were confronted in the Union last night as part of the Fourth Annual Criminal Justice Forum. “Prisoner Re-entry and Reintegration” was the theme of the event, which was hosted by the University’s criminal justice program.

Guest speakers Reginald Wilkinson, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, and Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project in Washington DC, addressed the explosion of the prison population and offered solutions to assist prisoners establishing themselves after being released from jail.

After an introduction from professor Jefferson Holcomb, and some difficulty in dimming the lights, Mauer relayed incarceration statistics to a roomful of students and criminal justice department faculty. The charts and graphs Mauer used showed that the United States has a greater imprisonment rate per capita than any other country in the world, with over two million people incarcerated. About 650,000 of those prisoners will be released this year, Mauer said, making re-entry programs more important than ever.

“We want to take a practical approach to re-entry, not a political one,” he said, adding that political motivations often negatively influence different aspects of the prison system, and that policies ought to be made based on public safety.

Wilkinson agreed that the fear of appearing to be soft on crime can fuel policy makers and judges to administer harsher punishments and longer terms for less serious crimes, especially drug-related incidents.

“The war on drugs in many ways has resulted in drug offenders being treated more harshly than other convicts,” he said.

Both speakers-who are considered authorities in their field and are often cited in related works-claimed that it has not been an increase in crime rate that has led to so many imprisonments, but rather stricter policies.

But Ohio seems to be handling the re-entry of its prisoners to society, Wilkinson said, thanks to new legislation that will eliminate restrictions on where ex-cons can legally work and in-depth analyses of every individual prisoner’s plight.

“Each prisoner’s talents and problems are evaluated to determine the type of re-entry program they’ll undergo,” Wilkinson said. “We do an awful lot to prepare people to work, to get a job, keep a job, support their families, support themselves and make a contribution to their community.”

Lack of involvement in their communities is often an obstacle that many ex-prisoners encounter, both speakers said, as a stigma is attached to those who have served time.

Elections in particular disenfranchise former convicts, Wilkinson said, as many states don’t allow them to vote. He also claimed that if this law were reversed, the 600,000 ex-prisoners in Florida could have had a considerable impact on the 2000 presidential election.

Associate criminal justice professor Marian Williams found the event very interesting and informative and was excited to learn about Ohio’s role in the national debate over prisoner re-entry.

“They both brought up such relevant points about our prison system and the ways in which it works,” she said. “You can’t read research without encountering what these men were talking about. And I liked hearing about how well Ohio does in reintroducing its prisoners to society. Ohio’s on the leading edge!”

U.S. Prison Stats

The latest information available on the nation’s prisoners and their re-entry into society was provided at the presentation.

90 – 95 percent of all prisoners will eventually return to society.

Over two million people are incarcerated in the United States.

The US has the largest per capita incarceration rate of any country in the world.

The likelihood of a black man being imprisoned is 1 in 3; a Latino man’s odds are 1 in 6; and a white man’s chances are 1 in 16.

About 5 million felons cannot vote in the US.

There are almost 46,000 prisoners in Ohio.

7,000 of Ohio’s prisoners committed non-violent crimes.