Life after prison: The 'sentence never ends'

An inmate flips through a well-used paperback
An inmate flips through a well-used paperback. Many former inmates face difficult job searches due to a lack of education or training.
Elisabeth Fall for APM Reports file

Every year, more than half a million inmates are released from prison, according to the Department of Justice.

For many, the transition is not easy.

Nearly two thirds of those who are released will be arrested again within three years, the DOJ reports.

To discuss the issues behind these numbers, MPR News host Kerri Miller spoke with Shaka Senghor, the author of "Writing My Wrongs," and Chris Uggen, a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota and a fellow of the American Society of Criminology.

Some of the most common problems facing former inmates are the difficulty of finding stable housing; inadequate access to drug and alcohol treatment; and lack of job training.

Between 60 to 75 percent of former inmates find themselves jobless up to one year after being released, according by Joan Petersilia, in her book "When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Reentry."

When it comes to finding employment, 25 states have some form of "Ban the Box" legislation. This prevents employers from asking about your criminal record in the initial application, though they are permitted to do a background check later in the employment process.

While legislation like this has been viewed as progress, there have been mixed results, especially for applicants of color. The National Institute of Justice found that black applicants with criminal records were turned down for jobs nearly twice as much as white applicants with criminal records.

These issues — housing, treatment, employment — are critical. They're also tangible. But there's another significant issue facing former inmates that is difficult to track: The difficulty of navigating a world that you've been secluded from for years, or even decades.

Senghor has personal experience with this. He served 19 years for second degree murder, and then had to find a job in a world he didn't know anymore.

"It's a very vulnerable space to be in because even when people attempt to hire you, there is prejudice that comes with your past that you can't seem to escape," Senghor said.

That stigma extends to educational opportunities as well, Uggen added: "Some try to invest in their education, but there too, there is a box on 70 percent of college application forms asking about criminal records." In Senghor's experience, the difficulty that offenders face after re-entering the world feels like an extended punishment.

"Unfortunately," Senghor said. "When people are sentenced, that sentence never ends — even when they step out of prison."

To hear the full conversation, use the audio player above.

This winter, MPR News with Kerri Miller hosted a series of discussions on criminal justice. We spoke about private prisons, the rising number of incarcerated women, reform in the eyes of a county attorney, the use of grand juries, what justice looks like in Native American communities, and a general look at the system from the people who work in it.

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