Helping guide prisoners’ re-entry into society

Tuesday evening, the Apollo 13 Project sponsored a “Second Chance” basketball tournament at Utah Valley University.

Eight teams participated, and there was a standout performance by Cameron Mero (son of Sutherland Institute’s president), who is an excellent athlete and even more impressive sportsman. All of the athletes were superb.

At the event, I met Dallas Tall, a co-founder of the Project, who has an inspiring story. He spent 10 of the last 20 years in prison on various addiction-related charges but, thanks to the support of immediate and extended family, has been drug free for four years and is developing a successful career. His story raises an important question – how many could equal Dallas’ success if they had the same kind of family support? 

The event highlighted the crucial mission of the Project, creating a culture where those who are released from prison are actively reintegrated into their communities as effectively as possible. The Project’s organizers recognize that some offenders will not be employable because of personal choices, but they emphasize that almost all those who are sent to prison (and that population has increased dramatically in past decades) will eventually return home, and it only makes sense to ease that re-entry as much as possible for the good of the individual, that person’s loved ones and the community at large.

Perhaps most importantly, Project Director Eric Schulzke emphasizes that the Project’s work is inspired by the Christian mandate to minister to prisoners. Simply, when a person is working to turn his or her life around, it is an obligation for all of us to help, or at least not to hinder, that process.

The Apollo 13 Project points to Singapore’s Yellow Ribbon Project as a precedent. There, employers and the community are encouraged to support those who are released from prison to ensure they will have a second chance. That nation has been successful in one of the most important aspects of prisoner re-entry – securing employment for those who have been released. The need for success in providing employment opportunities is highlighted by the high rate of return to prison and the reality that those with strong networks of support, networks significantly more likely if employment is possible, are less likely to reoffend.

Those who recognize that the family is the fundamental unit of society and the foundation of a just and prosperous community should recognize the importance of the prisoner re-entry effort. Professor Bruce Western at Princeton University explains: “[I]ncarceration reduces men’s wages, slows the rate of wage growth, increases unemployment, and shortens job tenure. If a poor employment record damages the marriage prospects of single men and contributes to the risk of divorce among those who are married, the economic effects of incarceration will decrease the likelihood of marriage among men who have been to prison and jail.”

Professor Western notes that in at least one sample a significant factor in lower marriage rates for those who have been in prison is the failure to find employment. In fact, “[a]bout half the gap in marriage rates among African American men is thus due to joblessness among ex-inmates.” Simply, going to prison makes marriage – especially stable and happy marriage – less likely, and men whose employment prospects are decreased are less “marriageable.” This is a loss that affects whole communities.

Clearly there’s much to be done in easing re-entry, protecting supportive family ties for those who are in prison, and strengthening families to make crime and incarceration less likely in the first place.