The sheer number of people who pass through the correctional system on a daily basis is staggering. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 77 million people in America have criminal records. Putting aside the fact that criminal justice in America is in need of massive reforms, our correctional institutions are missing out on a huge opportunity. Going to jail is a punishment, but it could also be an opportunity for every individual who passes through the facility. That’s why rehabilitative content for inmates is so important.
When an inmate enters a jail, they can still choose how they want to spend their time. They have fewer options, but choice is still a part of their daily existence. Frequently the choice is between escapism and self-improvement. For example, during rec time, a hypothetical inmate could either watch TV or do pushups. However, the options for rehabilitative content for inmates can be quite limited.
Many inmates (possibly even the majority) actually want to better their personal situations. They want access to group therapy, law libraries, and educational resources. Inside some institutions, rehabilitative content for inmates is in high demand, not only from inmates, but from staff members too. Content has the power to soothe, instruct and improve lives – of course correctional officers and jail administrators want inmates to have access to it. Content makes the facility safer.
The fact is, we are probably years if not decades away from reforming the mass incarceration epidemic America is currently facing. In the meantime, millions of people pass through institutions that could be offering rehabilitative content for inmates they house. Everyone benefits when this kind of content is dispersed, even the inmates who don’t need to be rehabilitated.
Where would you rather be: in a jail with other inmates who engage with positive content, or in a jail with inmates who have nothing to lose? Most people would probably prefer an environment of rehabilitation rather than senseless incarceration. By promoting rehabilitative content for inmates, we can make an immediate difference in the quality of life for millions of people.
Post-traumatic stress disorder normally thought of as something that only affects soldiers and military members coming back from a stressful deployment. In fact, PTSD can affect anyone who has gone through some terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Because a stint in jail can include repeated traumatic events and habitual stress, inmates are at a greater risk of developing the disorder.
Trauma from Jail Time
Research cited by promisesbehavioralhealth.com states that “African American men who had been incarcerated were two times as likely as those who had never been to prison to have PTSD. Thirteen percent of the men with PTSD had been in prison, while less than 8% who had never been incarcerated struggled with the disorder.”
Unfortunately, this higher rate of PTSD could explain why inmates experience so many problems adjusting to life outside of prison. Issues like unemployment, suicide, domestic violence, assaults, substance abuse often affect people with PTSD. As a result, PTSD and the problems that come along with it could be a key part of recidivism.
What Causes PTSD?
Crime isn’t always traceable back to a single choice. Similarly, most of the research about the link between prison and PTSD can’t pinpoint the exact causes of the disorder. Prison is full of variables. Plenty of inmates across the nation probably have short sentences and see very little of what causes PTSD. In addition, our brains adapt and function in a variety of ways, and we all respond differently to stress.
That being said, a number of stressful events can trigger the disorder. They are:
Observing a near-death experience
How to Help
According to newsmedical.net, in order for prisoners to deal with PTSD, they need “to understand the trauma in the right light.” Some inmates may be harboring background traumas, or events in the past that are shaping their present. Mental health experts need to resolve these past traumas as soon as possible.
“[A]voidance, stress levels, depression, self-blame and anger” all can affect inmates troubled by PTSD. As a result, inmates can benefit by learning controlled breathing techniques and by improving their coping habits.
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Last year, childcare costs per family averaged $8,772 nationwide. Parents across all tax brackets will feel this increase, and many will rely on dual income sources to finance their childcare expenses. The children of inmates are especially vulnerable to these kinds of rising costs, because in most cases, there is no second income to support them.
In fact, the children of inmates are more likely than their peers to experience a whole range of disparities related to education, wealth outcomes, and family contact. These disparities may seem like insurmountable challenges, but jail administrators and prison officials can make a real difference in the lives of the children of inmates.
Pursuing an Education
For kids with parents behind bars, it’s harder to pursue a post-secondary education. Researcher Joseph Murray found that the unintended consequences of parental imprisonment included the “diversion of funds away from schools and universities.” In part, this means that family earnings and wages aren’t invested in the next generation. Instead, those funds are redirected to provide for the incarcerated parent.
If jail administrators can find ways to reduce the costs incurred incarcerated parents, that money could instead be used to fund the child’s education. For officials looking to go the extra mile, setting up a scholarship fund for inmate children could also be an effective way to support their educational aspirations.
To combat this reality in Ghana, researchers Kwadwo Ofori-Dua, Kofi Osei Akuoko & Vincent de Paul Kanwetuu made the following recommendation: “Economic problems are major challenges facing families of incarcerated persons. Prison authorities should enhance the ability of inmates to work while in prison so that they [can] remain economically active and remit their families at home.” While this recommendation pertains specifically to the prisons of Ghana, making similar adjustments here in the US could provide more funds for the children of inmates.
Maintaining Family Contact
In addition to the educational insights presented in his work, Murray also found that “Ninety-ﬁve percent of women reported that family contact was extremely important to them, but only 67 percent of imprisoned mothers were visited by their children. The absence of visits appeared to relate to practical difﬁculties of travelling, distance between prison and home, the cost of travel, and visiting times.” It is important to note that these practical difficulties have nothing to do with the intent of the child.
Often, it is not the child who decides whether or not to visit their incarcerated parent, but the child’s caregiver. Researchers Julie Poehlmann, Danielle Dallaire, Ann Booker Loper, and Leslie Shear write that “[Caregivers] need support for dealing with their stress and concerns about visitation. The financial and logistical difficulties of arranging visitation, as well as the increased burden presented by the demands of child rearing can affect the caregiver, who often serves as gatekeeper in terms of his or her willingness to facilitate contact.” For caregivers, arranging transportation, shelter, and all the other considerations that go into a physical visit can be overwhelming. However, jail and prison officials can take direct actions to reduce these logistical and financial burdens.
How Officials can Help the Children of Inmates
Simply by modifying their facility’s community-facing messaging, jail administrators can entice caregivers to schedule visits, instead of rebuffing them. Prominent, easy-to-read visitation rules and availabilities are key to inspiring confidence in caregivers, and a confident caregiver is that much more likely to schedule a visitation for their child. An incarceration facility’s website is also critically important. Jail administrators should hound their webmasters into making their sites as user-friendly as possible.
Finally, if increasing parent-child contact in your facility is important to you, consider partnering with a socially conscious video visitation provider. Make it a priority to find one that offers a secure, standalone solution to enable frequent teleconferencing between children and their incarcerated parents. No child should ever be denied the opportunity to visit their parent because the hotels, gasoline, or time off of work is too expensive. With a video visitation solution, jail administrators can keep families close, and in frequent contact.
Shopping for a new inmate telecom service provider can feel like walking through the shampoo aisle of your local supermarket; way too many options, and not nearly enough time to try them all out. As a jail administrator, you’ve got a whole community relying on you to make a reasonable choice when it comes inmate phones and video visitation platforms. That can feel like a lot of pressure. However, many of the best incarceration officials see it as a challenge. “How can I make the absolute best choice for my county?” they ask themselves, surrounded by desks stacked with RFPs and proposals. Choosing a new provider is tough, especially when so many vendors only differentiate themselves based on commission rates. Perhaps the best approach to selecting an ICSP involves stepping back and considering the end-user—and especially the family finances of that end-user.
In a previous article, we discussed the pressures inmate families face while their loved ones are incarcerated. The piece explained that in most cases, law-abiding inmate family members are responsible for covering the healthcare, economic, and communication costs related to incarceration. One factor that article failed to adequately address was the post-release impact inmates have on family finances. This may come as no surprise, but returning inmates face a number of economic challenges in the free world. Consequently, their families face those struggles as well.
Employment opportunities for former convicts are underwhelming. Not only is the inmate’s relevant job history depreciated, their individual skills and competencies may have decayed during their time spent in prison. Social networks dwindle without attention, and contacts who could have provided career references or job search assistance are likely gone by the time the inmate gets out. All of this is compounded by the fact that a criminal record on a job application is a serious limiting factor.
Regrettably, these limitations are exacerbated by other problems, as detailed by researchers David J. Harding, Jessica J.B. Wyse, Cheyney Dobson, and Jeffrey D. Morenoff: “Low levels of human capital, poor health, and lack of work experience also pose barriers to former offenders’ economic stability and mobility. Forty-one percent of those released from prison lack a high school education, and 73% have a history of drug and alcohol abuse.”
This economic insecurity isn’t limited to the released inmate. Any income hardships inmates face after release will trickle down to impinge family finances. To put it bluntly, when former inmates can’t afford to put bread on the table, their families will have to pick up the bill.
Since ex-inmate earning power is so underwhelming, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is ample government assistance for former inmates and their families. The truth is another matter. Researchers Harding, Wyse, Dobson and Morenoff go on to state that “former prisoners face considerable barriers to attaining economic stability and integration. One important set of barriers includes legal and policy restrictions on former offenders. Many states have banned those with felony convictions from benefits such as food stamps, TANF, SSI and residence in public housing, either permanently or temporarily.” This means that the people with the worst long term economic prospects also receive little public assistance for their basic survival. With no help from the state, inmates can only turn to their family, and as a result family finances take another hit.
Debts and Fees
Sitting in jail can be very expensive, but not just in terms of opportunity cost. While on the inside, inmates can rack up debts and fees related to all sorts of things, and those obligations don’t just disappear after release.
According to a report published by The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, “the costs of calls, visitation, commissary, health care, and other costs are borne by individuals with convictions and their families. This study found that it is family members, predominantly women in the family, who primarily bear responsibility for the financial costs of maintaining contact. For a number of these women, including many who were mothers, these costs put them into debt.”
It’s obvious that taking on debt with the prospect of decreased future earnings is a recipe for disaster as far as family finances are concerned. Yet inmate families do it anyway—which in some ways is a testament to how important contact with loved ones is. Despite that, it is in this area that jail administrators can provide the most immediate relief.
Relief for Inmate Family Finances
When inmates are released back into society, they’ve done their time in the eyes of the law. At this point, it’s no longer necessary to extend their punishment through reduced employment opportunities, inaccessible public aid, or excessive debt. In light of these factors and others, the Ella Baker report reached the following conclusion: “We need to shift our sentences to focus more on accountability, safety, and healing of all individuals involved rather than punishing those convicted of crimes.” They couldn’t be more correct, especially about accountability. The reality is that law enforcement groups, citizens, politicians and businesses all need to hold each other to a higher standard if criminal justice reform is going to stick. We’ve all got skin in this game, and we can all contribute in our own ways. For jail administrators, consciously considering inmate family finances is the best way to make a real, positive impact.
When a jail administrator sits down at the bargaining table to pick a new inmate phone service provider, it’s a daunting task. Hundreds of variables between dozens of companies must be considered, and after all is said and done, there’s virtually no recognition. But on the whole, jail administrators do a pretty good job at evaluating what companies present to them. Like any good public servant, they meticulously weigh the pros and cons of each provider to secure the most efficient solution for their county. Unfortunately, one critical factor is often lost in the noise surrounding inmate phone contracts and RFPs (requests for proposals): The costs passed on to inmate families.
These families have a hard lot in life. They are often already under significant pressure even before their loved one is incarcerated. Worse yet, the costs related to their inmate’s health lost wages, and communication falls squarely upon their shoulders. These are law-abiding citizens who cover these costs, paying capital out of their communities and into the corrections industry. At some point you’ve got to ask yourself: Does a higher commission rate justify that?
Who Pays for an Inmate’s Healthcare?
Healthcare is already a vast piece of the average family’s budget, but a single instance of illness can break bank accounts quickly. With that in mind, consider that incarceration facilities concentrate people with infectious and chronic diseases. While in jail or prison, inmates are covered by the state. But when a person is reintroduced to society after living in the superbug incubator that is an incarceration facility, they bring with them any number of health problems. According to researchers Nicholas Freudenberg, Jessie Daniels, Martha Crum, Tiffany Perkins, and Beth E. Richie, “people leaving jail may contribute to health inequities in the low-income communities to which they return.” After release, the most immediate point of contact for inmates is usually their family.
Just because inmate healthcare is covered by the state, that doesn’t mean families aren’t sending money to buy Tylenol or other incidental over-the-counter drugs from commissaries. These comfort/quality of life products can be an inmate’s only option when it comes to relieving their immediate pains. Meager prison wages can’t always cover the costs of such products, especially if an inmate uses them regularly. Thus, inmate families are again left footing the bill, in addition to the healthcare costs when their inmate returns home.
Who Pays for Depressed Economic Development?
It’s obvious that families lose income when a mother or father is incarcerated. However, the broad macroeconomics of the situation is less obvious. When a community supplies a large number of inmates to the corrections industry, “human capital in the community is generally depleted or in the case of the ex-offenders, developed in undesirable ways,” according to researchers Harold Watts and Demetra Smith Nightingale.
Significant reductions in a community’s labor force can lead to problems for area businesses, as well as decreased revenue for inmate families. None of that is right for economic development. When local companies struggle, it can strain the community as a whole. So in addition to spending more to support their loved ones in jail, the families of inmates are losing money in the form of lost productivity and a potentially worsened economic environment.
Who Really Pays for Inmate Phone Services
In the corrections industry, contact between inmates and their families is frequently touted as a recidivism-reducing force. But there’s a flip side to that: according to Cheryl Leanza, “[t]he costs of telephone calls to incarcerated people in the United States are often extraordinarily high—well beyond what most people in our country pay for telephone service. It is often cheaper to call Singapore at 12 cents a minute from a cell phone than it is to speak to someone in prison or jail.” These high rates are usually the result of inmate phone contracts with oversized commission percentages, not to mention the outrageous fees charged by some inmate phone providers.
“The high rates are a terrible burden on the friends and family members of incarcerated people—who often have to choose between basic needs and communication with someone they love. And the high telephone rates undermine social networks that can help inmates reintegrate into society,” as Leanza goes on to state. All of this is counterproductive to the goal of reducing recidivism, and unfortunately is standard practice for most inmate phone providers. Once again, the families of inmates pay for these inflated service costs.
There has to be a better way for jails and prisons to provide inmate calling services to constituents. Make no mistake, inmate families are the end consumers here. They are the tax-paying community members who just want the ability to speak with their incarcerated loved ones. Families already bear additional health and labor costs, not to mention the psychological stress involved with missing a family member—after all this, they shouldn’t be left to the mercy of inmate phone companies.
However, in this area jail administrators can make a huge difference, because they’re the ones sitting at the bargaining table. Jail administrators can ensure that exorbitant costs aren’t passed on to their constituents. They hold all the power in the phone contract relationship. If a jail administrator says “Jump” inmate phone companies ask “How high?” Enormous economic relief for hundreds of the most vulnerable inmate families across a constituency could be as simple as switching providers.
Ultimately, it all comes down to this: The highest commission rate shouldn’t be the determining factor when selecting a new inmate phone company. When it is, inmate families pay the price.