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Why families should step in to help as inmates step out of prison

You would think that someone who spent years behind bars would be ecstatic on the day they finally gain their freedom, but in reality that day can be as unnerving as it is joyous.

Leaving prison is a scary time for most inmates because often they are walking headlong into a world where they have no money, no job prospects and no place to call home. Such a radical change in daily circumstances can be jarring.

Perhaps that’s one reason why, within five years of release, about three-fourths of inmates are arrested again.

How can those numbers be turned around? Many possibilities exist, but one thing that helps immensely is support from families. The inmate’s loved ones can take several easy steps that can make the return to society much smoother and more successful, including:

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Put a priority on reentry. Ideally, reentry planning should start at least a year out from the prisoner’s expected release date. Although much of the onus here is on the prisoner. He or she should be using all of their time in prison to create the foundation for a new life. This means education, vocational training, psychological classes, getting in shape, and the like.

From a family member’s perspective, making reentry a priority consists of talking about it, thinking about it, and planning for their loved one’s eventual release.

Make sure the person has a place to live. If possible, family members should make a room available for the newly released prisoner to live in. This way there is not only a place to live, but also support close at hand.

This support is essential because the prisoner will need a period to adjust to their new surroundings, especially if they’ve been incarcerated for some time. If living with family isn’t an option, then other housing should be secured before the prisoner’s release.

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Assist with finding a job. This one can be difficult, but family members should ask around in an attempt to find initial employment for the former inmate.

This doesn’t need to be a high-paying job, but one the person is well suited for and which can help give them not only money, but structure. By being able to pay their own way, they will feel in charge of their own destiny.

Create a support network. The final essential element is a support network. A good start is to have a primary point of contact, such as a parent or spouse, who is helping secure housing and employment.

Others in the support network might include a mentor or other community member to help them get used to life on the outside; a therapist or counselor, such as a psychiatrist or a religious leader; and other positive community members willing to help out.

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Ultimately, this transition affects more than just the family, the support network and the former inmate. The entire community benefits when a prisoner successfully returns to society.

If they get the right assistance, they have a much better chance of becoming productive, law-abiding citizens rather than returning to a life of crime.

Christopher Zoukis, author of the forthcoming “Federal Prison Handbook” (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), “Prison Education Guide” (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016) and “College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons” (McFarland & Co., 2014), is a leading expert in the fields of correctional education and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He is founder of PrisonEducation.com and ChristopherZoukis.com, and a contributing writer to The Huffington Post, the New York Daily News and Prison Legal News. He is incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He can be found online at PrisonerResource.com

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