To Break the Cycle of Poverty, We Need to Break the Cycle of Incarceration

In March, the first woman freed from prison under the First Step Act started her new job at Walmart, thanks to a phone call from Jared Kushner.

Catherine Toney has a chance at a new life. With stable employment, the likelihood that she will end up back in prison is lower by at least 20 percent. The likelihood that she will end up in poverty is also lower.

But, sadly, many others will not be so lucky. The truth is that, interventions like Kushner’s aside, the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated individuals are extensive and far-reaching. Returning citizens face a stigma in society that often limits their opportunities for employment, housing and education. Turning to old habits and the familiar past can sometimes seem like the only option for these men and women.

Incarceration is inextricably linked to poverty, and it’s a vicious cycle: Poverty is a leading driver of incarceration, and incarceration is a leading driver of poverty. A newly released study by the Brookings Institution found that growing up in poverty significantly increases the likelihood of incarceration. And according to civil rights scholar and author Michelle Alexander, two-thirds of those detained in jails report annual incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest.

But for most of the 620,000 people released from U.S. prisons every year, a new life doesn’t always happen: Another study found that after being out of prison for 20 years, over three-quarters of formerly incarcerated individuals who didn’t finish high school were in the bottom 20 percent of income earners. One-third will end up back behind bars at some point in their lives.

Our communities are safest when those who have been incarcerated have a real chance at redemption when they return home, and we shouldn’t just be playing lip service to the principle of second chances. We need to believe that these individuals can and will transform their lives if given the tools and opportunity.

Justice reform plays a vital part in second chances, and it’s sorely needed. The United States has the highest rate of incarcerated individuals in the world, with over 2 million people in state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails and military prisons. Americans make up less than five percent of the world’s population, but the U.S. has 22 percent of the world’s prison population. One of many reasons for this is that we have criminalized activities that other countries don’t always perceive as crimes – like some drug offenses – which have driven many people into incarceration.

Legislation like the First Step Act has brought much-needed change to the federal justice system – changes that can reduce a formerly incarcerated individual’s chance of reoffending. But it is not, and should not be, the only answer. The U.S. government spends over $80 billion a year on corrections, but the most effective — and most cost-effective — solutions are happening at the community level. For years, community groups and organizations across the country have been helping individuals who have served time not just in federal prisons but in state and local correctional facilities start fresh and forge new paths.

Take The Last Mile. In 2010, founders Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti, seasoned venture capital investors, realized that there were more than 500,000 open computer science jobs in the United States – and over 100,000 people in California’s prisons. Now, their program equips inmates in 12 facilities and four states with tech and entrepreneurial skills that prepare them to find a job, a purpose and a new life upon release.

None of their graduates have returned to prison.

Students at The Other Side Academy – formerly incarcerated men and women, many of whom have experienced addiction or homelessness – must commit two years of their lives to be admitted. They live in an intentional community in Utah, where they learn life, social and vocational skills and are taught how to have a life free of addiction, crime and destruction.

Three-quarters of them make it to graduation.

All people are capable of extraordinary things if they have the tools and support to overcome barriers and realize their potential. Many programs focus on individuals’ inherent disadvantages, rather than their aptitudes, which often leads to dependency and the need for permanent help. Programs like The Last Mile, The Other Side Academy and other organizations Stand Together has vetted as the most innovative and effective in-prison and re-entry programs in the country believe in the inherent abilities of the individuals they work with.

Americans need to know that the passage of legislation like the First Step Act does not mean that their help is not also urgently needed in solving this problem. I call on Americans to support second chances in their own communities – either financially, in the workplace or through a donation of their time, talent or skills to the many innovative programs that are breaking the cycles of incarceration and poverty through employment, education, addiction and mental health counseling and peer networks.

This might mean mentoring individuals in employment readiness and leadership development with Nevada-based HOPE for Prisoners; dining at Dallas’s Café Momentum, which provides restaurant training to young men and women coming out of juvenile facilities; or volunteering as an academic instructor in New York with Hudson Link, which has awarded over 600 college degrees to incarcerated individuals over the past 20 years.

But, most importantly, it means empowering individuals to move past their worst mistakes and break the cycle of incarceration and poverty.

This is what another chance at life really looks like.


Evan Feinberg is executive director of Stand Together, an organization working to break the cycle of poverty by supporting catalysts for social change across the country.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult