2017-09-14 / Opinions

Guest VIEWpoint

Poverty and Incarceration


By Laura Janks Program Coordinator, Community Connections By Laura Janks Program Coordinator, Community Connections Many can attest that living in poverty is difficult. Add incarceration to the equation and the word difficult becomes an understatement. People land themselves in jail or prison for a variety of reasons, drinking and driving, domestic violence, unpaid child support, or illegal drugs just to name a few. Regardless of why someone went to jail, inmates who are in poverty face substantial challenges upon returning to the community.

Across the country each year, 646,000 individuals end up in county jails. Of these individuals, 70 percent are being held on pretrial.

“Meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent. One reason that the unconvicted population in the U.S. is so large is because our country largely has a system of money bail, in which the constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well off. With money bail, a defendant is required to pay a certain amount of money as a pledged guarantee he will attend future court hearings. If he is unable to come up with the money either personally or through a commercial bail bondsman, he can be incarcerated from his arrest until his case is resolved or dismissed in court.” (Detaining the Poor, Rabury & Kopf, 2016)

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people at or below the federal poverty level had more than double the rate of victimization as those in high-income households. In rural areas, the victimizations rate is approximately 38 individuals per every 1,000.

Upon release, how practical is it that someone will successfully avoid recidivism? If they are living in poverty, the answer is: ‘They have their work cut out for them.’ The first 72 hours are most critical, it is in these hours that individuals need to find a way to meet their basic needs; food, shelter, transportation and medical care.

In our rural area, these resources can be difficult to come by. If an individual was in poverty when they entered jail, more than likely they will exit in the same financial condition, if not worse. Therefore, paying for groceries, a hotel room for the night, bus tickets and the needed prescriptions is not usually an option available to these individuals.

Depending on where you live, food pantries are only open specific days of the week and fewer organizations provide “emergency food baskets” in our community than ever before. Additionally, if an individual has specific felonies on his or her record, they are unable to receive food stamps.

Housing offers another challenge to these individuals, while we do have a shelter in Huron County, it can be difficult to access. Landlords are usually skeptical to rent to individuals with a criminal record. So, while he or she may qualify for subsidized housing, it doesn’t mean that they have a home to go to.

Looking for a detox center or halfway house? You will need to travel outside of Huron, Sanilac and Tuscola counties to find one. These housing arrangements are prevalent in bigger cities, but, unfortunately, few accept straight Medicaid making them out of reach for low-income individuals. Transportation to these facilities is also difficult. If an individual has no social supports to take them, they are left riding public transportation coordinating busses from one county to the next. If prescriptions are needed, it can take days to apply for insurance or restart coverage, as well as get into a doctor’s office.

Undoubtedly, individuals returning need to make better choices than whatever landed them in a jail cell. It is unfortunate though that we do not have the resources to support these individuals in bettering their lives. We want lower recidivism rates, but are unable to help these individuals meet their basic needs in an efficient manner when they reenter the community.

It is like telling the fireman to fight the fire without a water hose or telling the chef to make a pizza without an oven. It can be done, but it will not be easy.

If you are an inmate returning to the community, give Community Connections a call at 989-479-0346. Our office will do our best to connect you to resources and remove barriers to help you toward a lifestyle of stability and self-sufficiency.

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