In June of last year, I sat on a metal chair in the federal prison located in Lee County, Virginia. Across from me sat Derek, whom I had prosecuted for drug crimes a decade earlier. Derek and I talked about his job skills and his resume in a mock job interview, part of a day-long reentry program.
Derek was one of the approximately 13,000 Virginians who returned home from a federal or state prison in 2012. Skills like the job interviewing we practiced are critical to Derek’s ability to stay off the streets and out of prison, and to start his life over again as a taxpaying, law-abiding citizen.
The majority of those incarcerated are not violent, dangerous criminals, but rather nonviolent offenders serving time for drug, fraud, and other offenses. What can men and women like Derek expect when they come home? Employment is their largest challenge. In a sluggish economy where even qualified workers with unblemished pasts struggle to find work, ex-offenders are at the back of the line for meaningful employment. They face additional challenges:
There are resources to help Derek and others like him tackle the enormous challenges of reintegrating into society. Successful reentry programs begin in our prisons, and the Virginia Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have extensive programs for education, training and transition planning to ease coming home.
Once released, specialized state and federal reentry courts provide services to some returning prisoners and help them address challenges like addiction, poor parenting skills, and anger management. Fortunately, non-profit organizations like Total Action for Progress, Virginia CARES and others work with ex-offenders to better their chances for successful, law-abiding lives.
Helping ex-offenders should not, however, be left to only formal programs. Everyone can play a role in helping people like Derek reenter our communities. Many of the men and women streaming out of our prisons each year have the strong desire to change their lives, avoid returning to prison, and contribute to society. All of us can help:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” His message is that we are all made successful when our neighbors succeed. What can you do to strengthen our “garment of destiny,” and assist the difficult transition ex-offenders face when reentering society? It will take a community effort to make things easier for Derek and others like him who call Western Virginia home.
Timothy J. Heaphy is United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia