I have long rejected the imagery of the school-to-prison pipeline. Pipelines have an end.
The steps that lead to and reinforce mass incarceration, as Bruce Western’s book — Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison — demonstrates, never end. It’s more appropriate to refer to this process as the school-to-prison cycle. For an illustration, attend the “Prison Nation” exhibit (on display now through February) at the Martin Luther King, Jr. branch of the Cleveland Public Library.
The Homeward author and his collaborators conducted the Boston Reentry Study, which followed 122 people in the first year after they were released from prison. Western was a sociology professor at Harvard while conducting this research (currently at Columbia University). This study gives careful attention to what MLK Jr. calls, “the fierce urgency of now.” In other words, it’s going to take a while to change the mass incarceration system; but people are getting out of prison now.
And there are things we can do now. For example, continuity of prescriptions seems like a reasonable goal. Prisoners are released at times with little or no medication for what are often serious mental and physical conditions. It can be time-consuming and intimidating to find a doctor. In the interim, lapsed prescriptions can cause some of the behavior that led the individual to prison in the first place. Prison has become one of our only tools, not only for punishment but also for mental health issues. Western points out the paradox: “The people we ask to make the largest changes in their lives often have the least capacity to do so. This is a profound paradox for even the most progressive visions of imprisonment and correctional policy.” We can fix this. We just need the political will.
The reentry study asks, “What are our obligations to those who are punished?” This is a change from other research that considers recidivism rates as the gold standard and explores how to use punishment as both deterrent and consequence (an approach that’s been shown to have limited value).
Reentry “raises the question of when punishment ends. When and how are debts extinguished?” Western finds our goal for those who are released shouldn’t simply be that they aren’t imprisoned (which is not the same as being free), but a “basic level of well-being consistent with community membership.”
Ohio is exploring how it approaches incarceration with Issue 1 — a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot. If passed, it will mandate drug possession and drug use as misdemeanors, not felonies. This will reduce the prison population and prioritize treatment over incarceration. More than 2,600 people are serving time with drug possession as their most serious offense, or 5 percent of Ohio’s 50,000 prisoners. Vote yes on Issue 1 this November.
In Cleveland, Brandon Chrostowski, owner of EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Shaker Square, works daily with those leaving the prison system. Chrostowski says he is on a “mission to change the face of reentry.” To this end, “individuals are not only equipped with basic culinary skills, but also are assisted with finding employment, have the opportunity to utilize free housing, basic medical care, clothing, job coaching and literacy programs.” EDWINS is hosting its 5K Grind: 3rd Annual EDWINS Run for Re-entry on Oct. 28.
Start the weekend with Western; end the weekend with the 5K Grind. And maybe in between, have dinner at EDWINS. The food is really, really good.
FEATURE PHOTO: COURTESY OF EDWINS