Role of Institutions

For the past few years, prisoner reentry has become a social problem due to the increased concern for public safety. This concern became most evident on January 20, 2004 when former President Bush gave his State of the Union Address proposing “a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups.” Ultimately, prisoner reentry was designed to support the successful reintegration of ex-offenders from prison and jail back to their communities through the use of programs like the one proposed by former President Bush. This transition from incarceration to the community is difficult for ex-offenders, their families and the society as a whole. Employment seems to be one of the most problematic aspects of reentry, especially for offenders. This is attributed to the internalized views held by communities along with larger society, which makes it difficult for offenders to gain employment. Upon their release from jail or prison, offenders often deal with the stereotypes that they are violent, uneducated, and lazy to name a few. According to sociologist Tracy E. Ore, several social institutions, specifically the economy, have the ability to create, control, and distribute the human and material resources of society. Thus, the economy represents and instills the values of hard work and efficiency which are values many people feel criminals do not possess. In order to mitigate these stereotypes and solve the problem with employment in prisoner reentry,initiatives, organizations, and community support should be implemented. Each of these solutions can contribute to successful reentry by providing support, job training and education. Unfortunately, if offenders do not receive or have the support and skills necessary to survive outside of prison, they will likely end up returning to prison to endure a cycle of recidivism.

Inmates Returning to the Community after serving time in prison

Recidivism Rates of Released Prisoners within 3 years
Success Rates of Parolees
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In California, prisoner reentry is a particularly critical issue because many people find it difficult to find employment once they rejoin society. In 2006, Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency becuase of "severe overcrowding" in prisons ("California to cut Prison Population," 2009). This statement to the public was a indication that eventually the number of prisoners would need to be reduced to maintain constitutional practices within the prison system. On August 4th 2009, a three judge federal court ruled that California must develop a plan to reduce its prison population to 11,000 inmates. This would require a reduction of 40,000 prisoners ("CDCR Secretary Statement on Ruling on Inmate Crowding," 2009). In 2003 The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative was established by the US Departments of Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services to provide over $100 million to 60 grantees to develop programs, training and reentry strategies at the community level. On January 20, 2004 President Bush proposed a proposal to give prisoner re-entry job training, housing, and other things. Prisoner reentry became even more of an issue due to the economic crisis that the United States is facing in current times. Many prisons are releasing inmates before their release dates because the prison system is not capable of housing as many prisoners as it currently does due to the budget crisis. This causes a dilemma because many of these ex-prisoners have a hard time finding employment and cultivating the necessary skills to uphold a job. This is a social problem because while there are many people in prisons they cannot contribute to the economic system and other society members must pick up their slack. Prisoner reentry is also a social problem because many individuals do not feel safe when criminals are released because they believe these ex-prisons cannot be reformed and that they will eventually return to crime.

The lack of support from the community is one aspect of prisoner reentry that is problematic for ex-offenders which prevents them from gaining employment. The Fair Credit Reporting Act was enacted in 1970 and allows employers to review an applicant's credit history and criminal background. Although it does not require employers to conduct background checks, the law does require employers to consider each applicant's criminal history. Employers have many reasons for conducting criminal background checks. Here are a few of those reasons:
  • Giving false or inflated information on job applications
  • Not disclosing convictions
  • Negligent hiring lawsuits. If an employee harms someone, the employer may be liable
  • Federal and state laws require that background checks be conducted for certain jobs
With the ability to conduct background checks, many employers screen out an applicant based solely on their criminal convictions. Despite the job qualifications an offender may have, many of them become financially frustrated and revert back to their criminal ways (recidivism). Not only is recidivism attributed to the lack of employment, strict parole requirements may also be the cause. The California Division of Adult Parole Operations requires an inmate who is released on parole to return to the county that was their last legal residence prior to their incarceration. If an offender is released back to the community where he or she committed their offense, it is likely that he or she will re-offend. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the nation. Thus, recidivism not only becomes problematic for ex-offenders, it also become problematic for the community.

These cartoons shed light on how some employers feel about ex-offenders


ROLE OF INSTITUTIONS CHALLENGING WORK AND MEDIA Prisoner Reentry has challenged social institutions by attempting to dismantle inequalities between criminals and law abiding citizens. One of the major inequalities between these two groups is the ability to gain employment. Upon their release from prison, ex-offenders suffer from job discrimination because institutions such as the economy and the media have perpetuated the belief that hiring felons is risky and dangerous. Since prisoner reentry emerged as a social problem, California has challenged the way institutions maintain this inequality. In 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Public Safety and Offender Rehabilitation Services Act, commonly referred to as Assembly Bill (AB)
"Black in America: The Black Man" shows Chris Shurn working his job at Goodwill Industries making $7 an hour
900. This important legislation was designed to revise the outdated incarceration system to help offenders succeed, reduce prison overcrowding, lower recidivism, strengthen public safety and cut taxpayer costs. This and other initiatives educate offenders to find jobs by implementing academic and vocational programs in hopes of keeping them out of prison. Prisoner success should be highlighted in the media to demonstrate that initiatives are challenging the way institutions have shaped society's thinking of criminals. In 2008, CNN aired the documentary, "Black in America: The Black Man," which followed a young African-American man's incarceration and release from San Quentin State Prison. The documentary demonstrates how difficult it is for ex-offenders to reenter their communities and gain employment. Despite the young man's success in earning a GED and almost earning his Associate's Degree while being incarcerated, he had difficulty securing a full-time job because of his criminal history. Instead, he settled for a part-time job with Goodwill Industries which only paid $7 an hour. Financially frustrated, the young man began contemplating whether he should reoffend and sell drugs in order to support his growing family. Although he acquired education beyond high school, with a criminal history, he continues to be a member of the oppressed group. However, institutions have the ability to facilitate the effectiveness of the solutions to reentry by ridding of job discrimination. Reentry challenges the institutions of media and economy to achieve this goal.

The media aims to attract the largest number of viewers by focusing on stories that are most intriguing and dramatic (Loseke, 1999). The most extreme cases are also the ones which people remember. Extreme cases are also not the norm, therefore the coverage makes a bigger fuss over an issue despite its actual relative importance in society. The media often turns against ex-prisoners so that it can emphasize the cause of safe and wholesome communities (Loseke, 1999). The media constructs the issue of prisoner reentry against the prisoner because it portrays the criminal as an incorrigible danger to society. Although many criminals are indeed dangerous, the media exploits the negative aspects of those who commit offenses in order to make a more substantial impact on the audience. The media aims to construct numerous victims in order to show the intensity and seriousness of the issue (Loseke, 1999). The community in its entirety is constructed as the victim to mass prisoner reentry. Everyone in the community is portrayed as suffering due to the presence of the returning ex-prisoners in their neighborhoods. The coverage emphasizes the importance of safety for young children in order to highlight the victim as pure innocent and extremely vulnerable (Loseke, 1999). A common concern is the safety of children while playing unsupervised outside if ex-prisoners reside in close proximity. In addition, the issue is manipulated so that the viewers feel that their own community is in danger of being tainted by hardened criminals as well (Loseke, 1999). An alternative to this media coverage could be news stories of struggling reformed ex-prisoners who need assistance getting reestablished into society and more specifically into their communities. This type of coverage would not only be helpful to the ex-prisoner in terms of quality of life at his disposal, but it would also help to break the stigma cast on him. The media's goal is to constantly shock the audience by finding new and more extreme cases so that the audience’s interest will always be peaked. Media utilizes fear as a tool to keep people watching and listening to the news that it presents. If people are constantly in fear, than staying informed of present dangers is a strong interest.

On many job applications the employers ask if you have ever committed a crime. The federal and state laws requires that a background check is done for some jobs, such as working with children, government jobs, and many more (Private Rights). Many times employers use this personal information for many applicants because they may rely on stereotypes about people who have been to jail. The process of performing a background check can sometimes discourage a person from applying for a job because he or she may feel that the employer will think negatively of him or her, and that it could have a negative impact on his or her chance of getting the job. Many people hesitate about background checks because some feel that background checks allow the employer to dig up things about the applicant that may no longer be relevant to their current life because it occurred in their adolescence. Background checks may inquire about prior arrests or other criminal convictions. This creates a huge obstacle for those who do have a criminal history because all people rely on employment for financial survival. Having a job can really effect if a person will be able to turn to positive social behaviors. If a person is not able to to obtain a legitimate job, many times he or she will return to selling drugs or the other illegal actions which brought them to prison in the first place.

The video below depicts how ex-offenders struggle to find jobs

Below: Employer Willingness to Accept Applications with a Criminal Record



Many individuals do not truly understand the consequence of obtaining a criminal record until he tries to reenter into society. Many criminals have the misconception that once they serve their time in prison, their lives will return to what it was before they were incarcerated. The ex-prisoner is bombarded with the elements of this social problem when he begins to apply for jobs and many employers turn him down because of his criminal history. Another alternative is when an ex-prisoner returns to his community and people start to judge him based on stereotypes about criminal offenders. These two factors makes it hard for the individual to begin to live a normal life.

41% of parolees successfully complete their period of supervision ("Reentry Trends in the United States," 2003). This indicates two things: first that not all ex-prisoners return to crime after release and second, that of the 42% of ex-prisoners who do return to jail or prison many were most likely not provided with the resources necessary to avoid recidivism, which is defined as a relapse into criminal behavior ("Reentry Trends in the United States," 2003). Such resources include job opportunities, a stable income, just and equal treatment, supportive family, a place of residence, a vehicle and many other means. Some element of the ex-prisoner’s deprivation is causing him to return to criminal activity and landing him back into prison or jail. Although the struggle of prisoner reentry is a very serious and difficult obstacle for the prisoner himself, he is often depicted as the villain rather than a victim. Some criminals actually experience reform during their stays in prison and once released, they desire to create better lives. The odds seem to be against the ex-prisoner in finding stability after release, but nevertheless not much attention is drawn to this strife. The criminal is highly stigmatized and once he is tainted he is subordinated. Nearly 95% of all prisoners will return to society at some point, because of this prisoner reentry is a very serious issue if almost half of those men end up returning to crime ("Reentry Trends in the United States," 2003). Because of the numerous obstacles for stigmatized ex-prisoners it is amazing that 42% of parolees are able to succeed in finishing their periods of supervision ("Reentry Trends in the United States," 2003). This alone is proof that it is possible to reform criminals and that the portion of ex-prisoners who do end up back in jail or prison are lacking some type of necessary assistance in order to help them find a stable and lawful path in life.

According to Ore, the social institution “the state” possesses the legal power to regulate the behavior of members of society, as well as the relationship of that society to others. A functionalist would argue that the state functions as a form of protection for the public. The state is responsible for ensuring that our communities are safe from crime and keeping those who commit crimes incarcerated. In order to keep communities safe, government officials must assess the problem with lack of employment in prisoner
Inmates at a CA State prison receive associate's degrees
reentry. Government officials have the power, which is given by the state to construct and solve the problem with prisoner reentry. The state and its officials can construct reentry as a problem by creating categories of difference within social class. Social class is determined by how much income (wages and salaries from earnings and investments) and wealth (the total amount of valuable goods) a person possesses (Ore p.10). This definition of social class correlates with the obstacle of employment for offenders because they cannot produce income while being incarcerated which means they are considered poor. Differences in social class along with the stereotypes that criminals lack the value of hard work create the problem of prisoner reentry. Having a criminal record is not acceptable behavior and when paired with being poor, makes it difficult for offenders to gain employment. Thus, government officials have the power to solve this problem. They can approve initiatives that will help promote the success of prisoner reintegration by implementing job skill and educational programs in prison. Additionally, they can use media to reassure communities will be safe through government initiatives and laws.

Although at times it seems as if a single person is helpless in terms of changing negative circumstances, this however is a grave misconception. On the individual level one can make a big impact if he is persistent and knowledgeable of the change necessary to better the situation. In the case of the prisoner or released prisoner, he has the power to write to Congress and bring to attention the necessity of change within the criminal justice system especially in the areas of social rehabilitation and the reentry process. Having already gone through the experience of committing crime, being a prisoner, and possibly being released, the prisoner or ex-prisoner has extremely valuable knowledge about what is lacking from the criminal justice system and the prisoner reentry process which handicaps almost half of parolees from successfully establishing themselves in society without returning to jail or prison.


Being one of the most prominent voices in addressing unemployment in prisoner reentry as a social problem, government officials have the power to create solutions. They can mitigate the problem with prisoner reentry by developing initiatives designed to provide funding to city, state and federal government to create programs and reforms centered around employment. These programs provide services such
as job training, substance abuse treatment, transitional housing, health care and employment. The State of California has already begun to recognize prisoner reentry as a social problem and has taken action by creating reforms. In 2007, Assembly Bill 900 was
CA Governor Schwarzenegger & Secretary Mathew Cate
signed by Governor Schwarzenegger to reunite California offenders with their families and community with a job and support system. City initiatives like Project Choice in Oakland, California are designed to improve public safety by offering support in the successful reintegration of ex-offenders from jail and prison back into the Oakland community. Initiatives are important in gaining employment because unfotunately, the jobs that overlook a criminal’s past provide little pay and little hours. This makes it difficult for ex-offenders to support their families or re-establish themselves. Despite the job qualifications an offender may have, many of them become financially frustrated and revert back to their criminal ways. Until recently, prisoners have not received the necessary tools to succeed outside of incarceration. California currently offers a G.E.D. program, a college education and job skills inside of prison to help promote success upon their release. Hopefully with the help of these reforms, public safety will be strengthened, taxes will be reduced and recidivism will be reduced.
THE POWER OF THE INDIVIDUALAn extremely vital portion of the rehabilitation process of criminals takes place during their imprisonment. This is their chance to either blossom or decay and this transformation is key to their futures after they serve their sentence in prison. Because the period during imprisonment is so critical to the development of social behavior, it would be best if prisoners were mandated to participate in a program which helped them distinguish their future goals and the necessary steps to achieve those goals. This program would incorporate writing in order to explore inner desires for the prisoners’ quality life, reading in order to inspire the inmates, and communication skills not only between their fellow inmates but also with local employers. The communication and relationships with local employers is an extremely important aspect of the rehabilitation program. Not only can employers educate the prisoners about what exactly they are looking for in possible employees, but it will also help the prisoners to gain confidence in their ability to interact positively with authority figures before ever setting foot into the workforce. Another advantage of this would be that the inmates have access to a variety of employers from different fields. Thin in turn opens their minds to the many possibilities of career paths to which they can aspire to. COMMUNITY AND FAMILYEmployers have a huge influence in helping ex-prisoners get back on their feet. Many ex-prisoners have families to provide for and employers could benefit ex-prisoners by aiding them with employment in order to support their families. Rather than community members turning against ex-prisoners, they can reach out and better their community by helping a fellow neighbor find work, housing, and stability within his life. Family is an essential factor for the ex-prisoner to turn his life around because he will have the added incentive to provide and care for the people that he loves. Also, getting a job will show the ex-prisoner's family that he is attempting to grow and progress. This gives the family more reason to support the person because they realize the ex-prisoner is trying to change his life for the best. During the prisoner's sentence he needs an outlet so that he will not give up hope on his life. The prison should provide visiting time, counseling services, and financial aid for families to create a stable environment for their family.


California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "Adult Programs." 2009.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "Parole Requirements." 2009.

"California may have to cut prison population by 40 percent." February 10, 2009. August 13, 2009. <>

"CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate Statement on Three Judge Panel Ruling on Inmate Overcrowding." August 4, 2009. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. August 13, 2009. <>.

Hughes, Timothy & Wilson, Doris J. "Reentry Trends in the United States." August 20, 2003. U.S Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. August 29, 2009. <>.

National Geographic. "Lockdown: Life on the Outside" 2009.

Loseke, Donileen R. Thinking About Social Problems. "How to Successfully Construct a Social Problem." New York: Walter de Gruyter Inc, 1999.

Martin, Mark & Sterngold, James. "HARD TIME: California's Prisons in Crisis" July 3, 2005. August 13, 2009. <>

Oakland Department of Justice. 2004.

Ore, Tracy E. 2009. The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Fourth Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. June 2009.


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