Research suggests that many reentering prisoners are released with only enough money to support them for a few days (Richards and Jones 1997) and are often likely to become homeless (Hals 2005). Reentering prisoners also face barriers similar to those among the homeless population, including mental health and substance abuse problems, fragile support networks, and lack of stable housing. Approximately 16 percent report problems with mental illness, and up to 75 percent report having a history of substance abuse (Roman and Travis 2004; Coley and Barton 2006). Reentering prisoner populations also have generally low levels of education. One study reports that the median level of educational attainment for reentering prisoners is 11th grade (Urban Institute LIWF Fact Sheet 2008), while others estimate that 41 percent of incarcerated adults have less than a high school education (Coley and Barton 2006).
Prisoners are not eligible to receive most public benefits during the time they are incarcerated (see http://www.prisonlaw.com/pdfs/BenefitsLetter,Aug2011.pdf for examples of benefits available to prisoners and parolees in one state). However, although there are exceptions, once paroled or discharged, they are usually eligible for benefits based on the eligibility criteria that apply to the general population.
Prisoners can prepare program applications during incarceration to submit upon their release. Access to web-based applications, however, poses a problem for prisoners as well as their case managers. Access to computers, and especially web-based applications, often is limited or not available within correctional institutions. Thus, authorized individuals may need to download paper applications and submit them by mail on prisoners’ behalf or enter information online from paper forms prisoners complete. This labor-intensive process reduces the efficiencies associated with web-based applications. Additionally, although they may become eligible for programs and benefits once paroled or discharged, applications that prisoners submit during incarceration might be denied even if their release is imminent because of state-specific rules and requirements. Prisoners face the same problems of limited access to web-based screening tools as for web-based applications.
When there are opportunities to access online screening tools, these efforts could be an important part of discharge planning. Even without entering data online, a process through which case managers or discharge planners review with prisoners the screener questions and the kinds of information required for applications could substantially improve access. Failure to leverage web-based screening and application tools and provide assistance to prisoners in their use may result in missed opportunities for linking individuals to critical benefits that could help this vulnerable population reenter the workforce and limit recidivism and homelessness. Providing web-based access to eligibility screening and application assistance through halfway houses and work release programs or immediately upon release, as part of probation and parole activities, might also help reentering prisoners meet their immediate and long-term needs. This is being explored in some states.
Given these barriers and needs, reentering prisoners might benefit from the following:
- Discharge planning and correctional supervision that entails benefit screening and assistance in preparing web-based applications for submission on the date of release or shortly thereafter
- Discharge planning that entails communication with program agencies to determine whether online applications may be submitted and placed in pending status until the date of release
- Education prior to release and during correctional supervision regarding program eligibility criteria for prisoners and parolees