Breaking the Cycle: Support for the Formerly Incarcerated

As policy reforms aimed at ending mass incarceration have gained momentum across the country, local reentry initiatives are increasing the support and opportunities available to help men and women returning from prison become productive members of society.

At Emerge, CT, formerly-incarcerated men, like Johnny, earn a paycheck while receiving job training, literacy skills, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other wrap-around supports. "This is my chance to start giving back," says Johnny, who is a Foreman at EMERGE Connecticut. Photo Credit: Ian Christmann

To read Johnny's story and the story of others, follow us on Instagram @lifeafterincarcerationgnh

Every year, about 1,200 men and women are released from prison to New Haven.1 Some are at the end of their sentences, while many more are under the supervision of parole or probation officers. All too often, the barriers faced by the formerly incarcerated increase their chances of returning to prison, a cycle that is devastating to families and neighborhoods and exacts a high cost from taxpayers.

In Greater New Haven, efforts are underway to break this cycle. As policy reforms aimed at ending mass incarceration have gained momentum across the country, local reentry initiatives are increasing the support and opportunities available to help men and women returning from prison become productive members of society.

The Numbers

  • 54% of the men and women discharged from Connecticut prisons returned to prison within 3 years.2
  • About 50% of those who were rearrested within one year received drug-related charges; less than one in five were charged with violent offenses.3
  • 2,532 per 100,000 black residents in Connecticut are incarcerated; 1,401 per 100,000 Hispanic residents are incarcerated; 211 per 100,000 white residents are incarcerated.4
  • Connecticut taxpayers spent over $929 million on corrections at an average cost of over $50,000 per prisoner in 2012.5
  • 80% Eighty percent of released individuals have chronic medical, psychiatric, or substance abuse problems, yet only 15% to 25% report visiting a physician outside of the emergency department (ED) in the first year after their release.6
  • 21% of the Connecticut inmate population has a serious mental health condition.7


The men and women returning to the community from prison face a variety of challenges, depending on their individual circumstances, to fully integrating back into the community. These barriers include:

Employment – Employers can legally screen out applicants with felony convictions and trade certifications prohibit applicants with certain criminal backgrounds, limiting job opportunities.

Education and Skills – Incarceration rates are highest among those with low levels of education. Time spent out of the workforce reduces opportunities to build skills and experience.

Health – Chronic physical and mental health conditions are significantly higher in this population in comparison with the general population and no formal system exists to connect them with health providers upon their release.

Debt – Conviction fines, court fees, and child support arrears are waiting for many at the end of their prison terms, creating a debt that can exceed their ability to pay. Authorities enforce collection by garnishing wages of those who find a job.

Cognitive and Behavioral Issues – Many people with histories of incarceration have underlying issues such as anger, post traumatic stress, and substance abuse that have never been effectively addressed.

Family and social support – Incarceration can harm family relationships and weaken the support structure for someone returning from prison.

Housing People with felony records are prohibited from accessing many public housing programs and often lack the resources to find stable housing.

What Works

Programs for the formerly incarcerated have traditionally focused primarily on finding employment for recently incarcerated individuals as soon as possible after their release. Although economic self-sufficiency is an important goal, research has shown that pushing people into jobs without also addressing underlying behavior, mental health, and other potential issues is ineffective.8

"There is no evidence that a job means that someone won't go back to jail," says John Padilla, a workforce expert with New Paradigms Consulting.

A holistic approach that assesses recently incarcerated individuals for their level of risk of becoming reincarcerated and aligning services to their level of need has been shown to reduce recidivism. While high-risk individuals may need immediate mental health interventions, other lower-risk individuals may be better served with job readiness training.

"Low-risk individuals shouldn't be getting the same thing as high-risk individuals," says David D'Amora, director at the Council of State Governments Justice Center "When you give too many things to people who don't need them, the recidivism rate goes up."

Timing is also critical. Without enough support in the early weeks and months after release, a recently incarcerated individual is at risk of further internalizing their identity as a felon and falling back into socially destructive behavior patterns.

Supporting Second Chances

In 2015, The City of New Haven's reentry program, Warren Kimbro Reentry Program (formerly known as Project Fresh Start), received a $1 million federal Second Chance Act grant to coordinate support systems and connecting individuals to service providers up to a year before their release from prison. The program is aligned with the state's Second Chance Society Initiative, a signature policy priority of Gov. Dannel Malloy, which has a goal of reducing recidivism by 50 percent in five years.

Even after taking the right steps to reform their lives, however, many people with criminal records face significant challenges finding employers willing to hire them. "The business community has not embraced the idea of second chances," says Bill Dyson, a former state representative and longtime advocate for prison reform.

The City of New Haven and some businesses in the region have set an example by "banning the box," i.e., not automatically disqualifying applicants with criminal records on the front end of the application process. Most employers, however, prevent people with felony records from applying for jobs they are otherwise qualified for.

"These people want to work," says Dyson. "They deserve a second chance."

What The Community Foundation is Doing

Through its leadership strategy on reentry, The Foundation is committed to building a region where formerly-incarcerated individuals are empowered with opportunities so that they can successfully reintegrate and reduce the ripple effect on their children, family, and the community as a whole.

Through community partnerships, grantmaking, and public education, The Community Foundation hopes to achieve the following:

  • Returning citizens will have access to a robust support network that empowers the reentering individual, their families, communities, and providers to address education, housing, employment, and primary and mental health care tailored to their needs;
  • Social service and community-based organizations are better coordinated with each other and with the criminal justice system, allowing service providers to better identify, reach, and effectively serve formerly-incarcerated individuals;
  • Greater New Haven is better informed about the impact of incarceration.

In the past five years, The Foundation has provided more than one million dollars to nonprofits that work with recently incarcerated individuals.
Grant recipients include:

Works Cited

  1. New Haven Fresh Start program data since 2009
  2. Kuzyk, Ivan. "Recidivism in CT, 2008 Releases." State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division. 2015, 1.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Mauer, Marc and King, Ryan. "Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity." The Sentencing Project. 2007, 6.
  5. Henrichson, Christian and Delaney, Ruth. "The Price of Prisons Connecticut: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers Fact Sheet." Vera Institute of Justice. 2012, 8, 10.
  6. Mallik-Kane K, Visher CA. "Health and Prisoner Reentry: How Physical, Mental, and Substance Abuse Conditions Shape the Process of Reintegration." The Urban Institute. 2008, 1.
  7. "UCONN Health Correctional Managed Health Care Annual Report: July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015." University of Connecticut Correctional Managed Health Care. 2015, 5.
  8. Duran, Le'Ann, Plotkin, Martha, Potter, Phoebe and Rosen, Henry. "Integrated Reentry and Employment Strategies: Reducing recidivism and Promoting Job Readiness." Council of State Governments Justice Center. 2013, 2.

© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven
December 2015