'Beyond Bars' Amid Bad Times More than 600,000 people are released from U.S. prisons every year. But imagine re-entering society in today's economy as a convicted felon. Jeffery Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards, the authors of the book Beyond Bars, offer insights on a successful reentry into society, the local community and the job market.
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'Beyond Bars' Amid Bad Times

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'Beyond Bars' Amid Bad Times

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'Beyond Bars' Amid Bad Times

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

In the United States, more than 600,000 people are released from prison every year. So just imagine, in this economy, leaving prison, re-entering society and trying to find a job. You might need some help. Now there's a book, "Beyond Bars," that does just that. It's an advice book for former inmates adjusting to life on the outside. It's coauthored by Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen Richards. Both are professors of criminal justice, but Richards has some additional expertise in this area.

He spent time in federal prison and had to make the transition from inside to outside himself. Both of them will join us in a moment to talk about getting "Beyond Bars" but first, we want to hear from people in our audience that have made this transition. What most helped you when you returned to your life after prison or jail? Tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

A bit later, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor in her own words, today, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But first, life after prison. Jeffrey Ian Ross is an associate professor in the division of criminology, criminal justice and social policy at the University of Baltimore. And he joins us from Baltimore. Welcome to the program, Jeffrey.

Professor JEFFREY IAN ROSS (Associate Professor, University of Baltimore): Good afternoon.

NEARY: And Stephen Richards is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and he joins us from Wisconsin. Good to have you with us, Steve.

Professor STEPHEN RICHARDS (Criminal Justice, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh): Hello. Hello, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, I wanted to start out by reading a small excerpt from this book, to give our listeners a sense of what it sounds like in a language that you use. So I'm going to just begin with a reading. It's in a section called "Time for a Reality Check."

You've been locked up for a long time and have forgotten how to live in the real world. You need to remember that your life may not have been so wonderful before you entered prison. Now as you leave the correctional facility older and hopefully a little wiser, you might be returning to the same problems you left behind.

Take a long look in the mirror, if you can find one in the joint. Will you really be welcomed back when you return home? Will your family and friends be ready to see you? What exactly has happened while you were gone?

Jeffrey, I wanted to read that because I was really struck when I read this book by how much the style of it is a like a self-help book, and I wondered why you wrote it that way.

Prof. ROSS: Well, Steve and I have been working for almost two decades as professors, writing scholarly work. And we decided that we made a - we wrote a book about five years ago, called "Behind Bars," that has a similar tone and similar audience. And we decided it's about time that we extended these ideas to people who are just about to leave prison and who were also coming out of jail and needed some simple advice so that they could live lives as productive citizens. And so we decided it was time to write another kind of book, a similar help - self-help book.

NEARY: Stephen, do you expect that ex-cons really will use this book, or people getting ready to get out of prison will find this book and use it?

Prof. RICHARDS: Well, I think a lot of people in jail and prison listen to NPR. And so they'll hear about the book on NPR and if they can get a copy of it, and they'll read it. And it's a book they can read in, you know, probably two days, three days. It's written for the general public. And as a self-help book, it really is written in a way almost like a cafeteria-style. They can, you know, page through the book and find chapters that will help them.

NEARY: Yeah, there's even, at one point, there's advice on how to make small talk, saying you may have forgotten how to make small talk. Why would that be included, for example, Stephen?

Prof. RICHARDS: Well, you know, I did time in federal prison, and it's different. You know, in prison, it's an artificial world, and you're either in a men's prison or a women's prison. So it's an artificial world where you're just with one gender. There's no children, no families. You don't do small talk. You know, you learn to be an inmate or a convict. You know, you don't make small talk. So, when you get out, you know, you're standing at the bus station or at the subway station, and you don't know how to talk to people.

NEARY: Yeah.

Prof. RICHARDS: You know?

NEARY: It almost - I get the sense from reading this book that it feels as though, when you're a prisoner, that you lose track of, you know, just how to do sort of the kinds of things that everybody else takes for granted, that you've lost your ability to function on a sort of daily, day-in, day-out kind of basis in normal society.

Prof. RICHARDS: Well, that's what we wrote about in the first book, "Behind Bars." When you go to prison, you're forced to, you know, to adjust to a very strange environment and - just for survival. And the longer you're in prison, the more you become institutionalized. And we call it joint mentality. So when you get out, you're still behaving and talking and walking and, you know, like you did inside the prison.

NEARY: Yeah.

Prof. ROSS: Another thing - going back to your earlier comment, Lynn, about, you know, small talk and so on - oftentimes - I worked almost four years in a correctional facility, in addition to my academic background - the - when guys get out, women get out, when they talk to authority figures, it's almost similar to guys getting out of military. It's yes, sir, no, sir, right away -very short kind of sentences. And it's tough for a lot of them to make decisions on their own, very simple decisions about, you know, when to eat, what to eat, what to spend their money on. It's not like they can't, but it's been a while since they have been used to doing that sort of thing.

NEARY: You know, and we should mention - both of you have mentioned, and I want to make it very explicit that this book is addressed to both men and women. And you address the differences that the genders may face and that they may be dealing with in the situation when they get out of prison, Jeffrey.

Prof. ROSS: No question about it. We specifically looked at the problem of women getting out of prison. We spoke to quite a few women who have been recently released from prison, women who were about to be released from prison. We did a lot - you know, our due diligence with respect to the academic research, looking at women's experiences while out on parole. And they have very unique kinds of challenges, particularly as it relates to their families, their children and trying to make a living.

In some respects, it's tougher for women who are recently more - more difficult for women who are recently released from jail or prison. Something else that we wanted to mention is that the book is not only for people who are about to be released or who have just been released from jail or prison. But it's also useful, or we believe it's useful, for people who are probation and parole officers, people who are working in the helping professions, social workers, and people who have children, relatives who are in that situation.

The book can also act as a deterrent for people who are going down the path of crime, who may well face the possibility of being arrested and incarcerated. So it's a multifaceted book in terms of its utility. But the major audience are those individuals who are just about to be released from prison, if not who've just been released from prison.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call. We have number of people waiting. Alan(ph) in Flagstaff, Arizona, go ahead.

ALAN (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say that my family was instrumental in helping me to make the lifestyle change that I feel was essential to leave prison behind, basically. What I found that when I took the counseling afterwards that's required for almost all prisoners is that the people that I was in there with just weren't able to let it go. Every story that they told turned into a prison story. Everything that they said was going on in their life, they related to prison, and I fortunately didn't have as much difficulty with that and have been able to leave it in my past.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for calling in, Alan.

RICHARDS: Prison is definitely a turning point in many people's lives, and it's a very concrete experience that they can reflect back on. You know, there's sort of a before-prison experience, after-prison experience, and people use this is as a sort of a transitional point in their lives that they can always draw on. And in some respects, it can be a liberating experience for some people, but that's another issue.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call from Mike now, and Mike is calling from Michigan, I believe. Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, how are you?

NEARY: Hi, go ahead.

MIKE: I just wanted to say that, you know, I committed a felony about - a little over 10 years ago, and the reintegration process was absolutely horrific. I had been employed in the social-service field, and I found out that once I got out that - you'll never find an employer that'll say to you they don't hire a felon, but once you disclose that to them, you're done.

You can't get a job, and I'm at this point now where I just finally got it expunged in December, and I'm finally just now beginning to start the process again. And one of the hard things that I'm facing is that even though it's expunged, I still have to face getting a state license, which I don't think can happen.

Getting into graduate school, you have to disclose it. I mean, it's just - it's horrible. It's a horrible stigma.

NEARY: Well, you addressed this. Stephen, you addressed this issue in the book.

RICHARDS: Yeah, and it's getting - like Mike says, it's getting much worse because criminal-justice records, arrest records now are easily accessed by the public. In many states, you don't even have to pay. You just go online, and you type in a person's name, and you get their criminal-justice record, and you're a felon for life. I mean, you know, you're an ex-con when you come out of prison, but there's no such thing as an ex-felon. You're a felon for life.

Some people can get it expunged, but it's still there. It's still in the database. It'll still come up, and getting licenses, I mean, you know, once you're a convicted felon, usually you can't get a license to practice law, medicine, sell cars, sell insurance, sell real estate, sell stocks. Anything that needs a vocation or occupational license, usually you can't get.

NEARY: So even if you're trying - I mean, a lot of this book, and we can get more into this as the show goes along, but a lot of this book is about, you know, not being able to achieve the expectations that you might have when you're in prison and thinking about what you might do when you get out, it seems to me.

Prof. RICHARDS: Well, like your two callers, a lot of people when they're coming out of prison, you know, they've - they're sitting in prison, in a jail cell or a prison cell, and they're fantasizing about what it's going to be like when they get out.

You know, and they're thinking, you know, when they get out, their family is going to help them. They're going to get a job. They'll have a place to live...

NEARY: Mike, hold on to that thought because I want to ask you how you deal - how you can help people deal with the disappointment they're going to face when things don't turn out to be the way that they may have dreamed of - as we continue this discussion. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Several years ago, Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen Richards wrote a guidebook to surviving prison. Now they've taken the next step, with a book of advice for those who have been released.

Jeffrey Ian Ross teaches in the division of criminology, criminal justice and forensic studies at the University of Baltimore. Stephen Richards teaches criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He spent nine years in federal custody.

Together, they wrote the book "Beyond Bars: Rejoining Society After Prison," and we want to hear from those of you who have made this transition. What most helped you when you returned to your life after prison or jail? The number here is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Stephen, you were talking just before the break about the fact that people in prison are dreaming about what life may be like afterwards and often, life afterwards does not meet their expectations. How do you help - how does your book help people deal with that situation so that they're not just discouraged altogether and give it up before they even begin?

Prof. RICHARDS: I think the first thing is just reality, is they have to know the reality, and a lot of people, when they're coming out of prison, you know, they think they're going to get all this help, and they don't get help.

You know, one of the callers, his family helped him, and he was lucky, but a lot of people, if they've been locked up for a long time, their family won't be there when they get out. So you know, when they get out, they have no identification. They have no money. They have no clothes. Many of them have no place to even go to sleep.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Tom, who is calling from Nashville, Tennessee. Hi, Tom.

TOM (Caller): Hi. I'll give you my solution first. I would turn all prisons and high schools and 75 percent of the colleges into vocational schools.

I'm a contractor. I've hired two African-American gentlemen out of prison. They were wonderful and tragic experiences, unfortunately. They were ultimately both murdered, but the poor men, they had no social skills whatsoever. They had no sense of discipline.

They had been raised in homes with prostitutes. We spent every day talking about why you turn your lights off when you leave the house, why you turn the thermostat down, why you bring your lunch instead of going to McDonald's, every day, and they were trying so hard, but if you don't have any parents, you just don't learn these skills, and if they could be in prison learning a skill, if we could just teach them a skill while they're in prison, then they would have something to do because there's such a shortage.

I can't find plumbers and carpenters. I mean, I would hire an ex-con if I knew he could nail a two-by-four straight. We need more vocational training at every level of this society.

I told Jim Webb, but I haven't heard back from him, but if a guy don't have enough skill when he gets out, then he's going to be sunk, but if he does have a skill, I think he can overcome some of these obstacles.

NEARY: I think that's something...

TOM: They had the family. They had the church behind them. They had a lot of support, but even so, they had no skill. Anyway, thank you for your book.

NEARY: Hey, thanks so much, Tom.

Prof. ROSS: I agree that those skills are important, and there are some prisons where a small number of men or women learn to be plumbers or carpenters. Unfortunately, a lot of prisons now, though, are operated more like warehouses. They're so overcrowded.

Prof. RICHARDS: Those sorts of skills are in short supply in terms of being taught behind bars these days.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take another call now. We're going to go to Steve(ph), and Steve is calling from Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Yeah, two comments. First of all, I'm glad to be on the show, and I appreciate the writing of the book. When I was released from prison, they talked about the social skills. The first thing I did, I was in my mid-20s, was go down to a local college and just sit in one of the courtyards and watch people, watch how they walk, watch how they talk to each other because in prison, you walk different, you talk different, you act different.

You know, it's a jungle, and you have to always have your - like a dog or a lion have your mane up, you know, and you can't do that in society. That was one of the things, and the second comment I have is I found it so hard to find a job, I started my own business.

I started with $1,000 borrowed from my father and worked in the basement of the apartment building, and I grew that business, actually over seven years, up to where I had 52 full-time employees. And unfortunately, the bank I was working with at one point wanted a SBA - wanted us to file for an SBA loan, and when we did, they do an FBI check, and this came up. And within a year, we were dropped by the bank.

NEARY: Wow.

STEVE: And you know, when you're running a business that's growing, and you have a $550,000 line of credit and they yank it, you're out of business.

NEARY: Steve, what are you doing now? And two questions for you. How long have you been out of prison, and what are you doing now?

STEVE: I've been out now for 20 years, and I've started another business. I've found that that's so much easier, and as one of the gentlemen said, 20 years ago, the Internet wasn't what it is today and today, you can't - there's no getting away from your past.

It used to be the old thing was - is that you pay your debt to society and you're allowed to start over. It's not that way anymore. You pay your debt to society for the rest of your life.

NEARY: All right, well, thanks for the call, Steve.

Prof. RICHARDS: We talk about - Lynn and Steve, we talk a lot about small businesses as the salvation to economic survival and dignity amongst a lot of people who get out of jail and prison. It is very difficult, as most of your callers and listeners know, for people with a criminal record to get even menial work. And if they have a skill that is marketable, and if they can make it through the hard times, the first year, first two years, they may be able to have a, you know, very viable small business, and it may even take off and be able, as Steve mentioned, to employ as many as 50 people.

There's been some very successful businessmen who had a previous life as a criminal behind bars, and you know, our hats are off to those individuals who managed to, you know, engage in the American dream through that process.

NEARY: You know, Jeff, I'm wondering. The caller was just saying that at one time, it used to be you could pay your debt to society and then move on. Is that not the case anymore? At what point has someone paid their debt to society - or do we not allow that to be the case anymore?

Prof. ROSS: I think it's a noble attribute if we can let people pay their debt to society by having them spend their time behind bars. But I think what's happened is we've become an increasingly punitive society, and the information technology that's available that, you know, Steve Richards mentioned, is ever-present, and it's very hard to escape the criminal background check.

Increasingly, all businesses now are using criminal background checks. They may say that this is not used in the determination of whether or not they're going to give somebody a job, but it does have some sort of an effect and so, you know, there are clearly, you know, methods to get around it, like expungement, but it's never completely something that's - an issue that you don't have to confront in an employment situation.

Also, too, we talked in the book about how individuals who get out of prison and do manage to find a job, we advise them not to talk about their prison experience, and how to deal with questions about their prison experience with their co-workers because many co-workers are very fascinated with individuals who have done some time behind bars, and that kind of discussion can get an individual into trouble.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Allison(ph), and Allison's calling from Birmingham, Alabama. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON (Caller): Hey. I'm calling in regard to just everything that's been mentioned. I'm someone that's in recovery from bipolar disorder that, as many of you know, the majority of people that are in prison do have some type of mental disorder. And thankfully, with the help of my family and friends around me, I have the support network, unlike many other individuals with the diagnosis.

I ended up finishing college after three arrests and three involuntary commitments, and was unable to find a job due to the situations with the arrests. I would always be questioned. You know, they would read my resume and then say, we would love to hire you, but we can't because of the arrests.

And it's like something that my mom mentioned. I always kept in the back of my mind the dream that I had wanted to pursue, which was to go to law school, and after I finished Auburn University, I was still too ill, and also I had lost three friends due to overdoses.

So I guess what occurred in my situation was the best, but I have found out through my situation, and now as someone in recovery working with others hoping to enter recovery, that people are a lot more forgiving than what I ever, ever estimated. And I'm fortunate for what I went through because I have an experience to share that a lot of other people, you know, do not have the ability to see because they haven't been there.

But I applied to law school recently, and my big fear was, again, releasing the information about having been arrested. But I got my acceptance letter about a month ago.

NEARY: Well, congratulations.

ALISON: Well, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: That's good.

ALISON: That's hard - I just think that the harder you work and the harder you're willing to hang in there and be honest with people, the more, you know, the more willing they're going to be to hire you.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks for calling, Alison.

ALISON: Thank you.

NEARY: And that raises a question. I mean, is - do you ever suggest that people lie about their backgrounds?

Prof. RICHARDS: No, we don't. But I - this caller made a good point, and that is not to give up. And despite what obstacles there are and how many times a person may get rejected because of their criminal record, they should keep their head up, and they should maintain their demeanor. And eventually, they'll find somebody that will hire them, somebody that will give them a second chance.

But we do not - lying, we do not say at any time should a person lie. They should always tell the truth.

NEARY: Even if it's going to mean they don't get the job or they don't get the apartment or they...

Prof. RICHARDS: That's okay. I mean, lying is another - is fraud. I mean - and to lie in an application or on a resume is fraud, and that can also be a crime.

NEARY: Okay.

Prof. RICHARDS: So...

NEARY: Let's take call now from Tom, calling from Boston, Massachusetts. Hi, Tom.

TOM (Caller): Hey. How are you doing?

NEARY: I'm good.

TOM: I agree with what your guest just talked about, and what I advise my clients to do is to put down on the - not the resume - but the application willing to discuss, would like to discuss any way that they can fit with interviewer so that they can face-to-face contact. And if these guys are legitimate, they're - usually get to move the guy into a position where they pick them up.

NEARY: Who are your clients? What is your relationship to these clients?

TOM: Oh, I'm sorry. I, myself ,have done some time in prison. I did five years in Walpole, and I was released in '85. Fortunately, while I was incarcerated, I turned to Boston University Prison Program, and I was able to come out with a bachelor's. And I went on and furthered my education, so today I'm a licensed clinical social worker. But I'm also a professor at a local university.

And all of these things came with - I haven't, you know, covered my record up. I just kept it out there and challenged these guys to look at it and see that people can change. I've worked in prisons. I've worked in, you know, any place you would think that I wouldn't be able to work, and trying to make the system look at what it is that they have and the talent.

A lot of the guys that I know that I've done time with and are do - are successful, they're in the human service field. And, you know, that's the one field that, you know, they're open to people that are coming out of prison, people that are in recovery, recovery like myself.

You know, my suggestion for people that are getting out of prison is to make a connection, make a connection, if it's with church, if it's with A.A. or N.A. or if it's connection with - even a biker gang.

I mean, I know guys that have done well just by hanging around with people who profess to beoutlaws - but they're staying out of prison. And that connection reinforces a self-worth and a belief in themselves. That - being accepted - also allows them to feel like they've been forgiven.

NEARY: All right. Thanks.

TOM: And that's essential. That's essential in the reintegration process.

NEARY: All right. That's it, and it makes sense to me. And I want to thank Tom for calling and just remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Jeffrey, was that you that wanted to make a point?

Prof. ROSS: Lynn, I want to make a couple comments here. The last caller — I agree with him that when you counsel people about applying for jobs, that -what we say in the book is that if it's an application, let's say at a a fast food restaurant, that they hang on to that application, that they never leave it on the counter, that they sit down and wait for the manager to come. And then with the application in one hand, they introduce themselves to the manager. They hand the application to the manager. And so there, it's face-to-face.

And when the manager gets to that space on the application where it asks about felony records, then they - then it's a person standing in front of them. The idea is if you leave the application and you're not there, they'll never call you. But if you're standing there with the application in your hand and if you're presentable, you may have a chance.

NEARY: That's interesting. Let's see...

Prof. RICHARDS: That's the same thing, too, with a rental application. If you're trying to rent a place - a lot of places now, for apartments, want you to put down if you have a criminal record. And if you can make a connection with somebody in that rental office, chat them up, that sort of thing, then it'll be easier for them to, you know, get that human element working for you.

NEARY: And that gets back to what we were talking about earlier, which was those social skills you were saying are so important for people to learn, like even just small talk or something like that, to make that connection with somebody else so that they understand you're more than just, you know, your prison number or an ex-con.

Let's take one more call, if we can - Justin from San Antonio, Texas.

JUSTIN (Caller): Hey, guys. Thanks for taking my call. You know, I got out of prison in Texas just about eight years ago. And I was just like one of the other callers that called and said their family helped them a lot.

And my family really stood behind me and they made sure that I could go to school. I got in the university, and I've spent most of the past eight years in the university. I got two bachelor's degrees. And now, I'm just finishing up a master's degree and, you know, graduated suma cum laude both times. And now I'm fixing to have to go out and get a job.

And I've had a few jobs over the past year, but I've run in to just about any instance you could imagine. You know, I've been face-to-face with employers and been able to explain my situation and been awarded a job. And I've also been told, you know, that, sorry, it's our policy that we can't hire ex-felons.

And I find that in my profession, which is architecture and engineering, that the further and further I get into professional world, the more often companies just have a no-hiring policy. And so I don't really feel like - I mean, it feels like the more that I study and the harder I work to climb the professional ladder, the less and less opportunities that I have. And...

NEARY: Justin, let's see if we can very briefly get a response to your issue. Jeffrey?

Prof. ROSS: Well, I don't think - regardless of your degree, a degree doesn't guarantee a job, and - whether you have a bachelor's degree, master's, Ph.D. or some sort of professional degree. So that is, I think, something to keep in mind.

Also, too, I think individuals who have a felony conviction need, in many respects, to be more creative. And architecture is certainly a creative field. And you must think outside of the box. And many architect (unintelligible) construction business.

NEARY: All right. I'm going to have to cut you off. I'm sorry. Justin, I'm going to suggest, Justin, that you get the book "Beyond Bars." It might help you. The coauthors are Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen Richards. And thanks to you both of you for being with us today.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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