How to Help Formerly Incarcerated Individuals Thrive After Release

man in jail with a policeman

Formerly incarcerated people deserve to work, live and thrive just as much as anyone else. If a person made a mistake in his or her past and served the time for it, then he or she has the right to move on with life from there.

People who have been incarcerated in the past have the same needs and wants as the rest of the population. They want to be able to support themselves and their families, pursue their goals and give back to society - just like everyone else.

Read on to learn more about the challenges faced by people who have spent time incarcerated. Find out what you can do to help these people thrive and succeed.

The Primary Challenge of the Formerly Incarcerated

Unfortunately, formerly incarcerated people have a great deal of difficulty finding work and succeeding in life after release.  People in this group are disproportionately unemployed. According to work by the Prison Policy Initiative, people who have spent time in jail or prison experience an unemployment rate of 27%.

That's higher than the nation's peak unemployment rate during the Great Depression at 25%.

Their unemployment isn't short-lived, either. According to the National Justice Institute, 60 to 75% of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed a year after their release.

If a man or woman cannot find a job, then it will be very difficult to succeed or progress in other areas of life as well.

Other Challenges

Finding work is not the only difficulty that former inmates experience. After release, these men and women struggle in many other areas, too. One of the most important things we can all do to help the formerly incarcerated thrive is to understand the issues that they face.


Searching for a new place to live can be stressful for anyone, but that stress is compounded for those who have been incarcerated. People who have been in prison or jail have a gap in their rental history, and in most cases do not have the money available to put down first and last month's rent and a security deposit.

Further, more and more landlords and property owners are doing background checks on prospective tenants. Thanks to the internet, these are quick, easy and affordable. A felony or even a misdemeanor on someone's record may be enough to send their rental application to the bottom of the pile or to the trash basket.


As anyone who has moved to a new place can tell you, it takes money to get established. Most people that are released from prison after a short or even long time are given one set of clothes and $200 and are sent on their way. It is impossible to begin a new life with only these things.

In some cases, former convicts have families or friends to turn to upon release. However, many do not. Releasing inmates with so little is irresponsible and sets them up for failure.


It's sad and unfortunate, but many inmates find that many of their friends and family members abandon them upon conviction and incarceration. In some cases, recently released inmates soon see that they have no remaining support system on the outside.

Sometimes, the individual caused this abandonment. Due to drug or alcohol addiction, along with criminal behavior, some loved ones may have given up. Other times, the former inmate has been forgotten about due to being out of sight and out of mind.

Former inmates may have difficulty reconciling with others from the past and may also have a hard time making new friends or communicating with coworkers. When someone has been in jail or prison for a long time, these skills may need refreshment.


Many former inmates need legal advice, but they are unable to obtain it due to lack of funds. Most lawyers charge for even a short consultation, and some of the post-prison issues they may face may be rather complicated.

People who were formerly incarcerated may face discrimination and may want to see an attorney. Many are eligible to have their records sealed or expunged and need a lawyer to stand up for them in court. 

These things are inaccessible to many former convicts.

Adjusting to Life on the Outside

Perhaps one of the most difficult and challenging things that former inmates face is adjusting to life on the outside. For many who have been in jail or prison for years or even decades, the outside world can be very overwhelming.

For those of us on the outside, it's hard to understand how so many things can change in such a short time. People who are incarcerated are unaware of new technology, new buildings or roads in their hometowns, some current events, fashion and styles and trends and pop culture. 

It's even possible that some laws have changed while they have been incarcerated.

And, it can be difficult to make new friends and to communicate effectively in an ever-changing world. Adjusting to all of this would be scary and intimidating for anyone.


Worst of all, there is a stigma against the formerly incarcerated in our country and around the world. Sure, these people committed crimes and were convicted of them. They went to jail or prison and lost their right to freedom for a time.

Many people see this process as an unforgivable act. However, they have done their time and served their punishment. While some people were born into a life of crime and will always return to it, many do not, and there is no reason to assume that these people will be anything but model citizens until they prove otherwise.

How to Help

Fortunately, many people are working to change these statistics and to help former inmates find meaningful, long-term, post-incarceration success. There are many things that business owners, organizations and volunteers can do to help this marginalized group of American citizens to thrive in society.

Help with Employment

One area in which helping the formerly incarcerated will encourage them to thrive is in employment. If a man or woman can find work, that is a giant step on the road to normalcy and progress.

Income is necessary for life. How can former inmates find jobs and begin to build careers?

Job training programs, both in and out of prison, can be very useful. Learning a skill or even an entire profession will allow the former convict to build confidence and to feel that they can be an asset to a business in the future.

Interviews can be stressful for even the most qualified, so helping someone who has been recently released practice for one can be very helpful. The more practice opportunities that one has, the more effective they'll be in the actual interview.

Encouraging business owners to give ex-convicts a chance is a good idea, too. The more business owners that are willing to hire people who have spent time in prison or jail, the more opportunities there are for them.

There are a number of resources on Help For Felons that can help direct former inmates in the right direction. Some may want to consider working from home, working as a truck driver, working for a temp agency or becoming self-employed.

Help with Housing

To help inmates with the challenge of finding a place to live, consider working with others to create a local database of landlords that will rent to the formerly incarcerated. Call around and keep track of responses.

Advocacy can help a lot in this area; contact your local representatives to express your support for more ex-convict friendly housing. Often, the local housing authorities also have resources to share on affordable housing for people who have been released from incarceration.

Help for Felons has put together a list of ideas to help in this area as well. 

Help with Education

Education is another area in which advocacy can help. Some or even most prisons have programs to help inmates earn their high school diploma or GED. However, few offer college classes. Fewer than one in ten inmates have access to college classes in prison.

Inmates should be able to get an education while incarcerated to help them succeed upon release. Write to your representatives to advocate for more education within prison walls.

Help with Re-Entry

Re-entry programs help with all of the above and more. These programs help formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs, legal help, counseling, and housing and give them a new lease on life.

Help for Felons has a list of these programs around the country and is always looking for more to add. Most states have several. Some are run by government entities; others have been created by religious organizations or other non-profits.  

They exist to help former inmates. If you or someone you love has been released from prison or jail, reach out to them. They are there to help.

Helping the Formerly Incarcerated is Vital

We must help people who have spent time in prison. Many of them want to live a life free of crime and want to move forward and succeed. No one wants to return to being incarcerated, but many lack the support and resources to stay on the straight and narrow path.

With the help of programs and concerned citizens, people who were formerly incarcerated can return to society and can go on to live happy, productive and rewarding lives.

If you want to read more about law and the legal field, keep reading our blog.


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