What happens when a person convicted of a crime has served their “debt to society” and is released from prison? In theory, the debt has been paid and the person should be able to return to active life in their community. This includes getting a job commensurate with his or her qualifications and experience. After all, isn’t it better that the formerly incarcerated become an independent, productive taxpayer rather than a person still dependent on a system?
Sadly, too many people coming out of incarceration do not find gainful employment. Research shows that in 2018, before the covid-19 pandemic, formerly incarcerated people were unemployed at a rate of over 27 percent. This was higher than the total American unemployment rate during any historical period including the Great Depression.
During that same year, the national unemployment rate was just 3.9 percent. A lot of people were working at good jobs—but not the formerly incarcerated.
They aren’t “lazy.” Formerly incarcerated people want to work, but face societal barriers to securing employment, particularly within the period immediately following release. Being formerly incarcerated is a stigma. For those who are Black or Latinx, status as formerly incarcerated slashes their employment chances even more. Their high unemployment rate is a costly drain on society.
Is it a question of qualifications and training? The facts say otherwise. People who are convicted and incarcerated come from all walks of life, and often held jobs for which they were well qualified. But their criminal record—and that alone—is a “red flag” to employers, and slams shut the door.
Increasingly, the answer to finding job success upon reentry is social capital.
Shared Norms, Values, and Understandings
At DeJesus Solutions, social capital is defined as the value of an individual’s connections with individuals, institutions, and organizations. The currency that is exchanged to build social capital is what we refer to as CARTI: compassion, assistance, reciprocity, trust, and information.
In this definition, we can think of social capital as assets mutually shared between connected individuals that increases in value because of consistent CARTI deposits into this shared account. For individuals raised in affluent households, these deposits often occur on a frequent and scheduled basis, leading to increased connections and the social capital accumulation that comes with it. For the incarcerated, prisonization thwarts any sane interpretation of these norms while disconnection, trauma, violence, and repeated violations of trust prevent these norms from developing.
Strengthening social capital for the formerly incarcerated is about addressing the harm caused by prisonization, restoring the values of trust, compassion, and reciprocity, and determining how we can help them bring these currencies to the social capital equation with individuals and organizations within and outside their communities. It’s about building a system of policies and practices that help the formerly incarcerated identify key opportunity stakeholders, and supports them in engaging and maintaining structured, measurable, and meaningful connections to a wide range of familial, developmental and gateway social capital assets.
Social Capital Promotes Reentry Success
For the formerly incarcerated, social capital is one of the greatest predictors of reentry success. Research has long pointed to the pivotal role positive, pro-social connections play in helping the formerly incarcerated connect to housing, jobs, and the ability to launch successful entrepreneurship ventures.
Social capital plays another essential role. It can connect the formerly incarcerated to a plethora of much needed human services support systems, from job training to educational tutoring. Its bonding nature equips those returning to society with both emotional support and career encouragement.
Yet despite the power of social capital, there is not one formal effort in the US to teach returning citizens—the ones who have been most disconnected from society—the science behind this valuable form of capital accumulation. It’s difficult to find any reentry effort that gives the formerly incarnated the tools and support to build it.
If social capital building is not formerly supported as an essential re-entry service and part of a continuation of services, then those among the formerly incarcerated will continue to lag behind in securing gainful employment, housing, and economic stability.
The solution is in front of us. All we need to do make the investment and watch these assets grow.
Edward DeJesus is the President of DeJesus Solutions, the founders of Social Capital Builders. To contact Ed, you can reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.