A person convicted of a crime continues to pay long after release from behind bars in the form of housing and job discrimination, micro-management of the details of where and who they live with, and where they may travel, Shah said, speaking to an audience of about 20 people.
Most people in prison are non-violent drug offenders. (Full disclosure: I helped edit the 6th edition of "Drug War Facts"). Most are male and most are black. All have one thing in common besides a criminal conviction: they are dumped into a black hole the day that prison door shuts behind them.
"Release planning should start from day one," Dr. Shah said. She cited cases where people were released from prison in the middle of the night. There must be a better way to help a person who has been struggling with drug addiction than turning them out at 2 am with nowhere to go.
Removing barriers to re-entry means restoring what prison has removed: decent housing, education, and jobs.
Housing isn't cheap. Dr. Shah cited the National Low Income Housing Coalition finding that a person making minimum wage must work 89 hours a week in order to afford an apartment. And that's just to pay the rent. It doesn't include utilities, food, or any other expense.
In some urban areas, as many as half of all people who are homeless are former prisoners, Dr. Shah said. She said in Los Angeles many live under bridges, especially people who were convicted for sex offenses who are banned from living in many areas. Further, people with non-violent, "victimless" drug convictions are banned from public housing. Remember: most people who served time are black. The result is that discrimination against people who have been released from prison also amounts to racial discrimination.
Housing is just one barrier. Jobs are another. Dr. Shah spoke about the need to eliminate "The Box" on employment applications -- the box you must check if you have a criminal conviction. Run background checks only when a person is hired, she said, and look at each person on an individual basis to see if a criminal conviction has any relevance to the job for which they are being hired. She mentioned a study by Princeton sociology professor Devah Pager who conducted a survey of employers that found most would in fact be willing to give a chance to a person who had served time.
"Use background checks as an option, but not the answer," she said.
Additionally, education is proven to help keep people who have served time from returning to jail, yet we spend twice as much on prisons as we do on higher education, Dr. Shah said. She spoke about legal barriers to student loans.
"Many of my students are smoking pot They're also not hiding it," she said. "So they are denied student loans over and over."
She called for an end to the war on drugs.
"The way we have gone about dealing with drugs has been incredibly detrimental," she said, adding that it's a health issue and should be treated as such.
A woman in the audience spoke of her time in prison, and seeing people wanting something to do while inside; to be able to study and educate themselves. Yet all they could do was just sit there.
Rev. Bill Worley spoke about talking with a man who had just been released from Lancaster County prison with nothing but the clothes on his back, and nowhere to go.
"The re-integration piece is failing miserably," Rev. Worley said.
"We need to start seeing prison as part of the fabric, the network of our community," he said.