- "Please Don't Mind our Tattoos":Singapore's re-entry programs for the formerly incarcerated
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While doing online research in 2013, I ran across a Singaporean ad on YouTube. In it, a young, melancholy-looking man in a shirt and tie goes about his daily business, a forlorn-sounding hum in the background. He is taking the crowded commute to a corporate job, perched meekly at the boardroom table, numbly pushing a grocery cart down the supermarket aisle. But all the while he's lugging around a cumbersome ball and chain, which hinders him at every turn. A single statement appears: "Help ex-convicts lead a normal life." And then, "SCORE: Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises." Who are they, I wondered? The formidable bit of marketing haunted me, exactly as it was meant to. [End Page 43]
SCORE, it turns out, is part of the Singaporean government's effort to tackle that hitch in the prison solution to crime: the fact that such a "solution" is temporary. Most prisoners eventually leave prison. What does society do with them when they do?
This process, known as re-entry, is a global criminal-justice buzzword. It was invented in America and attained national standing with President George W. Bush's 2008 Second Chance Act, which included support for prisoners coming home. Mayors and governors across the country opened re-entry offices and launched committees, like New York's Council on Community Re-Entry and Reintegration, established by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014. Foundations sponsored studies on the subject, and universities inaugurated research institutes dedicated to it; my own Prison-to-College Pipeline, one of the country's only education programs explicitly designed with re-entry in mind, is housed at John Jay's Prisoner Re-entry Institute.
Re-entry. It sounds so seamless, like you've temporarily left home and are now just re-entering it, ready to pick up where you left off. But the process is anything but simple. It's a dramatic coming-back-to-life, a strenuous resurrection, a full-on crisis.
Imagine you spend five, 10, 25 years locked away in an alternate universe that plays by wholly different rules. You're doing time; time, halted, is doing things to you, doing things without you. Then one day you're set free. Where do you go? Where do you live? How do you adjust to the utterly other world you're suddenly in—socially, technologically, and otherwise? How do you find a job? Find your way around? Surely the country that locked you up will help you readjust after you've paid your debt?
No. Odds are that you, like most people coming home from prison, aren't eligible for welfare, food stamps, or public housing. Like 80 percent of U.S. prisoners you're without health insurance; if you were ever enrolled in Medicaid, it was terminated while you were in prison and the government hasn't re-enrolled you. Employers don't want to hire you; in a sample of four large urban labor markets, 40 percent admitted they wouldn't hire someone with a criminal record. If you do have a job, you earn about 40 percent less, annually, than your non-formerly incarcerated peers, and if you live in all but four states, you have no say about this reality, or any other government policy that devastates your life, because you can't vote; you're one of 5.85 million Americans—7.2 percent of U.S. citizens—affected by "felon disenfranchisement" laws. Of this total, over 2 million are African Americans, one of many factors named by law professor Michelle Alexander in her bestselling 2012 book The New Jim Crow, which describes what segregation looks like in the 21st century: a new racial caste system born of the invisible punishment that is reentry. The "lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society," she writes, is designed to "warehouse a population deemed disposable," i.e., blacks and Latinos, and to deepen social inequalities. Inequality produces crime, which means that...