a digital illustration of two people looking out of windows, one from the comfort of their bedroom and the other from a prison cell.
(Simone Rotman)

Without a doubt, one of the most overlooked rivets on the revolving prison door is stable housing. Or rather, lack thereof.Many of us in prison grew up with instability, or experienced instability prior to our incarceration. It is from a home base that we truly begin our integration into society, where we start to acclimate ourselves and re-establish, or establish for the first time, a sense of normalcy. Where we look for jobs, study for college, build relationships and just plain old be normal.

And that is the key: normalcy. After all, those of us who at one point in our lives were entrapped by barbed wire and electric fences fall outside the realm of normalcy. We are society’s outliers. And whatever allegation (true or untrue) led us to become part of the system, is deemed by law as abnormal. But that allegation, that crime, that conviction, and that resulting incarceration, stem from a chain of events.

Causality is like a domino effect. A cause leads to an effect, which in turn becomes the cause for a subsequent effect, and so on. And this applies to vicious, cyclical, incarceration. And in this particular chain of cyclical events lies instability. Stability is required to break free from the causality loop of criminality. And the baseline standard of stability is known to most as a home.

A home. A safe refuge. The basic of the basics needed by all, and especially needed by those who are not only starting from scratch, but starting with the freshly minted label of felon, ex-con, criminal.

Society has an ethical responsibility to protect itself and its most vulnerable citizens. And no matter how distasteful it sounds to some of us, those formerly incarcerated are some of the most vulnerable. Whether or not we believe they came into such a vulnerable position by their own accord, this point is moot. They have served their time. The punishment must end when they walk out of the prison gates. And by protecting them, we are not only being ethical people, but by lowering their risk of recidivism, we are protecting society at large.

Protecting society and its most vulnerable does not have to be reactionary, cleaning up the mess after the fact. Reactivity is the standard in criminal justice and in how we handle those who have fallen out of normalcy. It’s the criminological model of “just deserts” that begins and ends with a lock-them-up policy, a late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century theory of punishment based on “lex talionis,” or the “law of vengeance.” This theory derived from the works of German theorist Immanuel Kant. But such old-school thinking has been proven ineffective. And without having to delve into what has worked for European countries X, Y and Z, we can, as rational Americans, conclude that there are more humane, proactive solutions to protecting our society as a whole. 

There is no disputing that the system is broken. The reactive solutions we have implemented have not been working. One proactive approach that is sure to greatly reduce the number of people caught in the causality loop of crime (both perpetrators and victims of crime) would be to provide people coming out of prison with housing. Real housing. Not some cramped half-way house riddled with drugs, disparaging influences and triggers for old behavior. Or some oppressive and dehumanizing kennel-esque shelter, with zero privacy, less security and less stability than prison (reasons that are catalysts for many to go back). No, there must be some semblance of normalcy for the so-called abnormal to become normal. For them to get a taste of the life they can have, of wholesome possibilities and what they may maintain with a little bit of learning, a bit of hard work, and some consistency. By getting those released from prison used to stability, hooked on stability, they can find a solid path to becoming non-criminals, socially adherent.By providing former inmates (and perhaps even those living below the poverty line, so to prevent falling into criminality) with stable, long-term housing, society protects itself from the perpetuation of crime, which also means it protects its economy. It saves money. A lot of money. Tax payer money.

Police cost money. More crime, more police. Courts cost money. More revolving doors, more courts. Plenty of crime is recidivism, and many crimes cause our insurance rates to increase—criminal damage to property costs money, of course—and the yearly cost of incarceration costs money. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, prison housing in California costs over $106,000 a year per person. And if you add up all the other related costs, this number greatly increases. But how much would it cost to provide housing for one of these men or women being released? A fraction. And this would off-set and pay for itself once these men and women integrate into society and become contributing, productive members, going to school and holding jobs. 

This is what housing stability could provide the formerly incarcerated. Because with stability comes self-confidence, and with self-confidence comes greater employability. And yet this is just the tangible. What about the non-economic savings? What about what we save intrinsically? The less fear, the less victimization, the greater sense of security and fraternity amongst us? Here is where the true value lies, where a sense of belonging can heal the wounds caused by those caught in the revolving door and even prevent many from getting there in the first place. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, children of men and women in prison are more likely to spend time in prison themselves. And I speak to you from experience. An experience where lack of housing was a pivotal force in sending this writer to prison.

For over a decade I had a great career in IT. And through a series of unforeseen and tragic events, which included becoming temporarily disabled (breaking both of my shoulders and being prescribed an unreasonable amount of narcotics), I lost my job, spent my savings and sabotaged my relationships. To escape I kept up with the pills and the drink, and the heavy intoxication led to bad decisions and with it, a criminal conviction. And when the system spit me out onto the streets, a hefty portion of society shunned me because of my label of “felon.” Acquiring employment and even getting a place of my own became near impossible. The cycle of the streets, using, instability, and prison began. What I needed was safe refuge, a roof over my head, a private space I could call home where I could get my life together.

I ask you to be part of the solution and take a humane approach to ending this cycle. Call your state legislators. Tell them you want something done to end the housing crisis. Not just for us coming out of prisons and jails, but for everyone without a home. Because we can heal old wounds, reduce time and homelessness, and find humane solutions that save money and don’t prey on our fears.

Jose Carlos Grant is a writer whose novels and plays explore the themes of homelessness, inequality, gender identity, police brutality, race and prejudice. He is hoping to have his first play produced soon. Jose is an inmate at the Sierra Conservation Center in California.