A new report from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections finds that nearly two-thirds of people who serve sentences in state prisons end up reincarcerated within three years, a rate that has increased slightly since the year 2000.
The most recent data the report analyzed was of people released in 2016, making its results already somewhat dated—especially following a pandemic that introduced radical new restrictions on life behind bars that the DOC continues to keep in place.
Even so, the report reveals how illogical state policies contribute to the cycle of recidivism, perpetuating the harms of incarceration while costing $3.1 billion a year in taxpayer dollars.
The state is sending large numbers of people back to prison who haven’t committed any new crimes. It must stop locking people up for technical parole violations.
People released on parole are under strict supervision for the remainder of their sentences and must comply with restrictions that can make it difficult to go about life. They may be subject to a curfew, restrictions on what county or state they can travel to (even when travel would enable employment), restrictions on who they can associate with, and bans on drinking alcohol. Missing an appointment with a parole officer, a positive drug test, or even losing a job can result in their being sent back to prison for a “technical parole violation”--without having committed any crime. The DOC report found that two thirds (64%) of people on parole who were reincarcerated within three years were locked up for a technical parole violation. Overall, nearly 2,600 people were sent back to prison without being re-arrested during the most recent three-year period studied.
People who received more family visits in prison were much less likely to be reincarcerated. But the DOC has dramatically curtailed family visits.
The recidivism rate was a third lower for people who received frequent visits while in prison compared with those who received no visits. The more frequent the visits, the more recidivism rates dropped--from 62% for those who received no visits, to 42% for those who averaged more than four visits a month between 2012 and 2016. This finding is in line with a body of research that shows that prison visits, and the connections they foster with a support network outside of prison, can reduce recidivism.
But 40 percent of people released from Pennsylvania prisons during that four-year period did not receive a single visit while they were incarcerated. Since then, barriers to visiting loved ones in prison have only increased. After suspending visiting for 15 months during the pandemic, the DOC still refuses to bring visiting back to full capacity.
The Prison Society continues to advocate for the DOC to lift the lingering restrictions on visiting.
“We should be doing everything we can to encourage visiting,” says Kirstin Cornnell, the Prison Society’s family and community support director. For starters, this means opening up more weekend and evening slots so that visiting hours align with the schedules of working people. It also means investing in transportation to facilities, like the bus service the Prison Society operated for decades prior to the pandemic, when the DOC canceled the service.
“Community and family support is so integral to somebody’s success coming home,” Kirstin says.
The state needs to provide longer-term support for reentry.
The report found that 75% of the new crimes or parole violations that land people back in prison occur up to 16 months from their release. This demonstrates the need to invest in supporting people who are released over a longer period of time than the state currently does. The Prison Society’s mentoring program is one source of support for people reentering society after a period of incarceration. The DOC provides funding for the program, but only to cover mentoring support for the first six months after someone is released from custody.
During those first six months, people are in “survival mode,” Kirstin says, with an overwhelming to-do list to get their basic needs met--obtaining an ID, finding a place to live, getting a job, figuring out health care, and mending fraying relationships. "We're glad to be there for those first six months,” Kirstin says, but the program would have even more value after that, when people can really start to focus on their long-term goals.