Thinking Outside the Cell: Concrete Suggestions for Positive Change

feature image by Patricia Aridjis

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” -Angela Davis

From the cushioned luxury of my university perch, I’ve spent a great deal of time and spilled a great deal of ink critiquing the institutional circuit of jails, rehab programs, detention facilities, drug courts, temporary housing and battered women’s and homeless shelters through which millions of poor, sick and suffering Americans cycle, often beginning in childhood and continuing for decades. I’ve argued for a paradigm shift away from policies that aim to “manage” individuals who are sick / addicted / criminal / poor / powerless to policies that address the structural violences of racism, environmental degradation, poverty, unregulated capitalism, sexism and other gross inequalities — the violences that give rise to a growing caste of Americans marked by prison and all-too-often doomed to life (and death) on the margins.

My job is comfortable. I unpack the problem, point to the need for systemic change, and then leave it up to others — for example, those work on the front lines in struggling communities — to come up with the immediate answers that their friends, neighbors, families, patients and clients need right now. However, I’ve been increasingly challenged by colleagues, friends and readers asking me: “Short of a revolution, what do you suggest we do?”

The reality is that revolutions take time. They’re the result of tireless grassroots efforts, community-building, and policy-lobbying. The people working on the front lines in struggling communities aren’t working independently of each other — nor are they necessarily working toward the kind of long-term paradigm shift we’re hoping for. In my experience, I’ve come across programs and policies that seek to alleviate the most immediate suffering while avoiding the structural oppressions that perpetuate that suffering. I’ve also come across programs and policies that mean well, but ultimately reinforce the system that makes them necessary in the first place. Real change is tedious, needs resources, and often has to fend off not only direct opposition but also counterproductive short-term alleviation. In this post, I’ve pulled together the best models that I’ve found.

I. Harm Reduction and Housing First

Living on the streets and in shelters makes people vulnerable to illness, abuse, violence and arrest. Secure housing is not a panacea, but it’s a necessary prerequisite for stable relationships, employment and health. In this era of the housing market, millions of Americans are priced out of the home ownership as well as the rental markets. While public and subsidized housing can be helpful, all-too-often these housing programs enforce rules that are unrealistic for the people most in need of them. I know women in the Boston area who have lost their public or subsidized housing because a boyfriend slept over, a relative staying at the apartment committed a crime, an ex-boyfriend created a scene by pounding on the door or — even worse — assaulting the woman, a teenage child was arrested and placed into juvenile detention, or the woman herself was seen drunk or high.

photo via MHSA’s Home & Healthy for Good page

Secure housing, housing where breaking trivial rules or having overnight guests isn’t grounds for eviction, allows people to cook, eat, bathe, use the toilet, get dressed, sleep, rest, think, get organized and nurture relationships in some semblance of privacy and dignity.

While I’m not thrilled with the phrase, “low threshold housing,” initiatives such as the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance’s Home and Healthy for Good initiative offers a realistic and empathetic alternative (emphasis mine):

“The Housing First model represents a paradigm shift in the way chronic homelessness is addressed. Often in traditional housing programs, homeless individuals are expected to move forward through a linear service delivery system, with housing saved as a “reward” for individuals who are compliant with other requirements – such as maintaining sobriety or finding employment. However, homeless individuals struggle to meet these demands when they are also dealing with the challenges and instability of homelessness. Housing First represents a shift toward “low-threshold” housing, in which the barriers to housing have been removed. Housing First programs recognize that homeless individuals can more easily maintain their sobriety, find employment, and achieve other health and life goals when they have a permanent place to live. Housing First tenants live in leased, independent apartments or shared living arrangements that are integrated into the community. Tenants have access to a broad range of comprehensive community-based services, including medical and mental health care, substance abuse treatment, case management, vocational training and life skills training. However, participants are not required to participate in services – there are no compliance requirements in order to enter or stay in the program. By removing these barriers to housing, individuals are given an opportunity to deal with the complex health and life issues they face as tenants, rather than as clients of a prescribed system of care.

a low-income housing development in Chicago. Photo by Robert R. Gigliotti via Flickr

I’m also optimistic about initiatives like the Vera Institute’s Family Justice Program, which has partnered with the “New York City Housing Authority, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), and multiple nonprofit reentry service providers to develop, implement, and study a two-year pilot program that reunites 150 eligible formerly incarcerated individuals with their families in public housing while also providing them with case management services.”

II. Meaningful Work

Research demonstrates that engagement in productive activities reduces recidivism. While many Americans struggle to find jobs in this sluggish economy, unemployment among those with criminal records is as high as 50%. The criminalized and marginalized women I have worked with for the past decade rarely land jobs. As Tonya explains, “As soon as you [a potential employer] see me you don’t think ‘maybe she has skills.’ They just have stereotypes – ‘ghetto black.’” The jobs they are offered tend to be poorly paid and only temporary, without paths for advancement, and the work is often meaningless and demeaning. For example, at fast food restaurants, employees are yelled at on a regular basis, they can be fired for calling in sick, and they’re often punished with the most undesirable shifts or dangerous work stations. Many of the women I know report that their bosses “expect” sexual favors from “women like us,” and the men in their lives report that bosses often expect them to “hook them up” with drugs or prostitutes.

Full-time employment in the traditional, mainstream sense is simply unrealistic for many under-educated, chronically ill, marginalized or criminalized Americans. With that in mind, significant and long-term volunteer work can provide opportunities to develop new skills, form supportive social ties, contribute to a sense of worth and meaning in life (probably the best antidotes to substance abuse), and create safer communities. I tend to agree both with the Biblical aphorism that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and with Holocaust survivor and philosopher Viktor Frankl that people are driven by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life,” and that it is this sense of meaning that enables people to overcome painful experiences.

Because criminalized men and women are unlikely to be hired in “regular” jobs, a program of volunteer positions should not consider itself a stepping stone to “regular” (that is, low wage, demeaning, and unstable) work. Rather, volunteer opportunities should include the potential for participants to move into positions of greater responsibility within the agency or facility over time. It is crucial that a program of volunteer work provide stipends for workers. A stipend indicates that work is valued, encourages long-term commitment to the volunteer position, and helps volunteers cover expenses such as transportation to work, rent, a telephone, and commodities including soap and diapers that are not covered by food stamps.

The majority of the Boston-area women with whom I work have, at various times, participated in programs that require them to engage in “fake” work such as repeatedly mopping the same stairwells. Yet there are true pressing needs for volunteer workers in many agencies that help the elderly, the disabled, the community and the environment. Nearly all of the women I know cite generosity, sociability and “helping other people” as their best character traits. Volunteer work can build on these character traits and help women develop a sense of purpose and self-esteem through helping others. The visible presence of people with felony convictions doing voluntary, effective community work can raise the overall status and reduce the stigma of ex-prisoners in the community. A study of a volunteer program for ex-prisoners in the UK found that, “Recognition by others, and the opportunity to relate as people of equal worth, had enabled these women to establish themselves in their own eyes, and in the eyes of others, as contributing and valued members of society” (Eaton, 1993, p. 101). To that end, the Sue Ryder Foundation in the UK encourages and trains prisoners and former prisoners as volunteers in the Foundation’s work with hospice and neurological care. A 2012 evaluation of the program pointed to the positive experiences of working in an environment in which everyone was treated equally, with dignity, and as valued members of a team engaged in important work.

Initiatives of this sort do not cost more than the currently popular dead-end job training programs, fill real needs of non-profit and social service agencies, and may even lead to paid work for some participants.

III. Activism, Advocacy and Community Building

Our entire culture, from television shows and movies to industries such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and fashion, already tells us that we’re not good enough; that it’s our fault that we aren’t what we see on screen. Pop-therapeutic culture sends the message that people who stay in abusive relationships “choose” to be victims. Health, wealth, and autonomy are valued above everything else. So it’s easy to see how people who suffer from illness, poverty, abuse and incarceration end up feeling isolated by society at large, especially after being told (directly and indirectly) that they’re “losers.” And nothing is more isolating than prison where, in order to survive, one learns not to trust anyone – not the guards, not the parole board, not the courts, and often — but certainly not always — not even other prisoners.

Many of the programs aimed at rehabilitating marginalized and criminalized Americans focus on encouraging them to “take responsibility” for their problems and condemn any hint of social or political analysis as “denial.” They place blame on the individual, compounding feelings of mental isolation. I am particularly concerned with the ubiquitous presence of twelve-step programs (“admit my powerlessness; turn myself over to a Higher Power; do an on-going moral inventory of my flaws”) and “rehabilitative” reading materials at prisons, rehab centers, homeless shelters and half-way houses.

Happily, there are a growing number of organizations that reject this model.

In San Francisco, the Center for Young Women’s Development has created Sisters Rising, a nine-month-long paid internship in which young women of color train to become community organizers and learn resume-building skills. “As community organizers, they learn about the systemic issues that have directly affected their lives, such as the fact that young women of color are disproportionately suspended from school, are far more likely to be murdered and experience intimate partner violence at greater rates than white girls and women. … Although the job is part-time, with most of the women in the program working 10 to 15 hours per week, many who go through the program end up becoming full-time employees at the center.”

Here in Boston, Families for Justice as Healing makes clear in its name that “healing” isn’t just about therapy or treatment. True healing can only come about in a just society. In my own interactions with the organization, I saw a group of formerly incarcerated women share their stories about mothering while in prison. In the course of the sharing, perspectives shifted from, “I’m a failure as a mother,” to, “We’ve all been put in situations that make it impossible for us to be effective mothers.” At the end of the session, each woman prepared testimony for a hearing in the state legislature on a bill providing community alternatives to incarceration for parents who are primary caregivers of their children. I came away from that session thinking about organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) – women who have experienced the unimaginable horror of losing a child, a horror from which they will never “recover.” These women found meaningful work in lobbying for policy changes to prevent more mothers from going through the same horror. When organizations such as the Center for Young Women’s Development or Families for Justice as Healing successfully promote policies that strengthen families and communities, they weaken the power of the institutional circuit and offer real alternatives to lives spent as institutional captives.

IV. Legislative and Policy Initiatives

There has been some talk lately of bi-partisan calls to overhaul the judicial and correctional systems. I admit that I am suspicious of politicians looking to reduce incarceration solely for economic motives and with no interest in reinvesting in communities that have been torn apart by the policies of the last three decades. This is a legitimate concern given the history of initiatives such as Clinton’s so-called “welfare reform,” the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Still, I do think that there are a number of initiatives that have reasonable chances of being adopted and that are unlikely to backfire.

The REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment) introduced by Senators Cory Booker and Rand Paul calls for creating a federal pathway for sealing the records of convictions for nonviolent adults, as well as automatically sealing and in some cases expunging juvenile records. In addition, the REDEEM ACT proposes lifting the lifetime ban on SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (welfare) benefits for many non-violent drug offenders. These bans have been extraordinarily detrimental, as Cory Booker explains, “some of the most disadvantaged U.S. citizens, after release from jail, face impossible odds of supporting themselves and their families as they search for a job.” That, in turn, increases the chances of re-incarceration.

Bail reform is a second area in which there is currently a great deal of positive momentum. According to the Pre-Trial Justice Institute: (1) 6 in 10 people in jail in the U.S. are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of their charges. (2) Many of these unconvicted people are incarcerated because they are too poor to pay their bails of a few hundred dollars. (3) A person who spends as little as two or three days in jail is 40% more likely to commit a crime in the future even if they were innocent of the charge for which they were initially held. (4) Pretrial detention increases the chance of conviction, a sentence of incarceration and a longer sentence than for those who are released pretrial.

Bail reform legislation currently is under consideration in a number of states. In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Bail Fund and the Pretrial Working Group are advocating for SD1491/HD3156 Pretrial & Bail Reform, a bill that mandates the consultation of a validated risk assessment tool to help judges make informed release/detention decisions rather than allowing release/detention to be determined by the individual’s ability to pay cash bail.


It will take years and work and money and a whole lot of good luck to dismantle the prison industrial complex. But the groundwork has already been laid in communities around the country. And so, stepping outside of the ivory tower’s claims to impartiality and objectivity, I’m asking readers to donate time and money to support and strengthen that work. Most of it is difficult, underfunded, and at times dangerous. I’ve linked to a few organizations that I believe in and have come across in my work. If you want to help, I urge you to seek out local and national organizations, programs, and initiatives that are striving to bring positive, effective change to our systemic problems.

One thought on “Thinking Outside the Cell: Concrete Suggestions for Positive Change

  1. I really appreciate your thoughts on models that work. I’m working on the development of a model in my community and headed the Homeboy Industries to take part in their Network Conference. It seems like there are many paths to the top of this mountain.

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