To avoid going back to prison, people returning from incarceration need secure housing. In a recent New Haven study of 200 people returning from incarceration, those without a place to call home were more likely to be reincarcerated.
In order to house all of our residents, Connecticut would need 85,403 more affordable and available rental units than we currently have, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The burden of this affordable housing crisis falls disproportionately on those that have been to prison. The Sentencing Project estimates that Black people are incarcerated at a rate more than five times greater than white people. Because of disparity in incarceration rates, housing for the formerly incarcerated is a racial justice issue.
Criminal records ban many from housing opportunities; even with sufficient income, landlords can discriminate based on background checks. In addition, rules around rental assistance, parole and probation create housing barriers for the formerly incarcerated. Indeed, the Prison Policy Initiative estimates that the formerly incarcerated are up to ten times more likely to become homeless than the general public.
Without a place to call home, returning citizens often end up back in prison. While Connecticut’s Second Chance Act programming has invested millions of dollars in reentry programming, recidivism since its inception is still unacceptably high, with 44% of people returning to prison within a three-year period (2018 cohort), according to the state’s Office of Policy and Management. While there has been some progress (the recidivism rate was 54% for the 2008 cohort), housing is a significant reason prison has a revolving door.
Why is housing essential to staying out of prison? The reasons are common sense and multiple. Without stable housing, it is difficult to heal from the trauma of incarceration, structure one’s day, and work on health, employment, and relationship goals. Living with others as a guest can strain families, romantic relationships, and friendships. If homeless, obtaining housing becomes a daily occupation that takes precedence over all else. What is more, police contact and surveillance increase for the unsheltered.
The 200 returning citizens enrolled in the Justice, Housing and Health Study (JustHouHS) lived in a variety of places: temporary programs, homeless shelters or on the street, with family or friends, in sober houses, or on their own. The study followed participants between 2017 and 2020 and considered many other factors that could affect re-incarceration, such as substance use, age, and income. Even accounting for these factors, compared with those that were renting their own place or living in supportive housing, those in other housing situations were more likely to return to prison within six months. Those in sober homes were three times more likely to return to prison. Those living with family, in a halfway house, or a temporary program were nine times more likely to be re-incarcerated. And those that were homeless or living with a friend were more than twelve times more likely to return to prison within six months, compared to those living on their own.
In interviews, JustHouHS participants spoke of the importance of a home for their wellbeing. As one participant explained, “I just want to have a bed and a door, a key, something of my own that I can just shut everybody out when I want alone time and be safe.” Participants also explained the difficulties of temporary stays, punitive rules and surveillance in their housing arrangements, and a lack of control over their own living space.
Last year, Connecticut made history by passing the strongest Clean Slate law in the country, expunging the records of misdemeanors and low-level felonies after seven and ten years, respectively, helping those who have successfully completed their sentences to have a chance at leading normal lives. This will aid in protecting some formerly incarcerated people from housing discrimination, but more needs to be done to prevent discrimination and increase housing options for those returning from incarceration. Connecticut residents and policymakers need to connect the dots between our broken systems of punishment and housing. In so doing, we can simultaneously reduce costly and senseless recidivism and create more justice in housing access.
Alana Rosenberg, MPH, is a research associate at the SEICHE Center for Health and Justice and was formerly project manager for the Justice, Housing and Health Study.
Luwam Gebrekristos, MPH, is a PhD student in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health and was formerly data manager for the Justice, Housing and Health Study.