The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Justin Adams is a student at the University of Maine at Augusta and is incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine or University of Maine System. This column is a guest contribution from the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
Housing and homelessness are critical issues for Mainers. Although leaders and the public are aware of this problem, I would like to address the hardships for a specific group of people — those being released from incarceration. Any conversation about housing must include the nuanced circumstances of those incarcerated.
Maine needs more housing options for those being released from prison. I personally understand this topic because I am currently incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. I have witnessed many people get released with only a $50 check and 30 days worth of medications. The lucky ones get a voucher from the state, for a free week’s stay in a hotel. After that, they are on their own, and I will be, too.
Ninety-eight percent of Maine inmates have release dates. Within three years of their release, two out of three former prisoners are rearrested and more than 50 percent are incarcerated again. In Maine, 30 percent of prisoners will return to custody. Without access to housing, a successful reentry into society is nearly impossible for former prisoners.
From my experience, securing housing is a major challenge for those who don’t have family. When basic needs like housing aren’t met, individuals are at greater risk of returning to crime and being reincarcerated. But most of us are released from prison without any savings and without a job. We lack funds for housing application fees, security deposits and rent.
While the costs of transitional and sober housing do vary around the state, prisoners likely cannot afford the entry fee, rent or both. Most of these houses are full and will not hold beds longer than one week, which means an inmate must gamble on the timing to secure housing days before their release.
On top of not having enough money, there are other challenges. Because of credit and background checks, felons experience discrimination in the housing market. Formerly incarcerated persons are nearly 10 times as likely to go through homelessness than the general public. Many of us — 61 percent of Maine prison inmates — suffer from a substance abuse disorder.
If I didn’t have an addiction, I would have never committed the crimes that led to my incarceration. I have taken classes that have helped me with my addiction. But the fact is that I am still an addict and will be upon my release, which is why it’s so important to provide housing to inmates returning to society. Housing that offers substance use and mental health treatment establishes stability for employment, as well as increases the chance of staying sober.
President Joe Biden proclaimed Second Chance Month on March 31, 2022, and stressed “the importance of helping people who were formerly incarcerated reenter society.” If housing is a protective factor that reduces recidivism, then housing is a central aspect of public safety. Housing is one of the key predictors of successful community reentry.
But beyond the moral imperative to help people reintegrate to society, it is more cost effective for the state and taxpayers to create alternatives such as reentry housing than it is to keep that same person incarcerated. According to a Maine ACLU report, Maine spends $100 million a year to prosecute and incarcerate persons with drug use and possession. However, “a year in state prison costs more than twice as much as it would cost to provide housing, weekly counseling and medication-assisted treatment for a year at current MaineCare reimbursement rates,” the report found.
Housing for previously incarcerated persons should be an obvious priority. We should create medium-term housing options, recognizing that the first years following incarceration are especially important and that the risk of recidivism is highest in this period.
Gov. Janet Mills’ biennial budget proposal makes investment in behavioral health a priority. However, this legislative session, Maine lawmakers should prioritize their work to ensure access to housing that supports recovery. Without it, the cycle will continue — addicts will relapse, reoffend and ultimately be in prison again. Incarcerated and justice-impacted people should be at the table, making policies that affect us directly.