The United States incarcerates more adults than any other nation. But, how successful are we at ensuring those former inmates don’t return to prison after release? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 60 percent of former inmates were rearrested within three years of release. Twenty-five percent of those returned to prison.
A new initiative is working to reduce those numbers by finding ways to help former inmates successfully reenter society. Still in its early stages, the Apollo 13 Project wants to connect stakeholders, the public, employers and others to create a dialogue that will change the public perception of ex-offenders, softening the impact of reentry.
“The Apollo 13 Project mission,” its website says, “is to develop the ground support necessary to help prisoners accomplish a challenging reentry into society, with odds stacked against them in such areas as employment, housing, and addictions, and mental health.”
Executive Director Eric Schulzke says, in creating the project, he was inspired by Singapore’s Yellow Ribbon Campaign, which also helps former inmates adjust to life on the outside. The Campaign is unique in that it promotes a society more accepting of ex-offenders.
“They believe in the social acceptance of a second chance,” Schulzke said.
Taking its name from the Tony Orlando and Dawn song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” Singapore’s campaign is trying to eliminate the “second prison” ex-offenders find themselves in after release from a physical prison. To do that, the program is promoting acceptance of former inmates by their families and society through charity events such as a competitive 10-kilometer run.
According to the YRC’s website, the organization “aims to help ex-offenders reintegrate successfully into the society, reconcile with their families and find hope in a new beginning.”
Former inmates in the United States encounter similar struggles. Employers are reluctant to hire ex-offenders, Schulzke says. He wants to change employers’ perception.
Currently, there isn’t an infrastructure of support for ex-offenders, he said. There is a wealth of knowledge on the subject, but stakeholders aren’t connected and don’t share information.
“The stakeholder dialogue needs to be stronger,” he said. “We shouldn’t be in a situation where people in Florida and Utah are unaware of what the other is doing. Stakeholders need to be coordinated and empowered.”
By collaborating and sharing information, Schulzke says stakeholders will be able to change public perception of former inmates.
“This is an arena that is overdue for transformation,” said Schulzke. “We need a left/right consensus if we are to have strong public support.”
Part of building that agreement is looking at the issue from “an ethical, moral and religious standpoint,” he said, that brings together both liberals and conservatives.
And there is a biblical foundation for the public acceptance of ex-offenders, he said. “The New Testament is, at its essence, a reentry manual.”
Schulzke believes media outreach will play a large role in changing public attitudes about former inmates. He wants to use social media and the Internet to get the word out.
An integral piece of the Apollo 13 Project puzzle, are the stories of the prisoners themselves. Schulzke envisions prisoners writing blogs and producing short videos about their experiences during reentry. Letting the prisoners speak directly to the public will humanize them, he said.
“The stories will give depth and complexity to the offender face,” Schulzke said. “They aren’t that different from our brothers and sisters.”
At least one member of the Apollo 13 Project advisory board understands that intimately. Miriam Boeri, an associate professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said she got involved partially for personal reasons. Her brother spent 30 years in prison.
"It was very difficult for him to find work and reintegrate into society when he was released," she said.
Boeri said she also helped bring other experts to the project through her interest and research into alternatives to incarceration.
The Apollo 13 Project takes its name from NASA’s near-disastrous 1970 lunar-landing mission chronicled in the 1995 Ron Howard film.
“The bottom line is this,” the Apollo 13 Project website says. “When the odds were slim, and no one was sure how to overcome them, the crew on earth worked sleepless days and nights to clear the hurdles and bring the travelers home.”
Despite the project being “insanely ambitious,” Schulzke hopes to imitate that success.
Photo by Apollo 13 Project