Social Justice

Mass Incarceration: Do the rising numbers of our prison populations add up to justice?

Mass incarceration is a growing problem for our country and for the state of Tennessee. The U.S. has about 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prison population. Tennessee ranks 12th in the country for incarceration rates. In Nashville, two neighborhoods are in the top 40 zip codes in the nation for incarceration of citizens in their 30s (37208 ranks #1 on the list, with 37207 ranking #38).[1] Within these communities, the population is characterized by minority races; high poverty rates; and unemployment rates significantly higher than the rest of the state or country.[2]

As of June 30, 2017, the total number of people incarcerated in Tennessee was 30,161, with an additional 78,136 persons on parole; serving probation; or in community corrections. Neither of these totals account for persons affected by pre-trial incarceration; mental health inmates; or adolescents housed in juvenile detention facilities.[3] To further exacerbate the problem, recent projections from the Tennessee Department of Corrections’ (TDOC) annual report anticipate a 10-12% rise in the number of incarcerated individuals in 2018.[4]

These numbers illustrate that our state and national policies toward crime emphasize confinement and punishment rather than rehabilitation and preparation for re-entry.

Re-entry Assistance is Critical for Success

Each year in Tennessee, nearly 15,000 people are released from prisons across the state. Often, formerly incarcerated individuals leave prison as they entered, with little to no economic, vocational or familial support – meaning their chances of positively re-entering the community and rebuilding their lives are hampered from the moment of release.

Additionally, there are many educational and social gaps that exist for persons exiting prison. Educational programming is lacking in prison, and many people do not have the ability to continue their education or acquire job-specific training or technical skill sets. They also have not had an opportunity to develop soft skills or other attributes that enable positive interaction and communication. Beyond these educational and social gaps, individuals exiting prison are also more likely to experience mental or emotional health issues due to stress-induced trauma from living in a hostile environment for an extended period of time.

Project Return: Providing Hope and Opportunity

Based in Nashville, Tenn., Project Return works with formerly incarcerated individuals from across the state to fulfill its mission of helping them live a connected and fulfilling life in their community. Project Return is committed to assisting individuals rebuild their lives and equip them with the tools, training and emotional support necessary to positively re-enter society.

Annually, Project Return serves approximately 1,000 men and women, with nearly 500 new individuals entering their programs each year. Project Return coaches participants through their job search, acquisition, advancement, and retention. In addition to job coaching services, Project Return provides other wrap-around support to individuals, including ensuring access to food, housing and transportation.

Measuring the Impact of Re-entry Support

Project Return’s impact is evidenced through three key metrics, including:

  • High employment: Participants of the employment program experience an 84% employment rate; whereas without Project Return, 70% of people are unemployed for the first year following incarceration;
  • Low recidivism: recidivism rates in Tennessee exceed 50%; but for individuals participating in Project Return programs, that rate drops to less than 15%;
  • Cost savings: the annual cost of imprisonment for one inmate in Tennessee is $27,000; whereas Project Return can provide re-entry services to an individual for $7,000 per year.

Little evidence exists to support the idea that higher incarceration rates lead to decreased crime. However, Project Return is proving that focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment leads to long-term positive outcomes for previously incarcerated individuals and is a lower cost solution for tax payers.

To learn more about Project Return and the impact of their work, click here to watch a brief animated video; or visit their website at





Published on September 19, 2018 4:43pm

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Article By

Brittany Witt

Brittany Witt has more than 10 years of professional experience, and throughout her career has held multiple dynamic roles enabling her to hone a diverse and unique skill set. In her most recent role as Consultant with the Advisory Board, Brittany was involved in a variety of initiatives across the firm’s physician services and value-based care terrains, emphasizing client service, subject-matter expertise and data-driven solutions to address Advisory Board members’ most pressing healthcare challenges.

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