Once prisoners are released, many find themselves starting over in life with no support, no job and no place to live. These factors contribute to a significant number of offenders who are re-incarcerated.
Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Disabled Offenders Economic Security (DOES) project works to provide economic stability for mentally and physically disabled ex-prisoners to decrease the likelihood that they will reoffend.
A Department of Corrections report shows 40 percent of inmates released in 2005 (the most recent year for which figures are available) were re-incarcerated within two years of their release. Inmates with mental health conditions reoffended more frequently; 46 percent reoffended within two years of release.
Through DOES, lawyers, community corrections agents and other Department of Corrections staff help ensure that released offenders receive appropriate benefits, including Social Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance, health care, FoodShare and employment training programs.
“The goal of our program is to help them gain or improve their economic security,” said Jaimesue Knowlton, DOES project director. “If they have economic security, they’re more likely to not reoffend or become homeless.”
Wisconsin has 21,590 adult inmates in correctional institutions. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections treats roughly one-third of them for mental health disorders, according to Linda Eggert, public information director at the department.
“The DOES Project has developed a unique working arrangement with the Social Security Administration and the Disabilities Determination Bureau that reduces SSI/SSDI application processing time and increases success rates,” according to the Legal Action website. Forty-five percent of DOES applicants are approved, compared to one-third of inmates nationwide.
DOES works in the 13 Wisconsin state prisons that have the highest number of inmates with serious mental illnesses and/or developmental disabilities.
The DOES project began after Legal Action participated in a nationwide pilot program called The Hope project. When the pilot ended in 2005, the Department of Corrections continued looking for incentives and innovative ways to keep inmates with mental illnesses from reoffending. In 2010, the Department of Corrections funded the DOES project, which has been taking applications for about one year.
Knowlton attributes the project’s success to the work of one-on-one advocates. Once a person is released, he or she is partnered with a Legal Action representative who remains in contact regardless of where the person lives after release. These advocates make sure that the ex-offender has started receiving benefits. If not, the advocate is responsible for filing appeals and advising the discharged inmate.
“These are our neighbors and they are going to be in our community with us so it’s important to care for them as neighbors and help them,” Knowlton said. “It can only benefit our community when members are doing well.”