Reentry After a Period of Incarceration

Download NAMI’s Coming Home: A Guide to Re-entry Planning for Prisoners Living with Mental Illness

Getting adequate mental health treatment and support isn't always easy in America. For far too many people with mental illness, a crisis can lead to police intervention and time in jail or prison. If you have been arrested, there are some things you can do to prepare for leaving jail or prison.

Securing Basic Needs

If you received any public benefits such as food stamps, public housing or Medicaid before your incarceration, you may need to re-apply, but your conviction may impact your ability to receive them after your release. Some states will let you start your applications for Medicaid, public housing, Social Security and Food Stamps before you are released.

Ask the jail or prison authorities if there is a pre-release program that can help you get started with applications. If not, ask a trusted family member or friend to help you get your documents in order and start applications.

On the Day of Your Release

If possible, ask a family member or friend to buy a few basic necessities and bring these to you on the day of your release, including:

  • A set of basic clothing
  • Toiletries
  • A pay-as-you go cell phone, programmed with important numbers, such as family and friends, emergency services and your doctor

Getting Identification

You must have identification (ID) to apply for benefits or a job. Family members may be able to help in compiling these documents. For general help visit USA.gov. Some common IDs you may need are:

  • Birth Certificate. You often need a copy of your birth certificate to apply for other forms of ID. If you need a copy of your birth certificate, contact the vital records agency in the state where you were born.
  • State Identification Card or Driver License. Contact your state DMV to find out what types of ID they issue and what documents you need to present before getting new ID.
  • Social Security Card. Contact the Social Security Administration if you have lost your card.

Finding a Place to Stay

About 1 in 5 people leaving prison become homeless. This increases the risk of winding up back in jail or prison, so it's important to find a place to stay. Many housing assistance programs will have waiting lists.

Public Housing and Section 8

In traditional public housing, individuals and families pay low rent to a housing agency. Section 8 provides vouchers to assist families and individuals to rent apartments on their own.

People convicted of certain crimes, including sex offenses and methamphetamine production, cannot live in public housing. You can also be denied public housing if your current drug or alcohol use affects the health or safety of other residents. Some states, however, have public housing available in addition to the local PHA. Contact your state housing agency to find out if there are any programs.

Supportive housing is a special kind of public housing that includes other services needed by the individual renting the apartment, such as case management or an on-site health center.

Transitional Housing

Some states have transitional housing programs for people leaving incarceration. Transitional housing provides greater structure, stability and services than some other living arrangements. Programs vary widely across the states and parolees may need to be referred to the program by corrections staff to be eligible. You may also be required to live in a transitional housing situation immediately following release. Contact your state’s department of corrections about transitional housing.

Staying with Family

Staying with family is a good option for many people, but it can also be difficult for you or your family. Some family members might feel anxious, have trouble paying additional bills or have difficulty in relationships with other family members or friends. It is best to talk through these issues with your family before your release.

Homeless Shelters

If you have nowhere else to go following your release, you can go to a homeless shelter in your area. You should call the shelter first to ensure that they have room. You may also be able to get more information by calling 211 or by visiting these websites:

Health Care

Seeing a doctor is an important part of staying healthy. To do that, you will need health insurance. There are many options for getting coverage through private insurers, or government programs like Medicare and Medicaid. You can find a mental health treatment center at findtreatment.samhsa.gov or call 800-662-HELP or 800-662-4357 for a referral. There are facilities in your community that offer low or no-cost health care. You can find a community health care center online or by calling 888-275-4772.

Help Paying for Medication

Some states provide exiting prisoners a supply of medication upon release. Check with your state department of corrections or prison staff about their policies.

If you cannot afford your medication, some states and most drug companies have programs that offer free or low-cost medication. Each company has its own eligibility rules and application. Usually, you will need to fill out an application with the help of a doctor. Visit www.rxassist.org/ for more information.

Income

There are several government programs that provide income support. Finding the right program depends on your income, work history, whether you have a disability and whether you are supporting children.

Social Security

Social Security provides benefits to people with health conditions that leave them unable to work or to people who have a disability and are low-income. You can call 800-772-1213 or visit your local Social Security office for more information.

If you were on Social Security before incarceration, Social Security should not have paid benefits if you were incarcerated for more than 30 days. If payments were made in error, then you will have to pay them back to the Social Security Administration.

Many correctional facilities have an agreement with the Social Security Administration to help people restart or reapply for benefits. If the facility does not have an agreement, contact Social Security at 800-772-1213 and give them your Social Security number and your expected release date. A Social Security representative can provide further instructions and make an appointment for you at the local Social Security office.

Welfare

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), commonly known as welfare, provides money to families with children in need, although states may use TANF funds for other purposes, including job training or counseling. Search online for the state agency that manages TANF for more information on how to apply.

Federal law does not allow people convicted of certain crimes, such as drug crimes, to receive TANF. However, some states still provide other benefits to people in these circumstances. There are also limits on how long you can receive TANF. Check with your local department of social services to find out the rules in your state.

Food

If you cannot afford food, there are programs and places that can help.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP, commonly called food stamps, is a program to help low-income people pay for food. Contact your local department of social services, or call your state’s SNAP hotline for more information. Federal law does not allow people convicted of certain crimes, such as drug crimes, to receive SNAP. However, some states still provide benefits to people in these circumstances.

Food Banks/Pantries

Food pantries provide food when you do not have enough money for the grocery store. You can find a food bank or food pantry near you on the Feeding America or Homeless Shelter Directory websites.  

Achieving Success On the Outside

When leaving jail or prison, it's important to get as much support as possible so that you can be successful and healthy. Getting support for mental illness or substance abuse will help you stay on the path to recovery. Getting a job or an education will improve your chances of success. In addition, if you are a veteran, there are services and supports to help you.

Mental Health Support

NAMI Affiliates across the country can help you get access to mental health services, treatment, and support. NAMI also offers support groups and education programs for people living with mental illness and their families.

Substance Abuse

If you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Seventy percent of incarcerated individuals with mental illness also have a problem with substance abuse. Getting help for drug and alcohol problems is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy and stay out of jail. Ask your parole officer if there is a drug and alcohol treatment program you can sign up for.

Getting an Education

Education is important to getting a job and succeeding in your community. Most states offer programs to help you finish high school or get your General Educational Development (GED) certification. These programs vary by state, and you can find more information by contacting your state department of education.

Attending college can open up even more job possibilities. There are programs available that can help you pay for college. However, some convictions such as certain drug crimes while on federal student aid will delay your assistance or keep you from getting assistance while on parole.

Finding a Job

Finding a job can be an important part of restarting your life. Find out about career centers and job training programs in your area with CareerOneStop or by calling 877-US2-JOBS. 

Listing Your Criminal Record on Job Applications

You should tell the truth if your employer asks about any arrests or convictions. However, in some states employers cannot ask about certain kinds of criminal records, such as arrests that are no longer pending. Find out about the laws in your state by contacting your state department of labor.

Service Members and Veteran Support

People who have served even one day in the military or National Guard may be eligible for additional help from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA can help veterans with compensation, health care, education, housing and other support.

The VA provides specific assistance for veterans leaving incarceration and a state resource guide for veterans leaving incarceration.

Here are additional resources that can help answer questions.

  • Benefits questions: call 800-827-1000
  • Health care benefits questions: call 877-222-VETS (8387)
  • Vet Center Combat Call Center: If you or your family member is a combat veteran, and you need to talk to someone about your military service or difficulties in adjusting to civilian life: call 877-WAR-VETS or 877-927-8387.

Repaying VA Benefits Paid During Incarceration

While you are incarcerated, your VA benefits could be limited or even suspended. When you have 30 days or less until your release day, you can apply to re-start your benefits. To do so, you should inform the VA of your release date. If the VA accidentally overpaid in your benefits while you were in prison, you will have to repay the full amount before you can begin receiving benefits again.

Getting Your Finances In Order

While you were incarcerated, you may have gotten behind on filing taxes or paying child support. You may also be charged fees related to your time served. It’s important to get your finances in order and make a plan to paying for anything you owe. Getting your finances in order will help you meet the conditions of your parole.

Fees Related to Incarceration

In addition to restitution—money you pay to make up for your crime—many states impose additional fees relating to time in the criminal justice system. This can include fees from your arrest or paying for your parole. If you do not pay these fees, you may be in violation of your parole.

Child Support

Even if your income changes because you were incarcerated, you still have to pay child support. You may even have to pay as much as before. Contact your state’s child support enforcement agency to find out what you owe and what action will be taken against you in case of nonpayment.

Taxes

Even if you don’t make enough money to have to pay taxes, filing your taxes is important. It creates a record of your income, which is important when you apply for an apartment or a loan. You may also be eligible for a tax refund. You can claim a refund up to three years later. Make sure to file your state or local taxes, in additional to federal taxes.

Your IRS Account

If you need copies of old income forms such as a W-2 or 1099, or you need copies of your old filed tax returns, you can call 800-829-1040 or visit www.irs.gov. You can also contact the IRS if you need to find out about taxes you owe, and the IRS may allow you to set up a payment plan. If you think that you have an outstanding debt, such as child support or a federal student loan, you should contact the Treasury Offset Program Call Center at 800-304-3107 to find out about your account.

Filing Your Taxes

If you need help filing your taxes, there is free assistance available to you. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) provides trained volunteers to help people file basic tax returns. To locate a VITA site near you, go to www.irs.gov and search for “VITA,” or call 800-906-9887. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) also provides taxpayer assistance to low- and middle-income people, especially those over 60. To locate the nearest AARP Tax-Aide site, call 888-227-7669 or use the Tax-Aide Locator. Certain software companies offer their tax preparation software for free to people who file their taxes electronically (e-file). These programs are available through the IRS Free File website.

Disputes with the IRS

If you have a dispute with the IRS, help is available. Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITCs) help low-income or limited-English-speaking taxpayers with IRS issues, including audits and appeals. The Taxpayer Assistance service is your advocate at the IRS and is there to help you resolve your IRS problems. Call toll-free at 877-777-4778 or go to www.TaxpayerAdvocate.irs.gov.

How Your Criminal Record Affects Your Rights

A criminal record can affect your ability to vote, move to a different state and get a job. A criminal record may affect your ability to vote, move to a different state or get a job. It also may disqualify you from receiving welfare, food stamps or public housing.

Voting Rights

Voting laws vary by state. Most states do not allow citizens to vote while incarcerated, but many do allow people on parole or probation to vote. Some states will never allow a person convicted of a felony to vote again. For information about your state, contact your state’s Board of Elections or visit the American Civil Liberties Union’s website.

Moving to a Different State

You may be released into a state where you don’t want to live. If that is the case, you can apply to transfer your supervision (parole) to another state. If you intend to be out of your home state for more than 45 days, you will have to transfer your supervision to the state where you are staying. Learn more about the rules regarding moving state-to-state, called the “Interstate Compact.” Military families have additional opportunities to help re-entrants move from state to state.

Public Housing

The government has rules about who can live in public housing. People convicted of certain crimes, including sex offenses and methamphetamine production, cannot live in public housing. You can also be denied public housing if your current drug or alcohol use affects the health or safety of other residents.

Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) have different rules for who can receive both Section 8 and public housing. Contact your local PHA for more information about who is eligible. You can also call 800-955-2232.

Re-entry Resources