The state of second chances: Nevada and the housing odyssey of the formerly incarcerated

In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, Odysseus tells his son Telemachus, “Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin.” Although the iron Odysseus was referring to was markedly different, the effect is no less detrimental. Thousands of men and women find themselves extended guests of the state of Nevada or her municipalities — and they all face challenges upon re-entering the community.

April is considered the month of second chances, one in which we ought to acknowledge the collateral consequences of having a criminal background and the obstacles to becoming contributing members of society. It is born from the public policy void left when guests of the state are released upon either parole or the expiration of their sentences. The challenges of even getting to the point of walking out of the door are well known (The Nevada Independent has run several stories detailing these). 

The rose-colored principle we are told growing up is that if you go to prison and pay your debt to society, you are able to go on with your life. But the payment of this debt often turns out to be a down payment on further misery: navigating a system clearly designed to make it as difficult as possible to stand up on your own two feet.

It is not only government policy that impedes justice for recently incarcerated individuals. Several of the challenges come from public opinion. Too many individuals see a criminal background as an unredeemable character flaw rather than a circumstance driven by a series of bad choices. (An obvious partial rebuttal to the latter perspective is that there are crimes so heinous or contrary to the sensibilities of the community that the offender may indeed be incapable of rehabilitation. But for these individuals, the court can and often does implement sentences that permanently keep them off the streets.) Individuals who serve their sentences and are released into the community, on the other hand, deserve the chance to turn their lives around.

Every day, I see men and women committed to leaving behind their old lives of bad choices, bad associations and bad acts. I hear their dreams of being reunited with their children, finding a career and achieving their dreams. These are universal ideals. 

Nevada has enacted legislation and the Legislature is considering a number of additional measures to make it easier for released individuals to start their individual odysseys of building their lives, not only existing in society but actively participating in it. By giving felons the right to vote, reducing the amount of inmate accounts being levied by the Nevada Department of Corrections and issuing inmate IDs that allow released offenders to begin the process of re-entry, we have done much — but we have also made the policy realization that we have more to do. 

Measures being considered are tying inmate compensation to the state minimum wage and having the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles issue actual ID or Driver License cards before inmate release to make it easier to gain employment. I am encouraged by these efforts because they have sponsors from both sides of the aisle (Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) and Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Henderson), respectively). I acknowledge that the idea of paying inmates the minimum wage is abhorrent to some, but think: if offenders are released with zero money to get started, they will need to make use of social services and welfare. So, Nevada taxpayers stop supporting them in prison just to end up supporting them through the social safety net. These are common sense measures that will give released offenders the opportunity to hit the ground running and live the American dream.

But what about housing?

For the hundreds of inmates who must have a release plan approved by the Department of Parole and Probation — and who don’t have family to move in with or who need a sober living program — the opportunities for finding housing drop precipitously. Most corporate-owned residential companies have zero tolerance for criminal backgrounds, in most cases going back five or seven years. With few exceptions, those landlords who will lease to people with recent criminal backgrounds have deposit or or lease terms that border on the predatory. For example, one apartment complex’s lease allowed the landlord to enter the unit at any time, without notice, if it was believed the tenant was wasting electricity. If such a tenant doesn’t like the terms, where else are they going to go?

Sen. Neal’s bill to pay inmates the equivalent of the minimum wage can help with deposits and down payments, giving offenders the opportunity to not be released from prison completely broke. But this will not solve the problem with the conventional thinking of many landlords: (1) all crimes are created equal; (2) no “credit” is granted to offenders who take the initiative to enroll in re-entry programming that offers counseling and other support to prevent falling back into criminal behaviors. By limiting the sort of housing former offenders can find to housing found only in high crime areas, we all but guarantee that offenders will have a hard time avoiding past associates, or that they will not even be approved by Parole and Probation to live there (and will thus be at elevated risk of falling back into substance abuse, gang violence and everything that entails). Even as more Nevada employers get on board with the idea of hiring formerly incarcerated people and paying them a living wage, the nearly impenetrable gates to safe and clean housing remain unmoved for most recently released individuals.

Sen. Neal also has sponsored a bill addressing the issue of discrimination in housing because of a criminal background, and there have been conversations in Clark County about the same. I see, every day, the challenges released individuals face when they can’t even find a place to live. The loss of hope and desperation is heart-breaking, especially when they are doing everything society tells them they should be: getting a job, getting counseling, adhering to the terms of their parole or probation and staying out of trouble. They often find their mental health, their confidence, and their sobriety (in some cases) pushed to the limits of what any human being should be asked to suffer.

The question we need to ask ourselves as Nevadans is: when will we be tired of continuing to allow those individuals who were imprisoned in our names from being kicked while they’re already down and driving them back to the sirens of criminal behavior? I hear far too often from folks trying to live their lives the legal way, how much easier they had it when living the criminal life. Legislators like Sen. Neal and Sen. Buck and their cooperating colleagues are moving the needle and reforming housing laws for the re-entry population. This is good social and good fiscal policy. Like Odysseus, people released from prison have many trials ahead, but ultimately, all they want is to go home.

Nathaniel Waugh is a Member of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Board of Trustees and a Program Supervisor at Hope for Prisoners where he focuses on workforce development for dislocated workers and recently released offenders. He received his Master of Arts in Urban Leadership from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.