About 1,700 people with criminal convictions were released from Massachusetts prisons in 2022, free to start a new chapter in their lives. Their experiences — rarely told and often hidden from public view — are coming to light through GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting’s new project Life After Prison. The series features returning citizens, who face social stigma as they experience struggles and successes, and highlights the organizations, communities and families that welcome them home.
The often-protracted difficulties to find housing and jobs — exacerbated by a lack of educational or training opportunities during their incarceration — leaves many former prisoners struggling with the basics and at risk of relapsing to a life of crime.
“We are exploring what happens when people serve their time and return to their communities,” said lead reporter Christopher Burrell. “Are communities going to be safer or less safe if previously incarcerated people are not getting housing and becoming productive members and law-abiding members of our communities?”
The series reflects a commitment to dive deeper into the communities GBH represents, said Paul Singer, investigations and impact editor at the center.
“We want to be less of a broadcast operation that speaks to an audience and more of a news organization that listens to, shares with and includes our audience in all facets of our work,” he said. The idea for the series emerged as he was meeting people in Greater Boston communities that have high numbers of returning prisoners.
He hopes the series will not only lead to changes in state policies but change the narrative about people who have come out of prison. “It became clear that this issue affects thousands of people. Every time somebody is imprisoned, it's not just the person who is imprisoned who is dramatically affected, it's their families, friends and communities,” said Singer.
Burrell has long covered the criminal justice system, including the 2018 story of Fred Clay’s return to the community after a wrongful conviction and a report on suicide and mental health across all the jails run by county sheriffs in Massachusetts.
Still, he said he was shocked by what he’s learned in the new series. “There is a profound lack of education and training opportunities inside the state-run prisons,” he said. “And at the same time, everyone we talked to says education is a linchpin that is critical to helping people survive and possibly even thrive when they're released,” he said.
Burrell was also surprised to learn that the Department of Corrections deliberately avoids applying for supplemental funding from the state’s department of education — in order to avoid the scrutiny and monitoring that come along with it.
“Acting on a tip from an anonymous source, I was able to find the documents that laid that out,” he said.
While more advocacy groups and nonprofits are forming to address issues faced by returning citizens, he added, the organizations are struggling to survive financially.
GBH News is fortunate to have the support to do these kinds of projects, which can be very time-consuming, said Burrell.
“The investigative unit by definition needs to take its time to dig, hunt for records and talk to people who know things that aren't just sitting out there online,” he said.
“That’s what GBH News is here for, to be the conduit for that really important information.”
Learn more about the project here.
Watch a GBH panel discussion featuring local experts about challenges and success for the recently released from incarceration.