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What Could Have Kept Me Out of Prison

We asked people behind bars what services and programs could have changed the course of their lives. Therapy, affordable housing and a living wage topped the list.

Prisoners attending a class at the mental health transition center at the Cook County Jail, in Chicago, in 2015.
Prisoners attending a class at the mental health transition center at the Cook County Jail, in Chicago, in 2015.

After the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the American public was jolted into awareness of police brutality—and caught up in heated debates about whether to defund the police and invest instead in services like mental health. But incarcerated people rarely have an opportunity to be part of the national conversation.

The Marshall Project partnered with Slate to conduct the first-of-its-kind political survey of people in prisons and jails around the country. Read more about what interventions they say might have kept them from landing behind bars and how to help people vote from jail—when most don’t realize they still can.

So in our second-round political survey inside prisons and jails, The Marshall Project and Slate asked people behind bars what programs might have helped to keep them from committing the crime that led to their incarceration.

Nearly 2,400 respondents told us about their struggles with drug addiction, mental health and domestic violence. They shared stories of the difficulties finding well-paying work and stable housing. Others took sole responsibility for their mistakes. Here are some of their answers, edited for length and clarity.

We asked: What services or programs would have helped to keep you from committing the crime(s) that led to your incarceration?

Drug treatment programs and affordable housing for sure. But I also feel that you have to want change. So you get what you put in!!

Democrat, 52, in jail in California

Nothing can help me. Only I can help myself.

Independent, 38, in jail in California

Vocational programs, housing programs, and actual jobs so that we can take care of ourselves and our kids.

Unaffiliated, 42, in jail in Illinois

It would be most efficient to educate young people on the true conditions and consequences of being incarcerated.

Democrat, 24, in jail in California

More time to decompress once you are released from incarceration.

Unaffiliated, 36, in jail in Illinois

Cheaper college classes. I would’ve been in college instead of outside making mistakes.

Independent, 23, in jail in Illinois

To have a mentor who could have told me about the path that I was on. Someone who could have boosted my self-esteem.

Unaffiliated, 24, in prison in Arkansas

Mental health and/or grief counseling.

Democrat, 42, in jail in California

I would have to say that more drug and alcohol prevention programs would have reduced the risk of me committing crimes. Not just some bullshit umbrella, traditional programs that do work in some cases but something more proven to work and build on that.

Democrat, 31, in prison in Arkansas

I believe that counseling for returning veterans is key to keeping certain types of vets from committing crimes.

Republican, 47, in prison in Arkansas

I guess it would've been mental health counseling and having a better understanding of what PTSD is and how it affects you.

Republican, 54, in prison in Arkansas

Having a battered women's group and being able to have a safe house to keep people safe and sources to help relocate as better support from police and other officials who could have made a difference.

Democrat, 62, in prison in Arkansas

Better jobs for felons also better parole officers

Democratic, 34, in prison in Arkansas

Something that would have been available to me as a teenage woman to realize my worth and how I should be treated in a relationship with a significant other. A mentor.

Unaffiliated, 25, in prison in Arkansas

Programs that really focus on helping the young Black youth. I believe that the young Black youth can succeed just like their counterparts with the real resources that really are geared towards really helping not just to show a window dressing of help.

Democrat, 44, in prison in Arkansas

Daycare vouchers, and help financially as a single parent even though I worked it was hard to make ends meet with no child support from the fathers of my children.

Democrat, 57, in prison in Arkansas

The “listen to my dad” class

Independent, 36, in prison in Arkansas

The services are available, at the time I didn't realize I needed the help

Republican, 39, in prison in Arkansas

Access to a better paying job. Protection from racial discrimination.

Democrat, 68, in prison in Arkansas

Better paying jobs in small communities.

Democrat, 29, in jail in Illinois

There's no particular program that could have helped me. I made a bad choice and I am currently paying for it.

Democrat, 33, in prison in Arkansas

Anger Management. I wish I would have been given the option and help that I needed. I had to come to prison to take a program that the free world has.

Independent, 27, in prison in Arkansas

I tried to get into a residential substance abuse program when I was released on my last sentence but was denied because of my lack of insurance.

Democrat, 49, in prison in Maine

Access to a college education, which I've gotten while in prison. Also, better access to good mental health and substance abuse programs, along with the insurance to pay for them.

Republican, 44, in prison in Maine

Some kind of service to assist people who are severely institutionalized, like myself. Jail is NOT a deterrent

Republican, 52, in prison in Maine

Don’t really know, I guess just someone, anyone to give a shit and to reach out. When I was young we didn't have anything to help us.

Independent, 38, in prison in Maine

I'm not sure exactly, but if I could have a psychiatrist evaluate me for cheap, that would be a great first step.

Independent, 29, in prison in Arkansas

Intervention not incarceration for domestic violence. In Washington state people are sent to prison or jailed for domestic violence with little focus on addressing the underlying problem.

Independent, 36, in prison in Washington

Drugs played a big part of my incarceration but after school sports would've helped me the most

Republican, 19, in prison in Arkansas

We shouldn't put Veterans with PTSD in prison, it's not right. The war on terrorism ruined my life.

Independent, 32, in prison in Arkansas

Parental guidance. Love. Support. Words of encouragement and other things that a child needs in his early years.

Independent, 41, in jail in California

Raising the minimum wage. Providing more help for single mothers and convicted felons

Independent, 36, in prison in Arkansas

Better job market for convicts. No one wants to hire us which will just mean most of us will end up here again.

Democrat, 28, in prison in Arkansas

A job and an affordable place to live, because most people have to work two jobs just to barely keep an apartment.

Democrat, 41, in jail in Washington

It really would've helped me to have had some type of male role model. Someone I could count on for support and help and not just judgement.

Republican, 40, in prison in Arkansas

Access to affordable mental healthcare. Healthcare coverage to pay for therapy/counseling. Affordable health insurance.

Unaffiliated, 30, in jail in California

An interest awareness program to find out what makes me happy at an early age.

Unaffiliated, 30, in jail in Massachusetts

Any support on trying to start my own business and for women that get abused and end up homeless trying to get on their feet when it’s hard finding support.

Democrat, 28, in prison in Arkansas

A program that teaches a trade and then allows me to use it to make some sort of income then into work release

Republican, 31, in jail in Illinois

Psychiatric counseling and less antidepressants, also being able to get the medication that I really needed and not just what the insurance would cover.

Unaffiliated, 41, in prison in Arkansas

Mental health. It was hard for me to transition from prison to the streets. I wanted help so bad. I felt as if the world was moving way too fast.

Democrat, 40, in jail in Washington

After my daughter was killed by a drunk driver back in 1996, I believe grief/loss counseling would have definitely assisted me.

Democrat, 44, in prison in Maine

Domestic violence classes and finishing school

Independent, 23, in prison in Maine

I think more services for inmates for rehab when they get out of prison

Republican, 53, in prison in Maine

Buses in the Waterville area so I would not have to drive with no licence.

Democrat, 39, in prison in Maine

Ending this "war on drugs" and Indiana, stepping out of the 50s, and legalizing weed for recreational use

Unaffiliated, 41, in prison Indiana

Family therapy and more of a family life that wasn’t supportive of crime and drug use.

Republican, 32, in prison in Montana

Some kind of program to help get reestablished in housing and assistance with childcare and transportation. Continued therapy. Emergency services for single mothers on parole.

Unaffiliated, 27, in prison in Arkansas

Schools being more hands on in the process of making decisions for after high school.

Republican, 34, in prison in Maine

Katie Park Twitter Email is a developer and data journalist who creates data visualizations and digital features at The Marshall Project. Her work has been recognized by the Society for News Design, the Society of Professional Journalists, Malofiej Infographic Awards and the White House News Photographers Association. She previously worked at NPR and The Washington Post.

Nicole Lewis Twitter Email is the engagement editor for The Marshall Project, leading the organization’s strategic efforts to deepen reporting that reaches communities most affected by the criminal legal system.