To the outsider or newcomer, Athens, Ohio, is a quaint, rural, college town that values supporting local business, farmers and education. What is often overlooked in this county, however, is the population re-entering society from the criminal-justice system.
It’s no secret that formerly incarcerated individuals face several challenges when they are being released from prison/jail. According to current literature, most formerly incarcerated individuals struggle with obtaining employment, housing and reliable transportation. Now, consider living in an area with limited public transportation, a smaller job market and fewer reliable and affordable housing options. The challenges that formerly incarcerated individuals face in rural areas are thus further exacerbated.
Most researchers suggest that the overwhelming issue with re-entering into rural areas is the lack of available resources or the lack of accessibility to these resources. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Social Service Research further supports these claims, showing that people who are returning to metropolitan areas reported more use of community services when compared to their non-metropolitan counterparts.
Given this finding, it’s important to take a step back and consider why this might be the case. Does the lack of reliable transportation in rural areas, like Athens, bar formerly incarcerated individuals from using the services available to them? Most rural towns are large and dispersed, which makes walking or biking exceedingly difficult. Without reliable public transportation, how can formerly incarcerated individuals be expected to reintegrate into contemporary society?
A journalist named Adam Vaccaro summed up this issue by describing how rural areas often lack reliable public transportation or lack public transportation altogether.
Yet transportation for formerly incarcerated individuals is essential for several reasons. First, many people released from the criminal-justice system are involved with parole or probation. Often, the requirements of their release include attending mental-health services and regular meetings with parole officers.
Additionally, transportation is essential when searching for or attempting to maintain employment, which could also be a requirement of their parole/probation. If someone cannot meet those appointments or to maintain a job, this could ultimately result in them being sent back to prison for violating the conditions of their release. A 2014 report from Pennsylvania State University points out that transportation is essential for a formerly incarcerated individual’s “successful” re-entry, as it determines one’s success in getting to meetings and appointments, finding housing, and getting and maintaining a job.
But why should the general public care about the successful re-entry of formerly incarcerated individuals in rural areas? Well, the Ohio Recidivism Reduction Report from Ohio University suggests that, while the rate of recidivism (getting sent back to prison or jail within three years of release) in Ohio is decreasing, rural Ohio’s levels of recidivism are increasing since the state of Ohio was granted Second Chance Act funds in 2012. This shows that programs in rural areas are either non-existent or not working, which could negatively impact the state’s recidivism percentage.
In addition, we have a moral responsibility to support an individual’s access to his or her inalienable human rights, such as access to food, water and housing, and the current lack of transportation in rural areas makes it difficult for people to obtain these rights.
So, what can be done to give people who are returning to rural areas the transportation that they need to be successful? One answer might be increasing broadband or high-speed internet access to rural areas so that the communities can utilize ride-sharing apps such as Uber or Lyft.
According to a January 2019 news article on the Vox website, there is a gap between rural and urban areas in terms of how often or how much they use ride sharing apps, with only 19 percent of rural Americans claiming use of these apps compared to the 40 to 45 percent reported usage among urban Americans.
This gap between rural and urban usage of these apps could be attributed to their lack of broadband internet access. An article done by Monica Anderson through the Pew Research Center (which the Vox article referenced) states that one in four, or roughly 24%, of rural adults report that access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their area, with an additional 34% reporting that it is a minor problem in their area. This means that 58% of rural residents in the study reported some problems with access to high-speed internet in their community.
Additionally, adults in rural areas are less likely to own a smartphone when compared to adults in urban or suburban neighborhoods, which would make it impossible for them to use apps like Uber or Lyft. So, increasing the use of ride-sharing apps in rural areas would rely on rural residents getting more access to high-speed internet. These ride-sharing apps could provide transportation for formerly incarcerated individuals and could create a new job market for people who have cars in rural areas.
Apps such as Uber and Lyft are free to download but taking a ride does cost the user. Using these apps would cost more than public transportation, but it would be impossible for a bus route to cover all possible locations within a county. Comparatively, ride-sharing services are cheaper than trying to repair a car or paying for gas. Currently, Athens does utilize Lyft but that is typically only in the city and not to the surrounding areas that someone may need to travel to. In addition, if a Lyft driver doesn’t like where someone wants to be picked up or if they think the drive would be too far, they can cancel any request. Uber also apparently is operating in Athens now.
We need to advocate for more transportation in rural areas, and I believe the best way to do this would be to use ride-sharing apps and to expand broadband in rural areas.
Editor’s note: Kathleen Geyer of Athens is a 2019 Master of Arts candidate in Sociology at Ohio University and works with the Athens County Re-entry program.