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Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry

From 2001 through 2006, the Urban Institute's longitudinal, multi-state study Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry explored the pathways of prisoner reintegration in metropolitan areas across the United States.  The study examined the factors contributing to successful (or unsuccessful) reentry, with the goal of developing a deeper understanding of the reentry experiences of returning prisoners, their families, and their communities.

Returning Home aimed to document the challenges of prisoner reentry along five dimensions: the individual, family, peer, community, and state.  The study involved:

  1. Interviews with returning prisoners before and after their release from state correctional facilities,
  2. Interviews with family members of those returning prisoners,
  3. Focus groups with residents of the neighborhoods to which most prisoners returned, and
  4. Interviews with reentry policymakers and practitioners in each state. 

State laws and policies regarding reentry were also reviewed to provide overall policy context.

Returning Home began with a pilot study in Baltimore, Maryland (2001-2003), followed by full research studies in Chicago, Illinois (2002-2004), Cleveland, Ohio (2004-2005), and Houston, Texas (2004-2006).


Key Findings

The Returning Home studies in Maryland, Illinois, Ohio, and Texas yielded a rich volume of information regarding the experiences of returning prisoners, their families, and their communities.  These findings can be found in numerous articles and reports published over the past decade (see Publications). Some of the major findings from the Returning Home study are as follows:

  • ATTITUDES. Returning prisoners have extensive criminal and substance use histories, yet are very optimistic about what life will be like after release—showing high levels of self-esteem and expectations that the reintegration process will be relatively easy (La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009; La Vigne, Visher, and Castro, 2004; Visher, Baer, and Naser, 2006; Visher, Kachnowski, La Vigne, and Travis, 2004; Visher, La Vigne, and Farrell, 2003).
  • PRISON PROGRAMS. Most prisoners participate in some type of in-prison programming, but roughly a third express interest in a program unavailable to them (La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009; Visher, Yahner, and La Vigne, 2010).

    Prisoners who participate in job training and educational programs are less likely to return to prison after release (e.g., La Vigne, Brooks, and Shollenberger, 2007). 

    Additionally, former prisoners who participate in an employment program or substance abuse treatment are better able to avoid reincarceration the first year out (La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009).
  • SUBSTANCE USE. Despite extensive substance use histories, relatively small portions of returning prisoners participate in substance abuse treatment during incarceration (La Vigne and Kachnowski, 2005; La Vigne, Visher, and Castro, 2004; Visher, Baer, and Naser, 2006; Visher and Courtney, 2006).

    Those who participate in substance abuse treatment are less likely to use drugs after release (Visher and Courtney, 2007; Visher, Kachnowski, La Vigne, and Travis, 2004). 

    Besides drug treatment, other inhibitors of substance use the first year out include being on parole supervision and receiving tangible support from one's family (La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009; Yahner et al., 2008).

    About a quarter of former prisoners relapse to drugs or alcohol in the year following their release (Visher, Yahner, and La Vigne, 2010).
  • HEALTH. Although returning prisoners have positive views of their health, notable shares report having chronic or infectious diseases, as well as depression or other mental illnesses (La Vigne and Kachnowski, 2005; La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009; La Vigne, Visher, and Castro, 2004; Visher and Courtney, 2007; Visher, Kachnowski, La Vigne, and Travis, 2004).
  • EMPLOYMENT. Many returning prisoners have significant educational and employment deficits: roughly half lack a high school degree or equivalent, more than half have been previously fired from a job, and many depended on illegal income prior to incarceration (La Vigne and Kachnowski, 2005; Visher; Baer, and Naser, 2006; Visher, La Vigne, and Castro, 2003; Visher, La Vigne, and Farrell, 2003).

    After release, former prisoners have limited success in finding employment: about half find work the first year out (La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009; La Vigne, Visher, and Castro, 2004; Visher and Courtney, 2007; Visher, Yahner, and La Vigne, 2010).

    Most former prisoners owe debt at release, which few manage to pay during the year following their release (Visher, Yahner, and La Vigne, 2010). 

    Former prisoners who held an in-prison job, participated in job training while incarcerated, earned a GED during prison, and/or participated in an employment program early after release work a greater percentage of time the first year out than those who did not (Visher et al., 2008; La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009).

    Other factors that increase the likelihood of employment include having worked before prison, lining up a job before release, and using a former employer to find a job after release (Visher et al., 2008; La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009).
  • FAMILY. Family members are the greatest anticipated source of financial resources, housing, and emotional support before prisoners are released (La Vigne and Kachnowski, 2005; Visher and Courtney, 2006), and families provide the greatest tangible and emotional support after release (La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009; La Vigne, Visher, and Castro, 2004; Visher and Courtney, 2007; Visher, Kachnowski, La Vigne, and Travis, 2004). 

    Most former prisoners report being very close to family and highly rate the quality of intimate partner relationships, despite the fact that family members tend to have their own histories of criminal involvement and substance use (Visher and Courtney, 2007; Visher, Yahner, and La Vigne, 2010). 

    Former prisoners living in married or like-married relationships have lower odds of recidivism and drug use/intoxication than those in more casual relationships (Visher, Knight, Chalfin, and Roman, 2009).

    Likewise, former prisoners who are married are more likely to find employment after release, and those with children to whom they are closely attached enjoy better employment and substance use outcomes (Visher et al., 2008; La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009).
  • COMMUNITIES. Significant portions of returning prisoners are clustered in a handful of neighborhoods with high levels of social and economic disadvantage (Visher, Kachnowski, La Vigne, and Travis, 2004; La Vigne, Visher, and Castro, 2004; Visher and Courtney, 2007; Visher, Yahner, and La Vigne, 2010). Still, roughly half of released prisoners return to different neighborhoods than where they resided before incarceration—either to avoid trouble or because their families have moved (e.g., La Vigne, Visher, and Castro, 2004; Visher and Courtney, 2007).
  • RECIDIVISM. Although small percentages of former prisoners report engaging in crime after release, nearly a quarter say they are rearrested the first year out (Visher, Yahner, and La Vigne, 2010).

    Official records show that nearly a quarter of former prisoners are reincarcerated in state correctional facilities within the first year of release (Visher, Yahner, and La Vigne, 2010), though reincarceration rates vary by state—ranging from approximately 15 percent in Ohio and Texas (Visher and Courtney, 2007; La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009) to nearly one in three in Illinois (La Vigne, Visher, and Castro, 2004).

    Among prisoners returned to custody, almost three-quarters return due to a supervision violation (Visher, Yahner, and La Vigne, 2010). Former prisoners who worked before prison and those who find employment soon after release are less likely to be reincarcerated one year out (Visher et al., 2008; La Vigne, Shollenberger, and Debus, 2009). 
  • POSTRELEASE SUPERVISION. Being released to parole supervision helps former prisoners find employment and simultaneously reduces their likelihood of substance use after release (Yahner et al. 2008). However, parole supervision has almost no impact on self-reported crime or rearrest after release, and increases the likelihood of reincarceration due to technical violations (Yahner et al., 2008).

Methodology

The Returning Home study targeted prisoners serving at least one year in state correctional facilities who were returning to the communities of interest. The goals in each site were to collect information on individuals' life circumstances immediately prior to, during, and up to one year after their release.

Potential respondents were identified through compulsory prerelease programs where prisoners were already convened (Illinois and Texas) or from lists of individuals who were within 60 days of release (Maryland and Ohio). Members of the research team provided an overview of the study and details of informed consent to assembled groups of potential respondents.  Study samples were recruited in 2002 in Maryland, from 2002 to 2003 in Illinois, and from 2004 to 2005 in Ohio and Texas.

Quantitative information collected on returning prisoners in each site included data from: 1) self-administered prerelease questionnaires, 2) up to three in-person post-release interviews, 3) family questionnaires in all states but Ohio, and 4) official recidivism records from state correctional agencies. In addition, qualitative information was collected from focus groups and stakeholder interviews in each of the targeted communities.