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Chicago Prisoners' Experiences Returning Home

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Document date: December 08, 2004
Released online: December 08, 2004

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The Urban Institute, in 2001, launched a four-state, longitudinal study entitled Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry in order to examine the experiences of released prisoners returning to communities in Maryland, Illinois, Ohio, and Texas. This research brief presents findings from the Returning Home study in Chicago, Illinois. The first phase of the Illinois study involved an analysis of preexisting corrections data to describe incarceration and reentry characteristics in Illinois (see sidebar "A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Illinois"). The second phase involved a series of interviews with male prisoners returning to Chicago, once before and three times after their release. In addition, interviews were conducted with prisoners' family members and focus groups were held with residents of four Chicago communities that are home to the highest concentrations of returning prisoners (see sidebar "Returning Home Study Methodology" for more details about data collection and analysis). This research brief documents findings from phase two, the original data collection effort, and describes the experiences of prisoners returning to Chicago. In a previous research brief entitled Illinois Prisoners' Reflections on Returning Home, we described the prerelease experiences and expectations of prisoners in our sample.1 In this research brief, we expand on that information by comparing it to the experiences of those prisoners after release. We present key findings on a range of reentry challenges and describe the factors related to postrelease success or failure, such as employment, substance use, attitudes and beliefs, health challenges, criminal histories, and family and community contexts. This research brief is intended to serve as a foundation for policy discussions about how released prisoners can successfully reintegrate into their communities, whether in Chicago or in similar cities around the country.


The concept of "reentry" is applicable to a variety of contexts in which individuals transition from incarceration to freedom, including release from jails, state prisons, federal institutions, and juvenile facilities. We have limited our scope to those people sentenced to serve time in state prison in order to focus on individuals who have been convicted of the most serious offenses, who have been removed from communities for long periods, who would be eligible for state prison programming while incarcerated, and who are managed by state correctional and parole systems.


Research projects of this complexity are often accompanied by a number of caveats with regard to interpreting and generalizing findings, and this study is no different. The intent of the Returning Home study is to present the released prisoner's point of view—a perspective not often represented in criminal justice research. This view is derived from self-reported data—a time-honored method of gathering sensitive information from a variety of types of respondents and one that enables rigorous analyses that cannot be achieved through ethnographic studies, focus groups, and various forms of journalism. The perspective on the experience of reentry presented here is both distinctive, because it is richer than official data, and representative, because it tells the story of all prisoners reentering society, rather than just those who avail themselves of social services or who are rearrested. Thus, the findings in this report draw from the perspectives of those who have had firsthand experience with the challenges of prisoner reentry. That said, it is important to bear in mind that, as with all self-reported data sources, our findings may include factual inaccuracies resulting from lapses in memory and the potential for respondents to overreport or underreport certain types of experiences and behaviors (e.g., crime and substance use). Nonetheless, the findings presented here are valid and as accurate as those collected through comparable studies that rely on self-reported data.

Readers may view some findings in this report as new, different, or at odds with other descriptions of the reentry experience. This can be explained in part by the fact that prisoners' perspectives of the experience may differ in some respects from the assumptions shared by many researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. It is also likely that some commonly held views about prisoners are shaped by the experience of working with certain subpopulations rather than with all those who return to society. It is important to keep in mind that this research is based on a sample of all male prisoners being released rather than a sample of released prisoners who sought services in the community. It is also important to recognize that this sample represents a reentry cohort rather than a portion of the existing "stock" population of Illinois prisoners.

This report presents a unique perspective—namely, that of a representative sample of released prisoners sentenced to time in state prison and returning to Chicago. Our cautions about the study's limitations with regard to sample size or other methodological concerns should not detract from the study's potential to inform practice and policy and to shed light on the experience of leaving prison.

Notes from this section

Christy Visher, Nancy La Vigne, and Jill Farrell, Illinois Prisoners' Reflections on Returning Home (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 2003).

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

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