But to think that the process of integrating back into society will be smooth sailing is naive. There are major problems ex-inmates face as they seek to rebuild their lives. This is particularly true of parolees that served a very long prison sentence
Let’s explore four challenges to prisoner reentry and potential solutions to each problem.
Challenge #1: Not Knowing Where to Begin
There are many moving parts to prisoner reentry – reconnecting with friends and family, finding a place to live, and finding work, to name but a few. It can be an overwhelming process to navigate.
This is especially true of ex-offenders who went to prison in their youth. Adult offenders at least have some measure of life experience on which to rely. But parolees that have spent their entire adult lives in prison might find themselves totally lost as an adult in the “real world.”
Regardless of age, simply not knowing where to begin to rebuild one’s life is a significant challenge for ex-offenders.
The key to overcoming this challenge is to provide parolees with the resources they need to be successful. This might include reentry training and education while incarcerated, supervision after release, and providing resources to find housing and employment. These are called “institutional and community anchors” by Valera, Brotzman, Wilson, and Reid (2017), and have been identified as a significant component of successful reentry programs.
In many jurisdictions, these kinds of support systems are already in place. The key is to educate offenders about these programs and the process of reentry, that way they know what to expect and who to ask for help.
Challenge #2: Family Strain
As Naser and Visher (2006) note, many parolees rely heavily on their family for support and assistance as they transition back to free life. And by and large, family members step up in a big way to help make that transition as smooth as possible.
But as Naser and Visher also discuss, that support comes at a cost.
Financial strain is named as one of the primary difficulties for families as they seek to support their recently released loved one. But finances are just the start. Often, family members struggle to understand the “rules” their loved one must live under. Likewise, they can experience higher levels of stress if their loved one has trouble finding a job, struggles with addiction, or has mental health issues.
These and other factors can lead to stress in the family relationship, which can, in turn, cause relationships to fracture over time.
To combat this, states can improve the communication with family members, that way they know what to expect when their loved one comes home. This might include meeting with the parole board or post-release supervisors to get a better understanding of what is expected of them and their loved one.
Likewise, having access to support programs – contact information for the local workforce office, for example – can help alleviate some of the feelings of being in this on their own, and give family members resources to help their loved one transition back to normal life as easily as possible.
Challenge #3: Finding Employment
One of the major problems ex-inmates face is finding employment.
Though getting a job is often a requirement for parolees, it’s not as simple as walking into an establishment and applying. Instead, ex-offenders often must explain the gap in their work experience by delving into why they were incarcerated. Hiring someone with a criminal record can cause some employers to pause.
An additional challenge in finding employment is a lack of social capital.
As Ray, Grommon, and Rydberg (2016) point out, many parolees have lost connections in the community, if they had any to begin with. And since about half of job-seekers find a job thanks to someone they know, it paints a difficult picture for recently-released offenders who have few, if any, connections.
This makes it even more critical that parolees leave prison with employment resources. Whether this takes the form of education and training while in prison, arranged employment through supervised release, employment assistance through Wyoming Workforce, or some combination thereof, the key to negating this problem is to plan ahead and help ex-offenders make connections with people in the employment community.
Challenge #4: Mental Health Issues
The process of prisoner reentry is hard enough as it is, but for ex-inmates with mental health issues, it can be a far greater challenge.
As Reardon discusses, some ex-inmates don’t get the mental health treatment they need while incarcerated. And for those that do, sometimes the underlying issues that caused their mental health difficulties were not adequately addressed during their stay in prison.
When an ex-inmate is suffering from anxiety, depression, psychosis, drug addiction, or other mental health issues, finding a safe place to live, a stable job, and otherwise reintegrating into society can feel like an impossible task.
Therefore, as Wolff (2005) posits, there is a critical need for responding to the mental health needs of inmates before they are released, as well as having supports in place to continue monitoring and treating their mental health needs once they have re-entered society.
In the end, each challenge discussed here is not insurmountable, but it requires a broad-based approach, one that starts well before release and includes multiple modes of support for ex-inmates upon their release.
Naser, R.L., & Visher, C.A. (2006). Family members’ experience with incarceration and reentry. Western Criminology Review, 7(2), 18-29.
Ray, B., Grommon, E., & Rydberg, J. (2016). Anticipated stigma and defensive individualism during postincarceration job searching. Sociological Inquiry, 86(3), 348-371. DOI: 10.1111/soin.12124
Valera, P., Brotzman, L., Wilson, W., & Reid, A. (2017). It’s hard to reenter when you’ve been locked out: Keys to offender reintegration. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 56(6), 412-431. DOI: 10.1080/10509674.2017.1339159
Wolff, N. (2005). Community reintegration of prisoners with mental illness: A social investment perspective. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 28(1), 43-58. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2004.12.003
Sean Jackson April 2020
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