On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration

On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration

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One of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Best Criminal Justice Books of 2019

America’s high incarceration rates are a well-known facet of contemporary political conversations. Mentioned far less often is what happens to the nearly 700,000 former prisoners who rejoin society each year. On the Outside examines the lives of twenty-two people—varied in race and gender but united by their time in the criminal justice system—as they pass out of the prison gates and back into the world. The book takes a clear-eyed look at the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated citizens as they try to find work, housing, and stable communities. Standing alongside these individual portraits is a quantitative study conducted by the authors that followed every state prisoner in Michigan who was released on parole in 2003 (roughly 11,000 individuals) for the next seven years, providing a comprehensive view of their postprison neighborhoods, families, employment, and contact with the parole system. On the Outside delivers a powerful combination of hard data and personal narrative that shows why our country continues to struggle with the social and economic reintegration of the formerly incarcerated.

For further information, including an instructor guide and slide deck, please visit: http://ontheoutsidebook.us/home/instructors

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226607641
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/21/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 822,413
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David J. Harding is professor of sociology and director of D-Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the author of Living the Drama, also published by the University of Chicago Press. Jeffrey D. Morenoff is professor of sociology and director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. Jessica J. B. Wyse is advanced fellow in health services research and development at the Portland Veterans Affairs Healthcare System and research assistant professor at the Oregon Health & Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health.

Read an Excerpt



I'm trying to strive every day to be a better mother than I've been. ... It's like learning how to be a new person all over. I'm learning myself more and more every day, my likes and dislikes ... how to identify with my feelings, my thoughts. ... I didn't know how to do that because I stayed so intoxicated. ... I didn't give myself a chance to feel or to even think without being intoxicated. It was from the time I woke up until days and days and days until I would absolutely pass out. ... It was, I think, the only times in the last four and a half years I have clean time is if I was locked up in rehab or asleep. And that's the truth, and that's just something I have to remind myself. ... I cannot forget where I came from. I cannot forget ... them old patterns, ... and it's difficult, but it'll work out because that's what I want to do. I want to stay clean, and in the past I would get clean for ninety days or whatever, and I'd go right back out and use because I wasn't ready to stop it. ... And I can see clearly now. I can see that all the damage I've done to myself, my children, my loved ones, and I just don't want to do it anymore. I was killing myself slowly. I have a heart problem. I have liver damage now, kidney damage now. And I'm ready to move on and live now because before that wasn't living. I was killing myself. So I'm just really, really ready for change in my life, and it's well past due.


Jennifer is a thirty-eight-year-old white woman with a soft, round face, honey-blond hair, and a warm, open demeanor. Around her neck she wears a gold chain proclaiming "100% drug free," while her nervous smoking hints at the struggle she faces maintaining that sobriety. The youngest of six, Jennifer was born into a working-class family in Ypsilanti. Her mother worked at an auto plant, and her father was a truck driver. There were many good times in her childhood: "My parents were good to us. ... We lived like middle class. Always had food. Always had a roof over our head, clothes on our back. Other than the drinking, I'd say it was good. ... My brothers were in football, went to a lot of football games. Really, I had a real family-oriented life when I was younger, much younger. And then alcohol started ... progressing in my parents' life, and fights started." What was once weekend drinking increasingly spilled into the week, the fighting and violence escalated, and Jennifer began missing school. Her grandparents intervened and brought her into their home when she was in the fourth grade, initiating a calm period of regular school, church, and family life.

Yet, outside her grandparents' home, Jennifer continued to hang out with her siblings and other older kids from the neighborhood. She began experimenting with marijuana, alcohol, and powder cocaine, and eventually her sister introduced her to crack. Not long after moving back to her parents' house, Jennifer's yearlong, casual sexual relationship with an older boy resulted in pregnancy. She bore her first child, Jason, at thirteen. Jennifer never returned to school. She explains how early parenthood and other stressful life events were linked with her deepening addiction: "It had a lot to do with having kids and stuff at a young age, and then I lost Dawn's dad, and ... I kept spiraling down. Then I lost my grandmother and my baby's dad, then my mom, and then it just, from there. ... It was one thing after another, and it just kept going deeper and deeper and deeper into it ... for like to comfort me. And then, before I knew it, I was so addicted that it was the only thing I knew and the only thing I wanted."

By sixteen, Jennifer had borne another child, and the three were living in "a dope house." While her daughter was raised by her father, her oldest son, Jason, remained with her and became deeply involved in her criminal offending. At eleven years old, he was helping her deal drugs and guns. Just a few years later he shot and killed a man in a confrontation that escalated. She explains how her behavior was implicated in this tragedy: "He was taught — literally taught — and my sick thinking taught him that, that you sell drugs, you carry guns, you wear bulletproof vests. This is what life's about because I was so messed up. ... The kid was eleven years old, walked in and caught me with a needle out of my arm, and I'm slumped over the toilet. He thought I was dead. ... What type of mother does that?"

Yet, even after her son was arrested for manslaughter and his prison sentence began, the drug use continued through her third pregnancy, and her son Lucas was born addicted to crack. Jennifer lived with him just two years before sending him to live with other relatives. She moved in with her fiancé, Stan, thirty years her senior, and spent years largely confined to their home, using drugs and watching television: "I stayed in Stan's house just smoking my brains out, with blankets and stuff over the blinds so it'd be dark in there. And the dope man would bring the dope right to thedoor. Stan would go get my cigarettes and alcohol, I'd smoke five packs of cigarettes a day ... just in a corner in the living room on the couch doing my drugs and drinking my alcohol with the TV on mute, burning up, just running the TV ... the lamp on constantly day or night right next to me, just sitting there."

When Jennifer did leave, it was often either to buy or use drugs. Although she had "probably broken every rule there is" when it came to her addiction, her incarceration history consisted only of two short bits in jail for driving under the influence (DUI). It was her third DUI that landed her in prison this time. When she was stopped by the police driving the wrong way down a one-way street, she knew she was going to prison.

Jennifer was scared initially entering prison and remained withdrawn and on edge throughout her sentence: "You have to mind your p's and q's ... weave your way through." Nonetheless, she came to see prison as a blessing: "[Otherwise] I would've never got sober." She explains: "It helped me to find out who I am and gave me a foundation of clean time." Prior to prison she had not spent more than a few months sober in twenty-three years. In prison, with little to occupy her time during the eight months she served aside from "walking the track," she was able to reflect on what she had done with her life and where she wanted to go in the future. She recognized that her addiction had caused great suffering for her children, from Jason's imprisonment to Dawn's adoption and Lucas's learning disabilities. She made a decision to turn her life around, to become a good mother for her children.

In her first interview following release, Jennifer explained how her commitment to motherhood shaped her choices: "My kids make me very strong. ... Having to take care of them and doing the mommy thing and just being with them reminds me every day that somebody needs me. ... And I'm needed, and I can't do both. I can't use and be a productive mother; I can't use and take care of my children. I can't have them two both worlds, so I choose not the drugs, I choose my kids." This narrative sets up a fundamental opposition between her past self, the selfish addict who would do anything for drugs, and her current self, the person who lives her life for her children. Her sense of herself as beginning anew, having experienced a complete personal transformation for her children, allowed her to begin to forgive herself and move forward. This narrative would sustain her in the hard months to come as she experienced the challenges of independent living, motherhood, and sobriety.

With a great deal of material and emotional support from her family as well as a personal commitment to God, Jennifer began to establish a life for herself and her youngest son. The two moved into a trailer a few weeks after her release, and Jennifer began seeking out public assistance. Over the months that followed, she shared her excitement at being able to live independently for the first time in her life, learning to pay her bills, manage a household, and mother her son. She secured welfare assistance, food stamps, and supplemental security income, learned to read with the help of a tutor through a free adult education program, and strengthened her relationship with her children and her girlfriend, Rachel, whom she had met in prison. It was not just personal responsibility that was new to her; it was also having a mind unmuddled by drugs and alcohol. She explained that every day, when she woke up and her head was clear and not in a fog, it amazed her.

Despite these positive developments, Jennifer also experienced significant challenges throughout her reentry period, many of which were linked with the social world in which she was embedded. Several of her neighbors were former drug buddies or people she had either bought drugs from or sold them to, and drinking and drug use were common in the trailer park. Many of her family members had substance abuse problems, including two brothers who had been incarcerated for drunk driving and continued to struggle with addictions. Even Rachel, who was a crucial emotional support for Jennifer, continued to struggle with alcoholism, and the two fought frequently over this. In an early interview, Jennifer explained: "Everybody else that I absolutely know in my life [aside from Luke's father and some men helping repair her trailer] is in some shape or form involved with the drug atmosphere." Yet, because she valued her sobriety so highly, she pursued strategies to keep substance abuse at bay: she remained in her trailer rather than hanging out outside, banned Rachel from her home when she was drinking, and kicked her brother out once she learned he was using again. Ensuring that she was not directly exposed to drug or alcohol use helped her maintain her sobriety.

A second set of challenges revolved around physical and mental health problems. Though only thirty-eight years old, Jennifer had already had two crack-induced heart attacks. She suffered from anemia, hypothyroidism — for which she inconsistently took medication — and had the early symptoms of emphysema. She also struggled with depression and anxiety. She dealt with her physical problems largely by ignoring them — worrying that, were she to spend time thinking about and treating them, she would become overwhelmed and perhaps return to drug use. Her commitment to the maternal role also helped keep her on track. For instance, she forced herself to get out of bed to get Lucas to school in the morning, even when she was dragging.

In this chapter, we introduce our six focal participants, whose experiences and perspectives we will return to again and again. Although the analyses offered throughout the book are based on our entire sample and we will draw examples and illustrations from everyone in the sample, our focal participants provide narrative continuity, linking our arguments together across life domains through their lives before, during, and after prison. An intimate understanding of these six individuals and their successes and failures at reintegration will ground this book in the experiences of specific individuals. The theoretical framework sketched in the prior chapter emphasizes the fit between individual resources and contexts of reintegration. This chapter presents a portrait of the resources with which formerly incarcerated individuals, individually and collectively, begin the reentry process.

Difficult Pasts, Uncertain Futures

Is Jennifer an outlier in terms of her traumatic past, serious addiction, low education level, and health problems? As we present the descriptions of our focal participants and their trajectories, from their young lives through the close of the study, it will become clear that disadvantage, often from childhood, was the norm. Just like Jennifer, many experienced high rates of abuse as children and had parents who abused drugs and alcohol and were criminally involved. Nearly all grew up either poor or working-class, and addiction was rampant in adulthood. But does this portrait square with that of imprisoned individuals nationally? Before returning to our five remaining focal participants, we briefly address what is known about the characteristics and experiences of prisoners and formerly incarcerated individuals across the United States.

The disadvantages that incarcerated individuals experienced during childhood have been well established. Nearly 13 percent of state and federal inmates report residing in a foster home or correctional facility in their youth, almost one-third report that their parents abused drugs or alcohol, and 18 percent report that a parent spent time in prison or jail. Poverty in the family of origin is also common, with 45 percent of African American, 22 percent of white, and 33 percent of Hispanic inmates reporting parental receipt of public assistance. While white inmates are more likely to have spent time in foster care and have parents with substance abuse problems, African American inmates are more likely to report experiencing economic hardship (Uggen, Wakefield, and Western 2005).

Abuse is also common. Among state prison inmates, one in four women and one in twenty men report being the victim of sexual abuse prior to age eighteen, while one in ten men and one in four women report childhood physical abuse (Harlow 1999). These numbers represent self-reports, leave the definition of abuse up to the respondent, and were collected in a single interview with each respondent, so they are likely to underestimate the prevalence of abuse. For instance, a small survey of New York State prison inmates utilizing a tool that imposed a precise definition of abuse found that 68 percent of the sample of incarcerated adult male felons reported some form of childhood victimization. Nearly 35 percent of the sample experienced physical abuse, nearly 16 percent neglect, and more than 14 percent sexual abuse (Weeks and Widom 1998). Victimization into adulthood is also common, with over one-third of women experiencing abuse at the hands of an intimate partner (Greenfeld and Snell 1999). Men experience high rates of violence and exposure to trauma in adulthood as well (Carlson and Shafer 2010).

Disadvantage also marks prisoners' education and their work lives. Dropping out of high school is common; 40 percent of state prison inmates have not completed high school (Harlow 2003). Among young men, 90 percent of those twenty-five to thirty-four in the general population hold a high school diploma, while only one-third of young incarcerated do (Uggen, Wakefield, and Western 2005). Unsurprisingly, low education levels tend to translate into low-wage, low-quality jobs. Individuals entering prison are also much more likely to be unemployed or out of the labor force at the point of prison entry than is the general population (Wakefield and Uggen 2010). Of male inmates aged twenty-five to thirty-four, only 55 percent were employed full-time prior to entering prison (Uggen, Wakefield, and Western 2005).

Disadvantages uncovered in family of origin, education, and employment history are mirrored in physical and mental health status. A study by the Urban Institute found that eight in ten men and nine in ten women leaving prison had a chronic health condition that required treatment or management (Mallik-Kane and Visher 2008). One-half of men and two-thirds of women had a chronic physical health condition such as asthma, diabetes or HIV/AIDS (Hammett, Roberts, and Kennedy 2001). In 1997, nearly one-quarter of those living with HIV/AIDS, nearly one-third of those bearing a hepatitis C infection, and more than one-third of those with a tuberculosis infection were released from a prison or jail (Hammett, Harmon, and Rhodes 2002). Fifty-six percent of state prison inmates have a mental health problem, with female inmates evidencing a significantly higher burden: 73 percent versus 55 percent among men (James and Glaze 2006). The high burden of mental health disorders was documented by another study looking broadly at those ever incarcerated, whether in prison, jail, or another correctional institution. Schnittker (2014) estimates psychiatric symptoms at a level twice that of the never-incarcerated population, impulse control disorders 2.4 times as common, and comorbidity (the prevalence of two or more disorders simultaneously) 2.7 times higher.

Drug and alcohol abuse is also prevalent. An estimated 80 percent of incarcerated individuals have some kind of alcohol or drug problem, and 20 percent have a history of injection drug use (Hammett, Roberts, and Kennedy 2001). The 1997 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities reveals very high rates of drug and alcohol abuse among inmates. Eighty-three percent of state prison inmates reported past drug use, 57 percent reported using drugs in the month prior to their offense, 51 percent reported that they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed their offense, and 19 percent of state and 16 percent of federal inmates reported committing their offense in order to obtain money for drugs. Nearly a quarter of state prison inmates are classified as alcohol dependent (Mumola 1999).


Excerpted from "On the Outside"
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Trajectories
Chapter 2. Transitions
Chapter 3. A Place to Call Home?
Chapter 4. Families and Reintegration
Chapter 5. Navigating Neighborhoods
Chapter 6. Finding and Maintaining Employment

Appendix: Data and Methodology

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