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The Role of Relationships in Reentry
Shawn M. Flower, Ph.D.
Principal Researcher

“If you come out of prison without a real support system of family and friends, nine out of ten times, you won’t make it.”
Correctional rehabilitative ideals emphasize work, recovery from addiction, addressing mental health issues, poor social and/or coping skills, enhancing family bonds and development of prosocial community ties. The enhancement of family bonds and development of prosocial community ties are important because offenders influenced by informal social control (as a result of social bonds established through family, work, and/or community members) are more likely to desist from crime. Supportive relationships found either in the family of origin or in families of formation is a critical component to the success post-incarceration because they provide both social control and social support which inhibits criminal activity.

The criminal justice research community, while acknowledging the importance of family in the transition from incarceration through the creation and maintenance of pro-social bonds and consequent informal social controls, also notes the lack of empirical evidence related to the role of family in the re-entry process. Despite evidence of importance of prosocial relationships in the desistance process, few strategies actively and/or directly engage the family as part of a comprehensive integrated rehabilitative re-entry approach. Rossman posits that “partnerships may be needed to (1) offer returning inmates meaningful informal supports that can improve their chances … and (2) extend both formal and informal service provision to family members who may be instrumental in facilitating (or conversely, undermining) offender’s reentry”. However, one must also recognize that not all family situations will be a positive influence on an offender’s criminal behavior. Mills & Codd caution that families of offenders returning from incarceration, “may themselves engage in criminal activity or be the cause of the initial offending, and in such cases are unlike to promote a reduction in re-offending” [and that this is particularly important with respect to female offenders, where] “relationships with men were at the core of their offending behavior”. Kathleen Daly’s work indicates many girls and women pathway to crime is through dealing drugs for boyfriends or family members, and/or had a childhood history victimization and/or neglect.

While criminogenic family situations are a legitimate concern, it remains that families play an important role in the re-entry process for an offender. This is often through the provision of “guidance and advice… encouraging a sense of responsibility or persuading them to accept assistance from other sources”. Notably, a survey conducted in the United Kingdom found those who were visited while incarcerated were three times more likely to have housing upon release — even a single visit allowed the opportunity to “make arrangements for … release or operated as a demonstration of support, [reflecting] a promise of continued assistance after release”.

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Petersilia observed:
“Reviews of prisoner’s family relationship yield two consistent findings: male prisoners who maintain strong family ties during imprisonment have higher rates of post-release success, and men who assume husband and parenting roles upon release have higher rates of success than those who do not … [and offenders] whose families accepted and supported them also had a higher level of confidence and were more successful and optimistic for their future”.

Conversely, those without positive supportive relationships are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. Family relationships can also play a role in desistance through a process of “cognitive transformation4 whereby engagement in positive supportive relationships, the offender becomes reflective and begins to view themselves in a new way. Through this process, formerly incarcerated offenders begin to define themselves by prosocial roles such as “good husband/wife/father/ mother”. In turn, the individual develops a stronger bond to these legitimate prosocial values, and thus is more likely to desist.

Given the importance of family and prosocial support persons for offender reintegration, researchers have called for greater inclusion of the family in the re-entry process to “facilitate informal social controls – those interpersonal bonds that link ex-inmates to churches, law-abiding neighbors, families and communities”. Re-entry Mediation responds to this need. For those in the process of release, mediation can be an important step that will enhance the overall chances of the inmate’s success through adherence to agreements negotiated related to housing, supporting recovery from substance abuse, and by setting realistic expectations amongst the returnee and their families. Mediation also presents the opportunity to air past grievances and work through them in order to create a strong bond for the future. The provision of mediation between the inmate and a person who has the potential to play a positive role in the ex-offender’s life increases the possibility that these prosocial relationships will be built or repaired. Stability can be increased for the ex-offender through adherence to agreements rendered through mediation, their exposure to the tools used in the mediation process, and the consequent positive support of the on-going relationships that likely result.

For example, housing is a major barrier for those reentering the community; while most inmates plan to live with family and friends once released, as many as 11% end up living in a homeless shelter after release. Housing instability (measured as homelessness prior to arrest) is both a predictor and consequence of criminal behavior. Homeless offenders often have a history of unemployment, mental health and/or substance abuse issues – all known criminogenic factors. Thus, stable housing is a key cornerstone to a crime-free life and mediation agreements focused on housing provide both inmate and outside participant plan to build a stable home environment.

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Another key factor in preventing crime is abstinence from substance abuse. Offenders in jails and prisons have high rates of substance use (over 70%) or are classified as alcohol and/or drug involved offenders. Many times the mediation conversation is centered on how both participants can support each other in the recovery process – the addict in recovery from addiction, and the family or prosocial other in dealing with issues related to the family disease of addiction. An inmate in a twelve step program may take mediation as an opportunity to make amends and take responsibility for past behaviors – an important step in the recovery process. This may increase chances for sustained engagement in the recovery process.

While families provide crucial support to releasees, these “relationships are complicated and made more complicated by the prisoner’s return” due to past harms and “fear of recurrence”. Nonetheless, inmates often have high expectations about the level of support and assistance they will receive from family. In turn, families often feel ambivalent about letting the returning individual stay with them, but they also will not turn them away. In one of the few programs which actively engaged family in group discussions surrounding re-entry plans, Project “Greenlight staff observed that prisoners and their families often had differing expectations of life after release … airing out those expectations helped to define realistic compromises and deflate myths”. Re-entry mediation provides an opportunity to manage divergent expectations for all participant parties through a discussion of issues and resolution or prevention of conflicts.

11 Interview with a Parolee, Petersilia, J. (2003). When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Re-entry Oxford: University Press.p. 42.
2 Doeren, S.E. & M.J. Hageman (1982). Community Corrections Cincinnati, Oh: Anderson Publishing Co.
3 Petersilia, 2003; Sampson R.J. & J.H Laub (1993). Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
4 Cullen, F.T., J.P. Wright, and M.B. Chamlin (1999) Social Support and Social Reform: A Progressive Crime Control Agenda” Crime & Delinquency, 45, (2); Maruna, S., R. Immarigeon & T.P. LeBel (2004) Ex-offender Reintegration: Theory and Practice in After Crime and Punishment: Pathways to Offender Reintegration Shad Maruna and Russ Immarigeon (eds). Portland, OR: Willan Publishing; Mills, A., & H. Codd (2008). Prisones’ families and offender management: Mobilizing Social Capital. Probation Journal, 55 (1), 9-24.
5 Petersilia, 2003, Sampson & Laub, 1993; Travis, J., A. Solomon & M. Waul (2001). From Prison to Home: The Dimension and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
6 Maruna, Immarigeon & LaBel, 2004; Mills & Codd, 2008; Taxman, F.S., D. Young & J. M. Byrne (2004) With Eyes Wide Open: Formalizing Community and Social Control Intervention in Offender Reintegration Programs in After Crime and Punishment: Pathways to Offender Reintegration Shad Maruna and Russ Immarigeon (eds). Portland, OR: Willan Publishing; Travis, J. (2005). But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry Washington, DC: The Urban Institute Press.
7 Rossman, S.B., (2003). Building Partnerships to Strengthen Offenders, Families and Communities in Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families and Communities Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul (eds.). Washington DC: The Urban Institute Press, p. 344
8 2008, p 10
9 Daly, K. (1994) Gender, Crime & Punishment New Haven: Yale University Press
10 Mills & Codd, 2008, p. 12
11Mills & Codd, 2008, p. 12-13
12 2003, p. 41-42
13 Travis, Solomon, & Waul 2001
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14 Giordano, P.C. S.A. Cernkovich, & J.L. Rudolph (2002) Gender, Crime, and Desistance: Toward a Theory of Cognitive Transformation. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 107, No. 4, p. 990-1064; p. 991
15 Farrall, S. (2004). Social Capital and Offender Reintegration: Making Probation Desistance Focused in After Crime and Punishment: Pathways to Offender Reintegration Shad Maruna and Russ Immarigeon (eds). Portland, OR: Willan Publishing
16 Mills & Codd, 2008, p. 14
17 Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of Delinquency. Berkeley: CA: University of California Press.
18 Farrall, 2004
19 Petersilia, 2003, p. 19
20 Travis, 2005, p. 222
21 Greenberg, G.A., & R.A. Rosenheck (2008a). Homelessness in the State and Federal Prison Population. Criminal Behavior and Mental Health, 18, 88-103; Greenberg, G.A., & R.A. Rosenheck (2008b) Jail Incarceration, Homelessness, and Mental Health: A National Study. Psychiatric Services, 59, (2) 170-177
22 James, D.J. (2004). Profile of Jail Inmates 2002. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report; Mumola, C.J. (1999) Substance Abuse and Treatment, State and Federal Prisoners, 1997 Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report.
23 Travis, 2005, p. 222
24 Travis, 2005
25 Bobbitt, M. & M. Nelson (2004). Issues in Brief: The Front Line: Building Programs that Recognize Families’ Role in Reentry Vera Institute of Justice www.vera.org/publication_pdf/249_476.pdf Accessed March 2009 p. 6-7
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