"Built around failure": improving county jail inmates' perceptions of reentry.

Author:Jenkins, Michael J.
Position:REENTRY - Report

Nearly 10 million individuals are released annually from prisons and jails across the U.S. (1) Of those who enter prison or jail, 93 percent will be released. (2) Of those individuals returning to society, approximately two-thirds will end up reincarcerated within three years--with nearly half convicted of new crimes and half with violated terms of parole. (3) Jails, and Pennsylvania jails in particular, house approximately half their inmates at any given time as a result of recidivism. (4) Despite knowing that even brief stays in jail can elicit negative consequences for the individual in the future (i.e., harsher sentences, less economic success and a higher likelihood of criminal behavior), (6) lack of funding for jail reentry programs and briefer terms in jails compared to prisons, results in minimal research on reentry and recidivism among formerly jailed populations. (7) In addition, even less research exists on the perspectives of incarcerated individuals who are in jail after having experienced an attempt at reentry.

The study described in this article analyzes the perspectives of inmates, presently incarcerated in a county jail, who unsuccessfully attempted reentry. It adds to the limited research that examines reentry issues from the perspective of individuals who have unsuccessfully tried reentry and eventually returned to jail. The study contemplates the reentry challenges those inmates faced and will face in the future. It also has the unique elements of a jail context, perspectives of individuals who have experienced reentry and recidivism, and participants who represent male and female individuals. This article concludes with some suggestions for improving the reentry process.

Why reentry matters

Reentry affects the formerly incarcerated individual, their family, their community and, in a greater context, society as a whole. (8) Formerly incarcerated people return and attempt to reintegrate into certain types of areas within cities across the U.S. These areas typically experience a high concentration of poverty and significant rates of unemployment. As a result, these communities are unprepared to provide basic structural necessities to returning citizens and may become even more unstable as a result--allowing the cycle of recidivism to continue. (9) Improving reentry experiences would benefit many, but the commitment of all levels of society--including the individual, their family, the community and the government--is necessary. (10)

The government has always held a prominent role in the corrections system, but its involvement in reforming practice to prevent jail reentry can be seen as equivocal. Over the years, many government agencies--including the Department of Justice, Department of Education, Department of Labor, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration--have provided support via funding for inmate reentry programs. (11) In addition, legislation, such as the Second Chance Act enacted in 2008, also allotted federal money toward reentry programming. (12) The programs created from the funding have attempted to help formerly incarcerated individuals, mostly from prison settings, overcome the barriers to successful reentry (e.g., difficulty attaining employment, limited education, financial issues, lack of housing, severed ties with family and friends in the community, and physical and mental health issues). (13) These programs, which predominately target prison populations, rarely address provision of quality programs to meet the needs of citizens returning to the nation's communities from the jail setting. (14)

These government-funded reentry programs encountered additional obstacles to success with recent criminal justice practice and policy changes. These changes (i.e., stricter parole requirements and adjusted mandatory sentencing guidelines) contributed to the growth in jail populations. (15) Due to the nature of the current correctional system, offenders are recidivating more frequently and are being released after longer sentences with minimal development of prosocial skills and behaviors. (16) By increasing costs to taxpayers, and by creating more opportunities for additional failed reentries, the changes in policy and subsequent influxes in the incarcerated population adversely affect society and contradict the positive impact government funding could have on preventing recidivism. (17)

On a local level, Pennsylvania's Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) has created awareness for the difficulties in reentry. Pennsylvania's JRI--a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Board of Probation and Parole, governor's office, district attorneys, Senate and House of Representatives--was created in 2011 to analyze Pennsylvania's correctional system and initiate necessary changes, such as reducing recidivism, decreasing spending and shifting focus to proactive public safety. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency's 2016 reports indicate the JRI's current interest is on reducing recidivism by focusing on an inmate's needs and his or her likelihood of reoffending, altering sentencing by using early assessment and alternative punishments and associated policy reformation. (18) Continued research through the JRI, and research like this study, will shape future criminal justice practice and policy implementation.

Successful reentry: What prevents it?

The primary goal of reentry is to reintegrate into the community successfully "an individual who has discharged his legal obligation to society by serving his sentence and has demonstrated an ability to live by society's rules." (19) Similarly, successful reentry is often defined as abstinence from criminal behavior. (20) Ideally, preparing incarcerated individuals to "live by society's rules" and remain "abstinent from criminal behavior" should initiate as soon as the offender begins his or her sentence; however, preparation for reentry often begins only when release is approaching. (21) Even when preparation for reentry does occur prior to release, a disconnect often exists between services offered inside jail and services offered outside jail. (22) With no collaboration existing between jail services and community services, ex-inmates often fail to find appropriate services in their communities. (23)

In addition, several risk factors--including age, gender, race, gang affiliation, substance abuse, mental illness, length of prior criminal history, type of offense committed and length of incarceration prior to release--increase the chances of failed reentry. (24) Mental illness and substance abuse, in particular, present substantial impediments to successful reentry. After a period of deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, which involved closing mental health institutions and transitioning former residents to the community, the numbers of inmates with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues substantially increased. (25) The individuals who were released from mental health institutions had minimal connection to the community for positive rehabilitative support, ultimately leading to frequent contact with the criminal justice system. (26) Once incarcerated, individuals with mental health diagnoses rarely receive any rehabilitative therapy or treatment. Many individuals with mental health disorders also...

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