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Overcoming the Odds: Qualitative Examination of Resilience Among Formerly Incarcerated Adolescents.

There is perhaps no group as misunderstood and as underserved as adolescents who exhibit extreme antisocial behaviors and who are incarcerated for those actions. These individuals are referred to and labeled a number of different ways (e.g., atrisk, behaviorally disordered, emotionally handicapped, emotionally and behaviorally disordered, socially maladjusted, seriously emotionally disturbed, out of control, antisocial). Among these labels there is a common theme: These adolescents tend to display ma]adaptive behaviors that seriously impair their abilities to work, live, and function successfully in society.

Many of the terms used to describe this population also suggest that the antisocial behaviors they exhibit are attributable to an emotional or behavioral disability. Although a large portion (between 20% to 60%) of adolescents who are incarcerated will have a special education label (Rutherford, Bullis, Wheeler Anderson, & Griller, in press), not all adolescents who are incarcerated will have disabilities. Likewise, while it is true that 40% to 60% of adolescents identified as emotionally disabled (ED) in the public schools will be arrested during the high school years (Doren, Bullis, & Benz, 1996; Valdes, Williamson, & Wagner, 1990; Wagner & Shaver, 1989), clearly, not all adolescents with ED will perform antisocial acts or be incarcerated. In fact, these two groups may be quite dissimilar and may exhibit different patterns of work, living, educational, and social experiences. For example, a recently completed longitudinal study on the facility-to-community adjustment experiences of a sample of formerly incarcerated adolescents (Bullis, Yovanoff, Havel, & Mueller, 2001) indicates that sample experienced worse community adjustment experiences (e.g., unemployment, wage and hours worked, educational enrollment, re-arrest) than has been found in other studies that include adolescents with ED from public school settings (e.g., Edgar & Levine, 1987; Neel, Meadows, Levine, & Edgar, 1988; Marder, 1992; Valdes et al., 1990; Wagner & Shaver, 1989).

But, it must be noted that not all adolescents who are incarcerated are unsuccessful in their transitions to the community and in their adult lives. Some portion of this population--persons who by any measure should be judged at extreme risk for school and life failures--somehow piece together successful and happy lives, becoming contributing members of society. The ability to achieve such success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds has been termed resilience, a construct that focuses on the strengths and coping processes used to become successful (Rutter, 1985, 1987).

In recent years there have been longitudinal studies of resilience in at-risk populations (e.g., Robins & Rutter, 1990; Rutter, 1988), but shortcomings of these studies are evident. First, most of these investigations have focused solely on the protective characteristics of the individual (e.g., problem-solving ability) that seem to forestall negative experiences, and they have not applied similar scrutiny to the protective characteristics of the environment (e.g., mentoring, social support; Keogh & Weisner, 1993). Second, with notable exceptions (Spekman, Herman, & Vogel, 1993), little attention has been paid to the relationship between resilience and general or special education. Last, the vast majority of studies on resilience have utilized primarily a quantitative approach (Garmezy, 1988). Garmezy argues that it is necessary to include a qualitative approach in any study of resilience to gain a clearer and more in-depth theoretical understanding of both person-based and environmental variables associated with resilience and to develop a theoretical model of this construct.

An understanding of resilience carries crucial service delivery implications, as clear descriptions of this characteristic may serve to focus and strengthen intervention efforts with the broader population of adolescents who are incarcerated. This group poses difficult service delivery problems to educators, and the cost to society of their antisocial acts is staggering from both monetary and human standpoints (Dryfoos, 1990). Steps must be taken to address the service needs of these persons; to halt their antisocial behaviors and to provide them with the skills, services, and supports necessary to reenter and succeed in society as contributing citizens (Epstein, Nelson, Polsgrove, Cuthino, Cumblad, & Quinn, 1993; Nelson, Center, Rutherford, & Walker, 1991; Peacock Hill Working Group, 1991).

Between 1995 and 2000 we conducted a longitudinal qualitative study with adolescents who had been incarcerated and had other significant risk factors, but who had been judged by corrections and social service professionals as potentially resilient (Todis & Bullis, 1995). The following provides an overview of the lives of these adolescents and, based on our preliminary analysis of the data, presents a theoretical formulation of factors that seemed to contribute to and to prevent the respondents' success as young adults. Specifically, we addressed the following research question: What factors contribute to resilience in adolescents who engage in early criminal activity?


This research employed an ethnographic life history approach, which affords several advantages for the study of the construct of resilience in juvenile offenders. First, the techniques of participant observation and recursive, unstructured interviewing, conducted over time and in settings chosen by respondents, provide an opportunity for those being studied to show and tell researchers about important research factors from the insiders' perspective. The field of inquiry is not artificially narrowed, prior to beginning study of a phenomenon, to only those factors that the researcher selects (Patton, 1990; Stainback & Stainback, 1984). Second, the interactions among a number of factors and how these factors are influenced by settings, experiences, and historical events can be studied in detail. It has been demonstrated by researchers of resilience that such an ecocultural awareness is critical in order for professionals to design interventions that are acceptable, sustainable, and effective (Keogh & Weisner, 1993). Third, the 5-year design of the project provided a longitudinal perspective on resilience, specifically on how the various factors affecting an individual's life compound or balance each other over time (Garmezy, 1988). The prolonged engagement between participants and researchers also provides a sufficient period of time for the researchers to build an understanding of the participants' perspectives, ways of life, and culture (Manning, 1997). In combination, a longitudinal design and a life history approach make it possible to study in depth complex processes and chains of factors, individual turning points, and the change and experimentation that are characteristic of the lives of young adults in general and particularly of the population that was the focus of this study.


Respondents. We asked staff at county and state levels of the juvenile correctional system to nominate youth and young adults who had recently been released from their facilities, were successful following release, and were likely to become successful adults. Success following release was defined as exhibiting three of four criteria: (a) currently employed and going to school or both, (b) not re-arrested since leaving the facility, (c) not institutionalized for emotional or substance abuse problems since leaving the facility, and (d) report being satisfied with their current situations. These criteria balance societal norms for success and personal views of what constitutes success in this population. Our initial criteria are also consistent with classification procedures adopted by other researchers in the area of resilience (Conrad & Hammen, 1993; Gest, Neemann, Hubbard, Masten, & Tellegen, 1993; Werner, 1993).

Corrections staff mailed Consent to Contact letters to potential respondents. These contained a short description of the project's purpose and what participation would entail. Recipients who wanted more information were invited to contact project staff. From the pool of nominated respondents, we selected individuals who provided wide variation in terms of cultural background, criminal activity, disability or diagnosis, drug and alcohol history, urban versus rural living situation, and other factors of potential interest. The 15 life history respondents included 8 males and 7 females of different cultural backgrounds; females were purposely overrepresented in the sample because there is relatively little research on adolescent females who have been incarcerated. Table 1 presents a summary of the demographic characteristics of the sample.
Life History Respondents


Personal History Carl Dan

Birth year 79 72
Gender M M
Ethnicity W AFAM
Disability/diagnosis ADHD, Bipolar
Gang involvement X
Age of first drug use 11 15
Heavy drug use in adolescence X X
Currently addicted / heavily
Crimes UUMV, Shoplifting Drug Poss
 Mischief, Theft
Assault gang Theft Inciting a riot,
 Gang, Drug Off
Last grade attended In College 10
Degrees earned HS GED(*)
Age of first offense 14 16
Age of first incarceration 14 16
Corrections/type of treatment Drug TX, Max Jail, Job corps,
 SEC,Counseling Gang diversion
Age at birth of children 16
Incarceration after nomination
Current status School Work Work Parent


Personal History Gary Jay

Birth year 77 71
Gender M M
Ethnicity H AFAM
Gang involvement X
Age of first drug use 12 11
Heavy drug use in adolescence X
Currently addicted / heavily
Assault gang Status Drug off Armed Robbery
Last grade attended 8 12
Degrees earned GED(*) HS
Age of first offense 14 16
Age of first incarceration 14 16
Corrections/type of treatment Low SEC Jail Probation 5
Age at birth of children 19, 22 17, 21, 24
Incarceration after nomination
Current status Work Parent Work Parent


Personal History Korey Sis

Birth year 79 78
Gender F F
Ethnicity W A
Disability/diagnosis Depression
Gang involvement
Age of first drug use 11 13
Heavy drug use in adolescence X
Currently addicted / heavily
 using In recovery
Assault gang
Last grade attended 9 12
Degrees earned GED(*)
Age of first offense 14(*) 14
Age of first incarceration 14 14
Corrections/type of treatment Psychiatric Low
 SEC, Drug TX Max SEC
Age at birth of children 17 17, 20
Incarceration after nomination Drug TX
Current status Work Parent Parent

Life History Respondents


Personal History Anne Chris

Birth year 78 77
Gender F M
Ethnicity W W
Disability/diagnosis Bipolar, AttDis, AD/HD, Att Dis,
Gang involvement
Age of first drug use 14 Drug-affected at
Heavy drug use in adolescence X X
Currently addicted/heavily
 using X
Crimes Runaway, Assault Burglary, Mischief
Last grade attended 8 12
Degrees earned Health Aide
Age of first offense 14 10
Age of first incarceration 14 10
Corrections/type of treatment Max SEC, Low SEC
 Psychiatric Drug
Age at birth of children 18, 20


Personal History Dawn Jane

Birth year 77 79
Gender F F
Ethnicity A W
Gang involvement X
Age of first drug use 11 12
Heavy drug use in adolescence X
Currently addicted/heavily
Crimes UUMV, Assault,
 Assault Drug poss.
Last grade attended 9 7
Degrees earned GED(*)
Age of first offense 13 14
Age of first incarceration 14 14
Corrections/type of treatment Low SEC Drug TX
Age at birth of children 19 16, 19


Personal History Martha Ron

Birth year 76 77
Gender F M
Ethnicity H W
Disability/diagnosis (**) ADD, EBD
Gang involvement X
Age of first drug use 13 13
Heavy drug use in adolescence X
Currently addicted/heavily
 using X
Crimes Status Drug off, Status Drug off
Last grade attended 11 11
Degrees earned GED(*)
Age of first offense 13 14
Age of first incarceration 13 15
Corrections/type of treatment Low SEC, Jail, Drug TX
Age at birth of children


Personal History Sally

Birth year 77
Gender F
Ethnicity W
Disability/diagnosis Bipolar, AD/HD
Gang involvement X
Age of first drug use 13
Heavy drug use in adolescence
Currently addicted/heavily
 using X
Crimes Assault, Burglary
Last grade attended 12
Degrees earned
Age of first offense 15
Age of first incarceration 15
Corrections/type of treatment Drug TX, Low
 SEC, Detention
Age at birth of children 19, 22

Life History Respondents


Personal History Greg

Birth year 78
Gender M
Ethnicity W
Disability/diagnosis ADD, Bipolar
Gang involvement
Age of first drug use 10
Heavy drug use in adolescence X
Currently addicted/heavily
 using X
Crimes Firearms, Drug poss, Assault
Last grade attended 9
Degrees earned
Age of first offense 15
Age of first incarceration 15
Corrections/type of treatment Boot camp, Drug TX
Age at birth of children 15


Personal History Mick

Birth year 79
Gender M
Ethnicity H
Disability/diagnosis Bipolar
Gang involvement X
Age of first drug use 4
Heavy drug use in adolescence X
Currently addicted/heavily
 using X
Crimes Robbery, Weapons
Last grade attended 9
Degrees earned GED(*)
Age of first offense 14
Age of first incarceration 14
Corrections/type of treatment Low Sec, Boot camp
Age at birth of children

Note: Ethnicity: A = Asian American; AFAM = African American;
H = Hispanic; W = Caucasian; Disability: ADD = Attention Deficit
Disorder; AD/HD = Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder;
AttDis = Attachment Disorder; EBD = Emotional Behavioral Disorder;
LD = Learning Disability; (**) = May have undiagnosed learning
disability or behavior disorder; Crimes: UUMV = Unauthorized use of
motor vehicle; OFF = Offenses; POSS = Possession; Type of Treatment:
SEC = Security; MAX = Maximum; TX = Treatment; Education: GED(*) =
Completed in Correctional Facility; HS = High School

Because the status of the participants may fluctuate on these factors--employment, school enrollment, drug use, emotional stability, and reinvolvement with the correctional system--respondents were not dropped from the study if they became unemployed or reoffended. Other resilience researchers have found that such episodes sometimes represented clear and positive turning points, even if the events were experienced as destructive at the time (Grossman, Cook, Kepkep, & Koenen, 1999). Such changes also provided opportunities to contrast treatment interventions and informal support networks and the respondents' various interactions with them.

Additional Respondents. We obtained consents from all of the primary respondents to interview individuals who had played important roles in their lives. These 44 Knowledgeable Others included parents and other family members, teachers, corrections officials, friends, significant others, and employers. Knowledgeable Others offered alternative views of events that had been related in interviews with respondents and provided information on early childhood experiences that respondents could not remember.

As patterns related to resilience in life history emerged from the data, we investigated these patterns by expanding the respondent sample. Staff from correctional and drug treatment programs were asked to nominate other young adults with particular characteristics or life experiences that we wanted to investigate further and who had been or were currently receiving treatment from the facility. Interviews with these 25 secondary respondents were semistructured (i.e., after asking them to tell about their lives in general, field researchers asked specific questions related to topics from the life history data). For example, secondary respondents were asked to comment on the effectiveness of particular components of treatment interventions and to describe other factors or life events that had contributed to, or interfered with, their recovery. In most cases, field researchers saw all secondary respondents at least twice, asking them to clarify or expand upon comments made in the initial interview. Table 2 lists information about the secondary respondents.
Secondary Respondents

Name # Interviews DOB Gender Ethnicity

Al 2 79 M W
Alice 5 81 F H
Andy 1 74 M AFAM
Bill 2 M W
Bob 1 76 M H
Ed 6 79 M W
Ice 2 M W
Jack 14 78 M W
Jed 9 79 M W
Jim 12 M W
Joan 1 80 W
John 2 M W
Julie 7 F W
Ken 1 81 M W
Kelly 2 80 F W
Mike 4 82 M W
Miracle 2 AFAM
Mitch 14 79 M W
Ned 2 M W
Ray 5 79 M AFAM
Sam 2 78 M W
Ted 1 78 M H
Todd 1 W
Zach 2 78 M W
 2 M W

Name Dis./Diag. Gang

Andy X
Ice X
Ken Depression
Kelly Depression
Ray X
Ted X

Note: N = 25


Field researchers. Two male and two female field researchers were employed so that each primary respondent could be assigned a field researcher of the same sex. All field researchers held graduate degrees in anthropology, sociology, or special education, and all had extensive research experience with youth with disabilities. The field researchers also completed training specific to the project. Topics in this training included confidentiality and safety procedures and instructions for formatting interviews and field notes. All four field researchers remained on the project working with their assigned respondents for the entire 5 years of the study.

Interviews. Early interviews were unstructured to allow respondents to bring up topics of interest to them. Interviews gradually incorporated more direct questions as factors relevant to risk and resilience emerged and as rapport developed between field researchers and respondents. Each interview was audiotaped, conducted in private, usually in the respondent's home, and lasted 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and the transcripts, along with the field researchers' impressions and notes on the context in which the interview took place, were entered into an electronic database.

Participant Observation. During alternate weeks, participant observations were conducted in settings selected primarily by respondents, usually their homes, neighborhoods, places of work, and homes of their families and friends. During observations, which lasted about 3 hours, the field researcher assumed the role of interested observer and participant. No notes were taken and no recording devices were used, in order to make the research aspect of the interactions as unobtrusive as possible. Immediately after every session, however, the field researcher prepared detailed field notes. Field notes were written in a specified format that facilitated separation of field researcher impressions and interpretations from more objective descriptions of observed events (LeCompte & Goetz, 1982; Lofland, 1971; and Patton, 1990).

Data Collection Schedule. Each researcher/respondent pair met weekly during the first year of the study, following a schedule of alternating open-ended interviews and participant observation. When rapport had been firmly established, the data collection schedule gradually was reduced to approximately one observation or interview per month.


Data analysis proceeded concurrently with data collection. Computer disk copies of the interview and observation files were entered into Atlas/ti, a software program to facilitate management, coding, retrieval, and analysis of qualitative data.

Early data analysis involved coding of data segments with code words that captured the essence of what was said or observed. Each incident or utterance was compared with previous ones, and assigned new or existing code words. Initially, categories were sufficient broad to ensure that independent coders would code a passage the same way and that general categories could be easily retrieved. In the second round of coding more specific categories were identified, allowing comparison of details within the broad categories, across respondents. For example, within the broad code category corrections, which applied to any correctional program in the data, references to specific types of interventions available to respondents were coded separately, e.g., "drug and alcohol treatment," "anger management," "academic" (schooling within the facility), "counseling," etc.

Atlas/ti was used to search coded files to investigate relationships among code categories within each case and to compare categories across respondents. During team meetings, the authors and the field researchers discussed emerging tentative relationships between categories of events and planned how to test these relationships in subsequent interviews and observations. For example, early interviews and observations revealed that long-term relationships between respondents and their boyfriends or girlfriends were characterized by arguing and limiting each other's activities. We tested this finding, and sought explanations for it, through further interviews with life history and secondary respondents, adult family members, and service providers. As findings such as this were investigated, the first author prepared memos describing the factor of interest and its relationship to other factors in the data, citing supporting evidence. Diagrams and matrices depicting relationships among factors or patterns across respondents were developed to visually represent tentative theories. The memos and diagrams were circulated among research team members, and field researchers were encouraged to expand them by contributing examples of both confirming and disconfirming evidence from the data files. Confirming incidents and comments were added to the memos, helping to clarify the interaction among factors and validating theoretical relationships. Disconfirming cases led to expansion of the tentative theories through identification of intervening factors that would produce different outcomes, or redefining relationships among variables.

For example, one respondent, Chris (all names used in this article are pseudonyms), was able to access extraordinary social support following a series of juvenile offenses and treatments when he was adopted by a prominent and caring family in his community. According to our initial model of resilience, Chris should have been able to follow his plan to go to college and on to a career and successful adulthood. Following a fairly typical and successful high school experience, however, Chris dropped out of junior college and was incarcerated repeatedly for committing minor offenses and not completing his probation requirements. Developments like these forced us to expand our working model of how resilience is fostered by exploring risk factors that may override even the best supports and by looking closely at the interpersonal details that make or break social support and other resilience-promoting factors.

To clarify patterns of risk and protective factors within and across respondents, project staff identified key factors and rated each respondent on these factors. The ratings were derived through consensus of the field researchers, including the first author, all of whom were familiar with the data for all respondents, and through discussion with the respondents themselves in the last months of the study. In reaching consensus, staff presented specific supporting quotations and incidents directly from the data. The data were also searched for incidents that did not support the tentative proposition. Contradictory data was evaluated in the overall context of the respondent's life, and additional specific data was collected, often by asking the respondents or knowledgeable others to comment on the apparent contradiction. Once ratings were established, matrices were constructed to provide visual representations of the analyses of different factors across respondents.


In the first section we discuss respondents' life histories, focusing on their predelinquent lives, their involvement with the legal and correctional systems, and their transition from those correctional programs back into the community. In the second section we describe respondents' current status and factors that account for their divergence into three groups.


Predelinquent. In this phase of the respondents' lives, three consistent themes emerged related to their families, interactions at school, and adults' responses to their early antisocial acts. Table 3 indicates family situations of the life history respondents. Many of the respondents came from unstable, chaotic homes that struggled with constant conflict, drug use, and emotional and financial problems. Other families, however, could be described as fairly typical middle-class or upper-middle-class families in which both parents were employed, some as professionals.
Family Risk Factors, Life History Respondents


Family Context/History Carl Dan Gary Jay Korey Sis

Likely prenatal exposure to
drugs and or alcohol X
Serious abuse or neglect X
Step or singleparent X(*) X X X X X
Mental health issues in
one/both parents X X X
Parent incarcerated
Family SES(***) 4 2 3 2 4 5-2
Parent addiction ? ? X


Family Context/History Anne Dawn Chris Jane Martha

Likely prenatal exposure to
drugs and or alcohol X
Serious abuse or neglect X(**) X
Step or singleparent X X X
Mental health issues in
one/both parents X X X
Parent incarcerated X X
Family SES(***) 5 5-2 1-5 2 3
Parent addiction X X

 Drifters Strugglers

Family Context/History Ron Sally Greg Mick

Likely prenatal exposure to
drugs and or alcohol X X
Serious abuse or neglect X X
Step or singleparent X X X
Mental health issues in
one/both parents
Parent incarcerated X X
Family SES(***) 3 3 3 1
Parent addiction X X X

Note: (*) = after his release (**) = adopted at 16 (***) 1 = poverty
level, 5 = upper 10%

Regardless of differences in any of the factors listed in Table 3, all families of the life history respondents seem to have been unprepared for the challenges the respondents presented when they reached adolescence. In these families, as well as most families of the interview respondents, parents appeared to be taken by surprise by behaviors their children began to display as they entered middle school and were unable to intervene effectively when they became aware that their children were getting into trouble. None of the families of life history respondents had well-established lines of communication between parents and children or even between parents. Many respondents felt that their parents avoided confronting them about their behavior, their activities, and their choice of friends.
 My mom knew [I was using methamphetamine]. I could see it in her eyes on
 Thanksgiving. She knew. My sister told me that both my brother-in-laws
 [sic] who are paramedics/firemen--they told my sister that I was coming
 down from something. It wasn't like it wasn't obvious. I'd even gotten a
 couple of dirty [urine analyses testing for recent drug use]. But nobody
 said a word. Why couldn't they have sent me to treatment when I needed
 help? [Interview with Sally 10/10/96]

Nearly all respondents described themselves as smart, good little kids who did well in elementary school and got along with other students. For most, this changed in middle school. They began associating with peers who experimented with drugs and alcohol and started skipping school. Schools reacted by suspending them, reducing their extracurricular activities, and treating them as undesirables:
 Once you get the label of not being interested in your school, or not being
 there, being a druggie, or whatever, you get a label and [teachers] just
 don't take the time. They don't really care. You're written off. [Korey
 Interview 8/13/96]

Other respondents simply found school irrelevant. Dan described his view of school after he joined a gang and started making money selling drugs:
 School [chuckle]. Hey, what I need school for? ... All I seen is that
 life's just a struggle. You gotta get what you can get the best way you
 know how.... I wanna have nice things, so I mean, how am I gonna get nice
 things sittin' in school? [Dan interview 1/18/97]

Since their parents were unable to enforce attendance at school, most respondents had accrued very few credits during freshman year and stopped attending school by sophomore year.

All respondents had participated in illegal activities by the time they entered high school and all, except a few interview respondents, had dealt with law enforcement officials. (See Table 1). The average age of the first offense in the total sample was 14.2 years. Almost all described their early activities as "no big deal," or "kid stuff." Some claim they did not know they were doing anything wrong or that their victims were so stupid they deserved to be targets.

Responses of most parents and corrections officials to these early offenses reinforced the respondents' view that they had done nothing of serious concern. Respondents reported that they either did not get caught doing early activities or that threatened consequences did not materialize. Some parents seemed to have made ineffective attempts to exert their authority, but their children soon learned that their parents' threatened consequences either could not, or would not be enforced. The reported responses of the juvenile justice system were, like family responses, inconsistent and ineffective in curtailing the participants' early illegal activity.

Although some county youth corrections officials we interviewed reported that 80% of first offenders desist and are never rearrested (Lane County Juvenile Authority, 1997), none of the life history respondents desisted from committing offenses after their first arrest. To investigate the differences between the life history respondents and the 20% of youth who were able to access supports in their families and communities to curtail their early illegal activities, we analyzed the interviews with seven of the additional respondents who fit this description. Through interviews with them, their parents, and corrections staff who worked with them, we learned about factors that made it possible for some adolescents to discontinue illegal activity before they committed serious offenses or suffered serious consequences. These factors included (a) active family involvement and communications, (b) successful return to school, (c) engagement in school and work activities, (d) association with peers who were not engaged in illegal activity, (e) abstaining from drug use, and (f) consistent involvement with one or more adults other than parents. Each of these factors is discussed in more detail in a later section.

Involvement With the Legal and Correctional Systems. Through retrospective interviews and participant observations with all respondents, and particularly with respondents who have been reincarcerated during the project, we learned how resilient youth experienced the juvenile correctional system and what they encountered when they left those programs to return to the community. In the following subsections we describe the components of the correctional system that the respondents reported as positive for them: structure, classes and interventions; positive adult contact; and time to reflect and mature.

The respondents in this study were individuals who thrived on structure. First, even though drugs are often available in youth and adult correctional facilities, respondents reported getting clean and enjoying the clarity of thought that this afforded them. Second, being on a regular schedule, getting adequate sleep, and having regular, nutritious meals improved their health. In many cases, respondents who had prescriptions to treat psychological disorders were taking their medication regularly for the first time.
 I'm enjoying life, actually, because if I was on the outside, I'd be
 hung-over, I'd be asleep until about one o'clock, I'd feel [awful], I
 wouldn't be doing my job, my family would be mad at me, I'd be [angry] at
 myself. I think physically and mentally I'm in a lot better shape than I
 ever was. [Greg Interview 8/7/97]

Third, most respondents served time in facilities where they could earn privileges, increased levels of autonomy, or assignment to more desirable jobs by working through a highly structured system of "levels." Some of these systems were reminiscent of military boot camp indoctrination in their rigidity. For most respondents, however, knowing exactly what was expected of them and what they could expect if they complied, provided an opportunity to be successful, in some cases for the first time in their lives.

Within the structure of the correctional system, specific interventions were available that were helpful to respondents. Many received their GEDs or high school diplomas while incarcerated; others earned enough credits to return to high school when they were released. The correctional facilities' small classes and individualized approach helped some respondents focus. Most respondents had assigned jobs within the facility from which they derived satisfaction and skills. Respondents also participated in classes or discussion groups targeting specific issues. These included interventions to address "thinking errors" (immature, unrealistic, manipulative, and irresponsible interpretations of actions and events), drug use, problem solving, and interpersonal relations. While in the facility, most respondents excelled in these classes and applied what they learned outside of class.

Many respondents made significant personal connections with at least one adult in the correctional facility. Because these youth were among the most successful, correctional staff reinforced them with positive attention and encouragement. These interactions, in turn, encouraged respondents to confide in the adults, take feedback from them, and seek advice. In many cases these were the first meaningful conversations respondents had ever had with adults, their interactions with teachers and parents having been characterized by arguing and coercive, manipulative behavior on both sides.

Finally, respondents commented that their time in correctional facilities gave them an opportunity to mature and to begin to reflect on their lives outside of the facility and on the direction they wanted their future lives to take. For many incarceration was a respite from their chaotic, unsafe, and often frightening homes and peer groups. For others, incarceration was at least an opportunity to slow down and to escape from the pressures imposed by peers or significant others, to think for the first time about their own ideas and goals.

Postcorrections Transition. Life history respondents, who had learned about accountability and responsibility while incarcerated, returned to their communities with the expectation-reinforced by their parole officers-that they should now be able to generalize this knowledge to their lives outside of the correctional facility. Most of the corrections programs they had attended helped respondents line up jobs or enroll in school or community college, got them involved in community drug treatment programs, and provided some degree of continuing contact with an adult from the program or from another branch of corrections. Most of the juvenile corrections programs our respondents came from provided specific expectations and promised swift consequences for youth who did not comply with parole requirements by staying involved in these positive activities. However, most respondents found that contact with corrections officials was sporadic and impersonal and that it was unlikely that their parole officers would follow through with these threats.

Upon their release, respondents had few options except to return to the same homes that they lived in when they were breaking the law. For most respondents, whose only alternatives were living with their former peers or on their own, there were benefits to living with their families: They provided a relatively stable place to stay, usually rent-free or cheaper than they would have been able to find elsewhere. However, for all life history and most interview respondents, the structure provided by their families was inadequate to keep them from reoffending, just as it had been inadequate to keep them from getting into trouble in the first place. For some, the stay with family was short. Typically, the youth and family had a falling out after which the youth found other living arrangements and returned to their former peer groups, drug use, and other illegal activities. Some respondents adopted or constructed surrogate families, for example, living with their significant others or with significant others and their parents, rather than with their own families.

Most of the female respondents in the study became pregnant shortly after their release from the correctional facility. Somewhat surprisingly, pregnancy and early parenting had a positive impact on the lives of these girls. Economic necessity on the girls' part and desire of the girls' parents to stay connected with a grandchild appears to have prolonged the time that respondents could tolerate living with their parents and that parents were willing to help support the mother and baby. Having a baby also provided access to new community resources. For most girls, becoming a mother meant assuming a respectable new role and identity, and provided a rationale and impetus for making changes and adopting new goals.
 Even though, while I had [my son] I did use, in the end I always came back
 and I got clean. Because of him ... without him, I don't think I would have
 been that strong. I don't think I'd see any reason to [stay clean], because
 I didn't care about myself enough.... So [without him] I'd be dead or
 inside for some sort of drug possession Charge or whatever.... I've thought
 of that a lot of times. But I also think he'd have been better off, had I
 given him up for adoption. [Korey interview 5/17/00]

For some of the male respondents, fatherhood was an important motivator and incentive to stay drug-free, employed, and out of trouble. But being a parent typically did not have an immediate effect on males in this study, becoming more important later for male respondents than for female respondents:
 The state of mind I was in [when my daughter was born when I was 16], I
 didn't care. Big deal. My daughter wasn't in my life for 7 years, man. But
 now lookin' at my life and seeing what I've been through, it's like I gotta
 do anything to protect her.... That's my main goal. [Dan interview 1/18/97]

A few respondents had mentors from the corrections systems who played important supportive roles during transition. From these respondents we learned about the critical factors that adults can provide to youth who are attempting to turn their lives around. These factors included:

* Engagement: awareness of and interest in what the youth is doing, participating in activities together.

* Monitoring: tracking whether the youth is complying with rules and meeting his or her responsibilities.

* Consistency: setting clear expectations and following through with stated consequences for not meeting those expectations.

* Confrontation: engaging the youth in conversations about his or her activities, responsibilities, thoughts, and mistakes.

* Guidance: giving advice, encouragement, and suggestions and helping youth cope with disappointment, failure, or fear.

* Positive regard: conveying a sense of liking and caring about the youth.

* Lots of chances: helping youth recover from mistakes.

* Instrumental support: providing transportation, childcare, car repair, etc.

* Modeling: setting an example of responsibility and integrity.

* Personal connection: conveying to the youth that the adult is involved not just out of professional obligation, but because he or she cares.

Finally, respondents who were able to simply choose whether or not to use drugs had a huge advantage over those who had serious addictions. For the latter, the transition from the secure setting back to their former lives where drugs would be readily available was especially difficult.
 I don't feel like I'm gonna make it, and I don't have the kind of help that
 I need, and I don't have the kind of willpower to give myself the help I
 need. I don't want to start using because I know how my life goes down the
 drain. I just wish somebody knew what they were doing that was in my life,
 you know? I think it would have helped a lot if my PO was coming over
 everyday to talk to me, you know. To help me out. Just talk to me about AA
 and stuff. I'm supposed to be mature enough to handle myself, but it's kind
 of hard when I'm totally in my addiction. I need people there for me at
 this point in my life to take initiative for me because I can't do it
 myself. [Greg interview 12/22/97]


Respondents' lives diverged sharply shortly after they left the correctional facilities. Now in early adulthood, their current activities and attitudes place them into three rather fluid groups:

* Those who never re-offended and are doing well.

* Those who are not as successful and appear to be drifting or just getting by.

* Those who have reoffended or are struggling with a variety of issues.

The average ages in the groups--24 years (succeeders), 22.6 years (drifters), and 22 years (strugglers)--suggest that maturation may play an important role in correcting antisocial behavior. This point was emphasized by staff from a gang diversion program who were reluctant to nominate younger youth as respondents because of the fluctuations that occur in behavior and life circumstances in the late teens and early 20s. The divergence among groups also may be related to personal and family factors, and in a few cases to postcorrection interventions that made it possible for some respondents to continue in the positive direction they had embarked on in the correctional facilities. Table 4 show ratings by the four field researchers of each of the respondents on a number of internal and external factors related to resilience. Table 5 lists the reasons respondents gave for desisting from illegal activities.
Internal and External Resilience Factors


Internal Factors Carl Dan Gary Jay Korey Sis

Intelligent/verbal 3 3 3 3 3 2
Reflective/introspective 3 3 2 3 3 2
Empathy/conscience 2 3 2 3 3 3
Problem Solving 3 3 3 3 3 2
Coping skills 3 3 3 3 3 2
Positive outlook 3 3 3 2 3 3
Determination 3 3 3 3 3 2
Assertive/outgoing 2 3 3 3 2 1
Satisfaction 2 2 3 2 2 2-3
Family support 2 2 1 2 3 3
Other adult support 1 3 2 3 2 2
Significant other 3 3 3
Parenthood 3 3 3 3 3


Internal Factors Anne Dawn Chris Jane Martha

Intelligent/verbal 3 2 2 2 1
Reflective/introspective 1 2 1 2 1
Empathy/conscience 1 2 1 2 1
Problem Solving 2 2 1 1 1
Coping skills 2(*) 1 2 1 1
Positive outlook 2 2 3 2 1
Determination 3 1 3 1 1
Assertive/outgoing 2 2 3 1 2
Satisfaction 2 2 3 1 1
Family support 2 2 1-3 3 3
Other adult support 3 2 1 1
Significant other 2 1
Parenthood 3 3

 Drifters Strugglers

Internal Factors Ron Sally Greg Mick

Intelligent/verbal 2-3 3 1 2
Reflective/introspective 3 2 2(*) 2(*)
Empathy/conscience 2 2 1 2
Problem Solving 2 1 1 1
Coping skills 2 1 1 1
Positive outlook 3 1 1 1
Determination 1 2 1 1
Assertive/outgoing 3 2 2 1
Satisfaction 2 1 1 1
Family support 2 2 2 1
Other adult support
Significant other
Parenthood 1-2

Note: 1 = low, 3 = high, (*) = high when incarcerated, low when not
Reasons for Making Life Changes


Reasons for Desisting Carl Dan Gary Jay Korey Sis

Avoid consequences X X X X X
Safety concerns X X X
Maturity-outgrew it X X X X
Chose different life/goals X X X X X X
Spiritual inspiration X
Relationship X X
Children X X X X X


Reasons for Desisting Anne Dawn Chris Jane Martha

Avoid consequences X X
Safety concerns
Maturity-outgrew it X X
Chose different life/goals
Spiritual inspiration
Relationship X(*) X
Children X(*) X X(*)

 Drifters Strugglers

Reasons for Desisting Ron Sally Greg Mick

Avoid consequences X X X
Safety concerns X
Maturity-outgrew it
Chose different life/goals X X
Spiritual inspiration
Children X(*)

Note: (*) = These factors initially had positive impact, but are
currently not effective.

Succeeders. This group included respondents who never reoffended after they were nominated and who continued to do well according to our original definition of success. We also added an additional criterion for success: being a competent parent. Respondents in this category are Carl, Gary, Dan, Jay, Sis, and Korey. Except for Sis, who is a full-time parent, these respondents are employed or going to school or both, have not been rearrested or in drug treatment, and they describe themselves as "doing okay" and "happy." Respondents in the Succeeder group tended to be more verbal and reflective than those in the other two groups. They demonstrated fewer thinking errors and greater problem-solving ability. They were willing to confront, rather than avoid, problems that arose and were better able to cope with negative events and disappointments.

Gary has been complaining about conditions in his present job. His wife Mary wants to move nearer to her family.
 But there is no way I would leave my state job and move over there and take
 whatever work I could find. I'm not working at a grocery store again.
 [Mary's] ready to go, and we'll move over as soon as I can get a transfer
 or a new state job, but not before." [Observation with Gary 9/29/99]

Contrast Gary with Dawn, who completed a 6-month training program to work in a medical office but quit her job after a month because of conflicts with her co-workers:
 They didn't make me feel, like, comfortable. They were getting on my
 nerves. Right before I quit I told this one girl, "I'm so tired of you! I
 don't even have to put up with you. I've never had this much supervision
 anywhere." It was payday and I was getting my check and I go, "I quit!" The
 supervisor goes, "Well, I can talk to her," and I was like, "No, I don't
 want it! I quit!" [Dawn interview 11/13/98]

The Succeeder respondents also are characterized by determination, positive outlook and approach to life, and a strong future orientation. They made a conscious choice to change their lives--some to avoid reincarceration, some because they were afraid they would be killed if they continued their gang activities. In addition, they had an important goal or vision of what they wanted their lives to be like that helped them continue to work and deal with their personal challenges. In most cases these goals involved caring for their children; other goals included earning a college degree, and "going as far as I can in life."

Although the families of the Succeeder respondents are no more stable or resourceful than those of other respondents, all of the Succeeder respondents have been able to access support from surrogate families, other adults, or significant others.

Drifters. These respondents--Anne, Chris, Dawn, Jane, Martha, Ron, and Sally--are neither as successful nor as stable as those in the first group. They are more likely than Succeeder respondents to use drugs consistently, and to use drugs besides marijuana; their employment histories are less stable; and three of the four mothers in the group have recently voluntarily turned their children over to relatives. Members of this group appear less confident, positive, and energetic than respondents in the first group. They seem to lack feelings of empathy or conscience that account in part for the unwillingness to accept responsibility such as was exhibited by the Succeeder group.

Members of this group have fewer goals, or at least they are less clear or realistic than those of the Succeeder group. Perhaps because there is no long-term dream driving them on and no strong sense of responsibility toward their children, birth families, themselves, or a higher power, they are less likely than the Succeeder group to put up with frustrations in their low-paying, entry-level jobs, or to heed pleas of family and correctional staff to get their acts together. Compare Chris's attitude with Gary's:
 I know what I need to do: finish high school, go to college, get a good
 job. Pay off my debts. But it's just too hard. [Chris interview 10/15/98]

 I'm always looking for the next thing, the next step I can take forward. I
 just want to see how far I can get in the world. [Gary interview 12/14/99]

Personal history and internal factors may explain some of the differences between the Succeeder group and the Drifters. Chris, for example, came from an extremely abusive and chaotic family. He experienced further abuse in the foster care system. He has been diagnosed with attachment disorder and ADHD, neither of which he chooses to address or treat. However, family history does not explain all of the differences. Dawn is less than a year older than her sister Sis (who is in the Succeeder group) and their childhood stories are nearly identical. Yet Dawn seems to feel none of the responsibility or drive Sis displays to become an independent, self-supporting adult:
 I know I should get a job. But if people, like my mom, want me to get a
 job, they shouldn't pay my bills for me! She got mad and didn't pay my
 phone bill and I told her, "That's stupid! It's just going to cost you more
 to have it hooked up again." And it did; it cost her $80. Cuz I knew she
 wasn't going to be able to not call me and check on [her grandson.] [Dawn
 interview 1/27/00]

Some of the differences between the Drifters and the Succeeders could be related to maturity. The Drifters seem to recognize that their behavior is not consistent with their adult status. Recently some members of this group have begun to think about moving on to more adult roles and behavior:
 I have to change a whole lot of things before [the baby is born in]
 December, you know? Sometimes it makes me really sad how I'm gonna have to
 be grown-up, but man, I haven't been doing good as a teenager anyway. It's
 not like I've been making real good choices anyway. [Sally interview

On the other hand, Sally, Anne, and Jane, each after having two children and being full-time parents in relatively stable relationships for 3 years, turned their children over to their partners and their families in order to pursue other goals. These recent events indicate that for young women with less determination and attachment to their children than Korey and Sis, the positive effects of pregnancy and motherhood may be shorted-lived.

In terms of external supports, fewer of the Drifters had access to support from adults outside their families, and in most cases, this support was extended primarily to respondents' children. In this group, only Dawn has access to an adult who could fill the role of mentor. June, a teacher at the correctional facility always found time to talk with Dawn when she came back to visit. Recently they have begun to talk on the phone a couple of times a week, and June frequently takes Dawn's son for the weekend. Perhaps coincidentally, Dawn recently took a full-time job with benefits, is paying her own bills, and is paying her mother the money she owes her.

At this point it seems unlikely that any of the Drifters will reoffend, other than perhaps for a minor drug offense or failure to comply with probation requirements. If maturity is a factor separating Drifters from Succeeders, we can expect that some of the Drifters will eventually stabilize, get jobs, and become responsible employees and parents. Further support for the role of maturity in resilience comes from the experiences of Dan and Jay. Although highly motivated by fear of going to prison and even of dying in gang activity, both Dan and Jay needed several tries and years of reliable mentor support to completely put illegal activity behind them.

Strugglers. Two respondents, Greg and Mick, continue to struggle with addiction and are at risk for returning to jail or prison. Both have been incarcerated several times while participating in the project, and each time they stabilized and vowed to get their lives together. Circumstances and drugs quickly overtake them when they are released, in spite of their resolve and good intentions. Now that Greg and Mick are adults, there are fewer services available when they are incarcerated than when they were in the juvenile system, and they get even less personal attention from correctional officers upon exiting adult corrections.

Both Mick and Greg were introduced to drugs at an early age by their parents. Both have serious mental health issues that can be controlled with medication, but neither consistently can afford or remember to take their medication. Both have a variety of relatives they could live with, but these situations are at best unsupportive and at worst likely to sabotage any residents who appear to be trying to move in a positive direction.

Mick, with the help of an understanding parole officer, currently is able to get himself locked up for short periods for minor offenses when he feels he is most vulnerable to slipping into his old life. When he is out, he manages to take small steps toward getting a new life together, but it's a delicate balancing act: If he gets a good job and a stable place to live, he will not be able to fall back on jail if he feels overwhelmed or tempted to use drugs. Going back to jail would cost him everything he has worked for. The task he faces is to recreate the structure he requires, virtually out of nothing and without assistance.

Greg may not even have the dubious opportunities that Mick has. Greg has charges pending from various drunken assault episodes that could result in his being sent to prison for many years. He is currently trying to find a suitable place for his wife to live before turning himself in.


Several features of this research could potentially limit the applicability of its findings. Respondents were from a single geographical region, and all were served by the same state corrections system. Respondents included primarily the "super stars" of the corrections system, those who most impressed corrections or treatment staff while they were incarcerated. Our data are based largely on self-report and observations of only what respondents agreed to let us see. The circumstances and attitudes of any of the respondents may change and invalidate the analyses presented here.

However, several features of the research design mitigate these limitations. The respondents were selected to represent a variety of ethnic and socio-economic groups, from urban and rural settings. They served time in a variety of correctional and treatment facilities. As for the trustworthiness of the data on which the findings are based, we were in close communication with life history respondents and their families over a 5-year period, providing opportunities to validate what respondents were telling us. Interviews with additional respondents indicate that their perspectives, experiences, and outcomes were similar to those of life history respondents. Corrections staff and other researchers in the area of juvenile justice have validated many of the findings discussed in this article.


The early years of the youth in this study were characterized by lack of structure and effective adult presence. By early adolescence, most had stopped attending school and were engaging in illegal and self-destructive activities. During their time in correctional programs, structured schedules, expectations, and consequences provided by committed, caring adults allowed respondents to experience success-earning educational degrees, learning job skills, managing addiction, and beginning to learn problem-solving and coping skills. However, postcorrection supports were insufficient to allow many of the youth to transition smoothly back to their communities. The current transitional focus on individual accountability and responsibility ignores several important facts about this population:

* Youth ex-offenders are still adolescents, many of whom are experiencing delayed emotional and cognitive development due to early drug use.

* They have never successfully used problem-solving or coping skills outside of the correctional setting.

* Many will be battling drug addiction for the rest of their lives.

* They still have no adults in their lives to help them learn the skills they need to deal with these problems.

While some respondents demonstrated great adaptability in accessing the structure and adult support they needed to succeed postcorrection, few were able to accomplish these things without serious setbacks and mistakes. The fortunate ones, guided by mentors, got second and third chances. Others have not been able to access that support, and in spite of their desire to pursue the goals they have identified, they appear to be headed for several more years of instability and, in some cases, reincarceration.


The findings of the study should be of interest to educators, youth corrections officials, other social service providers, and parents because they reveal personal and situational factors that contribute to successful transition to adulthood for youth who are beginning that transition at extreme disadvantage, yet in many cases appear to be headed for productive and happy lives. This study presents the perspectives of the youth themselves on the specific features of interventions that were most and least helpful to them. This information should allow educators and service providers to focus resources on those aspects of interventions that are of most benefit to youth. Finally, while it is unusual for studies in the area of juvenile corrections to track outcomes for longer than 6 months, this study tracked respondents over a 5-year period. Analysis of the interaction of interventions with maturity and experience provides valuable information for structuring support services for youth transitioning from correctional facilities.


Given the needs and the developmental stage of their clientele, youth corrections has a responsibility to not only outline expectations and to follow through with appropriate supervision and consequences (which in itself would greatly improve the current system), but also to help guide the youth through their remaining formative years. Transition supports should include assistance in the areas of employment, housing, counseling, drug treatment, and time with at least one committed, competent adult.


Interactions with adults that are most helpful to youthful ex-offenders include those that demonstrate caring as well as control. In order to benefit from whatever other transition supports are available, youth whose parents are neither emotionally available nor effective at enforcing limits require a relationship with an adult who is both a friend and a guide.


The absence of schools as a factor in the post-transition adjustment of potentially resilient youth is glaring. Schools could and should be a mechanism, both for at-risk youth and for potentially resilient youth returning from correctional facilities, to access structure, positive adult influence, skills, and problem-solving experiences.


Parents of preadolescents need easily accessible resources to help them prepare for the challenges of parenting adolescents. These should include information on communication strategies, monitoring youth behavior, setting and enforcing limits, and following through with consequences.


More studies are needed of the long-term adjustment of youth offenders. Given that over half of the respondents in this study continue to exhibit instability, in their early and mid-20s, outcome studies should track ex-offenders well into adulthood to learn what kinds of social service and other supports are needed to assure the success of these individuals and their children.


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Manuscript received August 2000; accepted March 2001.

(*) To order books referenced in this journal, please call 24 hrs/365 days: 1-800-BOOKS-NOW (266-5766); or 1-732-728-1040; or visit them on the Web at Children.htm. Use Visa, M/C, AMEX, Discover, or send check or money order + $4.95 S&H ($2.50 each add'l item) to: Clicksmart, 400 Morris Avenue, Long Branch, NJ 07740; 1-732-728-1040 or FAX 1-732728-7080.

BONNIE TODIS (CEC #216), Associate Professor, Teaching Research Division, Western Oregon University, Eugene. MICHAEL BULLIS (CEC OR Federation), Professor, Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, University of Oregon, Eugene. MIRIAM WAINTRUP (CEC OR Federation), Research Associate, ROBERT SCHULTZ Research Associate, RYAN D'AMBROSIO, Research Associate, Teaching Research Division, Western Oregon University, Eugene.

Correspondence concerning this article can be directed to Bonnie Todis, Teaching Research, 99 W. 10th Ave, Suite 370, Eugene, OR 97401. E-mail:

This research was funded by a grant (#H023C50150) from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Department of Education.
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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