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The importance of social support for prisoner reentry: the effects of visitation on offender recidivism.

During the last several decades, the expanding prison population has resulted in a record number of former inmates attempting to reintegrate back into communities. (1) The capacity of state and federal correctional systems to manage prisoner reentry has not kept. pace with the increasing number of returning prisoners. (2) Supervision agents, who are often overwhelmed with large caseloads, must focus exclusively on supervision. and are unable to assist with the reentry process. (3) Communities are reluctant to accept convicted felons, and released prisoners are not eligible for many forms of public assistance. (4)

Saddled with large budget deficits in the wake of the recent financial crisis, many states are realizing the high cost of housing record numbers of prisoners. (5) Reducing prison populations, and thereby reducing corrections spending, has become a central concern for many states. Newly released offenders, however, are often unprepared for life outside the prison. (6) Returning prisoners face a number of obstacles to successful reintegration, including unemployment, debt, homelessness, substance abuse and family conflict. (7) Indeed, research has shown that roughly two-thirds of prisoners will be rearrested within three years of release. (8)

Findings from recent research, however, underscore the importance of social support in helping offenders desist from crime and, more narrowly, recidivism. (9) Social bonds and social support are common elements in many criminological theories, both as a key to crime prevention and a mechanism for desistance from crime. Social control theory suggests, for example, that an individual's attachment, or bond, to a conventional lifestyle prevents him or her from offending, (10) whereas general strain theory proposes that family bonds and social support help ease the stresses related to reentry, making prisoners less likely to engage in subsequent criminal behavior. (11) Life course theorists, meanwhile, view the release from prison as a potential turning point in the lives of offenders in which attachment to family members could provide them both the opportunity and incentive to desist from crime. (12)


While offenders are in prison, visits from family and friends offer a means of establishing, maintaining or enhancing social support networks. Strengthening social bonds for incarcerated offenders may be important not only because it can help prevent them from assuming a criminal identity, (13) but also because many released prisoners rely on family and friends for employment opportunities, financial assistance and housing. (14) Anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of newly released offenders rely on their families immediately after release. (15)

Previous research on prison visitation and recidivism. Decades of research indicate that visits from family improve institutional behavior and lower the likelihood of recidivism for inmates. (16) More recent research has found similar results. Bales and Mears (2008) (17) examined the effects of prison visitation on recidivism among 7,000 Florida state prison inmates who were serving at least a one-year sentence. Looking only at visits that occurred during the final year of incarceration, Bales and Mears found that any and more frequent visits during the last year of imprisonment significantly reduced the risk of recidivism. Visits that occurred close to the time of release had the strongest effect on recidivism. Following up on this study, Mears, Cochran, Siennick and Bales (2011) (18) used propensity score matching to assess the effects of visitation on recidivism. They found that visitation had a modest effect on all types of recidivism, particularly property offending.

In another recent study, Derkzen, Gobeil and Gileno (2009) compared post-release outcomes among 6,537 Canadian inmates who did not receive any visits, inmates who received standard prison visits, and inmates who received special private family visits. (19) Like Bales and Mears, Derkzen et al., examined visits during the last year of confinement for offenders. They found that prisoners who received visits from family and friends were significantly less likely to reoffend or be readmitted to prison.

Present Study

This study extends research on the relationship between prison visitation and recidivism by examining 16,420 offenders released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2007. Rather than focusing on the impact of visitation during the last year of imprisonment, this study uses multiple measures of visitation over the entire confinement period to assess the effects of the number, timing and type of visits (e.g., friend, sibling, mentor, etc.) on recidivism. It also examines whether the size of an offender's social support network, as reflected by the number of individual visitors, is associated with recidivism. Further, given that offenders in the sample were tracked through June 2010, a relatively lengthy follow-up period (an average of nearly five years) is used for recidivism, which was measured as a felony reconviction and a reincarceration for a technical violation revocation. Although prior visitation studies have not focused specifically on "technical violation" revocations, this is an important recidivism measure to include due to the reincarceration costs associated with revocations. For example, because the average length of stay for a release violator is five months and the marginal per diem is approximately $60, the average revocation costs the state of Minnesota roughly $9,000.


To assess the impact of visitation on recidivism, this study uses Cox regression, a multivariate survival analysis technique. There are two main advantages in using Cox regression to analyze recidivism. First, it uses time-dependent data, which are important in determining not only whether offenders recidivate but also when they recidivate. Second, because Cox regression is a multivariate model, it can statistically control for the effects of other predictors on recidivism. This study thus controls for the effects of factors known to be associated with an increased risk of recidivism, such as age at release, race, gender, institutional discipline and prior criminal history (i.e., prior supervision failures and prior felony convictions).

While it is important to control for predictors that elevate the risk of recidivism, it is just as important to statistically control for the effects of factors associated with reduced recidivism risk. Based on prior research about Minnesota, prisoners, participation in sex offender treatment, (20) chemical dependency treatment, (21) and correctional boot camp programming (22) have been found to lower recidivism. In addition to statistically controlling for participation in these programs, the study includes measures that assess both the presence and type of post-release correctional supervision.


Of the 16,420 inmates, 61 percent were visited at least once during their confinement. The average number of visits per inmate was 36, which amounted to nearly two visits each month. In addition, offenders were, on average, visited by three individuals. When examining inmate-visitor relationships, the results show that nearly half of the offenders (47 percent) were visited by a friend. Almost one-third of the inmates were visited by their mothers, and a little more than one-fourth were visited by a sibling. The results show that 38 percent of the offenders were reconvicted of a felony by the end of June 2010, whereas 42 percent had their supervision revoked for a technical violation.

Recidivism. The findings from the Cox regression analyses suggest that prison visitation can improve the transition offenders make from the institution to the community. Any visit significantly reduced the risk of recidivism by 13 percent for felony reconvictions and 25 percent for technical violation revocations. The findings further showed that more frequent and recent visits were significantly associated with a decreased risk of recidivism. The results also suggest that the more sources of social support an offender has, the lower the risk of recidivism.

While visits in general reduced recidivism, visits from some individuals were more beneficial than others. The results showed that visits from fathers, siblings, in-laws and clergy were the most important in reducing recidivism, while visits from presumably more significant sources such as mothers, spouses, and children had less impact. In addition, the findings indicated that visits from exspouses actually increased the risk of recidivism for several of the visitation measures examined.

Although the data and methodology used in this study do not permit drawing firm conclusions, it is possible to speculate why some of these relationships appeared to be more important than others. The fact that exspouse visits increased recidivism is likely due to the conflict generally present in severed relationships, which could create instability for offenders who remain in contact with former spouses. The different effects of visits from mothers and fathers, for example, may reflect the fact that, compared to growing up with a single parent (usually the mother), a two-parent household is generally a protective factor against criminal offending (23) or, in this case, recidivism. In offering more of a peer perspective, siblings may help offenders remain accountable by providing them with more honest support and feedback. For those who are married, visits with either spouses or children may be difficult because they create more stress and are often reminders of how their incarceration is preventing them from raising their children or helping provide for their families. In-laws, on the other hand, may be able to provide offenders with supportive visits from family members that are generally free of the difficulties that may accompany visits with spouses or children. Finally, considering that clergy often receive training in helping individuals through difficult life circumstances, they may be able to give offenders effective counsel and support.


As with prior studies on prison visitation, the main limitation with this study is that it was unable to control for whether the results obtained were due to preincarceration differences in social support. That is, the findings may simply reflect that offenders with stronger preincarceration social support systems were more likely to be visited and were more likely to have support following their release from prison. As Bales and Mears pointed out in their study, however, the effect that timing of visitation has on recidivism does not support the idea that a prior bond is the cause of the recidivism reduction. Moreover, this study statistically controlled for factors known to have a significant impact on recidivism.

Implications for correctional policy and practice. Despite this limitation, the findings suggest that prison visitation can improve recidivism outcomes by helping offenders not only maintain social ties with both nuclear and extended family members (especially fathers, siblings and in-laws) while incarcerated, but also by developing bonds such as those with clergy or mentors. In doing so, offenders can sustain or broaden their networks of social support, which is important in lowering recidivism. Given the public safety benefits that appear to be associated with prison visitation, it is reasonable to suggest that correctional systems should make efforts to promote greater visitation while still, at the same time, ensuring that these efforts do not compromise the safety and security of correctional staff, inmates and visitors.

Prison visitation is often limited, however, in several ways. First, because a majority of prison inmates are from impoverished, urban areas, it is difficult for friends and family members to visit considering that most major prisons are located in rural areas. (24) Second, due to the emphasis placed on safety and security procedures, prison administrative policies frequently discourage visitation by barring visitors with a criminal background, prohibiting visitors (except for family members) to be on more than one current inmate's visitor list, and restricting visitation to a few hours on certain days of the week. Finally, prisons are seldom designed for the comfort of prisoners or visitors, which exacerbates the fact that families of inmates often travel long distances to prisons, only to wait in line for hours in rooms that sometimes have no bathrooms or vending machines, and poor circulation. (25)

In response to these limitations, Bales and Mears suggest that prisons can foster greater visitation by: placing inmates in facilities as close to their home communities as possible; encouraging community service agencies and organizations to visit inmates; ensuring parking is available for visitors; expanding visiting hours to evenings and weekends to accommodate visitors who are employed or have to travel long distances; decreasing bureaucratic barriers to visitation; increasing the cultural sensitivity of staff members; and making sure that visitation rooms are clean, comfortable and hospitable.

Because most of these suggestions would entail revising visitation policies, the cost (mainly staff time) involved with revising these policies would likely be more than offset by the public safety benefits resulting from decreased recidivism. For example, release violators cost the state of Minnesota, on average, $9,000 for every return to prison. Moreover, research has shown that criminal offending can be even more costly to society. (26) Revising visitation policies to make them more "visitor friendly" may therefore represent a relatively low-cost, potentially high-benefit measure that correctional systems could take to help ease the burden of prison overcrowding and budget deficits.

While policies that are more visitor friendly would likely help increase visitation overall, it is anticipated that these types of policy changes would not necessarily increase visitation to a significant extent among inmates who have little or no social support. To encourage the development of social bonds among unvisited inmates, who comprised nearly 40 percent of the sample, it may be helpful to consider allocating greater resources toward identifying sources of social support for high-risk offenders who are less likely to be visited. In particular, the implementation of visitation programming, including the addition of staff, could be an effective strategy to increase visitation among unvisited inmates. Because many offenders have burned bridges with loved ones by the time they reach prison, facilitating visits from friends and family may not be an option. Yet, considering the impact visits from clergy and, to a lesser extent, mentors have on reoffending, it may be beneficial for visitation programs to focus on facilitating visits from clergy, mentors and other volunteers from the community.

Video visitation is another option to consider in the effort to increase visitation. Capitalizing on recent technological developments, some county and state correctional facilities have implemented video visitation systems, which enable friends and family members to visit inmates from remote visitation centers or their own homes. Although video visitation holds much promise, it is unclear, at this point, whether distant video visits will have a similar effect on recidivism as face-to-face visits.

Research suggests that correctional programming tends to be more effective when there is a continuum of care, or service delivery, from the institution to the community. Indeed, evaluations of drug treatment, (27) employment programming (28) and reentry programming in general (29) have shown that connecting programming delivered in the community to that provided in prison produces better recidivism outcomes. Similarly, to strengthen the beneficial effects of prison visitation, efforts should also be made in the community to help to preserve the social ties that are established or maintained in prison. Conceptualizing prison visitation as part of a broader continuum of social support from the institution to the community would likely require greater collaboration between institutional caseworkers, community supervision agents and community service agencies. Again, however, the public safety benefits resulting from increased social support for offenders--both in the institution and the community--would likely outweigh the costs involved to bring about systemic change.


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(26.) Cohen, M.A. and A.R. Piquero. 2009. New evidence on the monetary value of saving a high risk youth. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 25(1):25-49.

(27.) Inciardi, IA., S.S. Martin and C.A. Butzin. 2004. Five-year outcomes of therapeutic community treatment of drug-involved offenders after release from prison. Crime & Delinquency 50(1): 88-107.

(28.) Duwe, G. In press. The benefits of keeping idle hands busy: The impact of a prisoner reentry employment program on post-release employment and offender recidivism. Crime & Delinquency

(29.) Shinkfield, A.J. and J. Graffam. 2009. Community reintegration of ex-prisoners: Type and degree of change in variables influencing successful reintegration. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 53(1): 2942.

Grant Duwe is the director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Valerie Clark is a research analyst for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
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Title Annotation:CT FEATURE
Author:Duwe, Grant; Clark, Valerie
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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