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The reentry process: how parolees adjust to release from prison.

We explored the reentry process by interviewing 51 parolees three times over a period of three months after their release from prison. In addition, we interviewed 19 parole officers and tracked each parolee for six months after release. Ten of the 51 parolees were reincarcerated within six months after their release from prison. Family support, being married or having a partner, living with a family member, and being a parent were not associated with parole adjustment or with the likelihood of returning to prison. Variables associated with not being reincarcerated were number of close relationships within the family network, the quality of the parent-child relationship, being employed, and having stable housing. Reincarceration was associated with socializing with friends four or more times per week, the number of conflicted relationships in the family network, having family members who had been on probation or in jail, and the parolee's perceived difficulty in staying off drugs. These findings suggest that the overall network of family relationships is important in helping to make the transition from prison to the community.

Keywords: prison reentry, reentry, parolee adjustment, recidivism, family


In 2002 there were more than 1.4 million persons in federal and state prisons in the United States, and 95 percent of them will be released to reintegrate into communities (Harrison & Beck, 2003; Travis, Solomon, & Waul, 2001). Approximately 600,000 prisoners are released annually in the United States or an average of 1,600 per day (Petersilia, 2003; Travis et al., 2001). This is four times greater than the number of prisoners who were released 25 years ago (Visher & Travis, 2003).

About two-thirds of parolees are rearrested within three years of release, and 40% are reincarcerated (Langan & Levin, 2002). The rate of parole failure has increased during the past decade: "More of them are being arrested; these arrests are occurring more quickly; and as a group, ex-convicts are accounting for a growing share of all serious crimes experienced in the United States" (Petersilia, 2003, p. 144).

When inmates are released they leave the highly structured environment of the prison to the unstructured world, where they must learn to make decisions and care for themselves. They must decide where to live, find a way to support themselves, and reconnect with family and friends. Common requirements of parole are to report to one's parole officer regularly, find and maintain employment, obtain adequate housing, stay drug free, not associate with other felons, make supervision payments, obey all laws, and submit to searches and drug tests. Many are required to receive drug treatment.

Most prisoners reenter the community with no savings and few employment prospects (Petersilia, 2003). The task of securing employment is complicated by the fact that they often have a poor work history with a significant gap since the last date of employment. In addition, the stigma of a criminal record is a significant barrier (Pager, 2003).

A better understanding of the reentry process would enable us to help more inmates adjust to life outside of prison and lower recidivism rates. When recidivism rates are high, scarce economic resources that are needed elsewhere are spent on corrections. In the United States it costs about $25,000 per year to incarcerate one person, and the total amount spent on corrections has risen to more than $50 billion annually (Petersilia, 2003; Stephan, 2004). In addition, imprisonment impacts many families negatively. More than half of all male inmates are fathers of minor children, while two-thirds of female inmates are mothers (Mumola, 2000; Petersilia, 2000).

Although there has been extensive research on recidivism, there has been relatively little research on the adjustment process inmates go through when they are released from prison (Petersilia, 2000, 2003; Visher & Travis, 2003). The purpose of this paper is to use qualitative data to explore the reentry process among a small group of parolees during the first three months after their release. Our objective is to increase our understanding of the reentry process from the perspective of parolees.


There has been much theorizing and research about why people commit crime but much less study of why people who have committed criminal acts choose to desist from crime (Laub & Sampson, 2001; Shover & Thompson, 1992). A useful theory for explaining the desistance process is the life course perspective. It is an emerging theory that represents a major change in how we study human interaction (Elder, 2001).

A major concept of the life course perspective is informal social control that constrains individuals from violating rules (Hirschi, 1969; Laub & Sampson, 2001). As individuals become attached to conventional people and institutions, they develop a stake in conformity. If they violate the law, they have something to lose (Carlson, 2004). On the other hand, individuals with weak or no ties are more likely to violate the law because they have fewer constraints and less to lose if they are caught.

The life course perspective focuses on both change and stability over time. Two key concepts are trajectories and transitions (Elder, 2001; Sampson & Laub, 2001). Trajectories are long-term patterns and sequences. Many individuals in prison have been on a long-term trajectory of crime. A key challenge as they reenter society is how to change that trajectory.

Transitions are special life events that are embedded in trajectories. Examples of transitions are obtaining a job, marrying, and becoming a parent. The life course paradigm focuses on how certain transitions may help increase social bonds and modify trajectories. Key events and social bonds, especially attachment to the labor force and a cohesive marriage, help explain variations in criminal behavior (Sampson & Laub, 2001).

The findings from several recent studies illustrate how transitions may help alter criminal trajectories. Sampson and Laub (1990) found that job stability and strong marital attachment tended to inhibit adult crime. Individuals who had strong ties to work and family were less likely to commit a crime than individuals with weak bonds. The social ties that developed during the transitions helped explain variations in crime that were not accounted for by previous deviance (Sampson & Laub, 1990).

In a related study, Laub, Nagin, and Sampson (1998) observed that desistance from crime was facilitated by the development of quality marital bonds and that this influence was gradual and cumulative over time. They found that the standard predictors of crime such as being a difficult child, low IQ, living in poverty, and poor parental supervision were unable to differentiate offending trajectories into mid-adulthood. However, marriages characterized by social cohesiveness had a preventative effect on crime. The effect of a good marriage grew slowly until it had a major impact on inhibiting crime (Laub, Nagin, & Sampson, 1998).

Horney, Osgood, and Marshall (1995) introduced the concept of "local life circumstances" to explain changes in offending over relatively short periods of time. Their objective was to determine whether formal and informal mechanisms of social control affected the likelihood of committing nine major felonies. They analyzed month-to-month variations in the life circumstances and offenses committed by convicted felons. Even though there was continuity over time, local life circumstances were associated with systematic changes in individual criminal behavior. They observed that living with a wife was associated with lower levels of offending but living with a girlfriend was associated with higher levels of offending. Attending school was associated with less crime while the use of drugs had a strong, positive association with crime. They concluded that individual trajectories of crime may be influenced by local life circumstances such as quarreling with a family member, getting fired from a job, and drug use (Homey, Osgood, & Marshall. 1995).

These findings illustrate how key transitions may influence criminal offending. Individuals who reenter society after being in prison are at a critical period in their life course. Whether they are able to change their trajectory and refrain from crime may depend on their local life circumstances. Informal bonds that are developed may help individuals constrain criminal tendencies and change their trajectory. Although initial changes in offending may be relatively small, the long-term effects may be significant as bonds to family and work are developed and maintained over time.

One of the reasons marriage is important is that it tends to reduce the amount of time spent with deviant friends (Warr, 1998). Marriage and work ties may help develop new networks that substitute for old deviant networks (Fagan, 1989). Stabilization of the new networks appears to be important. For example, when employment or marriage is not stable, a return to drug use is more likely (Kandel & Yamaguchi, 1987). Similarly, new relationships and informal monitoring by employer and spouse appear to help individuals desist from using alcohol (Vaillant, 1995). There is evidence that the positive effects of employment vary by age. Work may be more of a "turning point" for older than younger offenders (Uggen, 2000).

The life course perspective is consistent with the general theory of crime developed by Agnew (2005). He viewed crime as a function of motivations for crime and constraints against crime. In his theory the many variables that influence criminal motivations and constraints were grouped into five major life domains: family, work, peers, school, and self (Agnew, 2005). Agnew maintained that for adults the domains of family, work, and peers are particularly important. After reviewing existing research, he concluded that social support from a spouse is important in constraining criminal tendencies. On the other hand, one who is not married or is in an unhappy marriage will have fewer informal social controls to help constrain criminal tendencies. Similarly, those who are unemployed or employed in a low-paying job will have a lower stake in conformity. Thus, developing family bonds and obtaining employment may be critical in helping parolees remain crime-free and successfully complete parole.

Motivations for crime are influenced by the encouragements and reinforcements parolees receive from primary groups such as family and peers. When parolees return to families where members use drugs or are involved in other illegal behaviors, it may be difficult to refrain from crime. If their friends use drugs or violate other laws, parolees may follow their examples and succumb to the temptation to violate the law.

The key mechanisms in Laub and Sampson's (2001) framework are social constraints and learning that take place as a result of associations. The costs of breaking the law are greater if a parolee is living with a spouse or holding a job than if the parolee is single or unemployed. In addition, involvement in family and work leaves less time for involvement with deviant peers.

The purpose of this research is to use qualitative and quantitative data to explore the reentry process from the perspective of parolees. We use a life course framework to examine social bonds and how they are related to successful adjustment. We are particularly interested in parenthood because it has received little attention in the reentry literature. Parenthood is a powerful bond, and reconnecting with one's children is likely to help constrain individuals who are tempted to return to crime.



The research team included one faculty member, two graduate students, and five undergraduate students. The team met regularly during the research process to plan and conduct the research. We were interested in the transition from prison to community and chose to study a small group of parolees intensively during the first few months following their release from prison. We focused on the first three months after release because that is a critical period in the transition from prison to the community (Lynch & Sabol, 2001; Maruna, 2001; Nelson, Deess, & Allen, 1999). To supplement the parolee interviews, we chose to interview a group of parole officers who deal primarily with new parolees.

Since reentry is a process, we decided to interview each parolee three times: shortly after release, one month after the first interview, and three months after the first interview. By interviewing each parolee three times, we were able to capture the changes that occur as parolees go through the adjustment process.

Because there has been relatively little research on the process of reentry, we chose to conduct an exploratory, qualitative study from the perspective of the parolee. After defining the objectives of our research, we developed an interview schedule and sampling plan. Before proceeding with the research, our research plan and instruments were reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Boards at the Utah State Department of Corrections and Brigham Young University.


The interview schedules were developed after an extensive review of the literature, observations of new parolees, discussions with parole officers, and consultation with colleagues. For the parolees, the first interview schedule consisted of 129 quantitative and qualitative questions and a genogram, while the second and third interview schedules had 79 questions. The second and third parolee interview schedules included the same items as the first interview schedule except for the background questions. Based on the work of Agnew (2005) and Sampson and Laub (2001), the questions focused on family, work, peers, drug use, and school.

The first interview began with a genogram to gain an understanding of the parolee's family background and current situation. Then questions were asked about background, criminal history, family, housing, education, participation in programs and treatment, work, drug use, friends, recreation, and future plans.

We felt that qualitative data were essential to understanding reentry from the parolee's perspective. With this in mind, parolees were asked to describe the reentry process as they experienced it. They were asked about the challenges of reentry as well as what resources and supports were helpful. We included questions about how and to what extent family and friends were helpful. Since marital and child bonds are critical (Sampson & Laub, 2001), the parolees were asked about the quality of their relationships with spouses/partners and children.

To build on the work of Horney et al. (1995), we asked about local life circumstances. In 31 of the questions, the parolees were asked to describe or explain the everyday circumstances they faced. To illustrate, parolees were asked: "What are the biggest challenges you have faced since your release from prison?" In the quantitative questions the parolees were asked to respond "yes" or "no" or rate their situation on a scale. For example, parolees were asked to rate, on a five-point scale, the quality of their relationship with their child(ren) now. In 32 of the quantitative questions, the parolees were asked to explain their answers and were encouraged to elaborate.

The interview schedule for the parole officers included 28 open-ended questions. It included questions about the challenges parolees face upon release, major reasons why some parolees fail, the characteristics of parolees who succeed, and what could be done to help more parolees succeed. There were also some questions about how family, friends, work, housing, and drag use are related to parole success and failure.


All persons who conducted interviews went through a training period in which they met with team members to review the purposes of the research and become familiar with the interview schedule and the research protocol. All team members attended at least one parole orientation meeting to become familiar with parole officers, parolees, and the research setting. In addition, most of the students went on a ride-along with two parole officers to observe parole officers and parolees in the field. Students were trained by the principal investigator and a graduate student who coordinated the research.


We sampled new parolees from Salt Lake City and Provo, the two major metropolitan areas in Utah. More than 85 percent of Utah's residents reside within these two urban areas.

In Utah, all new parolees are required to attend an orientation meeting at a day-reporting center. In Salt Lake City these are held twice a month, while in Provo they are held monthly. We contacted the officers who supervised these meetings and obtained permission to make an announcement at the beginning of several of these meetings. At the beginning of four Salt Lake City meetings and two Provo meetings, we briefly described the purpose of our study, invited the parolees to participate, and passed a sheet for volunteers to sign if they were willing to be interviewed. We explained that we would be available at the end of the meeting to interview them and that we would pay them $20 in cash for each interview.

After each meeting was completed, we had a team of four to six interviewers available. Each interviewer took one parolee to a relatively private area within a large common room at the day-reporting center and interviewed him or her. When the first interview was completed, the interviewer selected the next available parolee and completed another interview. After the meeting, most of the parolees had to wait to see their parole officer or attend a later meeting and were available for interviews. Each interviewer was able to interview two or three parolees after each meeting.

At each meeting a large proportion of the parolees agreed to be interviewed. We were able to interview 51 of the total of 66 new parolees who attended the six meetings (77%). At the last two Salt Lake meetings, we limited our interviews to eight volunteers at each meeting because our target number of interviews was 50, and we did not have resources to pay for more.

From our experience and observations, the 51 we interviewed appeared to be typical parolees. Nevertheless, we make no claim that this group of 51 parolees is representative of the parolee population in Utah or elsewhere. Our purpose was to explore the reentry process for these inmates and gain a better understanding of this process from their experience.

We believed that longitudinal data would be essential to tracking their progress during the typically stressful first three months of reentry. Parolees are a transient population, and we knew it would be difficult to reinterview them one month and three months after release. In order to increase our chances of being able to reinterview them, we obtained contact information for each parolee and for a family member who would know his whereabouts. We were able to obtain one-month interviews from 31 parolees and three-month interviews with 35 (69%) parolees.

To supplement the information from the parolees, we interviewed 19 parole officers in Salt Lake City and Provo. In each area there were transition officers who were assigned all new parolees during the first three months after their release from prison. We interviewed all of the current transition officers and their supervisors in the two areas.


At the initial parolee interview, we explained the purpose of our study and had each parolee sign a consent form. Each interview was recorded in order to obtain detailed data for qualitative analysis. The first interview averaged about 45 minutes to complete, while the follow-up interviews lasted approximately 30 minutes. The initial interviews were conducted in October and November of 2004, and the follow-up interviews were conducted from November 2004 to March of 2005. As noted earlier, at the end of each interview, the parolees were paid $20 in cash.

All initial interviews took place at the adult probation and parole office. For follow-up interviews, we called the parolees and arranged to meet them at the day-reporting center at a time when they needed to be there to check in with their parole officer or attend a class.

The parole officers were interviewed in their offices. Before each interview we explained the purpose of the study. Each parole officer interview lasted approximately 30 minutes.


All of the interviews were recorded and transcribed by team members. Two types of coding were completed. First, all of the quantitative questions were placed in an SPSS computer file for analysis. Two team members coded six interviews independently, and their results were compared. Their coding was identical on 96 percent of the items. We reviewed the differences and discovered some ambiguity in the coding of several open-ended questions. We clarified coding for these items and then had one team member code all of the interviews. After completion, we screened the data to identify and eliminate any errors.

Second, we used N6 software to code and analyze the qualitative data. We began by having all team members participate in the open coding to reveal general themes. This was followed by axial coding, which is "[t]he process of relating categories to their subcategories" (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 123). To establish these themes, copies of a few representative transcriptions were given to each member of the research team. They were asked to read through each transcription and make notes on the paper. The corresponding genograms were likewise read through and coded. We then met as a group to compare the themes that each team member derived from each transcription. We discussed the concepts and subcategories that emerged from each transcription and finalized a large set of themes and concepts to be used. This was an important first step before entering the codes into the N6 program. Then we each simultaneously coded an interview so that codes could be refined. After we had achieved consistency in our coding, we had different individuals on the team code transcriptions. In addition, as individuals transcribed interviews, they wrote notes that were later used to help organize thoughts and keep track of important emerging themes. This helped us identify and illustrate the meaning behind responses (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).



The age of our respondents varied from 21 to 55 with a mean age of 34. Forty-three (84%) were men, and 38 (75%) considered their ethnic status to be White. Thirty-one of the parolees had completed high school (61%), but only one had completed college. Thirty-six (71%) had been married, but only eight (16%) were currently married. Thirty-seven (73%) of the parolees were parents, five of the eight women and 32 of the 43 men. A summary of the sample characteristics is shown in Table 1. As mentioned above, this is a small, nonrandom sample that is not designed to represent parolees in Utah or the United States. Nevertheless, in terms of ethnic status, our sample is similar to the parole population in Utah. In terms of gender and age, our respondents are similar to the U.S. parole population (Hughes, Wilson, & Beck, 2001; Petersilia, 2003; Visher & Travis, 2003). Our sample is much lower in the proportion of African Americans than are parolees in the U.S. as a whole, reflecting the small proportion of African Americans in Utah.


We were interested in understanding the reentry process and how life circumstances and bonds may help parolees make the transition from prison to the community successfully. As shown by Sampson and Laub (1990, 2001), changes in life circumstances may have significant effects over time. At the end of the first interview, we asked all of the parolees the following: "Do you really believe that you can make it outside of prison and that this was your last time in prison?" All but one of the 51 parolees responded "yes" to this question. The one who said "no," said he had not made it before and doubted that he would this time. When asked to explain how they would be able to make it, 23 said that they were trying the best they could and believed that they could do it. Eight others said they had learned from their prison experience. Five said drugs were the reason they got in trouble before and that they were clean now and believed they could stay clean from drugs. Four mentioned their desire to be with their family as a reason for making it.

To ascertain adjustment to parole, during the second and third interviews we asked each parolee the following question: "Overall, how are you doing in adjusting to life outside of prison?" We coded their responses on a five-point scale: (1) very poor, (2) poor, (3)fair, (4) good, or (5) very good. At the second interview, 61% of the respondents said their adjustment was "good" or "very good," and by interview 3 this had increased to 83 percent.

A major criterion for adjustment is whether they are able to stay out of prison. From the Utah Department of Corrections, we ascertained the number of our 51 parolees who had been sent back to prison. By May of 2005 (approximately six months after the initial interviews), 10 of the 51 parolees had been reincarcerated.

We turn now to our analysis of the reentry from the perspective of the parolees. Based on the life-course perspective, we will analyze life circumstances and relationships to estimate how they are associated with successful reentry. When we report comments from the parolees, we use pseudonyms rather than their real names.


Thirty-seven of the 51 parolees (73%) were parents, five women and 32 men. The number of children per parolee ranged from one to six. At the time of the first interview, 19 of the 37 parents had already had contact with their children.

Half (16) of the 32 fathers indicated that they lived with their children prior to incarceration, while only six were living with their children post-incarceration. Only two of the five mothers lived with their children prior to incarceration, and none were living with them after release.

Being a parent was not related to parole success. Seven of the 37 parents (19%) were sent back to prison compared with three of 14 who were not parents (21%). However, living with one's child prior to incarceration did make a difference. Of the 18 parolees who lived with their children prior to prison, only one had been returned to prison compared with six of 19 who did not live with their children prior to prison (tau-b = -.33, p = .029). Perhaps living with a child prior to incarceration created bonds that helped to constrain parolees from becoming involved in crime.

During incarceration, contact with children was limited. Fourteen of the 32 fathers reported that their children had visited them while in prison. Only one of the five mothers had their child visit during incarceration. However, those who had some type of contact with their children while in prison appeared to be less likely to return to prison. Four of the 28 (14%) who had some contact with their children while in prison had been returned to prison compared with three of the nine (33%) who had no contact.

Finally, the quality of the parent-child bonds appeared to influence the likelihood of returning to prison. Of the 12 parents who rated their relationship with their children as "excellent," only one (8%) had returned to prison. However, five of the 23 (22%) who did not rate their relationship "excellent" had returned to prison. Because of the small numbers, these findings are only suggestive, but they are consistent with the life-course perspective.

Sixteen of the 37 parents were required to pay child support. In some cases child support requirements can leave parolees with large debts. One parolee had accrued $30,000 in back support debt through the years. The ability to pay off these debts is difficult because parolees tend to have few marketable skills, a significant gap in work history, and the stigma of being an ex-convict. In one case, the expected child support payment exceeded the parolee's monthly income. This illustrates the unrealistic financial burden sometimes placed upon parolees.

Reasons for not having visits in prison varied from the difficulty of traveling to the facility, conflict with the children's caregiver, and not wanting their children to be exposed to a prison environment. This is best expressed by John:

Interviewer: Did you have any contact with your children while you were in prison?

John: No. Well, just by mail. By mail I did.

Interviewer: So they never visited you--is that correct?

John: Um, that's right. No one did. I ... even if they could've, I wouldn't have wanted them too 'cause it's uncomfortable for people to come there, and it's uncomfortable for me to be seen there; you know, it's embarrassing, and I just, if I had ten years or something maybe, but with one year, I just did my time and....

Even though some men did not have current legal guardianship of their children, they often felt that they still had responsibilities in rearing them, as illustrated in the following response from Bill:

Interviewer: So would you say that their mom and you are responsible for raising them?

Bill: Yeah, totally, we always have been. She has actually got, uh, custody, or whatever you call it. She is actually the legal guardian but it is just because I never ... whatever. But whatever she wants [laughs]. It was me that was the dirty dog, not her. I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm happy she left me. My kids got it made. I mean, they live the good life. They got a motor home, they got jet skis, they got boats, cars, trucks. You know what I mean. He's [stepfather] living in a brand new house. And I don't have all that fight now, just getting out of prison, losing everything, you know. So it is kind of rough.

The responses of Steve illustrate the stresses of trying to rebuild relationships with children and meet the demands of his parole agreement.

Interviewer: What were your children's expectations of your return home?

Steve: Well, we were separated for, like, over a year, so they kind of grew up without me. They weren't really expecting anything. They were just wanting me to show them I love them, I guess. It's kind of a difficult relationship. They're in Michigan, and I'm here, and I can't be there and do my parole at the same time.

Bob indicated the value of being physically present when children are growing up and the difficulty of rebuilding relationships after having been separated by time and space:

Interviewer: Are your children ever a stress to you?

Bob: Yes. Always!

Interviewer: Why's that?

Bob: Because they are so far away and, you know, trying to rebuild relationships with them that have been torn apart by my incarceration. And, uh, they are teenage girls, and you know, that's a little bit difficult. They don't understand that, no matter how many letters you write and pictures you draw and stuff like that, when you're inside it doesn't replace you being there.


A key proposition of the life-course perspective is that family bonds help change the criminal trajectories of parolees (Laub et al., 1998; Sampson & Laub, 2001). In our sample almost everyone had contact with his family and felt his family was supportive. Fifty of the 51 parolees we interviewed had already had contact with at least one family member at the time of the first interview. Three-fourths said they had contact with their mother, and half had contact with their father. Two-thirds mentioned that they had talked with a sibling. Fifty of the 51 parolees said their family was a resource and supported them in complying with parole requirements, Common resources provided by family members were money (57%), a place to live (55%), emotional support and advice (53%), and transportation (34%). One parolee described the reasons he prefers living with his family and the help they have been to him:

Interviewer: Since your release, have your family members been a help or a resource to you?

Glen: Yes. My sister and my father. My sister is great.

Interviewer: She lets you live with her and things like that?

Glen: She lets me pay half the bills for her. I could be somewhere else, but I don't have to worry about the other stresses of parole. Such as someone has a gun in the house, or they are doing drugs, or anything like that. I don't have to worry about that being there. So, um, I live with my sister. All of them, all the ones that are there, they basically give moral support. Even my little sister, who said, "We don't want you going back there; you're doing good. It's so sad when you're there."

Almost half of the parolees (24 of 47) reported that parole was a stressful time for their family. The worry of a loved one's being sent back to prison was most prevalent. Others indicated that they felt their families were uncomfortable when parole officers made home visits. A parolee named Don described it in these terms:

Interviewer: Is your parole stressful for anyone in your family?

Don: Yeah, I believe it is stressful on my dad.

Interviewer: How so?

Don: Oh, just the constant worry of, uh, somebody could come down and, you know, violate your privacy ... or maybe being worried about my behavior.

The majority of parolees felt that their families were excited and happy about their return home, though 10 reported a sense of mixed sentiments among family members. The following excerpt from Tim is an illustration of this:

Interviewer: What were your children's expectations about your return home?

Tim: Me staying clean and not going back.

Interviewer: Were they excited to see you? Did they expect to live with ...?

Tim: Very excited, but at the same time, I think they ... I don't know how could ... I mean, yeah, they were excited to see me, but at the same time they worry, I think, that I'm just going to fall back into the same thing. If I want to go somewhere, it's like, "Where you going?"


In some cases, the family environment contributed to the respondent's going to prison and might influence his violation of parole. Eleven (22%) said a spouse or partner had used drugs and two-thirds (33) said at least one family member other than himself had been on probation or incarcerated. The following excerpts illustrate the negative family influences some parolees experience:

Charles: I think the biggest, a big part of these people that get out of prison is all their uncles and brothers smoke or drink or do drugs or are violent. So really they don't have a choice, and then you're paroled with all them people; you're, you're gonna go back, unless you're strong enough and you have your mind set....

Ben: There's a lot of kids out that don't have a choice but to go back to the same neighborhoods. Where are they going to go? They can't move to another state; they don't know nobody. The prison becomes their mom and dad.

Marie: My downfall was my husband.

Lee: I used to be embarrassed to have family like that until I ended up worse than them because I fell in, right in their, in their clutches.

Some consciously tried to stay away from family members who might pull them back into drugs or other illegal activity, as illustrated by a parolee named James:

James: Oh, it's the same troubles there always is, you know? He's like, 36 and it's still the same stories about family, family and I, I just basically gotta not surround myself with none of that, if he's gonna continue to do that, then I don't want to basically see him or my sister at all.

Another parolee, Sam, described his relationships with his family as being toxic:

Sam: My family members to me is, uh, ... if I were to follow suit with what they expected, I'd be back in prison already. What has helped me most is the positive people that I have surrounded myself with, keeping careful not to hang around with toxic people, people that are doing things wrong.

Although parolees, parole officers, and the research literature indicate that family support is important for parole success, we found that a number of family characteristics were not associated with successful parole. Family support, being married or having a partner, living with a family member, and being a parent were not associated with parole adjustment or the likelihood of returning to prison. However, parolees' ties to their overall family network appeared to be related to their successful reentry.

In the genogram the parolees listed all the people in their family system including parents, siblings, partners, and children. We asked them to identify both close and conflicted relationships in their family system. The number of close relationships was negatively associated with returning to prison (tau-b = -.251, p = .017). To illustrate, 20 parolees listed close relationships with three or fewer family members. Six (30%) of those 20 parolees were later reincarcerated. On the other hand, of the 30 parolees who listed four or more close family relationships, only three (10%) were later reincarcerated.

In analyzing the number of relationships that were identified as conflicted, we observed a similar pattern. Nineteen parolees said they had no conflicted relationships, and none of them went back to prison. Of the 31 who listed at least one conflicted family relationship, 9 (29%) were reincarcerated (tau-b = .37, p < .001).

Having family members who had been on probation or in jail was also associated with unsuccessful parole. One-fourth (8 of 31) of those who had at least one other family member who had been on probation or in prison ended up returning to prison. Of the 17 parolees with no family members who had been on probation or in prison, only two (12%) had returned to prison. These findings suggest that the overall network of family relationships is important in helping to make the transition from prison to the community.


Labor-force attachment appears to be critical in the desistance from crime (Agnew, 2005; Sampson & Laub, 2001; Uggen, 2000). Many parolees find it difficult to find work because of the lack of employable skills and the stigma of being an "ex-con" (Pager, 2003). Of the 12 who indicated difficulty in obtaining work, nine made reference to their criminal history and the stigma of being a felon. The following comment by Jeremy is typical:

Interviewer: Why has it been difficult to find work?

Jeremy: Just nobody wants to hire a convict, you know.

Interviewer: That's actually pretty common, from what I've heard....

Jeremy: Yeah, you check "yes" on those, you know, that's as far as they look at it.

On the other hand, more than half of the parolees said that finding work was relatively easy. Most mentioned previous work experience with the company or other connections through family or friends that enabled them to get work upon returning home from prison. Some type of labor or trade job was the typical type of employment. Twenty of the 26 with employment said that they worked in this type of field. Family members were helpful in finding employment, as illustrated by Mel:

Interviewer: What type of work do you do?

Mel: Construction.

Interviewer: Does this job have a promising future for you?

Mel: It provides overtime and stuff.

Interviewer: Since your release, have your family members been a help or a resource to you?

Mel: They got me my job, and I live with my sister. My family would do anything so I'd stay out of trouble.

The quantitative data suggest that employment is one factor that influences recidivism. Of the 26 parolees who were employed at the first interview, only three (12%) were later reincarcerated. However, seven of the 25 (28%) without jobs were later returned to prison. Similarly, there was a modest, positive association between the parolee's perceived difficulty in finding a job at interview one and later incarceration (tau-b = .26, p = .08). To illustrate, of the 22 who said at the first interview that finding a job was "very easy," only three were later returned to prison. However, five of the 12 (42%) who said finding a job was difficult were later reincarcerated.


Research indicates that drug use is a problem among a large majority of arrestees (National Institute of Justice, 2003). More than 80 percent of state prisoners in the United States reported past drug use (Mumola, 1999). The parole officers we interviewed said that at least 80 percent of the parolees had some type of drug problem. Forty-two (82%) of the parolees we interviewed said that their involvement with drugs contributed to their incarceration. The most commonly abused substance was meth (54%) followed by alcohol (50%). The most common drug charge was possession, but a number were involved in selling drugs or stealing to support their habit, committing a crime while under the influence, and producing drugs.

Although drug use had been pervasive before they went to prison, many of the interviewees did not think it would be difficult to stay off drugs now. The following responses by Fred and Ralph are typical:

Interviewer: Are you ever tempted to use drugs?

Fred: Now, I've only been out today, but I'd say the desire is gone. I've completed two years of substance abuse, graduated from the program. I think the desire's gone.

Interviewer: Are you ever tempted to take drugs?

Ralph: Honestly, there is no need for that because I love life. There is a lot of love in life if you just, you know. It's bad. Drugs are bad. Drugs are really bad. They take it all out of you. They take away your life.

Reports of not being tempted by drugs seem inconsistent with the reports of their parole officers. According to them, the large majority of the parolees continue to use drugs. Still, there was a significant correlation between parolees' reports of the difficulty in staying off drugs and their later incarceration (tau-b = -.30, p = 02). Among the 22 who said it would be very easy to stay off drugs, only one (4.5%) was incarcerated six months later. Among the 25 who were less certain about staying off drugs, eight (32%) were back in jail six months later.


The comments of Michael illustrate how friends may influence a parolee to try drugs again:

Interviewer: In what types of situations are you tempted to try alcohol or drugs?

Michael: Uh, kind of difficult because, like I said, I've met a couple of girls, and they start pulling stuff out, and I'm, like, Oh, no! I don't need to be around this. You know, it is really hard because I've lived that life for so long. I mean really. It has been hell. It's been hell. I'm not a bad person. You know. I took the easy road, I guess. I mean, at least I thought it was easy. Lost it all, lost everything I had and don't have nothing to show for it. All the cars, all the trucks, all the things that I gained from it, it is all gone. What was the purpose? There was no purpose.

Parole officers indicated that friends are a major difficulty in completing parole successfully. The comments of one officer illustrate a common problem:

He's back because he was associating with the wrong people. I have just requested a warrant today, about a half hour ago from my supervisor, because this person decided he didn't want to do what he's supposed to do, and he's associating with the wrong people. And by wrong people, I mean totally against our agreement. He's associating with people who have been, who are currently, or probably will be involved in criminal activity. They go back to friends. They want to go back with their buddies. They don't want to settle down yet. They want to have the drugs.

Some parolees realize that, if they are going to stay out of prison, they need to stay away from old friends, as illustrated by the comments of Nathan:

Interviewer: Do your friends help you comply with your parole requirements and stay out of prison?

Nathan: Urn, I wouldn't let them interfere with that, you know what I mean; I ain't allowed that to happen but I really need to stay away from them, man. I don't see no good out of it. I mean, you know, it's really not that close of a friendship; it's just basically friends that I used to sell drugs to. But, then again, how do I go about meeting girls and stuff like that, and, you know what I mean, so that I try to learn and accept it and, okay ... just don't know how to really go about that. Just not worried about it, I guess.

In the first interview we asked parolees how many times during the past week they had been able to do something enjoyable with friends. We observed a positive, significant correlation between the number of evenings spent with friends and being back in prison six months later (tau-b = .47, p < .001). Among the 20 parolees who responded "none" or "1 time," only one (5%) was back in prison six months later. Among the 13 parolees who said two or three times, only one (8%) was in prison six months later. However, among the l0 parolees who said four or more times, seven (70%) were back in prison six months later. Clearly, those who went out with friends four or more times per week put themselves at risk.


Housing can be a challenge for parolees unless they have support from family members. Sixty percent (30) of the parolees were living with a family member (parent or spouse). As a result, most respondents (78%) described finding housing as easy or very easy. The comments of Doug illustrate the importance of family when securing housing:

Interviewer: How difficult was it finding adequate housing after you were released from prison?

Doug: I haven't ... I live at home. I live with my parents.

Interviewer: Okay, so very easy?

Doug: I guess, well, I mean ... if I had to go out and find housing for myself, it would be very difficult. If I didn't have family support, I'd be screwed. I really would. I would be hating it. I see why it's hard for people once they're a parolee, unless they have somebody out there in their corner. It's difficult, yeah.

Only four parolees said it was difficult to secure housing. One respondent referred to housing discrimination due to his felon status and the other to a poor credit history. Family support was the single greatest factor in finding housing easily.

Only seven parolees said they lived in a bad neighborhood where there is a lot of crime or drug sales. Only one parolee said his housing situation made it difficult for him to keep his parole agreements. When asked what proportion of parolees need help finding housing, one parole officer responded as follows:

About 40 percent need help finding adequate housing. Only five percent need help because they can't find housing. Some get housing, but it is in a place that is unsuitable, living with another parolee or in a crack house.

Overall, who the parolee lived with was not related to later success in parole. Those who lived with family members were not more or less likely to get in trouble than those in other housing situations. The one housing factor that was related to parole success was stability. We asked the parolees if they planned on moving in the near future. Ten of the 39 who responded "yes" were later reincarcerated. Among the 12 who responded "no," none ended up back in prison.


Using a life-course framework, we have examined how key transitions may help or hinder parolees as they adjust to life outside of prison. Our findings support the life course perspective and other research in showing that family bonds help parolees adjust. However, our qualitative data suggest two important aspects of family ties that have been overlooked in previous theorizing and research. First, the quality of the parent-child relationship appears to be important in helping parolees adjust. Sometimes it may be assumed that prisoners are uninterested or do not deserve to associate with their children. However, maintaining and developing parent-child bonds helped these parolees adjust to life outside of prison.

Second, we discovered that the family network may be important. Those who had several close relationships within their family network tended to do better. This suggests that support from multiple family members may be helpful in changing one's criminal trajectory. On the other hand, if a parolee is embedded in a family network where there are conflicted relationships or where other family members have had trouble with the law, it may be more difficult to change the criminal trajectory.

It was also interesting that family characteristics often assumed to be related to parole success were unimportant in this sample. Being married, having a partner, being a parent, or living with a family member were not associated with parole success. As expected, employment was important. Family support and resources were helpful in securing employment.

As we talked with parole officers, two major obstacles for parolees are friends and drugs. Our findings confirm their observations. We found that those who went out with friends at least four times per week were much more likely to get into trouble and return to prison. Apparently, those who are out socializing often may be tempted to return to old habits. It did not matter whom the parolee lived with, but the amount of time he or she spent out socializing with friends was important for parole success.

A large majority of parolees have been involved in drug use. When parolees are around friends or family members who use or when they face discouragement and change, they may recall previous drug use and be tempted to use again. With the many changes facing new parolees, we suggest that it is important for new parolees to establish stable networks. When networks are not stable, it appears to be more difficult to change criminal trajectories and remain drug-free (Kandel & Yamaguchi, 1987; Vaillant, 1995). Our findings indicate that stability in housing may help develop stable networks. On the other hand, when one moves to a new residence, normal patterns and relationships are disrupted.

In our observations and discussions with parole officers, we have often heard comments like the following: "A parolee will not change unless he wants to change. All the programming in the world will do no good unless there is a desire to change within the parolee." The only problem with this view is that it ignores the social situations that impinge on efforts of parolees to change. According to life-course theory, key transitions and bonds are important in helping individuals make desired changes. Our findings indicate that some who desire to change and believe that they can change may not have sufficient social support to make desired changes. During our initial interviews, 50 of 51 parolees were firm in saying that this was their last time in prison. They appeared to really desire to change and believe that they could change. Yet within six months 10 of the 51 (20%) were re-incarcerated. The data obtained in the first interview indicated that from the start some did not have crucial family and social support needed to make a successful transition.

This research was exploratory, and given the small, regional sample, our findings are tentative. Nevertheless, we have obtained qualitative data on the process of reentry from a group that is difficult to study. The data on parenthood and family networks adds some new insights that need to be explored in future research. According to Sampson and Laub (2001), this type of short-term longitudinal study is needed to understand how the changing nature of life events and subjective transitions may influence the desistance from crime.

Our findings have a number of implications for criminal justice policies. First, children are a neglected aspect of criminal-justice policy. Policies that encourage parent-child contact would not only help parents and children but would be cost effective because they would be likely to help reduce recidivism.

Second, there needs to be greater efforts to involve and support the families of prisoners, as suggested by one parole officer:

There is a need to work with families to help them be involved and a support. We need education of families and support groups so they know what is expected and how they can help. Some parolees are very alienated from spouses and parents, and they have no support. Others have family support, but the parolee has manipulated family so that they do not get the proper type of support. With better family education, they could get better support.

Third, because of high caseloads and limited resources, parolees are given limited help in securing employment or in training for employment. Government support of educational programs has decreased (Petersilia, 2003). Since employment plays a pivot role in reentry success, we suggest that more resources be placed in employment training and placement for parolees.

Fourth, given the pervasiveness of drug abuse among parolees and the evidence that treatment works, an obvious need is for more treatment resources (Banks & Gottfredson, 2004; Seiter & Kadela, 2003; Turley, Thornton, Johnson, & Azzolino, 2004). Considering the high costs when parolees are reincarcerated, well designed programs in these areas would save criminal-justice dollars in the long run.

Formulating and implementing such policies is difficult in light of the complexity and inertia of the criminal-justice system. One example of a program to help families of prisoners was established by a nonprofit organization in the Norfolk region of England. Efforts are being made to meet with children prior to, during, and following their parent's incarceration, but lack of funding and awareness of the problem has limited the population that can be served. We interviewed Lisa Moore, Senior Project Worker for the Ormiston Children & Families Trust, who outlined the goals of her particular project.

And the main focus of this is to reintegrate the families back into the community, where they are often feeling excluded. And the way of tackling that is also about dealing with the roots or the things that are actually happening in their area. It's about giving them information about what the issues might be for families.

She observed that there is a lack of communication between the prison system, organizations such as hers, and families of prisoners. It is difficult trying to build awareness of the needs of this vulnerable population, and small not-for-profit organizations are struggling to establish their services in this area. Awareness building is a fundamental aspect for helping prisoners successfully reintegrate into our communities. The increased and widespread establishment of not-for-profit organizations as advocates for prisoners and their families may be part of the solution needed in the United States.

We express appreciation to the Utah Department of Corrections for its cooperation in this research. Generous support for this project came from Brigham Young University: School of Family Life and Family Studies Center, the BYU Mentored Learning Grant Program, and the College of Family Home and Social Sciences.


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Correspondence should be addressed to Stephen J. Bahr, 2031 JFSB, Department of Sociology, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602. Electronic mail:



Brigham Young University
Table 1
Sample Characteristics and Comparison to Parolee Population in
Utah and U.S.

 Utah Utah U.S.
 sample parolees parolees *

 Male 84.3 90.1
 Female 15.7 9.9
Parent 70.6
 White or Anglo 74.5 75.8 35.4
 African American 0 4.5
 Native American 0 2.9
 Hispanic or Latino 15.7 11.9 16.1
 Asian 2.0 1.4
 Other 7.8 3.5 0.7
Marital status
 Never married 29.4
 Married 15.7
 Separated 5.9
 Divorced 47.1
 Widowed 2.0
Level of education
 Some High school or less 15.7 50.8
 High school or GED 60.8 42.2
 Some college or technical school 21.6 7.0 **
 College degree 2.0
Mean age 34 34

* Source: Hughes, Wilson, & Beck, 2001; ** Some college or more.
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Author:Fisher, James K.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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