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Research News: Examining the Barriers Challenging Societal Reentry for the Formerly Incarcerated

Erin M. KerrisonBerkeley Social Welfare Assistant Professor Erin M. Kerrison's research agenda investigates the impact that compounded structural disadvantage, concentrated poverty and state supervision have on service delivery, substance abuse, violence and other health outcomes for individuals and communities marked by criminal justice intervention.

This is reflected in her book-in-progress, Hustles and Hurdles, in which she foregrounds the "life history and reentry narratives for a sample of 300 drug-involved men and women who have served sentences in state prisons." By delving into her subjects' "firsthand accounts of how their local structural conditions are coupled with a body of contemporary legislation that imposes significant reentry barriers to full citizenship and the possibility of desistance," Dr. Kerrison notes that the project provides "a multi-level analysis of how the compounding of law, labor markets, neighborhoods, criminal justice surveillance and substance abuse steer desistance outcomes."

Dr. Kerrison is motivated by an empathetic imperative to disseminate a fuller understanding of the challenges shaping these individuals' personal trajectories. She observed that the men and women in her study were an average age of 29.6 when released from their prison sentence, while she at that age was completing her doctoral dissertation. "I’ve always said that this could’ve been me, and it is only by sheer luck that I was born into the circumstances that have provided me with such immense privilege and opportunity," she states. "Everyone is deserving of a fair chance at health and safety. I owe it to those who were not granted my freedoms not only to tell their truth, but to improve their futures." 

Dr. Kerrison shares details of Hustles and Hurdles, including commonalities among her respondents, her research methodologies and the findings that both defied her expectations and have public policy implications for the overall well-being of the formerly incarcerated. "They know what they need," she writes. "And the onus is on all of us to see that they get it." 

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What are the common threads emerging from your subjects' personal narratives?

Though their offending and victimization histories vary, everyone in the study participated in a prison-based experimental therapeutic community substance rehabilitation program, and all were released from prison facilities in Delaware at some point during the early and mid-1990s. As such, these formerly imprisoned men and women were thrust into a reentry context marked not only by deindustrialization and a structurally divested Rust Belt economy, but also a host of “collateral consequences” legislation, or state and federal statutes that limit the privileges of full citizenship for those with criminal convictions.

The men and women were interviewed in 2010 and 2011 about their reentry experiences and how micro (self and personal relationships), meso (healthcare providing institutions and community-based supervision agencies) and macro (deindustrialization, dissolution of social welfare and restructuring of disability benefit eligibility) forces shaped their efforts to desist from crime and substance abuse. 

What theories were used to analyze your data? 

Drawing from Rational Choice, Critical Race and Intersectionality theories, this work considers how the tensions between multi-dimensional layers of inequality and control shape employment outcomes and reentry experiences across varied social groups. These lenses inform my critique of one-size-fits-all policy responses aimed at vastly diverse groups. 

In addition, this text leverages a sociolegal theoretical framework to underscore how the significance of law in the everyday lives of citizens marked by a criminal record is modified by labor market, health and broader socioeconomic contexts. Ethnographic data collected also illuminate the space, identity and culture of the environment that this cohort must navigate. Derived from a multi-theoretical approach, this study demonstrates how law, labor markets, neighborhoods, criminal justice surveillance and substance-abuse patterns are compounded and steer long-term desistance and health outcomes.

Did anything surprise you or counter expectations? 

Given what is touted in dominant criminological discourses, I expected that employment would be a hook for change for at least the white people sampled. The data, however, suggest otherwise. Despite any social capital or second-chance benefits conferred, even white men and women in the sample were still using and offending, even while fully employed. Some, in fact, cited that it was because they weren’t afraid of losing their jobs or believed that they could easily find another, they were more comfortable continuing to use and offend.  

I was also shocked by the proportion of folks who are very rational about their substance-abuse patterns. Hope and effort are powerful elements, but structural infrastructure and social capital are necessary, too.

While surprised, I was pleased to hear compelling challenges to prevailing rhetoric that identifies individual responsibility as the silver bullet for successful reentry, particularly since each respondent had participated in the therapeutic community treatment programming, much of which is rooted in self-denigration and confrontation. Respondents talked at length about how “getting clean” and “going straight” are not processes that happen in a vacuum. Instead, they shared that these dynamics are unfolding simultaneously and within the context of “coming home.” As most are coming back to homes that are ill-prepared and unwilling to welcome them, it is only natural that these settings would produce inevitable dysfunction and maladaptation.

While a very bleak reality, I was comforted by the men and women frequently highlighting the burdens of structural violence and isolation, rather than exclusively assigning self-blame and giving up on themselves altogether. They know what they need, and the onus is on all of us to see that they get it. 

What do you consider the most important findings in Hustles and Hurdles?

Some of my earlier analyses suggest that the statistical likelihood of membership in an offending or desisting life-course trajectory is not at all influenced by one’s employment status. In other words, for this substance-addicted sample, securing employment – most of which nets meager long-term benefits – has little to no demonstrable impact on the likelihood of their quitting crime. Given the criminological emphasis placed on the significance of employment on recidivism outcomes, I was very surprised by these findings.

However, in paying close attention to the descriptions of the physical, social and economic labor context to which this prisoner reentry cohort returned, it became increasingly apparent that the fallout related to disadvantaging circumstances in each of these domains, including employment, is influenced by one’s relationship to mainstream institutional norms and expectations, as well as their proximity to networks engaged in those spaces. By that I mean for a multi-marginalized cohort of over 300 former prisoners, the extent to which many of them can “buy-in” to a conventional life is conditioned by their ability to access and participate in the activities consistent with a prosocial existence.

This is not to say that criminal justice-involved people are inherently anti-social and lack a desire to maximize health and safety opportunities for themselves and their communities. Rather, the effort that it takes to secure gainful employment during a moment of industrial economic abandonment, or overcome addiction when the stain of a drug felony conviction is promised to follow you for the remainder of your life, is often not worth the struggle. Moreover, for those making every effort to redefine themselves and lead a life consistent with their new identities, they are rejected by institutions that fail to create a space or infrastructure that will support those efforts.  

As such, many of these men and women spoke of improvising and doing the best that they can, the best way that they can. The “hustles” and “hurdles” that I refer to in the book’s title are a reflection of the intentional harm reduction steps taken by the men and women I spoke with (deescalating substance abuse from daily heroin intake to occasional marijuana consumption), and the justification of working in underground markets against the mandates of their probation officers, in the hopes of securing fast and much needed income. There is rationalization of deviance that appears to be a natural and reasonable response to what is for many, an impossible (re)integration project.  

Finally, many of the hurdles that respondents identified were attributed to ill-conceived criminal justice protocol and disenfranchising restrictions on employability that are codified in statutory law. Thus, for this sample, individual-level legal consciousness, or attitudes towards law and legal institutions, appear to impact one’s willingness and capacity to desist from crime and substance use.

Respondents spoke at length about how these disenfranchising laws undermine their sense of citizenship and belonging – so much so that continued efforts toward mainstream adoption is futile at best and deeply alienating at worst. The very laws allegedly aimed at buttressing public safety and reassurance are instead engendering an immense collective sentiment of betrayal and exclusion.