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Formerly Incarcerated Individuals and the Challenges of Reentry
By Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 17 No. 6 P. 16

This group faces myriad challenges, including finding housing and employment, trying not to reoffend, and, perhaps most importantly, the stigma of being an ex-offender. Social workers, who will encounter these clients in all settings, can support them on their journey.

September 4, 2014, is a date that Paul Debord remembers clearly. It's the date he was released from prison after 30 years behind bars and stepped into a different world—the world beyond incarceration.

Debord soon discovered that living in this new world was not easy. Health problems hampered his ability to maintain employment, and he had spent so much time in prison that his knowledge of some skills he learned while incarcerated had faded. At an age when other people are preparing for retirement, he was trying to establish himself in the community.

"It's hard on an ex-prisoner coming out with my record and my age and the things that I've gone through," Debord says. "It's a fight when you get out."

It's a fight that hundreds of thousands of people face each year when they are released from correctional facilities. They find that they may be free from prison, but they are not free from the struggles that come with building a new life in the community while trying not to reoffend and enduring the lifelong stigma of being formerly incarcerated.

It's likely that many social workers, no matter their practice setting or area of expertise, will encounter clients who have spent time in the correctional system. Understanding how incarceration and reentry have shaped their experiences is important to providing services that will best promote their success.

"I have been a first-hand witness to many impressive offenders who, despite long odds, turned their lives around with a complex mix of resilience, perseverance, humility, insight, and an earnest willingness to take full advantage of social workers' efforts to assist them," says Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, a professor at Rhode Island College's School of Social Work who spent 24 years as a member of the Rhode Island Parole Board. "These are among the most satisfying moments a social worker can experience."

An Incarceration Nation
There are millions of formerly incarcerated individuals in the United States. More than 641,000 people were released from state or federal prisons in 2015 (Carson & Anderson, 2016), and an average of 590,400 have been released annually since 1990 (James, 2015). (For simplicity and consistency, the term "formerly incarcerated individuals" is used in this article. These individuals are often referred to by different terms, such as "previously incarcerated individuals," "returning citizens," and "ex-offenders.")

The population of formerly incarcerated individuals is so large because the United States is a world leader in incarceration. Nearly 7 million people were under the supervision of U.S. correctional systems at the end of 2015 (Kaeble & Glaze, 2016). State and federal prisons held approximately 1.5 million people, while more than 720,000 inmates were confined to local and county jails. The remaining 4.6 million people were supervised in the community on either probation or parole. These data refer to people in the adult correctional system; on any given day in 2015, there were approximately 48,000 juvenile offenders in residential placement facilities such as detention facilities and group homes (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2015).

The number of people under the control of correctional systems nationwide has dramatically increased over the past few decades. In 1980, state and federal prisons held almost 320,000 people, less than one-quarter of the number of people they held in 2015 (The Sentencing Project, 2017). Among the reasons for the shift toward mass incarceration are the "War on Drugs" and the emergence of tougher sentencing standards and longer sentences. Mass incarceration has disproportionately affected people of color and people convicted of drug offenses (Human Rights Watch, 2014; The Sentencing Project, 2017).

The shift toward incarceration reflected a changing philosophy about the role of corrections in society, says Brett Garland, PhD, a professor and head of the criminology and criminal justice department at Missouri State University.

Instead of seeing corrections as a tool to rehabilitate people committing crimes, it was increasingly seen as a way to protect society by keeping offenders away. That has affected not only sentencing but also the amount of money being spent on corrections. For example, state spending on corrections ballooned from $6.7 billion in 1985 to $56.9 billion in 2015 (The Sentencing Project, 2017). With so much money going toward the incapacitation strategy, there are fewer resources to help people when they are released, Garland says.

For people who are incarcerated, entering prison can be highly stressful as they try to get used to their new surroundings and navigate prison culture. However, Garland says, the time before release can be just as stressful, if not more. "They're entering an unknown period," he explains. "They're going from an environment where they're making very limited decisions to one where they're making all the decisions."

Unfortunately, formerly incarcerated individuals often get arrested again. A Bureau of Justice Statistics study of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 found that two-thirds were arrested within three years of release and three-quarters were arrested within five years (Durose, Cooper, & Snyder, 2014).

Overcoming Obstacles, Showing Strengths
There are numerous interconnected challenges formerly incarcerated individuals face upon release that make their journey toward successful community reintegration extremely difficult, if not seemingly impossible. "Our population needs everything, absolutely everything," says Sol Rodriguez, executive director of OpenDoors, a Providence, RI-based organization that provides supportive services to formerly incarcerated people and their families.

One of the top challenges is finding employment. Many employers will not hire people with criminal records, and people often leave prison without the education and basic skills they need to attain and maintain employment, Rodriguez says. Even when formerly incarcerated people find jobs, she adds, those positions may not pay a living wage or employers may exploit the leverage they have over these employees and subject them to harsh working conditions and excessive working hours.

Closely related to employment is housing. If a person coming out of prison is unable to stay with family or friends, it can be difficult to find a place to live that provides enough stability to maintain employment and take care of other daily tasks, Rodriguez explains. And some formerly incarcerated people who have had bad experiences with shelters choose not to go there after release. "In many cases, they're being released to homelessness," she says.

The formidable challenges formerly incarcerated people face with employment and housing can be exacerbated if they have mental health and/or addiction issues that were not adequately addressed while they were in prison, says Jennifer Cobbina, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. Formerly incarcerated people also can face legal barriers to receiving services once they are released, she says. For example, people with felony drug convictions are banned in many states from receiving welfare and food stamps, and formerly incarcerated individuals often struggle to obtain government-issued IDs.

Gender can affect the postrelease experience as well. Women, for example, are more likely to have experienced traumas such as child abuse and interpersonal violence that put them at greater risk of revictimization and recidivism once they are released, in part because these traumas are associated with current mental health problems and negative coping strategies such as substance use, says Shannon Lynch, PhD, a professor in the department of psychology at Idaho State University. The pressure to find a job and housing can be even more intense for women, as they often are also trying to reestablish a relationship with and regain custody of their minor children during reentry, Lynch says.

Debord's experience demonstrates how age can alter people's transitions back into the community, and this effect is apparent for people at both ends of the aging spectrum. Laura Abrams, PhD, MPH, has conducted research on formerly incarcerated youths and their experiences in trying to transition into adulthood and the community at the same time. In many ways, the youths' experiences are similar to adults—for example, they need a home and job—but they also are trying to establish themselves as adults and figure out how they want to live their lives in terms of their relationships, education, and other factors that shape their identities. "They want to be seen as something more than their past," says Abrams, a professor and chair of the department of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. "They want to have an identity other than that as a juvie or reckless adolescent."

Factors at the system and policy levels play a role, too. For example, people released from prison may have parole requirements they must meet to avoid returning to incarceration. Meeting these requirements may be difficult when formerly incarcerated individuals also are trying to hold down jobs, maintain housing, and reestablish relationships, explains Leticia Longoria-Navarro, director of training and programming at Pathfinders of Oregon, which serves justice-involved adults and their families. "There are all these things that they need to complete and navigate that even those of us with the best skills would have trouble doing," she says.

Then there is the issue of funding. Many people are released without services that promote successful reentry because there simply is not enough money to help everyone who needs services, Cobbina says. In many cases, she adds, funds are prioritized toward people who are at the highest risk of reoffending, even though lower-risk individuals would also benefit from services.

Despite the uphill battles formerly incarcerated individuals face, they should not be written off as lost causes. They have many skills, strengths, and talents that will help them succeed in the community if they are encouraged and directed properly, says Cheri Garcia, founder of Cornbread Hustle. The Dallas-based organization helps formerly incarcerated people get jobs and trains them in entrepreneurial skills such as sales, social media, and making pitches to potential funders. At the end of their training, Cornbread Hustle's participants pitch their business ideas to a panel of investors, with the winner receiving money and marketing support to launch or grow a business.

Garcia is passionate about teaching formerly incarcerated individuals about entrepreneurship because she saw how it changed her life. As a teenager and young adult, Garcia battled drug addiction and was arrested numerous times, although she never served time in jail. Her life started to turn around when she became an entrepreneur and discovered that running a business helped her redirect the energy she had previously directed toward drugs. She tries to help formerly incarcerated people redirect their energy in the same way. In fact, she says their experiences in prison give them many intangible skills, such as tenacity and perseverance, which are the hallmarks of successful entrepreneurs. "We help them apply all of their hustle in a new way," Garcia says. "They don't take anything for granted. Anyone who has spent years behind bars develops patience and the ability to be creative."

Debord is one of Cornbread Hustle's participants. He learned how to work with leather in prison and now runs a small shop in Garland, TX, where he crafts a variety of leather items, from boots and purses to belts and Bible covers. Debord hopes the skills he is learning through Cornbread Hustle will help his business prosper. "They really try to keep your focus on making your dream come true, whatever your dream is and whatever your passion is," he says.

Rodriguez agrees that it's important to recognize the courage and fortitude that formerly incarcerated individuals demonstrate. For all the struggles of OpenDoors' clients, there also are success stories, such as former clients who have gone on to law school. "When you think about the amount of strength that it takes for a human being to keep moving forward [despite the obstacles], it really takes someone who had incredible strength," Rodriguez says. "The odds are really stacked against them, but there are miracles that happen, too."

An Opportunity for Social Work
There is reason for optimism about the future of reentry services. Several observers say awareness of the importance of reentry has increased during the past two decades, which has fueled the growth of services and resources aimed at formerly incarcerated individuals. This shift has been especially apparent at the federal level, where there has been an influx of funding to help states and local communities provide services to support reentry through programs such as the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative and the Second Chance Act Prisoner Reentry Initiative. Although it is unclear how reentry funding will fare under the Trump administration, reentry is an issue that has historically received bipartisan support, Garland says.

Garland adds that there have been new approaches to reentry that identify it as a process that should start when a person is incarcerated and recognize the importance of individualized services and collaboration. There have been some signs that this type of approach can be effective. For example, an evaluation of the Minnesota Comprehensive Offender Reentry Plan pilot project showed that it improved the chances that formerly incarcerated individuals were able to obtain employment, attain housing, and receive social support in the community. It also reduced participants' risk of reoffending (Duwe, 2012).

Rodriguez believes social workers are well suited to serve formerly incarcerated individuals because they understand the interconnections among the various needs of this population. Social workers can learn many valuable lessons from the complex histories of formerly incarcerated people and have the chance to make a significant impact in the lives of those they serve, she adds.

One of the most important things for anyone who works with formerly incarcerated people to remember is that each person has unique needs and is best served when resources and programming are customized and designed in partnership with the person, says Alicia Bradley, LCPC, who works with formerly incarcerated people in Chicago. "Every person coming out should be looked at as an individual," she says. "It shouldn't be the same for everyone, because that doesn't work."

Reamer adds that social workers need to be aware of changes in formerly incarcerated individuals' circumstances throughout reentry and adjust services accordingly. "It's a constant recalibration, constant titrating of what we provide," he says.

Professionals not only need to know how factors such as trauma, age, gender, and culture affect reentry but also deliver their services in a way that effectively responds to the impact of these factors, Longoria-Navarro says. This can be accomplished through learning more about interventions such as trauma-responsive approaches and through collaboration with others involved in services, including law enforcement and behavioral health providers. It's also vital to engage family and friends in services to provide much-needed social support to formerly incarcerated individuals, Longoria-Navarro says.

Self-reflection helps, too. Rodriguez encourages social workers to consider how their own biases may shape how they deliver services and interact with formerly incarcerated clients. "[These clients] are not their crime, and that can be very hard for people to understand," Rodriguez says. "People have paid their debt to society and they deserve a chance."

Debord hopes he gets more chances as he continues to navigate reentry. He married in 2015 and recently started a full-time job at a call center to supplement the work he does at his leather shop. He wants people to know that promoting his success and the success of formerly incarcerated individuals nationwide benefits everyone.

"[People in prison] are going to come out of prison one day. They're going to be your neighbors. And they need jobs and help. If they don't get a chance to try to redeem themselves, they're going to go back to what they've been doing, and that's not good," he says. "Even though they broke the law and got in trouble, they're still human."

— Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA, and an editorial advisor at Social Work Today.


Carson, E. A., & Anderson E. (2016, December). Prisoners in 2015. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p15.pdf.

Durose, M. R., Cooper, A. D., & Snyder, H.N. (2014, April). Recidivism of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rprts05p0510.pdf.

Duwe, G. (2012). Evaluating the Minnesota Comprehensive Offender Reentry Plan (MCORP): Results from a randomized experiment. Justice Quarterly, 29(3), 347-383.

Human Rights Watch. (2014, May). Nation behind bars: A human rights solution. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/related_material/2014_US_Nation_Behind_Bars_0.pdf.

James, N. (2015, January). Offender reentry: Correctional statistics, reintegration into the community, and recidivism. Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34287.pdf.

Kaeble, D. & Glaze, L. (2016, December). Correctional populations in the United States, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus15.pdf.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (2015). Statistical briefing book: Juveniles in corrections. Retrieved from https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/corrections/qa08201.asp?qaDate=2015.

The Sentencing Project. (2017, June). Fact sheet: Trends in U.S. corrections. Retrieved from http://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf.