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Barriers to Re-entry: Inmate Perspectives on Societal Re-integration and Recidivism

Abstract

This study examines 1258 offenders currently assigned to halfway houses in Kentucky. These
offenders are on parole and transitioning back into the community, are serving their sentences as
part of the Class C/D Program, which enables certain non-violent offenders to complete
sentences outside of prison, or they are on probation. Inmates have access to a number of reentry
programs that focus on teaching a variety of skills applicable to societal reintegration. We know
a great deal about the factors that influence successful reentry. Inmates need jobs, housing,
transportation, and medical care as they transition away from prison. We also know that ex-
offenders are not always employable and face many obstacles when applying for jobs in
competition with individuals who have not been incarcerated. This study examined inmate self-
perceptions about their preparation to reenter society. We used survey questionnaires to identify
any gaps between inmate and institutional perception about the efficacy of reentry programs.
We found that there were significant gaps between institutional goals for reentry compared to
inmate perceptions and standardization of programming throughout the correctional system.
Finally, we were able to identify programming that may assist in meeting inmate needs based on
their self-identified perceptions about reentry.
Introduction and Statement of the problem

Much is known about the barriers to reentry for inmates leaving prison on parole or at

termination of a sentence. Multiple studies (Solomon, 2012; Morani, Wikoff, Linhorst, &

Bratton, 2011; Visher, Palmer, & Gouvis, 2007; Smith & Hattery, 2011) have found that

employment, housing, transportation, and health care are among the most pressing needs of

inmates leaving prison. Additionally, educational opportunity, job training, and overcoming

public perceptions of ex-offenders have been cited as barriers to successful re-entry to society.

There is little doubt about the collective needs of ex-offenders as they transition from prison.

Despite this knowledge, we struggle to reduce the flow of offenders back to prison. Roughly

65% of ex-offenders are re-arrested within three years of release. The number goes to 77%

within five years of release (Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol, 2012).

Of those re-arrested, more than half will return to prison. Despite the best efforts of

prisons to individualize re-entry programs, recidivism persists and the cost for incarcerating our

nation’s inmates continues to soar. More than 90% of those currently in prison will eventually

be released (Brazell, Crayton, Mukarnal, Solomon, & Lindahl, 2009). It is incumbent upon our

correctional systems to not only identify specific barriers to reentry, but also to ensure reentry

programs are targeted to meet specific needs as identified by ex-offenders who are being

released. A number of inmates have identified difficulties adapting to a society that not only

marginalizes them, but looks a lot like the prison they just left. Smith and Hattery (2011) found

that many ex-offenders carried a sort of “prison culture” with them at shelters and job sites. This

impacted their ability to accomplish a process of de-institutionalism and reintegrate successfully.


Purpose for the Research

This study sought to accomplish three purposes: First, we wanted to ensure that

Kentucky’s inmates assess their reentry needs similarly to inmates that have been studied in

other states. Although we already know many of the barriers to reentry, we focused on inmates’

self-identified perceptions of those barriers. Second, we wanted to determine if there is a

difference between inmate perceptions and institutional perceptions on the efficacy of reentry

programs. Finally, this study sought to identify the potential for programming targeted at

meeting offender perceived needs. It is important that inmates are encouraged to self-identify

reentry needs. Morani et al. (2011) found that many inmates were willing to participate in

reentry programs even when they were not required to do so.

Methodology

The study made use of a ten-question survey using a 4-Point Likert Scale for assessment.

Likert Scales have established reliability, are easy to interpret, and can facilitate cross tabulation

of a number of independent variables against the participant responses. We presented surveys to

ex-offenders in halfway houses and other forms of community supervision who volunteer for the

study. Each participant will sign an informed consent form prior to participating in the study.

The goal here was to ensure the programs provided are both effective and are completed as

planned. Inmates were encouraged to make comments on the reverse of the questionnaire form

if they felt the need to clarify an issue within the survey.


The questionnaire (attached as appendix B) contains ten questions that focus on

identifying the most prescient needs of inmates while ensuring they participated in reentry

programs that were designed to facilitate success. This survey assessed inmate responses against

a number of independent variables, including, age of inmate, length and number of

incarcerations, type of offense and education level of the inmate. These criteria are important

because they influence the perspectives the inmate may have about a particular question. We

divided questions into three major themes that relate to the perceived area of concern for

inmates. These themes are offender specific, institutional specific, and related to societal views

of the inmate.

Benefits to Corrections

The Kentucky Department of Corrections has released over 1,200 inmates to date in 2017

(“Daily releases,”2017). Based on historical data, two-thirds of these inmates will be rearrested

within three years of release and over half will return to prison. The value of reducing these

numbers cannot be overstated. The benefits to corrections include reducing costs of

incarceration, improving reentry programs, and working to stop the “revolving door” often

associated with incarceration. This study also has the potential to validate results from the

Legislative Research Commission’s 2008 report recommending that reentry programs be

improved and outcome measures be developed to assess progress (Upton, Guinn, & Rose, 2008).

As stated earlier, we know much about the specific barriers to reentry: getting a job,

finding a place to live, and having reliable transportation greatly enhance the potential for ex-
offenders to succeed upon release. We know that inmates present unique challenges as well.

Conversely, inmates can obtain job skills and insight into their own struggles while incarnated.

The challenge for corrections is to develop and implement reentry programs that inmates will not

only participate in, but will benefit from and utilize upon release. This research focused on the

gaps between institutional and inmate perceptions of program effectiveness. We asked inmates

how they feel about their reentry experience and perhaps validate these programs while assessing

their overall efficacy.

Focusing on offender specific questions relating to societal, institutional, and personal

experiences they have had will enable ex-offenders to provide inside information that can

explain the disconnect taking place between their lives as inmates and the process they undergo

in reintegrating back into society. Doing this will enable us to compare offender perceptions with

institutional perceptions of program efficacy, helping to indicate what impacts which offender

individually. The results of this study could lead to better reform programs, halfway houses, and

reintegration processes while inmates are still in prison, which can help these individuals in

being more knowledgeable of the society they’re about to reenter and help them to be more

educated in ways that can encourage them to strive toward bettering themselves as a person.
Results

During the study, the research team visited 96% of all halfway or transitional

homes in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Overall, the team interviewed and surveyed 1,258

residents in a face to face environment using a survey instrument consisting of ten (10) primary

research questions along with nine (9) demographic questions using a four-point Likert scale.

The fundamental questions were set up in an attempt to discover if the reentry programs which

are currently in place are sufficient from a resident point of view. The demographics of the

respondents are as follows: Seventy-five percent were male, 83% were Caucasian, 11% were

African American, 68% were over the age of 35, 70% had been incarcerated for 1-5 years while

63% were incarcerated more than three times, 8% were violent offenders, 3% were sex offenders

and 56% had drug-related offenses. Twenty-nine percent of respondents did not have a high

school diploma or GED and six percent were college graduates.

Table 1: Comparison of study demographics

Demographic Current Study Kentucky* National**

Gender: 75.3% Male 87% Male 81.63% Male


24.4% Female 13% Female 18.36% Female
Race: 83.4% Caucasian 76% Caucasian 76% Caucasian
11.1% African American 21% African American 21% African American
4.5% Other races 3% Other races 3% Other races
Age: 18-25 YOA 9.1% 18-25 YOA 12%
26-35 YOA 32.4% 26-35 YOA 38%
35-44 YOA 26.6% 35-44 YOA 28%
45-60 YOA 29% 45-60 YOA 8%
61+ YOA 2.6% 61+ YOA 14%
Education Level: <HS 28.6% <HS
HS/GED 33.7% HS/GED
Some College 27.2% Some College
College Degree 6% College Degree
Years incarcerated: 70% 1-5 Years 29% 1-5 Years
17.2% 6-10 Years 25% 6-10 Years
11.7% 11-20 Years 25% 11-20 Years
0.1% 21+ Years 21% 21+ Years
Types of offense: 56% Drug related 20% Drug related
33% Other offenses 34% Other offenses
8% Violent offense 34% Violent offense
3% Sexual offense 10% Sexual offense

Note: *Data collected from the Kentucky Department of Corrections website. ** Data

collected

Overview of programs by respondents

Overwhelmingly, between both genders, the addiction program was the most attended.

This result is similar to the most common offense of 'Drug Related' at 56.6% of respondents

indicating they were incarcerated for a drug-related offense.

Table 2: Program participation by gender

Addiction Job training Mental health Educational Life-skills Faith-based


Gender program program program program program program
N 550 300 111 271 356 235
Male
58.08% 31.68% 11.72% 28.62% 37.59% 24.82%

N 145 65 44 60 103 92
Female
47.23% 21.17% 14.33% 19.54% 33.55% 29.97%

When comparing gender to the type of program the respondent participated in, both

males and females were similar with two exceptions. Women were more likely to participate in a

faith-based program and mental health programs than men but were significantly less likely to

participate in a job training program or an education program than males who participated in the

study.

We next analyzed the total years incarcerated and the type of program in which the

respondent participated. We hypothesized that the approximate years the respondent was
incarcerated would influence the type of program they would attend. Respondents who were

incarcerated 1-5 years participated reasonably equally in programs with a very slight variance in

the selected program. The most popular program of these respondents was an addiction recovery

program at 67.7% participation rate. For respondents who were incarcerated 6-10 years, the job

training program was the most popular and the addiction recovery program was the least popular

with only 18.9% of respondents participating in this program. For respondents who were

incarcerated 11-20 years, their participation in programs was very similar to the 6-10-year group

with addiction recovery being the lowest participated in at 13.4% and a mental health program is

the highest participated program.

Overall, there was no statistical significance in the number of years a person was

incarcerated and the type of program in which they participated. However, results indicated that

the fewer years a person had been incarcerated, the more likely he or she was to participate in an

addiction recovery program. Conversely, the longer one has been incarcerated the more likely he

or she is to engage in mental health or educational program. Similar to program participant by

total years incarcerated, we see trends in the program the respondents participate in by their age.

Just as the previous variables, addiction recovery programs were the most popular program at

29.3% of all respondents participating. The least popular program was the mental health

programs where only 6.7% of all respondents participated in this program. Interestingly,

respondents 45-60 years of age were twice as likely to participate in a life-skill program than

respondents who are 18-25 years of age.

The race of the respondent was another area in which the research team was interested in

as to if there were any significant trends in the respondent's race and the program in which they

participated. Caucasian's primary program of participation was an addiction recovery program at


a 59.9% participation rate and a mental health program being the lowest at only 12.1%. All other

races displayed very similar participation rates proportionally with addiction recovery being the

most popular and mental health being the least popular program. Educational programs

participation counted for 25.6% of all races while 29.8% of all races had earned less than a GED

or high school diploma. Overview of Responses

Responses by gender

Just as the previous sections, we looked at if the respondent's gender influenced their

response. We examined the central survey responses and discovered there were statistically

significant areas in which the respondent's gender affected the response. Below we see the tables

for a simple linear regression using 'Gender' as the predictor. We observe R displaying a value

of 0.086, and because there is only one predictor, this value represents the correlation between

gender and if prison prepares inmates for the job interview process. With R2 having a value of

0.007, thus meaning that 99.3% of variations in response cannot be explained by gender alone.

Therefore, other variables influence this as well.

Table 3: Linear regression of gender and prison prepared me for the job interview process

Model Summary
Adjusted R Std. Error of the
Model R R Square Square Estimate
1 .086a .007 .007 .86626
a. Predictors: (Constant), Gender

ANOVAa
Model Sum of Squares df Mean Square F Sig.
1 Regression 6.916 1 6.916 9.216 .002b
Residual 930.509 1240 .750
Total 937.424 1241
a. Dependent Variable: Prison prepared me for the job interview process
b. Predictors: (Constant), Gender

Table four below illustrates a linear regression analysis of the respondent's gender and its

relationship to the response of if they participated in a helpful program. We observe R

displaying a value of 0.134, and because there is only one predictor, this value represents the

correlation between gender and if they feel they participated in a helpful program. With R2

having a value of 0.018, thus meaning that 98.2% of variations in response cannot be explained

by gender alone. Therefore, other variables influence this as well. Therefore, with the Sig. value

of 0.000, this linear regression model overall predicts the response.

Table 4: Linear regression of gender and participation in a helpful program

Model Summary
Adjusted R Std. Error of the
Model R R Square Square Estimate
a
1 .134 .018 .017 .42339
a. Predictors: (Constant), I participate in a helpful program while
incarcerated

ANOVAa
Model Sum of Squares df Mean Square F Sig.
1 Regression 4.063 1 4.063 22.668 .000b
Residual 221.743 1237 .179
Total 225.806 1238
a. Dependent Variable: Gender
b. Predictors: (Constant), I participate in a helpful program while incarcerated
Overview of response by facility

One goal of the study was to determine if respondents at a specific facility, or in the case

of Dismas Charities as a group, responded differently to the survey questions. Overall,

individuals who were housed at one of the Dismas houses responded more positively than those

who were not enrolled in a transitional program at a non-Dismas facility.

Table 7: Location of residence and response to question nine, ‘I participated in a helpful program

while incarcerated’.

I participated in a helpful program while


incarcerated
Total
Strongly Strongly
Agree Disagree
Agree Disagree
Current Dismas Count 103 192 100 42 437
Facility House
% within Current 23.6% 43.9% 22.9% 9.6% 100.0%
Facility
Other Count 135 304 170 160 769
facility
% within Current 17.6% 39.5% 22.1% 20.8% 100.0%
Facility
Total Count 238 496 270 202 1206

% within Current 19.7% 41.1% 22.4% 16.7% 100.0%


Facility
Discussion
Implications
In-person survey response rates above 85% are considered exemplary. We had a

response rate of 97% for this study. The researcher and student assistants were treated with

respect and genuine appreciation at every location we visited. Inmates were not shy about

expressing their feelings. While we can dismiss some of the concerns as personality conflicts or

a failure to “own” one’s incarceration, there were valid concerns. While few of the results were

surprising, it was often the comments made after the surveys were completed that yielded the

most value. Many participants used the margins of survey forms to make additional comments as

well.

The study found that inmates voluntarily participate in prison programs, even if they do

not perceive they will be particularly effective. Inmates often enroll in the various programming

to pass the time or to earn “good time.” Inmates can earn time off their sentences for completion

of programs. Whatever the reason, inmates want to be involved in anything that offers the hope

of increasing their chances for success at reentry. It is also true that most survey participants

believed they had participated in a helpful program while incarcerated. When asked the question

“I have participated in a helpful program while incarcerated”, 67% indicated they agreed with

the statement (see table 7).

The authors sought to explore a possible disconnect between what the Department of

Corrections (DOC) thinks is happening and what inmates perceive. Studies such as these make

generalizations by nature. Inmates want programs that make a difference in their lives. Absent

that, they will take whatever is offered to them. It helps little to call a program “reentry” in

nature when it does nothing tangible to prepare someone for release. The inmate must believe

that DOC takes reentry seriously and that programs are individualized for their needs. Dozens of
respondents spoke about having no interview or resume skills even though they had participated

in numerous programs during their incarceration. It seems often to be a matter of “collecting

certificates” in an effort to sway the parole board when the time comes.

I met with one gentleman after the surveys were administered and he lamented that he

felt completely unprepared to apply for jobs despite the fact that he had been assigned to a

designated “reentry” dorm at a previous institution. He spoke at length about the warden’s

willingness to think out of the box with respect to a job for him, but nonetheless said the reentry

dorm was an assignment that did not necessarily have anything to do with programming. I had

the opportunity to lead a class trip to that institution and visited the dorm. It was painted in

brighter colors and had a different “feel” than the rest of the prison. This is a step in the right

direction as far as mentally preparing inmates to leave prison.

Perhaps the most relevant question asked was “prison prepared me for a job interview.”

Seventy-seven percent of respondents disagreed with this statement. Although DOC lacks

standardization system-wide with respect to reentry programming, this was surprising. The

authors struggled with a definition for “reentry program” because it seemed to change depending

upon the location. There is a renewed focus in recent years with respect to reentry. Perhaps the

first order of business can be to standardize what constitutes reentry programs. A theme that

emerged with the data was in the disparate responses to some questions. We can attribute much

of this to the lack of standardization in programming as well as the fact that inmates may serve

their time in county jails with little or no programming.

Participants generally found agreement with questions that assessed the start date for

programming, but we can relate this to the fact that practically any program was considered

reentry in nature. Predictably, respondents were in general agreement that society viewed them
as damaged. This is not surprising, but it lends validity to responses that focus on specifics of

programming. While many inmates do not have much insight on the real reasons for their

incarceration, many of our verbal and written responses articulated real issues that DOC can

address to create better outcomes. Most participants felt they had support from family and

friends. We can relate this to the overwhelmingly male response rate. Seventy-five percent of

our respondents were male and males tend to have more support in general than female inmates.

Participants consistently spoke of the fact that addiction programs seemed to be “pushed” to

everyone, regardless of any identifiable substance abuse problem.

Limitations

The most obvious limitation in the study is that we conducted it in a smaller state without

a diverse inmate population. It would be difficult to generalize the results to a larger urban state.

Researchers also operated without a generally accepted definition for reentry programs. It is

problematic to assess some of the responses when many inmates were operating on the

assumption that any program in which they participated was reentry for our purposes. Finally,

the lack of standardization in terms of assignment makes it difficult to apply results to a

population that may have spent its entire incarceration in prison as opposed to county jail.

We tend to study failure rates as with recidivism, but we are not as prone to study reasons for

success. Future studies should examine why released inmates do not reoffend.

Recommendations

We need to study what works and we need to figure out how to define success in reentry.

What would be an acceptable rate of recidivism? Some may say a zero rate is desired, but that

would be unrealistic given that we cannot prevent crime effectively, whether the offender has

been incarcerated previously or not. If we could eliminate recidivism, we can eliminate crime
altogether. Future studies need to focus on how much (if at all) a college degree contributes to

success on reentry. Some of our respondents indicated they had some college or a degree; if

these offenders tend to be more successful, it could open dialogue about providing college

opportunities to others. Over half of the participants in this study were incarcerated for a non-

violent offense. The phrase “who are we mad at and who are we afraid of” comes to mind. If we

are to reduce incarceration rates in a meaningful way, we must move away from using the prison

system as a repository for mental health or substance abuse problems.

Fifty-five percent of our study participants indicated their incarceration was for a drug-

related offense. According to a DOC fact sheet, only 21% of inmates in the system are there for

drug offenses. This may point to a need to reevaluate sentencing criteria in Kentucky for drug

offenses. A more judicious use of drug courts, shock probation, and/or community corrections

options could reduce the dependence on the prison system. I would like to study recidivism rates

for offenders housed strictly in jails to determine the impact that prison programs may have

versus what may be available at a county jail. It is difficult to study recidivism effectively unless

we can level the playing field in terms of ensuring every inmate in the system has access to the

same or similar programming.

Finally, numerous respondents indicated the frustration of serving a non-violent Class B

or C offense in a halfway house. DOC permitted them to work in a volunteer capacity, but not to

earn money. Directors reported this to be a statutory requirement. If related to security concerns,

offenders would be out in the community either way so why not let them earn money to save for

reentry needs. Another issue related to finances was that of fines and other costs associated with

incarceration. While there is logic for having offenders subsidize costs of corrections, it

handicaps them as they attempt to save money for housing, transportation, and other critical
reentry needs. At some point the punishment phase must end and the reentry phase must begin;

this necessarily involves measures that do not continue to inhibit the reentry process.

The researcher is proposing a qualitative study for this spring. This study, if approved,

will involve interviews with 80-100 inmates in four prisons. The goals would be to glean the

narratives from inmates who are within 2 years of release. We often make policies without the

involvement of those most impacted by them. This study would allow inmates the freedom to

provide their experiences in response to open-ended questions. Researchers then code the

responses to create a composite experience that DOC can use to formulate programming for

inmates nearing release. It would be helpful to study inmates released from jails as well. This

would help DOC better understand how impactful prison based programming can be when

compared to the randomness of jail programming.

Conclusion

The study confirmed much of what we already know about reentry perceptions. Inmates

expressed frustration with a number of issues, including several that were statutory impediments.

Researchers administered a 10-question survey questionnaire to 1258 inmates in 24 halfway

houses in Kentucky. Results were not dramatically different from one facility to the next despite

halfway houses being operated by a dozen different entities. The results are consistent with

concerns expressed in a 2008 DOC Report and the 2017 Kentucky CJPAC Justice Reinvestment

Work Group Final Report. Offender reentry needs our attention for a number of reasons.

Notably, it will add to the burgeoning cost of incarceration, but perhaps more important to all of

us, it will return our citizens to productive lives in their communities.


References

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Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington D. C. 2012.

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reentry program. The Prison Journal, 91(2), 347-365.

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outcome measures should be developed. Research Report no. 357. Kentucky Legislative
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