Families, Stability and the Return from Prison

With incarceration rates in the U.S. still near an all-time high, the transition from prison back to the community is a remarkably common occurrence in low-income communities. In 2010, 700,000 men and women nationwide left prison, writes Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, “and incarceration rates for male high school dropouts under age 35 reached 12 percent for whites and 35 percent for African Americans.” Western’s most recent paper, published online as part of a Kennedy School of Government seminar series on inequality, describes the sometimes counter-intuitive findings of his work on the Boston Reentry Study and points to some of the most fundamental challenges facing society and government today.

Western and his colleagues describe some of the misconceptions about how people return to life in the community, and most importantly, how people adapt—or fail to adapt—to life outside the prison walls. They followed 122 newly-released prisoners during their first months after release, and found that 44 percent were able to find employment and some degree of stability. Their qualitative interviews also showed the degree to which, for many of the subjects, extreme material insecurity was accompanied by anxiety and feelings of isolation.

During the first two months after incarceration, about 40 percent relied heavily on mostly female relatives—mothers, sisters, and grandmothers—for financial support and housing. For the former prisoners, “connecting with family, finding housing, and a means of subsistence” were all essential for a successful transition. Not everyone achieves it, especially those who are most isolated from their families--particularly those over age 45, or who had histories of drug addictions and mental illness.

In other words, family matters a lot—and the support of female relatives appears to be integral to a more stable return, especially for younger men and women. Perhaps, Western writes, there is a role for government and the civic sector to play in more intentionally supporting these families, in order to promote lasting stability.