What Contributes to Successful Reentry after Conviction?

Housing and Employment Factors in Recidivism and Re-Offending

Once you’ve introduced yourself to the meatgrinder system of American justice, you will be evaluated constantly until your total release. Even after release, the examinations tend to continue as people examine and re-examine your background as they judge you worthy (or not) of a job and a home to live in.

Now, one thing that I’ve noticed in my research of recidivism and reentry is that apparently – those two factors of utmost importance for stability in life – are not considered to be ‘contributing factors’ in the cases of felons that return to the system after release from their sentence. Now, on some levels, I can agree with the statement. I mean, jobs and housing are just things that are often difficult to obtain – thus our immense joy when we find employment and shelter – even without a criminal record.

Additionally, it is easy to admit that not everyone who loses a job and becomes homeless becomes a ‘criminal’ – nor are people with jobs and homes incapable of committing crimes. However, as someone who has been homeless in a poorly funded area of my state who also has a felony background – I can say that I was getting to the point of returning to that life when I was utterly lucky and had a friend step in for support. The sad thing is, there are so many people that completely lack a support system in their time of need – and not all areas can provide the services they need. The system is badly cracked – and people fall through those cracks every day. While it may not be an official component of re-offending and returning to incarceration – I will have to say that it is still a huge factor in successful reentry into society after a conviction.

I know in Central Illinois, the shelters are often maxed out on capacity, low on funding, and have had to turn away hundreds of people simply because they didn’t have anything they could offer. One of the women’s shelters I’ve volunteered for has a waiting list of over 100 women (many with children) that are still waiting to find a safe place to recover from their various situations. So, when you’re listed and still not getting help – you tend to run out of options when the clock ticks long enough. Many of the women that had applied for the shelter had dropped off the list by the time we were able to even ask if they could still come – either having gone back to bad situations (abuse, theft, jailed or using drugs) or having left the area in search of real tangible resources – and never knowing what happened to them.

It’s absolutely heart-breaking and nerve-racking at the same time because I know that a stable life is a fragile thing – one single day – hell, one single mistake – can throw life into an uncontrollable spiral. I could be one of those women once again; so desperate to find steady ground when there are only choppy, rough waters surrounding me. So, with that bit of information in mind, let’s take a look at what one correction professional says about the risks of re-offending and the components that have been proven to help reduce recidivism.

Six Components of Successful Reentry for Convicted Felons

First up, we have a grouping of four related risk factors that have been clumped together. These four items are having peers that have antisocial tendencies, having a dependency on any substances, a lack of self-control, and personally held antisocial beliefs or behavior patterns. Let’s look at that in a bulleted list just to make it easier to remember:

Risk Factors for Returning Citizens (Released Prisoners) and Convicts

  • Peers (friends/family) with anti-social tendencies
  • Dependence on Alcohol/Drugs
  • Lack of Self-Control
  • Personally held anti-social beliefs

Now, I talk about these four aspects of after-felony life in my book in a beat-around-the-bush type of way. I discuss how we need to burn bad bridges for our personal health (antisocial peers – or anyone that doesn’t support you changing what you need to change in your life), how we need to address our personal health (mental disorders and substance abuse) and how we need to contribute to our communities to build positive networks ( fighting the antisocial beliefs or behaviors we picked up as we grew up and building self-control as well as discovering pro-social peers that can offer genuine support). I don’t say these things directly, I just share them as they came naturally to me from the memory of my personal rehabilitation process.

I can also agree with Mr. Hooley that these are some of the biggest risk factors in returning to the system. You can’t let your old friends keep you in the dirt (or in lock-up) – you need to make new ones that are supportive, you can’t go out into the world with a negative mindset and expect good things to happen, and you sure can’t get better if you aren’t addressing your health as a whole. What I mean by health as a whole is the mind and body connection. If your body isn’t healthy – your mind will eventually join it and vice versa – if your mind isn’t happy, your body will eventually make you even more miserable – both in how you feel and in how you behave. Now, I’m sure this is just a small sampling of a full inventory of risk factors – but they are certainly some of the most prominent factors and they do require intense attention.

Motivators for Success

Second in the list are individual motivators. These are assessed in order to gain insight into those things in your life that will inspire you to push through the difficult obstacles that all returning citizens face upon release. If you don’t have any motivators or only a couple of short-term motivators – your chance of success will statistically plummet. So, introspection and self-awareness will need to be practiced in your life if you want to discover the things that truly motivate you. There will also be trial and error. Something that may have seemed like a big motivator might fall through or you might lose interest down the line – don’t let that stop you from finding a new interest.

As an example, my own biggest motivator was staying out of trouble so I could be in my child’s life. Honestly, without him, I probably wouldn’t be here today to type this and share my story. As he ages and becomes more independent, I realize that while he will always be my baby, I also need to work on finding an additional motivator to pull through when life gets hard and he isn’t under my wing anymore. So far, that’s helping people like me, who have found themselves struggling to get through life with a felony.

Need for Interventions in Reentry

The third item on the list is determining if you need interventions of some kind. Now, the original article doesn’t get into detail on this – presumably ‘trade information’ that can’t be shared publicly. But we can assume that interventions include the various tasks and directions that our supervising officers push us to do. They organize things their way in order to keep you busy – and thus out of trouble and focused on building yourself up. If you need interventions – you are likely to be considered as a high-risk offender who is more likely to return to the system.

Therapeutic Sessions and Behavior Therapies

Next, we find the suggestion of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The intention of CBT is to help create positive associations with your goals and the behaviors you need to incorporate into your life to reach those goals. This is done through acting out various scenarios – like interviews, problems at work, interactions with peers or professionals or other areas that might be concerning to the returning individual. Some people have been locked up for a long time, and have had to adjust to a different mindset for survival – others may simply need the practice to warm up to new people and situations – but CBT helps improve both areas by allowing a safe place to practice with someone that will emotionally support you through the experience. It’s actually really helpful – my background in Psychology helped me understand and apply this practice to my life to some success – even in the face of repeated rejections and the additional collateral consequences of my conviction.

Incorporating Postive Reinforcement

The next focus in supporting reentry is increased positive reinforcement. This is partly tied into the CBT sessions, but it also ties into every component listed here. For every single ‘good’ or ‘desired’ behavior that you complete – you basically earn a reward. Now, this reward might not be something you can hold in your hand – but it’s something that you hold in your heart and mind. Not only should you feel accomplishment, but your surrounding peers should offer praise, support, and love to whatever degree is appropriate for their station in your life. This flow of positive support comes from having done the right thing and when it happens often enough – the behavior that leads to the positive reaction will become second nature – our brains love to feel good and will want to repeat anything that makes it feel good. You simply have to teach the brain what you want it to use to feel good. Instead of finding a way to get high in order to feel good – either from drugs or from risky behavior – find a way to help someone or help yourself move forward. It’s like making a new addiction – only to good behavior instead of drugs or stealing or whatever you were into before.

This positive reinforcement tactic is also incorporated for additional reasons. Now, in my studies as a psych student, we learn about conditioning – or creating associations between behaviors and stimuli. Keep in mind that recent research has weakened the idea that punishment is a working system for conditioning (or controlling) behavior. In this light, while still maintaining that some form of punishment is necessary – the system might be recognizing how important positive reinforcement is to changing behavior patterns.

I am insanely happy about this, but it is only one tiny shift in a system that largely focuses on varying degrees of punishment. Additionally, while the term negative reinforcement is easily misunderstood – this aspect of conditioning should also be implemented more heavily – taking away unwanted restrictions or punishing sanctions as behavior improves over time. This is used to some effect in many institutions, but it’s still clumsy and slow-moving which can lessen the positive impact of the reinforcement type. So far as most psychologists understand, our associations and the reinforcements of those associations should be made quickly as possible – preferably immediately after the behavior to ensure the strongest association. Of course, practice is always more complicated than theory – but that would be the ideal situation.

Ongoing Support – Personal and Community Based

Finally, we come to the topic of ongoing support after release. This ties back into the first factors for risk – as support is often given by friends and family that are closest to you – but may also be the individuals that essentially pushed toward the conviction in the first place. So, support from family and friends might be appreciated – but it might not be healthy. In this case, you’ll need to examine how healthy those relationships might be – and seek out additional social supports that can help mitigate any unhealthy relationships. This also ties into the community that the individual is returning to, in terms of access to housing, work, and social programs that offer resources and support for the mind and body.

This means that we need to be openly discussing changes in laws pertaining to returning citizens and the collateral consequences they face, we need to educate and encourage employers and housing authorities to offer second chances for returning citizens, and we need to be active in our communities and local programs to show that we can become contributing members again.

Our mistakes might have been enormous, our choices may have been disastrous. However, with the right care and the right guidance – we can all become more than our pasts define us as. We can all become better people. We are not just felons, and we don’t have to re-offend. We just need a #secondchance to get our lives back on track.

That’s all for today folks, I know it’s longer than most – but I hope you still enjoy it. Til next time, keep moving forward!

Love and peace ~ Aza

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