Meet the Author: Stephen J. Bahr Tackles Inmate Reintegration
Stephen J. Bahr’s book Returning Home: Reintegration After Prison or Jail (published by NASW Press) begins with a sobering finding: within three years of their release, seventy-five percent of parolees in the United States will be rearrested and half will return to prison. Why does this happen, and what can be done to curb such high rates of recidivism? Bahr talked to SocialWorkersSpeak.org about the challenges inmates face upon release, his suggested reforms to existing programs and policies, and the stories from his research that have stayed with him.
Q. Why did you decide to pursue social work as a profession? Describe your journey in the profession.
Bahr: I was curious about human choices. I pondered many questions, such as: Why are so many people incarcerated? Why do so many who are released from prison get rearrested and returned to prison? What can we as a society do to reduce the number of people who are sent to prison? What can we do to help people who are released from prison reintegrate successfully?
I went into the profession to learn what we know about those types of questions and what we can do about them. The answers are complex and require research data that often is not available. This led me to seek training and embark on social research which could help answer important, practical questions that would be useful to practitioners and policymakers.
Q. What inspired you to write Returning Home: Reintegration After Prison or Jail? How did you conduct the research for this project?
Bahr: The main purpose of Returning Home was to provide a current assessment of what helps released prisoners reintegrate successfully. I conducted the research by interviewing more than 200 prisoners before and after they were released. This enabled me to examine offenders’ own stories and discover what they feel was and was not helpful in their own reintegration. I also analyzed data from a national longitudinal survey of 1,697 men and 357 women from the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative.
There are many programs designed to help people adjust after being released from prison, but we need a better understanding of their effectiveness among different types of people and in different situations. There is good research on many individual programs but the findings of the many research studies needed to be integrated. I feel my book contributes to that goal.
Q. What is the reintegration process typically like for inmates? What are some of the main determinants of successful reintegration?
Bahr: Most inmates struggle to make the transition from prison to the community. It is a sudden and stark change from living in a structured, controlled environment to being responsible for oneself. In a short period of time they have to find a place to live, report to their parole officer, and learn to provide for themselves.
A large majority of those in prison are there because of a drug problem. To be successful when released they need to stay away from drugs. They must learn how to avoid risky situations and how to respond to temptations to take drugs. Attending some type of drug treatment program is helpful in achieving this task.
When they are released, many return to the same community where they lived prior to prison. Often they start socializing with friends or family members they associated with before prison. If those friends or family members use drugs or are involved in illegal activity, it provides opportunities for them to use drugs and participate in illegal activities again. One of the characteristics of successful parolees was that they stayed away from old friends who used drugs. This is particularly challenging if they live in a neighborhood where drug use and selling is prevalent.
When individuals are released from prison, they must find a way to support themselves. It takes money to pay rent and buy food. Those who can’t find a job tend to get discouraged and turn to alcohol and drugs. Being able to receive employment training and help in finding employment is a key to reintegrate successfully.
Those individuals who succeed often have family members who provide a drug-free place to live and assistance in finding a job. Those without family support often turn to friends who do not always provide an environment conducive to successful reintegration.
Q. Was there a particular inmate you interviewed whose story you found particularly compelling? Was the inmate ultimately able to successfully reintegrate?
Bahr: There were many inmate stories that I found compelling. I will mention two. First, Eldin was in a therapeutic community in prison. He became a model prisoner and a leader in helping other inmates. He prepared for release, had a plan for what he wanted to do, and obtained a scholarship to further his education. Eldin seemed very motivated and had concrete, realistic plans. Even the correctional officers, who often are cynical, felt that Eldin was likely to succeed after release. However, not long after he was released, Eldin was rearrested for drug charges and returned to prison. His case was particularly compelling because he seemed so well prepared for release and motivated to succeed. What went wrong? As I looked at his situation, I saw that he was from another state and didn’t have law-abiding family members or friends to provide support when he was released. Eldin’s case illustrated again the power of drug addiction and that it takes more than motivation to overcome it.
The second case was Jane. When I interviewed her she was in her mid-thirties and had been in and out of jail and prison numerous times over the past fifteen years. She commented that she was tired of going in and out of prison and being away from her family at Thanksgiving and Christmas. When she was released she went back to her home state, lived with her mother, and re-established relationships with her children and parents. She did not return to prison. Her case illustrates again the importance of family ties in helping people reintegrate successfully.
Q. How can concerned families best support a family member who has recently been released from prison?
Bahr: Family members should listen, observe, and encourage them to attend all treatment and other classes. They should also express love. Family members should communicate any concerns and set clear rules. They should encourage appropriate associations and recreation. Regular communication in person or by phone is usually helpful. One young man that I interviewed told me that his mother called him each day. He said it was helpful to know that she cared and was there to talk to and provide support. Several times he was tempted to do illegal things and her regular contact helped him at critical decision points.
If family members are able, providing housing is helpful, especially right after release. If they are able to help them locate employment, that is also a benefit. However, they should not make excuses for questionable behavior or ignore signs of drug use. All prescribed medications should be kept in a locked cabinet. Depending on the parole stipulations, they might have to remove all firearms from their house if the parolee lives with them.
Q. On the macro level, are there prison/policy reforms that you feel could help former inmates better reintegrate into society?
Bahr: Research indicates that a number of different types of services and treatment are effective. At the same time, many who need treatment do not receive it, often because it is not available. The following is a brief summary of policies that I recommend:
- While in prison, provide drug assessment and drug treatment for all with a substance abuse problem.
- While in prison, locate prisoners where they are more likely to receive family visits. Make visitation policies more family friendly in terms of hours.
- While in prison, provide mental health assessments and mental health treatment.
- After prison, provide aftercare including drug monitoring and treatment and mental health monitoring and treatment.
- Have arrestees, including parolees, receive a substance abuse assessment. If their crime is drug related and the law allows, provide drug court services rather than prison.
- Provide services to help all parolees assess their employment skills, receive employment training, and find employment.
- Evaluate criminal statutes to make certain the length of prison sentences is appropriate and consistent with the nature and seriousness of the crime.
To provide these services will require additional funding, but the long-term savings from lower recidivism rates and fewer prisoners will offset those costs.
Q. What do you hope readers that will take away from your book?
Bahr: The large prison population is everyone’s problem. All of us help pay for the large costs of incarcerating so many individuals. Almost all who enter prison will return to our communities. The questions are (1) what should we do to help prepare prisoners for release and reintegration, and (2) what should we do to help released prisoners reintegrate successfully and remain crime free. Currently, we incarcerate too many people and do not provide adequate services to help them reintegrate. I hope the readers gain an understanding of the complexity of the reintegration problem, and what we as a society can do to help more prisoners reintegrate successfully.
Q. What advice would you give to those entering social work or related professions?
Bahr: When we step back and look at the enormity of the problems and the number of people involved in serious drug use and crime, it can be discouraging. At the same time, it is a great opportunity for motivated and well-trained individuals in social work and related professions.
We need researchers to continue to study problems and evaluate the effectiveness of programs. This will help us identify and focus on what really helps individuals rather than wasting time and money on ineffective programs. We need well-trained practitioners to provide various types of education and treatment for individuals. And we need administrators and policymakers who understand problems and research so that they can help develop, implement, administer, and evaluate effective programs and policies.
Returning Home: Reintegration after Prison or Jail is now available. For more information about publishing with NASW Press, please contact Stella Donovan, Acquisitions Editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephen J. Bahr, PhD, in a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. In his research and teaching, he has focused on what helps offenders reintegrate successfully, the evaluation of drug treatment programs, how parenting behavior influences adolescent drug use, why marital relationships fail, how marital dissolution affects children and adults, and what helps children and adults adjust to marital dissolution.| Leave A Comment