Sink or Swim: Returning from Prison Without a Social Safety Net


Transitions can be challenging for nearly everyone, and a return from prison is a particularly complex and vulnerable transitional period. Often referred to by researchers and policymakers as reentry, this is a time of multiple, urgent needs: finding housing and employment, securing physical and behavioral health care, and rejoining families and communities.

We know from prior research that almost two-thirds of all reentrants are re-arrested and more than half returned to prison within 36 months of their release. Furthermore, older reentrants may face an additional layer of complication and vulnerability as they transition back into the community.

Through recent project work designed to understand the role of health care and coverage in older reentrants’ community reintegration, our team of RTI researchers explored how older returning prisoners experienced reentry. We found that while many older individuals focused on self-reliance and family support, the insufficient public systems and formal reentry resources they encountered could not be replaced by optimism and determination alone, nor by the scarce resources of poor families.

“Reentry” evokes a singular act of reemergence, but reintegration is often a long-term effort rather than a discrete milestone. Some formal reentry support systems exist for formerly incarcerated individuals returning to the community. These include prerelease educational programming (which may cover relationship skills, employment skills, and more) and post-release vocational programs, drug treatment, and support from community supervision programs (probation or parole). It may also include public benefit programs, such as Medicaid and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which can help meet reentrants’ health care and basic needs. While some reentry programs are privately funded, including those run by faith-based institutions, many are federally funded. A key federal funding source is the Second Chance Act Grant Program, which funds state and local work to reduce recidivism and improve reentry outcomes.

To understand the challenges that mature reentrants face and the supports available to them when returning to the community after a prison sentence, we developed a case study using data from RTI’s Multi-site Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting and Partnering. The study data, now publicly available, represent the richest-yet data source on the family lives of incarcerated and reentering individuals, collected through longitudinal closed-ended survey questions and open-ended, qualitative interviews. We selected a sub-sample of eight reentering men on whom to focus our case study, using the quantitative data to identify participants with varied experiences in regard to age, history of criminal justice system involvement, and various aspects of individual outlook (such as self-efficacy, goal orientation, and spirituality).

The men in our sample experienced intense feelings of frustration, helplessness, and a lack of support from the formal systems and organizations with which they were engaged after release from prison. Participants noted missed opportunities for parole staff to provide meaningful support, particularly around the pursuit of employment that was typically a parole condition. Instead, many experienced parole officer encounters as burdensome, threatening, or simply unhelpful. While well-networked individuals (such as one reentrant with a supportive church community) did manage to access some support, the relatively narrow and limited services available to most of our sample were little match for their acute employment and behavioral health needs.

Reentering people often felt let down by what they perceived as the unredeemed promise of help from reentry programs. Explained one, “I feel like everyone’s shutting the doors in my face." In another’s experience, “When you actually get there and you are looking for the help, the help is not always there.” During this study, we got the sense that reentry experiences, current and prior, had produced a feeling among participants that existing systems were designed to return people to prison.

Family role expectations placed additional pressure on men to overcome barriers to formal employment and provide financially. Some experienced these expectations as demoralizing (in the face of failed attempts to live up to them), while others characterized them as a motivating force: “That wasn’t an option, going back [to prison]. I had my son.” While children represented an important potential source of inspiration, other family relationships and partnerships were a source of material and emotional support. For older returning prisoners, however, supportive family relationships were often sparser and more tenuous.

Faced with a set of formal and informal supports that were stretched thin at best, the men in our sample often espoused an ethic of self-sufficiency and self-accountability. One participant responded to a series of questions about what services or supports had been helpful in his reentry process with the simple answer, “I help myself, ma’am.” Self-sufficiency appeared to offer a refuge from the frustration and disappointment that reentrants had encountered in their dealings with external systems and organizations.

I was able to understand it’s just your pattern of thinking. It’s your perception. How you perceive things, you know, is really—you know what I mean—how you can almost make the outcome. Because you and I can see the same thing, perceive it. You can perceive it as being the end of the world. I can perceive it as just being a minor setback. You’ll be ready to commit suicide or do something else drastically. And what I’m saying, okay, you know, this is this, you know. I just got to get through this, you know. Another day—I have another day to make this better. -Reentering study participant

Expressions of hope for a successful reentry experience or a positive future beyond it tended to be grounded in some combination of self-reliance, willful determination, and hope for one’s children.

We found that self-reliance and the support of a devoted family make for a powerful story of resilience in the face of challenge. But for many of the reentering individuals in our study, the story did not end well, as they faced insufficient support from formal reentry systems and eroded family networks more typical of older reentrants and those with behavioral health conditions.

Because incarceration disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color and people with disabilities, existing systems that tend to disadvantage members of those communities often add to the challenges of reentry as well. Reentry services and supports would do well to recognize and actively build on the informal resources and inner resourcefulness that many reentrants and their families mobilize to avoid a return to prison. Promising reentry approaches for this population include individualized assistance with public benefits and employment applications and funding for community health workers and peer navigators with similar lived experiences. Reentrants’ informal (and internal) resources are a powerful place to start, but cannot be the only support keeping them afloat.