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Families Bear the Burden of Prisoner Reintegration

by David Harding
June 21, 2018

David J. Harding is Associate Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Social Sciences D-Lab at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of 'On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration', which will be published by University of Chicago Press in early 2019. More information about his research can be found at Follow him on Twitter here.

When “DeAngelo” walked out of the gates at the Cooper Street Prison in Jackson, Michigan after serving 11 months for drunken driving, he had little more than the clothes on his back. His girlfriend “Laura” was there to greet him, however, and she drove DeAngelo to the small house in Ypsilanti that she shared with her mother, about an hour’s drive east on Interstate 94.

Recalling that day, DeAngelo explained the rush of anxiety he felt as Laura merged into traffic on the highway. “The most intensive challenge for me when I first got out was the anxiety… It’s not just a jittery nervousness. It’s like... you’re just scared shitless…overwhelmed with just life. As soon as you get in that car and you drive off, it’s like everything hits you like, all the responsibilities you’ve got to take care of and just getting everything back on track.”

For the first three months after his release, Laura and her mother supported DeAngelo in every way possible. They provided him with his basic material needs for food and shelter and supported him emotionally as he coped with the stress of reentry and the uncertainty of “getting everything back on track.”  Laura drove him to meetings with his parole officer, to job interviews, to Detroit to visit his 4-year old son, and to treatment for his alcoholism, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder. She helped him to access Washtenaw County’s health insurance for the poor so he could afford those treatments and to enroll in the local community college. After a few months working as a restaurant server, DeAngelo was able to save enough money to afford the deposit on his own apartment.

The story of DeAngelo’s reintegration is but one example of a larger pattern we saw in our study of the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals: families are bearing most of the burden of reintegration. They provide food and housing, transportation, emotional support, and job leads. They support their loved ones while they attend school or job training, help them to comply with parole requirements, and even pay fines and fees on their behalf.

The moment of reunification with family is a joyous one, but it also creates new challenges for those who welcome formerly imprisoned loved ones into their homes. Such families are typically barely scraping by as it is, juggling complex arrangements of sporadic low-wage work combined with food stamps, welfare benefits, or disability benefits just to make ends meet. A new mouth to feed makes it even harder to make the groceries last until the end of the month, and a new body in a crowded apartment means less privacy and space for everyone else.

The social and emotional adjustment to life outside the regimented world of the prison puts new pressures on families that are often already strained by poverty and poor health.

Yet such familial support, challenging as it is to provide, is critical to successful reintegration. When “Randall” left the Cooper Street prison after serving 10 months for a parole violation, he returned to Detroit without the kind of family support that DeAngelo enjoyed. Shuffling between treatment programs, homeless shelters, short stays in spare bedrooms or on living room couches, and living rough on the streets, Randall struggled to rebuild his life without a firm foundation. Instead of treatment programs and community college, Randall spent his days walking or riding the bus around Detroit to meet his parole obligations, apply for work, and attend a job readiness program, at times resorting to selling plasma and odd jobs to keep food in his belly. In moments of desperation, he sold marijuana to get by. It was not until Randall moved into a spare bedroom in a house with his step-sister and her father, a retired auto worker, that Randall experienced any stability in his life. Three years after his release, after moving in with his fiancé in the suburbs, he eventually found a full-time job as short order cook.

DeAngelo’s and Randall’s experiences of reentry and reintegration also reveal the weaknesses of our institutional infrastructure for reintegrating formerly incarcerated individuals in the era of mass incarceration. Almost everyone who enters prison leaves at some point, but programs that serve the formerly incarcerated have not kept up with increasing incarceration and subsequent reentry.

The result is that poor families, disproportionately poor families of color, are left to bear the burden of reintegration, a hidden collateral consequence of mass incarceration.