Research Report  |  Prison reentry

Women and reentry: Evaluation of the St. Leonard's Ministries' Grace House Program

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Second in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

More than 2.4 million people are confined in correctional facilities across the United States.1 Each year, more than half a million inmates are released from prison and return to their communities.2 The formerly incarcerated face many obstacles as they reenter the community, such as finding employment and housing, and paying outstanding fines, restitution, and other debts.3 Two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years for new crimes or parole violations.4

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority has been evaluating St. Leonard’s Ministries programs since 2011. As part of that evaluation, Authority researchers examined administrative program data and outcomes of residents after program participation, conducted interviews with program staff and stakeholders and completed field observations to identify program components that are effective in contributing to successful resident outcomes, learn about the programs’ residents and operations, and analyze client outcomes. This report focuses on Grace House, a voluntary, residential, prisoner reentry program for women. Those accepted into the program receive housing, substance abuse treatment, psychological services, life skills mentoring, and education and vocational services.

Resident data

Applications collected between 2009 and 2012 indicated Grace House served an average of 20 residents per year. In 2012, the residents’ average age was 41 years old. Fifty percent had come from prison, 33 percent had come from jail, and the rest entered the program from a substance abuse treatment facility.

Researchers tracked outcome data on a sample of 25 women. Women sampled had an average of 26 prior arrests. In addition, 76 percent had at least one prior property conviction, 72 percent had a prior drug conviction, and 40 percent had a violent crime conviction. Most were incarcerated three times, on average.

After leaving Grace House, 36 percent were arrested for another crime, 24 percent were convicted of another crime, and 20 percent were incarcerated again (examined an average of 1.5 years after leaving the program) (Table).

Pre- and post-program criminal justice involvement (n=25)
Pre-program Percent mean
Arrests 100% 26
Convictions 100% 13
Incarcerations 84% 3
Arrests 36% 1
Convictions 24% 0.28
Incarcerations 20% 0.12
Data sources: ICJIA analyses of Illinois State Police, Criminal History Record Information and Illinois Department of Corrections data

Program operations

A researcher observed day-to-day operations and noted specific content of group therapy sessions. Staff provided individual and group therapy sessions, skills development classes, enrichment groups, and referred residents to job training programs and a high school completion program. Group topics offered included parenting, rational-emotive therapy, Survivors Anonymous, anger management, and legal advocacy. Residents saw Grace House as a welcoming, home-like setting where women can find support from staff, Adler School of Professional Psychology interns, volunteers, and former residents. While student interns with master’s degrees in psychology appear to be an asset to the program, turnover with each academic year was disruptive to the psychological individual and group therapy process.

Implications for policy and practice

During the evaluation, researchers uncovered areas for improvement and program expansion. What follows are recommendations to enhance Grace House based on the evaluation findings and supported by literature and research.

Improve resident selection process

In most cases, women found their way to the program via word-of-mouth; outreach is needed to notify incarcerated women of the opportunity to participate in the program upon release. In addition, screening instruments should be used to guide program admission. Applicant interviews and a period of conditional acceptance would help ensure the program meets the needs of the individual.

Measure risk, needs, and assets

Grace House program administrators did not measure client risk, needs, and assets. Assessing risk is important to decrease re-offending and is considered an evidence-based practice. The Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model holds that proper assessment should guide supervision and treatment decisions, with supervision levels matching offender risk for reoffending (risk principle), treatment focusing on identified criminogenic needs (need principle) and interventions tailored fit the learning styles, motivation, and strengths of the offenders (responsivity principle). 5 Further, a resident’s assets, or advantages, can help determine likelihood of recidivism and may also help guide programming linkages.

Enhance programming

The Vera Institute of Justice recommends avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather program staff should individualize reentry service plans based on resident priorities. The study revealed all residents were assigned to the same substance abuse treatment modality “intensive outpatient” regardless of prior or current substance use, substance abuse diagnosis, treatment needs, available support system, and risk of relapse. In addition, all residents were required to attend parenting group sessions regardless whether they were parents. Services and interventions should match the residents’ unique conditions, and administrators should consider tailoring services based on participant risks, needs, and assets.

Target vocational training

Program participants can obtain training in many fields but typically found employment in temporary jobs, and jobs in food service, community and social service, education, and libraries. Reentry programs like Grace House should offer skills specific to market demands with a greater likelihood of employment by adding value above a candidate with entry-level skills.6

Increase resident autonomy

Grace House observations and interviews highlighted the need for an increase in resident autonomy. Residents with a lower risk of recidivism could benefit from more privileges.7 Since Grace House is designed as a stepping-stone for independent living, it may be helpful to allow residents identified as lower risk more freedom to make decisions concerning their treatment and daily schedules.

Train all staff and volunteers

Four staff members reported receiving no formal training for their jobs. Staff said training was needed in conflict resolution, motivational interviewing, case management, communication, grants, fundraising, and leadership. Training and skill enhancement, particularly in evidence-based practices, are key for case managers and volunteers to be effective.

Use evidence-based case management

Staff effectiveness could be enhanced with motivational interviewing of residents. The Urban Institute’s best practices for reentry emphasize motivating residents, envisioning new roles and self-concepts, and nurturing the commitment to change. Motivational interviewing is considered an evidenced-based practice; research has shown this type of case management is better at facilitating change in clients.

The program could be further enhanced with the “Thinking for a Change” program (T4C), which helps clients take command of their own lives and think through cognitive behavioral training, social skills improvement, and problem-solving techniques. Research has shown T4C reduces recidivism for participants.

Improve communication

Interviews with staff indicated they were unsure of the goals of the program, criteria for successful completion of the program, and enforcement of policies and procedures by staff. Stronger communication is recommended for staff agreement on program goals, requirements, and rules enforcement. A resident handbook outlining program components and rules should be developed and provided to all incoming program participants. Integrity to the program rules and guidelines set forth must be maintained.

Collect data for quality improvement

Resident data was limited during the course of the evaluation. Data collection is needed on all program applicants, including that which documents program and client outcomes. Program administrators should use periodic or pre- and post-program assessments to measure changes in resident recidivism risk levels, readiness for change, and criminal thinking. Continuous quality improvement and assurance is needed in the areas of assessment, case planning, cognitive-behavioral techniques, and motivational interviewing.

  1. Wagner, P., & Sakala, L. (2014). Mass incarceration: The whole pie. Northhampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative.
  2. Carson, A., & Sabol, W.J. (2012). Prisoners in 2011. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.; Guerino, P., Harrison, P.M., & Sabol, W.J. (2011). Prisoners in 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.; Travis, J. (2005). But they all come back: Facing the challenges of prisoner reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
  3. Gouvis-Roman, C., & Travis, J. (2004). Taking stock: Housing, homelessness, and prisoner reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.; Levingston, K.D., & Turetsky, V. (2007). Debtors prison”Prisoners’ accumulation of debt as a barrier to reentry. Clearinghouse review Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, 43(3-4), 187-197.; Wheelock, D. (2005). Collateral consequences and racial inequality felon status restrictions as a system of disadvantage. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 21(1), 82-90.
  4. Langan, P.A., & Levin, D.J. (2002). Recidivism of prisoners released in 1994. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  5. Bonta, J., & Andrews, D. A. (2007). Risk-need-responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation. Ottowa: Public Safety Canada.
  6. Lawrence, S., Mears, D., Dubin, G., & Travis, J. (2002). The practice and promise of prison programming. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
  7. Lowenkamp, C.T., & Latessa, E.J. (2004). Understanding the risk principle: How and why correctional interventions can harm low-risk offenders. Topics in Community Corrections,3-8.
All articles in this series
Housing and Services After Prison: Evaluation of the St. Leonard’s House Reentry Program
Part 3 | December 18, 2016
More than 500,000 individuals are released from prison each year. As they return to their communities, they face obstacles in finding employment and housing, as well as significant debt, outstanding fines, and restitution payments. Two-thirds of this population are arrested again within three years. St. Leonard’s House in Chicago offers voluntary, supportive housing for men exiting prison. Program clients receive housing, substance abuse treatment, psychological services, life skills, mentoring, and education and vocational services. Authority researchers used qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection, as well as quasi-experimental design and advanced statistical analysis, to examine outcomes after program participation, including arrests, convictions, incarcerations, and employment.
Women and reentry: Evaluation of the St. Leonard’s Ministries’ Grace House Program
Part 2 | December 8, 2015
More than 2.4 million people are confined in correctional facilities across the United States. Each year, more than half a million inmates are released from prison and return to their communities. The formerly incarcerated face many obstacles as they reenter the community, such as finding employment and housing, and paying outstanding fines, restitution, and other debts.
Evaluation of St. Leonard’s Ministries: Case studies of former residents of St. Leonard’s House and Grace House
Part 1 | July 29, 2015
More than 2.4 million people are confined in the U.S. in state and federal prisons, juvenile corrections, and jails. Each year, more than half a million individuals are released from prison and return to their communities. After leaving prison, offenders with criminal records face obstacles such as difficulty finding employment and housing, significant debt, outstanding fines, and restitution payments.

A review of the reentry literature

Incarceration and prisoner reentry

Nationwide, U.S. estimates indicate 13 million women and men are either serving or have previously served a felony sentence (Mauer, 2010). This large accrual of prisoners has been partially attributed to the enactment of tough on crime policies, the war on drugs, and mandatory and determinate sentencing guidelines (Lynch & Sabol, 1997). Leaders in reentry research describe the dynamic and often complicated process of exiting prison as incorporating not only a physical resettlement, but also a social and emotional process of returning to free society.

Reentry is not a new phenomenon as most incarcerated individuals return to their communities (Travis, 2005). Increased attention to the reintegration of former prisoners grew parallel to the drastic rise in incarceration rates (Lynch & Sabol, 2001). Since the 1980's, rates of incarceration have increased from one in 719 to one in 201 residents in 2010 (Blumstein & Beck, 1999; Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol, 2011; ). Prisoner population estimates indicate that substantially more than half a million individuals are released from state or federal prison each year (Carson & Sabol, 2012; Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol, 2011). Notably, although African Americans represent 13.1 percent of the national population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010), they comprise 40.7 percent of prisoners sentenced to at least one year in state or federal prison (Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol, 2011). These figures quantitatively describe the current reentry dilemma; but they only begin to portray the social and economic realities millions of formerly incarcerated individuals face each year due to prior convictions.

The collateral consequences re-entering individuals face after leaving prison include formal and informal policies that hinder reentry into various social institutions (Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2003). Common repercussions of a criminal record include a decrease in civic participation, difficulties in finding employment, and housing insecurity and homelessness (Gouvis-Roman & Travis, 2004; Wheelock, 2005; ). Exiting individuals often have limited pre-release planning (Kupers, 1999; Nelson, Deess & Allen, 2011) and many have significant debt, outstanding fines, and restitution payments (Levingston & Turetsky, 2007). The culmination of these costs and other policies lead two thirds of released prisoners to be re-arrested within three years of release− many for committing another crime, but nearly 25 percent for a technical violation of probation or parole (Langan & Levin, 2002). In fact, the number of people who returned to state prison for a parole violation increased seven fold from 1980 to 2000 (from 27,000 to 203,000) (Travis & Lawrence, 2002).

Issues that lead to incarceration

There are a number of factors that directly or indirectly influence an offender's likelihood of incarceration. Inmates have shown to have higher rates of substance use, gang involvement, mental health issues, childhood abuse and neglect, unemployment, and have lower levels of education than the general population (Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; Fondacaro & Holt, 1999; Harlow, 2003; Johnson, Ross, Taylor, Carvajal, & Peters, 2005; Modestin & Wuermle, 2005; Varano, Huebner, & Bynum, 2011; Widom, 1995). Each of these factors may play a role in an offender's criminal behavior.

Substance abuse

Research has shown that drug and alcohol use is a risk factor for criminal behavior and incarceration (Hattery & Smith, 2010; Sinha & Easton, 1999). Substance use can lower inhibitions causing changes in an individual's behaviors and certain drugs may increase aggressive tendencies (Sinha & Easton, 1999). Some individuals commit crimes to support their drug habit (Harrison & Gfroerer, 1992). Drug use has been shown to be highly correlated with property and violent crimes (Harrison & Gfroerer, 1992). One-fourth of jail detainees reported abusing alcohol or drugs and 40 percent reported alcohol or drug dependence (Karberg & James, 2005). Prisoners have a higher rate of substance abuse than the general population"48 percent for male prisoners and 60 percent for female inmates (Fazel, Bains, & Doll, 2004).

Gang involvement

Gang involvement has been found to be a significant risk factor for criminal behavior (Varano, Huebner, & Bynum, 2011). Research shows that individuals who are gang-involved commit their first offense at a younger age, are involved in more serious crimes, and are incarcerated more frequently than non-gang members (Huff, 1998; Levitt & Venkatesh, 2001). Gangs promote criminal behavior among members and significantly increase an individual's risk for incarceration (Krohn & Thornberry, 2008; Leavitt & Venkatesh, 2001). Varano, Huebner, and Bynum (2011) found that up to one third of sampled inmates were gang-involved prior to incarceration. Furthermore, gang members report significantly higher numbers of criminal activities than non-gang members, including those involving drugs and weapons (Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; Varano et al., 2011).

Mental health

Individuals with major mental disorders are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated at some point in their lives (Lamb & Weinberger, 1998). Individuals with mental health disorders are overly represented in the criminal justice system. According to James and Glaze (2006), over half of incarcerated individuals have mental health disorders. There is a lack of community-based mental health treatment providers and psychiatric beds for individuals with mental illness (Aufderheide & Brown, 2005). As a result, many mentally ill individuals do not receive adequate treatment for their disorders and frequently come into contact with the criminal justice system (Aufderheide & Brown, 2005; Chelune, 2011; Lurigio, Rollins, & Fallon, 2004).

Childhood abuse and neglect

Victims of childhood abuse and neglect often suffer from psychological disorders, behavioral problems, and substance abuse (Fondacaro et al., 1999; Hattery & Smith, 2010; Johnson, et al,, 2005; Widom, 1995). There is a higher rate of criminal and violent behavior among childhood abuse and neglect victims (Widom, 1989; Widom, 1995; Widom & Ames, 1994). According to Widom (1989), individuals with a history of child abuse and neglect have a significantly higher rate of criminal justice involvement. Approximately 29 percent of adults and 26 percent of juveniles who are victims of childhood abuse and neglect are arrested at some point in their lives (Widom, 1995).

Employment and income

Unemployment rates are higher for offenders than the general population. Studies of unemployment have shown that between 34 and 53 percent of inmates were unemployed prior to their arrest (Indig et al., 2009; Lynch, Smith, Graziadei, & Pittayathikhun, 1994). In 2002, 29 percent of offenders reported that they were unemployed prior to their incarceration (James, 2004). In comparison, the unemployment rate for the general population at the end of 2002 was 6 percent (U.S. Department of Labor, 2012). Some studies find a correlation between unemployment rates and property and violent crimes (Lee & Holoviak, 2006; Parker & Horwitz, 1986; Raphael & Winter-Ebmer, 2001). Henderson (2001) reported that "unemployed offenders are more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system and that such offenders do not fare as well as their employed counterparts in the criminal justice system" (p.84).

Research finds a link between lower income and higher crime rates. Poverty and low income are related to violent crime with the exception of homicide (Box, 1987; Hsieh & Pugh, 1993). Research has shown that there is a strong relationship between income disparity and crime (Box, 1987). Areas in which there are high levels of income inequality have been found to have higher overall crime rates (Witte & Witt, 2000).


Research shows that a lack of education can be a risk factor for criminal behavior. Individuals with lower levels of education, on average earn a lower salary and have higher crime rates (Harlow, 2003; Lochner & Moretti, 2004). According to Harlow (2003), the offender population has a significantly lower level of educational achievement than the general population. In 1991, 41 percent of offenders in the United States had not graduated from high school, compared with 18 percent of the general population (Harlow, 2003). Furthermore, researchers find that only 16 percent of offenders had attended college as compared to 43 percent of the general U.S. population (Lynch et al., 1994).

Reentry needs

Reentry is defined as the transition of a formerly incarcerated individual from custody back into their community. Reentry can occur after release from local jails, state prisons, private correctional institutions, federal prisons, and juvenile detention facilities. The number of individuals incarcerated has increased over the past quarter century (La Vigne, Mamalian, Travis, & Visher, 2003). The rise in the incarceration rate peaked in 2006 with 749,798 incarcerated offenders and has slowly begun to decline (Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol, 2011). According to Petersilia (2003), prisoners, on average, will spend approximately five months in jail and 29 months in prison. With more individuals being incarcerated and relatively short incarceration periods, the number of individuals being released from correctional facilities has also increased over the past decade, peaking in 2008 with a total of 735,454 prisoners released from state and federal prisons (Guerino, et al., 2011; La Vigne et al., 2003). In 2010, there were 708,677 individuals released prisoners released compared to 604,858 in 2000 (Guerino et al., 2011).

Many released offenders return to disadvantaged communities characterized by high levels of crime, poverty, and drug use (Visher, La Vigne, & Travis, 2004; La Vigne et al., 2003). In Illinois, over 50 percent of offenders return to the city of Chicago and over 30 percent return to six of the city's 77 communities (La Vigne, et al., 2003). The six communities with the highest number of returning offenders were areas characterized by socioeconomic disadvantage and high crime rates (La Vigne, et al., 2003). Petersilia (2011) finds that in poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods, approximately 20 percent of the male population is incarcerated. The incarceration and recidivism of large number of individuals in one area creates instability in communities (Thompson, 2008). Furthermore, the communities lack social cohesion and support necessary to help ex-offenders successfully live outside of prison (Visher, et. al., 2004). In addition, individuals returning to disadvantaged neighborhoods have higher recidivism rates (Visher et al., 2004).

Offenders re-entering the community are faced with a wide range of barriers that often make successful reintegration difficult (Graffam, Shinkfield, Lavelle, & McPherson, 2008). Formerly incarcerated offenders may have trouble reconnecting with family members, finding stable housing, securing employment, maintaining sobriety, and obtaining other forms of assistance (Flannery, 2004; Guerino et al., 2011; Hattery & Smith, 2010). Correctional facilities offer fewer prison programs and services to inmates (Petersilia, 2003). Furthermore, La Vigne et al. (2003) found participation in prison programs is declining. While substance abuse and dependence rates are high among inmates, less than 25 percent of offenders will attend substance abuse programs while incarcerated (Petersilia, 2003). Furthermore, less than one third of inmates will participate in educational or vocational training in prison (Petersilia, 2003). Often inmates are unable to attend prison programs due to long wait lists (Petersilia, 2003).

Preparing inmates for successful reentry is vital to preventing offender recidivism. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 67 percent of offenders are rearrested within three years of release (Langan & Levin, 2002). Factors that contribute to recidivism include homelessness, poverty, unemployment, and drug use (La Vigne et al., 2004; Paylor, 1995; Uggen & Staff, 2004). According to Hattery & Smith (2010), "barriers to reentry significantly shape the probability for recidivism" (p. 14). Research has shown that offenders who were given support in finding housing and employment had better outcomes and were more successful when returning to their communities (Hattery & Smith, 2010). Furthermore, individuals that had strong social support networks and close ties to family were more successful at reintegration (Graffam, et al., 2008; Solomon, Gouvis, & Waul, 2001).

Physical and mental health

The majority of offenders leaving prison suffer from chronic physical health problems. According to Mallick-Kane and Visher (2008), 49 percent of male offenders and 67 percent of female offenders leaving prison reported a physical health problem. Research has shown that formerly incarcerated individuals suffer from a wide range of health conditions including asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, HIV/AIDs, hepatitis, hypertension, and tuberculosis (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008; Thompson, 2008; Visher, 2004; Williams, 2006). Individuals with health problems have greater difficulty reintegrating into society. They struggle to find stable employment and housing, and have greater difficulty with family reintegration (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008).

In 2005, over 700,000 incarcerated individuals had symptoms of a mental disorder. There are high rates of mental health disorders such as mania, depression, and psychosis among prisoners (James & Glaze, 2006). However, the majority of former prisoners with mental health disorders are unable to receive long term care (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008). Many individuals with mental health disorders who do not receive adequate treatment have trouble functioning in the community (The Sentencing Project, 2002). The presence of a mental health disorder makes reentry even more challenging for offenders. Offenders with mental illness experience greater difficulty with finding stable housing, employment, and receive less support from family members (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008). Individuals with serious mental disorders are at a higher risk for recidivism and return to prison sooner than individuals without mental disorders (Cloyes, Wong, Latimer, & Abarca, 2010).

Formerly incarcerated persons often lack access to financial support for health care. Many offenders do not have health insurance and have had federal benefits suspended. Offenders incarcerated for long periods of time may have their Medicaid benefits terminated (La Vigne et al., 2004, Thompson, 2008). While an offender may apply for these benefits to be reinstated, it often takes a substantial amount of time. As a result, many offenders with chronic physical or mental illnesses do not receive health care and treatment after release (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008). Many are forced to seek short-term treatment in hospitals and emergency rooms (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008).

Substance abuse

Substance abuse is another common problem for former prisoners. Approximately two-thirds of individuals entering prison report some form of substance abuse (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008). While there are prison programs to help inmates deal with their addiction problems, only about half of offenders participate in prison programming for their substance abuse (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008). Research has shown that individuals with prior substance abuse problems are at a higher risk for continued use and criminal activity (Gever, 2007; Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008; Sinha & Easton, 1999). Up to one-third of former prisoners reported substance use within a year of their release (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008). Substance abuse can further complicate a former offender's ability to obtain stable employment or housing (Holzer et al., 2003; Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008). Formerly incarcerated populations suffering from addiction are at an increased risk of developing serious health conditions or contracting infectious diseases (Mallik-Kane & Visher, 2008). Furthermore, the risk of overdose is high for recently released offenders with substance abuse problems. Research has shown that offenders with substance abuse problems who obtain treatment have lower rates of recidivism; however, there is a lack of available treatment programs for released offenders (Gever, 2007).


Research has shown that finding employment can help reduce recidivism rates of released prisoners (Holzer, Raphael, & Stoll, 2003; La Vigne et al., 2004; Uggen & Staff, 2004). However, there are a number of challenges that returning citizens face when seeking employment, such as a lack of education, work experience, qualifications, and employment opportunities, as well as negative employer attitudes (Holzer et al., 2003, Holzer, Raphel, & Stoll, 2004;Visher et al., 2004; Uggen & Staff, 2004). Of those offenders that are able to obtain employment, the majority obtain a low-wage jobs (Holzer et al., 2003; Weiner, 2004). Often wages earned are not enough to cover the cost of an apartment and other basic necessities. Furthermore, these jobs are often temporary and lack benefits (Holzer et al., 2003). Visher et al. (2004) found that eight months after release, only 65 percent of offenders were able to obtain some form of employment and less than half were currently employed at the time of the interview. Offenders who are unable to obtain legitimate employment or have low wages are often forced to rely on other sources of income, such as support from family and friends, informal work, public assistance, and in some cases, illegal income (Holzer et al., 2003; Visher et al., 2004).

Many former prisoners have low levels of education and lack work experience (Harlow, 2003; Holzer et al., 2003; Uggen & Staff, 2004). Visher et al. (2004) found that approximately half of offenders have their high school diploma. Furthermore, research has shown that up to one-third of offenders were unemployed prior to their incarceration (Lynch & Sabol, 2001; Visher et al., 2004). Few offenders have specialized training or job skills that will assist them with finding employment (Graffam et al., 2008). Offenders may not know how to look for or apply for a job and their ability to locate a job may be difficult. Offenders may have lost job contacts as a result of their incarceration (Visher et al., 2004). Offenders may also lack the ability to afford appropriate attire to wear to interviews or on the job and may have difficulty securing or affording transportation to and from work (Graffam et al., 2008)

Another employment barrier for former prisoners is employer attitudes towards hiring individuals with criminal records. Many employers conduct criminal background checks on potential employees or ask about criminal history on applications. Research has shown that employers are often reluctant to hire formerly incarcerated individuals, with approximately two-thirds of employers reporting that they would not hire an individual with a criminal background (Holzer et al., 2004). While willingness to hire may increase depending on the specific offender's education, the type of offense committed may negatively impact employer attitudes (Albright & Denq, 1996). Research has shown that employers are least likely to hire those who have been convicted of a violent crime or a crime committed against a child, such as sexual or physical abuse (Albright & Denq, 1996). According to Holzer et al., (2004), employers may believe that populations with records will be untrustworthy or unreliable employees. Furthermore, they may be hesitant to hire an ex-offender out of concern for the safety of other employees or customers (Harris & Keller, 2005). Employers may fear being held liable for the criminal actions of the ex-offender. An employer may be liable if they expose their employees or customers to dangerous individuals (Holzer et al., 2004).

Other barriers returning citizens may encounter are state or federal laws prohibiting their employment in certain professions. Offenders with felony convictions are barred from holding jobs in some health services industries, the security industry, and any job where they may be in contact with children (Holzer et al., 2003). Furthermore, some companies may have policies that prohibit hiring individuals with criminal records (Taxman, Young, & Byrne, 2002). There are also licensing restrictions, depending on the state, that prevent offenders from obtaining employment in certain fields such as health care, law, garbage collection, barbering, and cosmetology (Petersilia, 2003).

Federal assistance

Individuals who are convicted of a felony are ineligible to receive certain federal assistance. Individuals convicted of drug-related offenses are banned from obtaining food stamps, veteran's benefits or participating in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program (Roman & Travis, 2004). While offenders may still be eligible to receive assistance through Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), these benefits may be suspended if an offender is incarcerated for more than one month. It often takes a significant length of time for these benefits to be reinstated (Roman & Travis, 2004).

Offenders convicted of drug-related felonies have additional barriers. Federal legislation was passed that prevents individuals with felony convictions for a drug offense from obtaining financial aid for education (Hattery & Smith, 2010). Furthermore, the federal government passed a law requiring that states suspend or revoke the licenses of individual convicted of drug felonies, including DUIs, for at least six months or loses federal highway funding (Hattery & Smith, 2010; Petersilia, 2003).


According to Cortes and Rogers (2010), "in most jurisdictions to which individuals return after incarceration, accessible and affordable housing is in exceedingly short supply," (p. vii). While there are several options for those exiting incarceration, such as residing with friends and family, community-based correctional housing, transitional housing, federally subsidized housing, supportive housing, and housing in the private market, there are barriers that make obtaining these different forms of housing challenging.

As a condition of their parole, many offenders are required to have their residence pre-approved and are prevented from living with certain individuals (Bradley, Oliver, Richardson, & Slayter, 2001; Thompson, 2008). Research has shown that up to 80 percent of released offenders will move in with friends or relatives for a period of time (Roman & Travis, 2004). However, some offenders may not have any family or friends, may lack close ties with them, or there may be family conflict that prevents an offender from residing with relatives (Roman & Travis, 2004). Friends and family who allow a paroled offender to live with them are subject to visits by the offender's parole officer, as well as searches of their home (Thompson, 2008). Friends and family members may fear having the offender return to their home due to past violence or drug use (Roman & Travis, 2004; Thompson, 2008). Furthermore, an offender may be prohibited from living with another individual with a criminal history (Petersilia, 2003; Roman & Travis, 2004). Finally, the offender may be prevented from living within a certain distance of their victim or other specified areas (Logan, 2007; Petersilia, 2003).

Offenders who are unable to reside with friends and family may be required to live in community-based correctional housing or halfway houses. Halfway houses are run through federal or state department of corrections and are designed to transition offenders from prison life back into the community. Offenders that are eligible may serve up to 10 percent of their sentence in a halfway house (Roman & Travis, 2004). However, certain criteria may exclude an individual from residing in a halfway house such as serious or violent criminal backgrounds, unemployment, or major psychiatric problems. Furthermore, there are a limited number of halfway houses available and limited space (Roman & Travis, 2004; Shilton & Vail, 2005). For this reason, halfway houses are not a viable option for many offenders leaving prison.

There are also government funded transitional housing programs that offer housing to homeless individuals that are disabled, mentally ill, or living with HIV/AIDS (Roman & Travis, 2004). Offenders who have been incarcerated for more than 30 days and meet other inclusion criteria are eligible for this type of transitional housing. However, the availability of this type of housing is limited and there are often long waiting lists (Roman & Travis, 2004).

Offenders rarely have access to federally subsidized housing due to selection criteria and prohibitions. There is a lack of available public housing around the country (Roman & Travis, 2004). Individuals applying for public housing are subject to background checks, so they are less likely than other non-offending individuals to be granted subsidized housing (Hattery & Smith, 2010; Roman & Travis, 2004; Thompson, 2008). Furthermore, there are bans on violent criminal activity and drug use on and off the property of any individual residing in public housing (Hattery & Smith, 2010; Thompson, 2008; Visher et al., 2004). Therefore, if an individual or guest violates this provision, all individuals residing in the house are subject to eviction (Thompson, 2008). Therefore, individuals residing in public housing may be hesitant to allow an ex-offender to reside there.

Offenders are rarely able to find rental apartments when they are released from prison due to criminal history and lack of finances (Petersilia, 2003; Visher et al., 2004). Landlords often do not want to rent to individuals with a criminal history (Clark, 2007; Harding & Harding, 2006). Furthermore, with publically available criminal records, the community may object to apartments being rented to individuals with criminal records (Clark, 2007; Roman & Travis, 2004). Other barriers to an offender's ability to rent are a lack of or poor credit history and rental history (Clark, 2007; Gunnison, 2011). A lack of finances is another barrier that prevents an offender from being able to rent an apartment upon release from prison (Hattery & Smith, 2010; Visher et al., 2004). Individuals leaving prison often receive less than $200 dollars upon release, which may not cover a security deposit and rent for an apartment (Roman & Travis, 2004).

Released offenders that are unable to secure housing are often left homeless and forced to stay in shelters. Research has shown that individuals living in shelters have a less successful reentry process than those who find stable housing (Nelson, Deess, & Allen, 1999). Furthermore, the shelter environment may not be ideal for individuals trying to avoid the criminal and drug lifestyle (Graffam et al., 2008; Paylor, 1995).

Reentry housing programs

Transitional supportive housing is another option for ex-offenders leaving prison. These typically run through private faith-based or non-profit organizations and are designed to support offenders as they move back into the community (Roman & Travis, 2004; Shilton & Vail, 2005). Transitional housing is typically short-term and designed to help residents become independent. Supportive services such as life skills, employment assistance, counseling, and substance abuse treatment are typically offered to residents (Roman & Travis, 2004). Offenders are allowed to reside in the transitional homes for a period of time until they are able to secure long-term housing. However, there is limited space available in transitional programs and not all offenders are eligible to reside in this type of housing (Shilton & Vail, 2005).

An example of a reentry housing program is the Fortune Academy and Castle Gardens in West Harlem, New York. Fortune Academy provides emergency and longer-term housing for 62 formerly incarcerated individuals. Castle Gardens provides supportive and affordable housing and essential services at the same site, creating long-term housing solutions for homeless people with histories of incarceration and their families, as well as low-income individuals and families.

A different type of reentry housing program, Delancy Street, started in 1971 and provides housing for formerly incarcerated, substance abusers, and homeless individuals. The program is available in five locations throughout the United States"New Mexico, San Francisco, Los Angeles, North Carolina, and New York. Delancy Street is considered an extended family or community with no staff of experts and no programmatic approach. The program runs without government funds and is resident-run in that all residents contribute to the community. The program offers residents free food, housing, clothing, and education, and entertainment.

Reentry issues among women

In 2010, more than 1 million women were under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system (The Sentencing Project, 2012). Over 815,000 women were on probation or parole (Glaze & Bonczar, 2011); nearly 113,000 were incarcerated in a state or federal prison (Guerino, et. al. 2011); and 93,300 were housed in local jails (Minton, 2012). In 2009, of the women sentenced nationwide to more than a year in prison, 36 percent were serving time for a violent offense, followed by a property offense (30 percent), or a drug offense (26 percent) (Guerino, et. al., 2011). Although the U.S. rate of incarceration of Black women continues to be higher than that of White women (133 per 100,000 residents compared to 47 per 100,000), the disproportionate number of incarcerated Black women has improved in the past 10 years. In 2000, Black female prisoners comprised 45 percent of women sentenced in a state or federal facility; in 2010, Black female prisoners made up 25 percent the same population (Guerino, et. al., 2011). In Illinois, women constitute 6.1 percent of the state prisoner population (2,900) and 9.8 percent of the parolee population (2,751) (IDOC, 2010). Locally, 9,161 women accounted for nearly 13 percent of total admissions to Cook County Jail. This number includes 934 women who entered twice and 202 women who were admitted three or more times within the same year. Descriptively, nearly 70 percent of female admissions were Black, followed by 20 percent White, and 12 percent Hispanic (Olsen & Taheri, 2012).

Many formerly incarcerated women return to poor, socially disadvantaged communities (Visher & Farrell, 2005), and often struggle with drug addictions (Karberg & James, 2005), chronic medical problems (Maruschak, 2008), mental health concerns (James & Glaze, 2006), and prior sexual and physical victimization (Chesney-Lind, 2002). Dodge and Pogrebin (2001) interviewed 53 women on parole and found various social impediments to reentry. Their findings highlight difficulties in reuniting with children and family, as nearly half of respondents reported having minimal or no contact with family. Other respondents talked of the challenges in retrieving their children from foster care given their marginal place in society. Interviewees also discussed their struggles with personal shame due to their perceived stigma of a criminal record. Respondents mentioned, "Having to prove themselves as worthy citizens" (p. 49) as a stressful endeavor. Community members, including other parents, church members, and employers, treated interviewees differently after learning of their criminal backgrounds, further aggravating their adjustment to society.

When individuals exit prison, they often transition to community supervision and are expected to manage designated rules of extended supervision post-release. Some of these guidelines include daily curfews, random drug tests, scheduled and unscheduled check-ins, and needed approval for residence, employment, and travel outside of the state. Opsal (2008) interviewed 43 women on parole and found that most respondents viewed parole agents as an extension of law enforcement because they had the power to revoke their freedom at any point. Based on her data, Opsal suggests the institution of parole is "a pervasive factor in the women's lives as they return to their community and can actually function to inhibit their reintegration efforts" (p. iii). Respondents saw the overall system of parole as a mechanism of control and surveillance, despite their positive remarks about individual parole agents. Respondents explained community supervision was not designed not to help them successfully reintegrate, but rather to ensure they did not break any rules. These findings are consistent with Petersillia's (2003) appraisal of community supervision as more concerned with surveillance than rehabilitation. Petersillia describes, "The system's perception that those coming out of prison today are a more hardcore group requiring surveillance more than services" (2003, p. 92). In addition to adhering to parole guidelines, women often encounter numerous barriers to reconnecting with their children.


Through interviews with formerly incarcerated women and their children, Golden (2005) highlights that poor, formerly incarcerated women are often stigmatized as unfit mothers and are subjected to a racialized system of inequality that has historically shaped child welfare and social welfare policy in the US. Golden argues the war on drugs was a war on the family, one that particularly affected African American families. At midyear 2007, there were 65,600 women in a state or federal prison who were caregivers to more than 1.7 million minor children; over 70 percent of those children were Black or Hispanic (Glaze & Maruschak 2008; Schirmer, Nellis, & Mauer, 2009).

Since women are incarcerated less frequently than men, there are fewer prisons for women. Because of this, mothers often serve their prison sentence hundreds of miles away from their families, making continuous visitation challenging (Flavin, 2009; Greenberg, 2006). The lack of visitation from children could make serving time increasingly painful as former research notes that many women view their children as extended identities (Ferraro & Moe, 2006). Prior to arrest, 64 percent of mothers in prison reported themselves as primary caregivers of their children and 42 percent of those mothers were single parents (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Thus, when a mother is incarcerated, children are usually cared for by a grandparent or family member (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), and in about 10 percent of cases, children enter the foster care system.

The Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (2007) mandates the termination of parental custody rights after a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months (Evans, 2006). The average prison sentence spans beyond 22 months; consequently mothers with longer sentences are more likely lose legal custody of children (Schirmer, Nellis & Mauer, 2009). Later, when a mother leaves prison, regaining parental rights is often contingent upon stable employment and housing circumstances since mothers must prove to be able to care for their children both to relatives and to the state (Dodge & Pobrebin, 2001; Richie, 2001).

Although children may motivate a mother to succeed during reentry, they can also be a source of added stress (Brown & Bloom, 2009; Dodge & Pogrebin, 2001; O'Brien, 2001). Through interviews with 100 reentering mothers, Michalsen (2011) found that experiences concerning children were unstable due to a number of factors. Some of these factors revolve around: housing and financial instability; difficulties in coping with prior domestic violence; and troubles with maintaining sobriety"all of which influence a mother's ability to care for her children.

Health and substance abuse

After release from prison, women often struggle with chronic substance abuse and physical and mental health problems (Arditti & Few, 2006; Visher, La Vigne, & Travis, 2004; Vito & Tewskbury, 2000). Prior research explores how women's drug use correlates with incarceration. One study found that women in jail were 11 times more likely to meet the criteria for substance dependence or abuse compared to the overall U.S. population (69.2 versus 6.1 percent) (Karberg & James 2005). In a study conducted by Pollock and Crouch (2002), researchers discovered a high correlation between female prisoners, drug use and criminality"particularly for property and public order crimes. Another study posits drug addiction for women is largely associated with three types of crimes: prostitution, drug-related offenses, and property crimes (Anglin and Hser, 1987). Other scholars suggest formerly incarcerated women use drugs to cope with several types of abuse (Nelson-Ziupko, Kauffman & Dore, 1995) including victimization or current dysfunctional and or abusive relationships (Pollock, 1999).

Medical concerns are likewise prevalent within former prisoner populations. In a study of medical problems of prisoners, 59 percent of women reported having a chronic medical condition including HIV, Hepatitis C, and or a sexually transmitted disease (Maruschak, 2008). Another study found 73 percent of women prisoners and 75 percent of women jail inmates reported symptoms of a current mental health problem (James & Glaze, 2006). Around 75 percent of inmates, who reported mental health problems, also had high rates of substance dependence or abuse and were more likely to have been homeless in the year prior to their arrest (13 percent). Moreover, finding access to treatment and medical care may be increasingly difficult for women upon release given that many incarcerated individuals come from low-income and medically underserved neighborhoods (Dumont, Brockmann, Dickman, Alexander, & Rich, 2012). Notably, women may have temporarily benefited from medical treatment while incarcerated and upon reentry, this care immediately ends. Diminished health also may affect an individual's employment opportunities and advances in educational achievement.

Employment and education

Incarcerated women are likely to be undereducated and unemployed prior to arrest (Greenfeld & Snell, 1999; Harlow, 2003). One study found that only 36 percent of women in prison have earned a high school diploma or have attended a post-secondary institution (Wolf, 2003), limiting their employment opportunities. An Urban Institute study found that both before and after incarceration, women were less likely to have employment than men, they earned lower hourly-wages, and were more likely to work in food services or in retail in comparison to largely male-dominated manual and higher paid trades. In their study sample of women, only 34 percent were working eight to 10 months following their release (LaVigne, Brooks, & Shollenberger, 2009). Similarly, other scholars note that women often lack resources for education and job training in fields that would increase their likelihood of earning a living wage (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2004).

Beyond facing employment discrimination from employers (Western, Kling, & Weiman, 2001), individuals with felony convictions are banned from certain occupations through state and federal laws. Popular and decently paid jobs for women with records often become unattainable as many states have restrictions preventing women from teaching, working with children, practicing social work, or holding jobs in healthcare (Holzer, Raphael, & Stoll, 2003; O'Brien, 2001). Given formerly incarcerated women's barriers to finding employment, one study found that recently released women who qualified and received such state-sponsored assistance as vocational programming or housing were significantly less likely to be reincarcerated (Reisig & Morash, 2004).

Transitional housing

Transitional housing units are intended to provide temporary assistance for exiting individuals, while also enforcing daily structure. Transitional housing programs propose and have been found to help individuals find and obtain employment, connect to local community resources, and receive needed support during the initial release period (Abadinski, 1997). D'Auria (2011) conducted observations and interviews with residents and staff at a halfway house for women. Among 15 women residents, she found most of her respondents were grateful for the opportunities the transitional living place provided, but also found that, "house rules and regulations, which are dictated by the funding source, can impede the residents ability to successfully reintegrate into society and puts them at a greater risk of official sanction" (D'Auria, 2011, p. iii). For instance, one rule for visiting a family member or "sponsor" was to provide a valid landline and address. Some relatives could not afford a landline telephone and thus residents had to choose between visiting family or lying about the phone number, which would place them at risk of violating their conditions of release. Moreover, D'Auria's study respondents "suggested staff should "apply rules to all residents equally" (p. 83), as they said residents' drug use was overlooked in certain circumstances.

From a sub-sample of a larger study, O'Brien (2001) interviewed women mandated to finish their last six to nine months of their prison sentences in a federal community placement. She found that respondents "resented the continued control and monitoring of their day-to-day lives and the consequent difficulties they had in seeing family members and their children until they had earned enough free time away from the facility" (p. 35). In addition to having to pay for housing, respondents also said they felt frustrated by the lack of privacy and constant surveillance from staff members. One positive comment regarding residents' stay was that a formerly incarcerated staff member, who had personally struggled with drug abuse, was inspirational to them during their recovery. Though the size of this subset data is limited, it provides a meaningful recognition of the continued monitoring of residents in transitional placement.

Prior research has explored the balance between rules and individual decision-making of women while in a reentry home setting. Richie (2001) suggests that community-based reentry services utilize an empowerment approach. This approach helps women to understand the many structural influences on their choices, while helping them expand their decision-making skills within their social contexts. Further, the approach fosters, "a sense of hope, an orientation toward the future, and the willingness to take responsibility." Richie (2001) suggests the success of reentry programs should be measured by the aforementioned objectives. Contrary to a self-blame stance, women can contextualize their previous mistakes while considering their often-limited resources, access to services, and economic situations. Therefore, the empowering approach may help foster confidence for women to live self-sustained, healthy lives while addressing conditions of extended supervision despite the myriad of structural challenges faced upon reentry.


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