The Challenges of Prisoner Re-Entry Into Society

When prisoners in the United States are released, they face an environment that is challenging and actively deters them from becoming productive members of society. Within three years of release, 67.8 percent of ex-offenders are rearrested, and within five years, 76.6 percent are rearrested.[1] With more than 2 million [2] people incarcerated in the United States, recidivism harms both the families of inmates and society in general, as taxpayers continue to support a broken system that sets ex-offenders up to fail once they are released.

The Congressional Research Service defines recidivism as “the re-arrest, reconviction, or re-incarceration of an ex-offender within a given time frame.”[3] Because of systemic legal and societal barriers, once ex-offenders are released, it is more difficult for them compared to the general populace to find gainful employment, secure a consistent source of housing, and generally function in society. Often viewed as sub-citizens, ex-offenders are perpetually punished for crimes. The causes of these restrictions are systemic and affect ex-offenders at all levels of society.

Interconnected Challenges Contributing to the Cycle of Recidivism

Before diving into where and how ex-offenders are affected, it is important to understand micro, mezzo, and macro levels of analysis. Put simply, micro level of analysis refers to individuals; mezzo level of analysis refers to families or small groups; and macro level of analysis refers to organizations, agencies, communities, and large groups of people, including nations. In almost any social change context, these levels are interconnected and affect one another.

Former prisoners face challenges at every level. These challenges come in many forms, but Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, succinctly summarizes them “A person’s successful re-entry into society can be viewed through how adequately they are able to meet six basic life needs: livelihood, residence, family, health, criminal justice compliance, and social connections.” Attaining each life need presents unique challenges, many of which are interconnected.

Micro Challenges


While data on post-incarceration employment in relation to recidivism is famously limited,[4] it seems clear that it is much less likely for ex-inmates to find employment than a member of the general population. A 2002 study of more than 200 employers in the Milwaukee area found that formerly incarcerated candidates with nearly identical professional experience as non-offenders were less than half as likely to receive job offers.[5] According to the Bureau of Justice, only 12.5 percent[6] of employers said they would accept an application from an ex-convict. Ironically, getting back to work decreases recidivism, but there are barriers for ex-convicts finding work.

Many prisoners have limited education and work experience, which makes it difficult for them to secure employment after they are released. According to several studies, “about 70 percent of offenders and ex-offenders are high school dropouts.”[7] As a result of incarceration and involvement in the criminal justice system, many former prisoners are viewed negatively by former employers or by individuals within their former professional networks, if they previously had one. The combination of a limited professional network and a conspicuous résumé gap can make it very difficult for ex-convicts to get an interview with a prospective employer.

According to the Urban Institute, around 75 percent of formerly incarcerated men have a history of substance abuse, and a significant percentage suffer from physical and mental health issues (i.e., 15 percent to 20 percent report emotional disorders). That limits their employability in that employers may not view them as “job ready.”[8]

Many employers worry about being sued for damages resulting from “negligent hiring.” An employer can be held liable for exposing the public to a potentially dangerous individual, so many balk at the idea of hiring someone with a criminal record. In 72 percent of negligent hiring cases, employers have lost and faced an average settlement of $1.6 million — powerful disincentive to hire potentially “risky” individuals.[9]

Race is also a factor, particularly when combined with a history of incarceration. In the 2002 study of Milwaukee employers mentioned above, African-American offenders were two-thirds less likely to receive offers, and African-American non-offenders were half as likely as white non-offenders to receive an offer.[10] [11] So African-Americans ex-offenders face a huge double-challenge: Even if they hadn’t committed a crime, racism significantly restricts their job opportunities; since they have committed a crime, they must somehow overcome the racism and convince the employer that their ex-con status does not make them a risky hire.

Fortunately for many former inmates, employer interest in an ex-offender rises when they find out that the crime was nonviolent or drug-related. So long as the individual remains drug-free and has gained relevant work experience (either inside or outside of prison), there is more employer interest in hiring.[12]

Mezzo Challenges


Studies have shown that prisoners who maintain consistent contact and connection with their families during their sentences have a lower recidivism rate than those who do not.[13] Over half of incarcerated adults are parents of minor children, which means they may miss out on many of their children’s critical and formative years.[14] Unfortunately, there are obstacles to maintaining consistent contact with family, and challenges for ex-offenders once released.

A 1996 Maryland Department of Human Resources and Women’s Prison Association report[15] listed the following seven major obstacles to parent-child visitation in prison, which unfortunately largely remain obstacles 20 years later:

  1. Insufficient information about visiting procedures.
  2. Proximity of prison facilities — incarcerated men are, on average, 100 miles away from their children; incarcerated women are, on average, 160 miles away from their children.[16]
  3. Family inability to afford transportation to the prison.
  4. Difficulty scheduling visits.
  5. Visiting procedures are humiliating or uncomfortable.
  6. Visiting areas are inhospitable for children.
  7. Foster parents are unwilling to aid in visits.

Phone calls and written communication to and from prisons are very expensive because of surcharges[17] from companies and/or the prisons themselves.

Once ex-offenders return home, they are dependent on family members and must overcome years of limited contact, potential resentment, and a change in the household dynamic. According to the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, just before release, 82 percent of ex-offenders thought it would be easy to renew family relationships; after returning home, over half reported it was more difficult than expected.[18] Family members often assume a new financial and emotional burden when ex-offenders return home, having to support a dependent adult.

To ease reconnecting with family and lost years of parenting experience, some prisons have programs to improve parenting skills. Although there is evidence that such prison-based programs are effective and beneficial for prisoners and their families, participation in such programs has declined in recent years.[19] It is not completely clear why, but a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found many prisoners who couldn’t get the other parent to co-participate were less likely to continue participation. That prompted some prisons to create new incentives for prisoner participation, including increased video chat privileges and gas coupons for spouses to encourage more visitation.

Society, Social Connections, and Expectations Upon Release

When ex-offenders are released from prison, they tend to find that their expectations for returning to normal life are not always realistic. This is especially true for prisoners who serve lengthy incarcerations because they are likely to face advances in technologies that are essential in new job markets and lack training that makes them viable candidates.

According to an Urban Institute study of Baltimore-area prisoners, offenders who re-enter the prison system tend to come from a concentrated set of communities, which have “above-average rates for unemployment, percent female-headed households, and percent of families living below the poverty level.”[20] Ex-offenders face massive obstacles when searching for employment anywhere, so to return with this disadvantage to an area that likely has low job prospects increases the likelihood of unemployment.

The same Urban Institute study also found that 54 percent of prisoners about to be released thought that they would be able to rely on their own jobs for financial support, and 82 percent expected that their parole officers would help in their transition home. After release, 51 percent reported that they relied on their families to a much greater extent than expected, and only about half reported that their parole officers were helpful during their transitions.[21]

According to the study, it is not clear why parole officers were not considered helpful post-release (they were often given high marks for professionalism and accuracy of shared information, but still not considered “useful”). The data suggests that many prisoners who received parole supervision did not expect it and may have entered the relationship with their parole officers with pre-engendered negative feelings toward them.

David Yeager, a social worker who works with older inmates who have served long sentences and have been out of society for an extended period, found [22] that the two biggest adjustment challenges are living with less structure and having fewer social contacts. Prison life is extremely structured, and prisoners with long sentences become accustomed to it, resulting in feelings of shock and deep distress by its absence in the outside world. While they may return to their home communities or families, their social networks may no longer exist or have changed. This means released inmates must rebuild or create new social networks.

They also may need to learn new ways of living. One of the most unexpected adjustments can be learning new technologies that replaced traditional systems. For example, prisoners with medium- or long-term sentences may have never used a smartphone[23] or metro card.[24] These may seem like minor adjustments to most of us since we experienced these changes gradually, but to learn them all at once, and to have them replace old routines, can be both difficult and disorienting.

Macro Challenges

Collateral Consequences

Collateral consequences are legal restrictions unrelated to the original crime that apply to ex-offenders after their release from prison. This includes thing like a lack of access to food stamps and an inability to vote.

At the time of this writing, The American Bar Association’s National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction[25] lists 47,442[26] collateral consequences of incarceration. This statistic highlights the tens of thousands of legal restrictions imposed on ex-offenders that they didn’t face before their convictions. Some are explicit and permanent, such as an inability to apply for federal grants. Others are vaguely worded, and administrators often assume the strictest interpretation. For example, ex-offenders are not banned[27] from public housing, although housing administrators can use a criminal record as cause to reject a candidate. Many housing administrators incorrectly think that they are required to turn down applicants with a criminal record, creating a widespread de facto ban on public housing. (For more of such myths, see the Reentry Councils Reentry MythBusters fact sheets[28]).


While conditions of parole vary widely from state to state and depend on the original crime and the prisoner’s behavior, there are some common conditions[29], including:

  • Remaining within a prescribed geographic area
  • Obtaining permission to change residence
  • Maintaining employment
  • Prohibition against possession of firearms
  • Paying supervision fees
  • Submitting to searches (of home, person, or vehicle) at any time by parole officers
  • Not drinking alcohol or visiting bars
  • Adherence to state or federal laws

In theory, parole gives offenders a chance to prove that they can re-enter society without serving their maximum sentences. Paradoxically, parole conditions can create extra, unintended readjustment challenges for ex-offenders. For example, one common collateral consequence is difficulty in re-obtaining[30] a driver’s license. Many ex-offenders are not given a new driver’s license simply because of their criminal record, but yet must drive to work, or drive to see their parole officers. They receive fines for driving without a license, which contributes to their debt and complicates their access to a license. Many such examples exist, with little or no evidence[31] that these restrictions deter crime.

What Can Be Done

Systemic Changes

Many of the challenges facing ex-offenders are systemic and require policy changes and a shift away from the attitude of some that punishment should continue after sentences have been served. “Ban the Box[32]” is a national campaign against continued punishment in hiring that calls for employers to remove the box on job applications that requires applicants to disclose criminal records. In a November 2015 speech[33] at Rutgers University, President Barack Obama called on the federal government to support the campaign:

“[The federal government] should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications … . It is relevant to find out whether somebody has a criminal record. We’re not suggesting ignore it. What we are suggesting is that when it comes to the application, give folks a chance to get through the door. Give them a chance to get in there so they can make their case.”

Grassroots Changes

In addition to lobbying for policy changes, many nongovernmental organizations are leading grassroots efforts to help ex-offenders with recidivism. Programs like The Prison University Project help inmates earn college degrees while incarcerated. A 2013 National Criminal Justice Reference Service study found that when inmates complete degrees before re-entering society, recidivism rates substantially decrease.[34]

The “Ride Home Program[35]” in California employs ex-offenders to pick up inmates on the day of their release so they can get them home, but also help facilitate their transition to life on the outside. A new startup,, makes it significantly cheaper and easier [36] for inmates to stay in contact with loved ones — an important part of decreasing the chances of returning to prison once released.


In the United States, after serving time in prison, ex-offenders are released with significant and ongoing economic and societal obstacles that often prevent them from thriving, thus indirectly pushing them back to crime, and back into the prison system. Many employers refuse to hire ex-cons, and systemic collateral consequences restrict tens of thousands of ex-offenders’ legal rights, which essentially extends their punishment and inhibits their ability to function as normal citizens. While there are many organizations working to remove these obstacles, revisions in policy must occur before ex-offenders can have real opportunities that promote success and help to reduce recidivism. There are few systems in the United States that are more broken than the post-prison environment that ex-offenders face. With a major election this year, there is a perfect opportunity for social workers, advocates, politicians, and citizens to push for the necessary policy-level changes.

[1] James, Nathan. Offender Reentry: Correctional Statistics, Reintegration into the Community, and Recidivism. Rep. no. 7-5700. N.p., 12 Jan. 2015. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

[2] Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[3] James, 2016.

[4] Holzer, H. J., Raphael, S., & Stoll, M. A. (2003, May 20). Employment Dimensions of Reentry: Understanding the Nexus between Prisoner Reentry and Work. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[5] Pager, Devah. NCJRS Abstract. Rep. no. NCJ 198320. National Institute of Justice, 2002. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

[6] Lovoy, L. (2014, June 25). Life After Prison: Ex-Felons Often Struggle to Find a Job – WBHM 90.3. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[7] Freeman, Richard. 1992. “Crime and the Employment of Disadvantaged Youths.” In Urban Labor Markets and Job Opportunities, edited by George Peterson and Wayne Vroman Washington D.C.: The Urban Institute Press. And, Travis, Jeremy; Amy Solomon, and Michelle Waul. 2001. From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry. Washington D.C.: The Urban Institute.

[8] Holzer, Harry J., Steven Raphael, and Michael A. Stoll. “Employment Barriers Facing Ex-Offenders.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.): n. pag. New York University Law School, 20 May 2003. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

[9] Connerley, Mary, Richard Arvey, and Charles Bernardy. “Criminal Background Checks for Prospective and Current Employees: Current Practices among Municipal Agencies.” Public Personnel Management Vol. 20, No. 2.

[10] > Holzer et al., 2003.

[11] Pager, 2002.

[12] Holzer et al., 2003.

[13] Women’s Prison Association. 1996. When a Mother Is Arrested: How the Criminal Justice and Child Welfare Systems Can Work Together More Effectively: A Needs Assessment Initiated by the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

[14] P. Harrison and A. Beck. 2002. “Prisoners in 2001.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bulletin. NCJ 195189. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice Statistics.

[15] When a Mother is Arrested. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[16] Hagan and Petty. 2002. “Returning Captives of the American War on Drugs: Issues of Community and Family Reentry.” Paper prepared for the Reentry Roundtable, Washington, D.C., Oct. 12–13, 2000.

[17] Travis, J., McBride, E. C., & Solomon, A. L. (2005, June). Families Left Behind: The Hidden Costs of Incarceration and Reentry. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[18] Visher, Chreisty, Nancy Lavigne, and Jeremy Travis. “Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry: Maryland Pilot Study: Findings from Baltimore.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.): n. pag. Urban Institute, Jan. 2004. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

[19] Visher et al., 2016.

[20] Visher et al., 2016.

[21] Visher et al., 2016.

[22] Yeager, D. (2012, January/February). Older Inmates Adjust to Life Outside Prison. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[23] Contributor, Q. (n.d.). How Is Life Outside After Being in Prison for Over 20 Years? Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[24] Ferner, M. (2015, July 28). These Programs Are Helping Prisoners Live Again On The Outside. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[25] ABA collateral consequences of criminal conviction. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[26] ABA collateral consequences of criminal conviction. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[27] Reentry Mythbuster. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[28] Reentry MythBusters. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[29] West Virginia Division of Corrections. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[30] Laird, L. (2013, June 1). Ex-offenders face tens of thousands of legal restrictions, bias and limits on their rights. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[31] Laird, L. (2013, June 1). Ex-offenders face tens of thousands of legal restrictions, bias and limits on their rights. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[32] End Discrimination at Your Workplace. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[33] Korte, G. (2015, November 03). Obama tells federal agencies to ‘ban the box’ on federal job applications. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[34] Kim, R., & Clark, D. (2013, June). Effect of Prison-Based College Education Programs on Recidivism: Propensity Score Matching Approach. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[35] Mooallem, J. (2015, July 16). The New York Times. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from

[36] Cutler, K. (2015, March 24)., A Startup Focused On Serving The U.S. Prison Population, Joins Y Combinator. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from