The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Supporting Prisoners After Release: Strategies Families Use to Prevent Re-Incarceration

Friday, January 17, 2014: 9:30 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 008A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Carrie Pettus-Davis, PhD, Assistant Professor, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Elizabeth Williams, BA, Research Assistant, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Antoinette Grier, BA, Research Assistant, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Vithya Murugan, MSW, Research Assistant, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO

Positive social support from families is empirically and theoretically linked to reductions in re-incarceration rates of former prisoners. More than two-thirds of former prisoners report receiving critical affective and instrumental forms of social support from families upon reentry to communities. Despite large amounts of familial support during reentry, 43%-68% of former prisoners are re-incarcerated within 3 years. 

Researchers interested in the overlap between social support and prisoner reentry have sought to identify mechanisms through which social support best promotes reductions in re-incarceration rates. This effort has found that: a) families provide support under substantial constraints; b) well-intended support can lead to poor re-incarceration outcomes; and c) support deteriorates over time. However, little is known about strategies families employ with the intent of preventing former prisoners’ re-incarceration.  Understanding families’ support strategies is an important step needed to uncover mechanisms through which support influences re-incarceration. Such knowledge has implications for future family-based intervention approaches. 


Data are presented from a random sample of 57 family members (broadly defined) of 57 men former prisoners. The research reported here is part of a larger randomized controlled trial of a social support intervention for former prisoners conducted July 2009-January 2011. All (100%) family members assigned to either treatment/control conditions completed qualitative interviews related to social support at baseline. Qualitative data analysis was conducted by four researchers uninvolved in the intervention trial. Researchers used a three-step analysis approach: thematic analysis coding, interrater reliability assessment, and consensus. Six themes emerged.


Family members were primarily mothers (37%) and intimate partners (30%); African American (86%); and had known the former prisoner for 8 years or more (72%). Most former prisoners lived with the family (62%). Few family members had criminal histories (21%).

Family members fell into one of three categories in how they viewed their primary role in the reentry process: 1) provide support around basic needs of housing, food, clothing, transportation, and connections to employment; 2) offer emotional support; and 3) encourage pro-social leisure activities. Families varied in the circumstances in which support was provided: 1) support as a collaborative process with former prisoners; 2) support offered only under conditional circumstances; and 3) sole form of support entailed reminders to “do-good-and-right.” Families’ support strategies were driven by perceptions of former prisoners’ willingness to receive support and last resort options for helping former prisoners avoid re-incarceration.


This study contributes to gaps in knowledge about possible promotive mechanisms of social support in preventing re-incarceration by providing an analysis of families’ support strategies. Families discussed variations in types of support they were willing/able to provide and circumstances under which they provided support. The prevalence of support strategies that were offered under conditional circumstances and support strategies that relied on reminding former prisoners to ‘do-the-right-thing’ highlights the opportunity for family-focused intervention. Extant research indicates that conditional and passive support provision can result in poorer outcomes for support recipients. Given the heavy reliance of former prisoners on their families, family-focused social support intervention could positively impact high re-incarceration rates.