Methods: The methodology was qualitative and exploratory. We purposively recruited focus group participants through community-based re-entry agencies in Los Angeles. Focus groups of 90-120 minutes were conducted with 40 men who had been released from jail or prison within the prior year. Seven focus groups included men between the ages of 18-25 (n = 28, mean age = 20.9). Their self-reported total average lifetime incarceration was 23.6 months with a mean of 3.2 convictions. To test the emerging findings, we facilitated two additional focus groups with men over age 28 (n= 12, mean age = 42.8). Their self-reported average lifetime incarceration was 197.3 months with an average of 4.2 convictions. We used a structured interview guide with questions related to re-entry experiences, services, challenges, and successes. Data were transcribed verbatim and analyzed for key themes without imposing a specific theoretical perspective.
Results:The men identified a variety of services that had facilitated their adjustment to life after prison, including education, job training, and the arts. Across program types, the four major themes were: fostering an emotional connection (“showed them love”), delivering practical help (as opposed to “vacant promises”), continuity (“from the inside out”), and community building (“finding family”). The men connected with staff and organizations where they felt an emotional bond; that connection grew from the unconditional respect that the staff provided to them in words and actions. Staff members sustained these relationships addressing tangible needs, such as job leads. The relationship between the men and the agency frequently began during incarceration and continued upon release. Moreover, beneficial programs helped to build a community of members who supported one another. By way of comparison, the older men had different needs than the younger ones as a result of being more mature and incarcerated for longer periods, yet described similar qualities in effective re-entry services.
Conclusions and Implications: The results support the value of beginning re-entry services during incarceration, which can provide a foundation for a successful relationship between staff and clients. These relationships were the backbone of success, helping the men on both practical and emotional levels. Regardless of program type, social workers are uniquely suited to provide re-entry support during and after incarceration because their orientation emphasizes building relationships, which the men found essential to their successful reentry.