Abstract: Understanding the Public Landscape of Reentry from Prison: What Makes a Public Space a Resource for Ex-Prisoners with Mental Illnesses? (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Understanding the Public Landscape of Reentry from Prison: What Makes a Public Space a Resource for Ex-Prisoners with Mental Illnesses?

Thursday, January 17, 2019: 4:45 PM
Union Square 21 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Liat S. Kriegel, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Washington State University, Spokane, WA
Background: Despite efforts to change the reentry landscape, research continues to demonstrate a pattern of futility for ex-prisoners with mental illnesses as they reintegrate into their communities. Programs seeking to offset these reentry obstacles are often challenged by the risky nature of communities and public spaces where ex-prisoners spend much of their time. Consequently, service providers sometimes advise their clients to avoid public spaces in favor of recovery and rehabilitation programs, perpetuating integration into a treatment culture and program citizenship. Public spaces, however, can have positive effects when they ground a sense of community belonging and permit identity reinvention. Although private spaces can facilitate comfort with known others in isolation, they also may serve to tie ex-prisoners with mental illnesses to identities they hope to escape. Public spaces, on the other hand, can potentially offer value as places providing new sources of identity and community. This qualitative study aimed to understand the elements of a public space that enables it to act as a resource to ex-prisoners with mental illnesses. Methods: Semi-structured interviews on experiences of public spaces were conducted with 36 ex-prisoners with mental illnesses. Participants were also asked to draw maps of their communities and to identify public spaces within. They identified both spaces of inclusion and exclusion and interactions in those spaces. Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted as a follow-up to these interviews with a subsample of 11 participants in order to identify and describe public spaces and interactions within those spaces. Phenomenological and template analysis were used to analyze the data collected. Results. Participants described an array of public spaces, including public parks, public libraries, and coffee shops, where they spent time. Public space provided participants with stable routine, connection, and opportunity. Among public spaces identified, resourcefulness during reentry hinged on 1) opportunities for support from familiar and intimate strangers; 2) ability to maintain anonymity; 3) variable utility; and 4) degree of social integration   Conclusions and Implications. Public spaces, while sometimes risky, can also be fruitful spaces for individuals with complex needs like ex-prisoners with mental illnesses. Understanding the conditions under which public spaces become a positive resource during reentry can help providers support clients as they navigate their community reentry. Further, knowing which public spaces clients value provides opportunity for providers to engage in community-based, in vivo support.