This ethnographic study depicts the lived experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals in Newark, New Jersey, to foreground their complex reentry stories of thwarted hopes within the contexts of family support/network and social barriers crossbred with unfavorable policy and social stigma. Findings uncovered five themes informed by a life-course perspective, namely, temporal and social contexts, diachronic perspective, heterogeneity in social structures and processes. This study’s findings highlight the ways in which hopes of the second chance were thwarted.
Methods: This longitudinal ethnographic study started with 10 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with focal participants including ten formerly incarcerated individuals transitioning into the community. Eligibility requirements include transitioning into Newark, NJ in the past year, English speaking, and over 18 years of age. Upon selection, participants were asked to refer one family member or friend and one service provider to participate in the study, forming secondary participants of the study. The interviews focused on focal participants’ employment opportunities, social support networks, family and community resources, and self-expectations. Focal participants also completed a follow-up in-depth interview at six months and at least one observation activity. All interviews were transcribed verbatim, first open coded, and then, thematically coded using NVivo 12.
Findings: The following themes emerged in our findings: first, despite employment being at the center of formerly incarcerated individuals’ expectations, the policy regarding reentry and employers’ social stigma based both on stereotypes and convenience of management worked against the employment opportunities. In this regard, social stigma formed an actually present force even if certain policies were in support of the reentry efforts. Second, while formerly incarcerated individuals’ family and friends networks appeared to be important in keeping their hopes high to certain degree, such network also experienced strains from continual withdrawal of resources by the formerly incarcerated individuals, especially when the latter remained out of employment. Third, current social programs endorsing reentry efforts were faced with a more pervasive discourse of social stigma.
Conclusion and Implications: Findings indicate the importance of access to sustainable employment as a means with multiple positive ends. The access to employment not only as providing sustainable income, but also as maintaining the fragile, yet essential, social network. With these findings, this study maintains the importance of positive policy change in offering opportunities to address the fundamental inequalities of realizing the hope of a more equitable reentry experience.