Reentry process for citizens returning from prison is poorly understood despite a vast research literature on programs and services aimed at reducing recidivism. Few studies have focused on the actual experience of this oppressed and vulnerable population, creating a deficit in our understanding of what they need and want and how they experience reentry. A study of a group of men in a transitional center receiving mentoring services produced qualitative findings about the relational experience, its value to participants, and its perceived relationship to the experience of progression toward successful reentry. The aim of the study was to learn about the experience of returning citizens transitioning from prison to freedom, and to inform practice and policy efforts about the essential relational characteristics that can facilitate more successful use of reentry programs.
A convenience sampling of program participants was selected, recruiting available participants throughout the three years of the program. The participants who were recruited were from various stages of the reentry process: just beginning a 90-day residency; during participation in mentoring groups and in one-on-one mentoring sessions; near completion of transitional housing residency; and after release to the community and receiving community mentoring. An open-ended interview script was utilized as a guide to ensure focus on the mentoring experience, and experience of the process of completing residency and being released into the community. Forty-five (45) interviews were completed. Data analysis utilized Grounded Theory and naturalistic inquiry principles to develop a thematic relational description.
Themes emerged in three areas: perceiving mentoring as a unique experience and contrasting it to ‘ordinary’ life experience in prison and in the transition center; takeaways, identifying what was perceived as most useful about the mentoring experience; and post-release experience, describing how the mentoring relationships were remembered and currently relevant. Participants recognized the value of these unique relationships and utilized them to support their change efforts. Assigned mentors were also able to operate outside their traditional case management roles to facilitate positive change in the returning citizens.
Conclusion and Implications
This study produced findings that provide an important thematic picture of the experience of returning citizens anticipating and facing the challenges of reentry, and the value to them of mentoring experience. The findings in this study are adding to a growing recognition that explicitly incorporating dual role helping relationships incorporating both firm attention to the built-in carceral realities and empathy, is essential to successful reentry experience. Relationships in the mentoring program identify and prioritize the importance of the mentor’s alignment with the mentee’s perceived reentry needs, while at the same time being attentive to mandated compliance with procedural criminal justice rules. This suggests a need for more process-oriented reentry programs that emphasize supportive relationships, while not compromising legally mandated procedural protocols. It also suggests that incorporating a relational component as central to reentry programs will enhance the returning citizen’s use of program services and predict to more successful reentry outcomes.