Methods: Twenty-one individuals (71% men) who were incarcerated for drug-related offenses in the rural Midwest voluntarily agreed to participate in this qualitative study. On average, participants were 35 years old (SD = 7.13) and had a high school education or less (61.9%). Structured interviews queried individuals’ life experiences, outlook, and recommendations for the jail and the community. Interviews were analyzed using open coding and a constant comparative method. Eight codes emerged from the data and comprised three themes: preceding and concurrent challenges to sobriety (“familial dysfunction”, “stigma”, and “loss and fear”); moving toward a recovery mindset (“gaining insight”, “hopeful”, and “motivation for change”); and, maintaining or challenging the status quo (“personal supports” and “environmental characteristics”).
Results: Participants experienced familial dysfunction prior to incarceration that was often exacerbated by their time in jail. They experienced stigma associated with substance use from their family and community, as well as members of the criminal justice system. Collectively, these influenced their perspective which was often burdened by significant loss and fear. Individuals maintained a realistic perspective of their recovery as they gained insight over time regarding their behavior and its impact on their future and families. Increased insight provided access to hope which fueled their motivation for change. Despite their readiness for change, a lack of jail and community resources were perceived as barriers to future success.
Conclusions and Implications: The inmates experienced multiple stressors within and beyond the jail that influenced their quality of life. Their responses provide insight for future directions within the jail and the community. Given the inmates’ self-reported desire and motivation for change, the jail provides an opportunity for intervention to increase success upon reentry. Further, their perspectives, corroborated by broader community data, identify the need to promote systemic change both within the criminal justice system and the community to enhance mental health and reduce the likelihood of substance use. Interventions need to be readily available, match the inmates’ needs, and extend beyond the bricks and mortar of the jail to the community within which it is situated. Given the profession’s unique multisystemic perspective, social work is well situated to be at the forefront of giving voice to this vulnerable population and promote significant change in relevant policy and practice.