Abstract: Barriers to Reentry: A Qualitative Study on the Role of Peer Support/Mentorship (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Barriers to Reentry: A Qualitative Study on the Role of Peer Support/Mentorship

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Jacob Eikenberry, MSW, Graduate Research Assistant, Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, MO
Background and Purpose: An estimated 600,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons in the U.S. annually. Re-arrest rates are 68% within three years. Protective factors for returning individuals include employment, housing, higher levels of education, and rehabilitative opportunities. One of the many barriers to community reintegration is the lack of access to and engagement with pro-social support, such as peer support. Peer support/mentorship has been utilized with substance abusing and mentally ill populations but remains under-studied/utilized in reentry processes. This paper helps to fill gaps in knowledge by interviewing individuals working at agencies serving re-entering populations.

Methods: Eight in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with re-entry organization employees at five non-profits in St. Louis, Missouri. Interviews were conducted in person and via the online platform Zoom. Participants had a mean age of 44.3 and were predominantly African American (N=6) and female (N=6). All previously incarcerated interviewees (N=3) were certified peer support specialists and had a highest educational obtainment of high school degree/GED. The remaining participants had bachelor’s degrees or above. Current positions held ranged from case manager to director of programs. Interviews probed participants about perceived barriers to re-entry, factors that may mitigate these barriers, the role of peer support/mentoring in the lives of transitioning individuals and barriers to the successful implementation of peer support programs. Interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim, and coded thematically guided by a constant comparative grounded theory method approach.

Results: Four themes were identified. The most important barriers facing re-entering populations were access to adequate employment opportunities, safe and stable housing, and access to and engagement with positive social support. Employers and landlords were described as community gatekeepers wherein they often restricted access to employment and housing opportunities for returning citizens. Participants identified that the causal mechanism which supported successful re-entry outcomes, however, was not employment and housing, but instead hope, and that adequately trained peer mentors were in a prime position to foster hope through peer support. The role of peer support was identified. Participants discussed clients’ accessing motivation and readiness to change when having a peer support professional who is transparent, challenging, and vulnerable. Organizational support for peer support professionals was inhibited by rigid organizational culture, stigma towards and misuse of peer support staff in the agency due to not knowing how to best utilize peer support staff skills and abilities. Peer support individuals desired similar upward mobility, trainings, and educational opportunities as other program staff and to have their voices integrated into other aspects of organizational decision making. Among interventions to overcome the barriers to re-entry, engaging the community to be invested in the re-entry process, and extending social service provider responsibilities to comprehensively care for the incarcerated individual’s family during incarceration were prevalent.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings highlight the importance of increasing efforts to foster hope among transitioning populations through the recruitment and training of peer mentors in non-profit agencies. Additionally, aligning organizational policy to best support peer mentors is pivotal. Lastly, encouraging community participation in reentry processes may be beneficial.