Methods: The study followed a phenomenological methodology. We recruited a purposive sample of participants who had been resentenced and released under one of several California laws targeting youth lifers for re-sentencing. The team conducted in-depth phenomenological interviews with 9 men, all of whom were sentenced to prison as youth and had spent an average of 27 years behind bars (range 21-35). The average age of the participants at first interview was 45 (range 39-54). Of the 9 participants, 3 were Black, 4 were Latinx, and 2 were White. First and second interviews were conducted in person. Due to COVID-19, third interviews were conducted via telephone or video chat. The researchers used a semi-structured interview guide for all three interviews and administered a brief demographic questionnaire duing the first interview. Interviews lasted between 60 and 120 minutes. Analysis was inductive and managed in dedoose software for coding, memoing, and thematic abstraction. All study procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board for human subjects at the sponsoring University.
Results: The experience of joy was an overarching theme, which often over-shadowed many of the more tangible challenges of reentry such as housing and employment. Joy often took the form of little moments, food, or simply appreciating freedom. On the other side of joy, participants reckoned with ongoing feelings of shame as they navigated relationships with family, employers, and peers and worked shed the weight of their past and criminal convictions. On two sides of the same coin, the joy and the shame, the core theme among participants was a recognition for their whole personhood; this included integrating all aspects of the self, including their past crime and imprisonment, into the person that they are today.
Conclusions/Implications: This study challenges prior literature and theory on the reentry experience for lifers, with participants’ narratives focused more on the joys of their transition rather than the barriers to living life in free society. Contrary to prior theory, participants also sought to form an integrated sense of self that included the weight of their past. Akin to other populations with marginalized identities, social workers can use these findings to locate a strengths-based approach to those seeking a holistic self-concept despite the shame associated with past actions or behaviors.