Methods: The phenomenological study utilizes an exploratory and constructivist approach, to get at the “core” of a shared set of experiences of 9 men, through in-depth interviewing. Participants were incarcerated for an average of 27 years, with the average age at first interview being 45. A semi structured interview guide was utilized throughout the interviews and a brief demographic questionnaire was delivered at the first interview. The study team conducted first and second interviews in person, and due to Covid-19, third interviews were conducted by telephone or video chat. Thematic analysis was inductive and managed in Dedoose software for team coding. All study procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board of the sponsoring University.
Results: A common thread across all participants was loss and lost time, specifically connected to their families. Three major themes emerged in the core process of “lost time,” including missed moments, reconnecting, and forging new family relationships. As a result of their sentences being incarcerated for an average of 27 years, these men missed large portions of their family members lives; with some describing how until release they had missed the entire lives of some family members such as nieces, nephews, and cousins. Nearly all participants described multiple family members dying while incarcerated or shortly after their release. Barriers to connecting to family were present during incarceration and persisted after being released. Participants frequently identified barriers to nurturing family ties connected to parole requirements (e.g., the location of their halfway house and travel restrictions). Participants also described feeling awkward as they attempted to reconnect and navigate where they fit into their family structures. Challenges of forging new family relationships were also recounted as these men took on traditional adult roles for the first time.
Conclusions/Implications: Much of the literature on reentry after long-term sentencing focuses on sentences that started as adults. Little is known about this specific population who were incarcerated as teenagers and have spent more time imprisoned than in society. Here we examine how long-term incarcerated juveniles reestablish, reintegrate, and rebuild relationships post incarceration and its potential impact on the life-course. Findings from our study document the difficulties connected to missed moments, reconnecting, and forging new family relationships that inhibited participants reintegrating back into society and building connections to family members. Too often we have over emphasized recidivism, neglecting other important aspects of reintegration while treating youth who come into contact with the criminal justice system as adults.