We've seen it in movies; the sad sack prisoner who feels so overwhelmed by the world that he decides to break the law again so that he can go back to the only place he feels comfortable— jail. Sadly, it is all too true in real life.
A great number of prisoners—46 percent in Pennsylvania alone—re-offend and return to jail within three years of their release. Even though there are many existing programs to help former inmates make the transition from prison to society such as halfway houses and Alcoholics Anonymous, former prisoners recidivate all too often.
WHY? Research by Albright Assistant Professor of Psychology Lindsay A. Phillips, Psy.D., shows that most inmates who recidivate don't have the proper coping mechanisms that will allow them to deal with life outside of prison. Former prisoners by and large knew about the help available to them yet chose to use mechanisms such as drug use and alcohol abuse rather than reaching out to a counselor, AA sponsor, or halfway house manager, or use another healthier form of coping with stress to help them get through the tough times of their reentry.
Phillips published "Prison to Society: A Mixed Methods Analysis of Coping with Reentry" in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology. The paper details the results of her research and interviews with 20 male prisoners in an unnamed Pennsylvania jail. The main question her research aimed to answer: What themes describe how individuals cope with reentry from prison to society?
"I found that most prisoners went through a few distinct phases when released," Phillips said. "There's the initial euphoria about being released, which can last days or just hours. Then most start craving substances either before or when they first face a practical barrier to their new freedom (such as difficulty in finding work with a prison record), and/or feeling overwhelmed.
"Because the newly released prisoner doesn't have the proper coping skills, he usually avoids the problem and hides from his emotions by drinking or using drugs—relapsing into substance abuse. Recidivism follows days, weeks or months after."
Phillips points out that her study isn't the first on prisoner recidivism. Other studies, such as one published by the American Psychological Association in 1998, "point to the possibility that those who commit crimes underuse healthy and effective coping strategies," she said. "But research has yet to specifically investigate how the men cope when released and how they coped during their reentry to society."
Phillips' research specifically investigated individuals who were unsuccessful in their reentry to society. The men she interviewed were incarcerated at a large, urban jail and had been in jail at least once before.
She focused this paper's research on male inmates because previous research also did so.
Her subjects ranged in age from 21 to 54, with an average age of about 40. Ethnic backgrounds also were diverse with seven of the men self-identifying themselves as black, six as white, three Latino, two as biracial (black and white and black and Native American), one as Pacific Islander, and the last as Native American).
Of the 20 participants, 10 were in prison again because of a parole violation, three had been charged with possession of a controlled substance, two for the delivery of a controlled substance, two for burglary, one for theft, and one for aggravated assault. One individual had been charged for multiple counts, including possession and burglary, among others.
The men had been in jail this time for an average of a little more than four months when interviewed. Some of the men couldn't remember how many times they'd been incarcerated before, but each gave an estimate, with the average coming to a bit more than 5.5 times. The men received no "incentive" for participating in Phillips' research.
Phillips found that research participants by far used avoidance as a coping mechanism when things got tough. They used such strategies as abusing drugs and alcohol, staying isolated from family and friends, avoiding stressors such as family and treatment, or engaging in high-risk sexual behavior.
The men themselves knew they were not handling stress well. Said one 49-year-old participant (who noted that he usually coped with problems by "avoiding" them,) "[t]o tell you the truth, I didn't really handle it.... I could have handled it. I should have, but I didn't. If I don't feel like coping or dealing, I take Xanex. I don't really cope. I just use."
"Many of the participants reported a deep feeling of
hopelessness that they'd ever be able to make it in society."
Many of the men, in fact, admitted that they had tended to avoid their problems in the same way their entire lives.
"I get into a rut and turn to using and avoiding," said a 48-year-old. "I've always done this."
Participants noted that they didn't start avoiding problems right away. Most reported feeling euphoric about their release until—mere hours or months later —an event of some kind, such as a craving to abuse substances or a practical problem associated with reentry into society, caused them to feel overwhelmed. This led them to avoiding the problem in some way, which led to all research participants eventually abusing drugs or alcohol.
Many of the participants reported a deep feeling of hopelessness that they'd ever be able to make it in society.
"You know my history with rehab after rehab, jail after jail, I just can't handle staying out there," said one 35-year-old man. "I was feeling hopeless. I could have just died out there. It is all this torture, and then I have to start all over again."
As a result of her research, Phillips recommends that "clinical work should focus in part on healthy coping mechanisms so that prisoners facing reentry can learn how to manage their emotions and deal effectively with problems they'll face during their reentry and throughout their lives."
Previous research published by the American Psychological Association in 1998 touched on this, Phillips said, noting that those researchers also suggested that teaching better coping methods to inmates could reduce recidivism.
"Classes that start at least a few weeks or months before someone is scheduled to be released that will help an individual learn what good coping skills are and how to use them can help incarcerated men and women develop and use these strategies before entering back into society," Phillips said.
Currently, Phillips added, she's not "aware of any treatment options in prisons that focus explicitly on coping with reentry. Coping skills may be a part of group prison programs that help inmates keep from relapsing into substance abuse. Group treatment that is available often focuses on substance use disorders, prevention of sexual offenses, anger management and victim empathy. In fact, each facility is different and some incarcerated individuals will not receive any treatment."
Phillips hopes to study women inmates who recidivate to see if they have the same reentry coping issues as their male counterparts.
In the meantime, Phillips said she hopes her research will be of help to prison and jail authorities as they work to reduce the number of prisoners who recidivate. Her research clearly indicates the "significance of aiding individuals as they prepare for and face reentry from prison to society."