Thoughts Beyond Stigma-Implications for Change Reflected in the Voices of Previously Incarcerated Citizens
by Amy Frankel, University of Maine, Orono and Elizabeth DePoy, University of Maine, Orono
Published onApr 20, 2023
Thoughts Beyond Stigma-Implications for Change Reflected in the Voices of Previously Incarcerated Citizens
State and federal prisons release more than six hundred thousand people annually, with nearly 95% of those returning to the communities in which they resided before incarceration, albeit frequently with discomfort and marginalization, largely due to stigma (Alexander, 2020; Park & Tietjen, 2021). Programs to foster reintegration exist in almost every locale, yet recidivism remains due to many factors. Stigma has received much attention as a cause of failure for successful reentry and acclimation (Park & Tietjen, 2021). With the surge of interest and empirical study of stigma as a barrier, the voices of returning citizens can further enhance significant theory and knowledge related to stigma to inform successful reentry and adjustment. The purpose of this study was to advance theory regarding the nature of stigma from the perspectives of prior incarcerated informants who also spent varying lengths of time back in their communities after completing a term of incarceration. As is often characteristic of a mixed method study relying on abductive analysis such as that presented herein, the findings often transcend or depart from the original purpose of an inquiry, elevating the richness and theoretical learning to include unexpected results. The study reveals and discusses insights beyond the intended aim of the research.
According to contemporary research, stigma is one of the main barriers to successful acclimation to the community following release from incarceration (Alexander, 2020; Park & Teitjen, 2021). Stigma is a complex construct with multiple definitions and origins. What all have in common is the discrediting effect on the stigmatized person. As a result, society ascribes negative stereotypes and public mistrust to the “ex-convict,” hampering successful reentry. Although perhaps unintended, discriminatory, rigid policy and practice lead to limited employment and housing opportunity, estrangement from family and friends, rejection from communities, and increased recidivism. These circumstances create a maelstrom of barriers to successful reentry and deny far too many formerly incarcerated citizens the opportunity to become productive community participants.
Society needs systemic change to disrupt the recidivistic process and, more expansively, the toll on human life and community cohesion (Miller, 2021). A rich and textured knowledge of the lived experiences and perspectives about the stigma of formerly incarcerated individuals is essential to tailoring responses to enhance successful reentry. Through a systematic inquiry relying on semi-structured interviews and analysis of a sample of previously incarcerated individuals, this study endeavored to learn about the experience, stigma, and subsequent life challenges encountered by returning citizens as the basis for theory and knowledge development to reduce stigma as the foundation for improving successful reentry.
The Scope of the Problem
State and federal prisons in the United States release more than six hundred thousand people annually, and nearly 95% return to their communities (Muentner & Charles, 2020; Sinko et al., 2020). However, the large majority do not remain. Depending on the circumstance, nature of the initial crime, years from the release date, and geography, recidivism rates range from 31%-83% (Clarke, 2019).
The impact of having a criminal record on an individual’s ability to reengage in the community is a recurring theme documented by research in multiple dimensions of life. People often view formerly incarcerated citizens with contempt, perceive them as threatening, or consider them to have failed as citizens (Crewe, 2022; Miller, 2021; Ricciardelli & Mooney, 2018). It is, therefore, not surprising that stigma and mistrust often are ascribed to individuals with a history of incarceration, irrespective of the reasons for their confinement (Miller, 2021). Policies that unilaterally deny access to viable employment, transportation, and housing reflect this pervasive view (Ashcraft & Flint, 2017; Celinska, 2000; Epperson, Pettus-Davis, Grier & Sawh, 2018; Gundur & Kavish, 2022; Leverentz, 2014; Li, 2018; Miller, 2021; Salem et al., 2021). In theory, following the completion of a term of incarceration, an individual should have earned the right to participate in life on an equal basis with those who have not been similarly detained (Celinska, 2000; Sered, 2019); yet, formerly incarcerated citizens are often viewed as lost causes, inept or deserving of ongoing, harsh judgment and punitive attitudes (Ashcraft & Flint, 2017; Gundur & Kavish, 2022; Miller, 2021; Sered, 2019). As so succinctly articulated by Alexander (2020) in her classic work, “release from prison does not represent the beginning of freedom but instead a cruel new phase of stigmatization and control” (p. 57).
The Policy and Programmatic Quagmire
As illustrated in multiple policies, completing a sentence does not necessarily restore rights (Miller, 2021; Montalvo & Ortiz, 2020; Sered, 2019). For example, the law often excludes an offender from voting, jury duty, and parental rights, including access to child support payments, adoption, foster care, particular types of employment, housing, and education (Ashcraft & Flint, 2017; Ortiz & Jackey, 2019; Sered, 2019).
Existing policies allow non-equivalent privacy for “ex-cons” compared to the average citizen. Potential employers have direct access to records of convictions or justice system involvement (Ashcraft & Flint, 2017; Sered, 2019) ostensibly to use these data in best hiring practices to ensure safe workplaces for their employees (Ashcraft & Flint, 2017). As a result, society and law typically limit returning citizens’ employment options to those requiring less stringent background checks and low skill levels. At this level of employment, benefits are rarely available, nor are opportunities for advancement or promotion (Leverentz, 2014; Li, 2018; Nordberg et al., 2021). In a majority of states, past drug or felony convictions render one ineligible to receive federally funded public assistance and food stamps, even when formerly incarcerated citizens have served their time, successfully overcome addiction, asserted commitment to their recovery, attained additional education, and/or completed rehabilitative or vocational programming (Li, 2018; Sered, 2019). Limited financial resources and restrictive housing policies further lead to disproportionately high poverty and homelessness following release (Gundur & Kavish, 2022; Li, 2018; Sered, 2019). As such, policies after discharge are not conducive to restoring life necessary to render unlawful acts uninviting.
Accompanying and often guiding policy are inadequate or misdirected reentry programs (Muentner & Charles, 2020; Ortiz & Jackey, 2019). Control in the form of parole surveillance is the focus of many fiscal and human resources (Ortiz & Jackey, 2019; Ortiz & Wrigley, 2022). The excerpt below, a critical analysis of Illinois’ Mandatory Supervised Release (MSR) program (Gullapalli, 2019), illustrates. The report’s conclusion is that it functions almost exclusively as a form of surveillance rather than as a support system. “In working with young men following their release from prison,” says the report,
we did not see any evidence that MSR works effectively to improve public safety, either by assisting law enforcement in detecting or preventing new crimes, or providing the young men with support and rehabilitative resources to aid in their reentry and reduce the likelihood of recidivism (para. 11).
Various scholars conducted studies using diverse methodologies to reveal the reasons for programmatic failure. Park and Tietjen’s (2021) work focused its boundaries on stigma management in the Midwest. Their work indicated not only stigma but also self-protective management in response to experienced stigma as factors that further estranged previously incarcerated citizens from the communities to which they aspired to return. Moreover, they addressed the policy implications of their findings.
More broadly, a meta-analysis (Kendall, Redshaw, Ward, Wayland & Sullivan, 2018) of qualitative studies of post-incarceration programs, although founded on varied theoretical frameworks and aims, produced only eight studies meeting rigor and content criteria. Like Park and Teitjen’s (2021) study, the results revealed three themes common to the eight studies: structural context, supportive relationships, and continuity of care. Structural context refers to the availability of resources and professionals to run interference. In addition, the authors highlighted stigma and discrimination as significant structural and social barriers targeted for elimination. However, the boundary between the three themes was unclear, as they focused on the case manager-client duo, its processes, and outcomes.
Criticizing designs that do not seek to test existing theory as the basis for generalization, Muhlhausen (2018) asserted that too many investigators rely on inadequate evaluation research design, indicting quasi-experimentation and qualitative inquiries as incomplete and intermediate.
Quasi-experimental designs that employ scientific methodology but do not use random assignment frequently fail to account for individual differences that affect program outcomes. This failure leaves open the possibility that the underlying differences between the groups of former inmates receiving and not receiving reentry services, not the program, caused the observed impact. (para. 3)
Curiously, despite recognizing diverse needs for successful reentry, Muhlhausen (2018) prescribes an evaluation approach with a single primary outcome variable, recidivism reduction. Thus, according to this author, the fiscal eye and the post-incarceration program evaluation inquiry should focus on the long-term prize, recidivism incidence, with indicators such as stigma, housing, employment, and other resources held in abeyance as secondary covariates. Muhlhausen (2018) advocates for precise experimentation in which random sampling and assignment are central to reducing systematic and sampling bias (DePoy & Gitlin, 2020). In such designs, the researcher selects the theory and variables and evaluates the measures for group differences. Interestingly, as far back as the early 1980s, Maruyama (1981) suggests that methods that rely on the voices and even methodological planning of the members of that group best serve disadvantaged populations.
A second methodological consideration is the difficulty of measuring recidivism prevention, given that the variable has yet to occur. However, from a retrospective stance, theory-based elements that have already been shown to predict successful reintegration into the community inform post-incarceration programs. While reasonable to assume that such programs will meet the long-term goal of recidivism reduction, research illustrates that data do not fully substantiate this assumption.
Thus, as supported by Park and Tietjen (2021) and Kendall et al. (2018), context is critical to consider. Thus, the value of retrospective, nomothetic studies based on existing theory may have limitations informing programming in diverse geographies and periods. As stated by Goger, Harding & Henderson (2021), “the need to reimagine reentry during this pandemic provides an opportunity to remove barriers to successful reentry” (para. 4).
Given the elevated level of recidivism and contextual embeddedness of program content and success, it seems cogent to develop a new theory to guide responses to newly released individuals, tailoring them to location and context. Exploring the complex, contemporary nature of stigma discrimination and how it is uniquely experienced holds promise for understandings necessary for innovative and efficacious “one-size does not fit-all” programmatic responses.
Stigma commonly occurs when there is an intersection of bias, discrimination, labeling, and stereotyping. Within this broad understanding, extant literature proposes multiple theories and definitions, some specific to formerly incarcerated persons and some more general. Best known is the theory proposed by Goffman (1963; 1986), through which he posited that stigma is an “attribute that is deeply discrediting” (p. 3). Building on Goffman’s groundbreaking work, Link and Phelen (2001) expanded stigma conceptualizations beyond individuals interacting to abstract notions of power relations that rationalize discrimination, exclusion, and inequality. Over the past several decades, theorizing about stigma has complexified its nature and causes, consequences, and contextual implications (Clair, 2018; Leverentz, 2014; Tyler & Slater, 2018).
Specific to previously incarcerated persons, due to its dominance over personal identity and opportunity, scholars study stigma in numerous ways, from its nature to strategies to manage it (Park & Tietjen, 2021). According to Sinko et al. (2020), stigma can significantly diminish an individual’s sense of worth and thus render the subject powerless to process or combat its effects. A longitudinal study of 180 incarcerated persons conducted by Moore, Stuewig & Tangney (2013) supported this claim. Over sixty percent of participants agreed that “people on the outside think once a criminal, always a criminal” and that “people on the outside think criminals are bad people” (Moore et al., 2013, p. 537). Realizing that an individual belongs to an unvalued cohort harms one’s post-release life. This diminished sense of value or worth is often evident in an individual’s struggle with mental health and coping and is negatively influential on motivation, communitarian behavior, and interaction within one’s social environment (Moore, Stuewig & Tangney, 2016). Individuals experiencing internalized stigma, defined by Link and Phelan as the acceptance of social devaluation and integration of a denigrated self (2001), often make deliberate efforts to avoid situations or places where they expect to encounter this toxicity; internalized stigma decreases the likelihood of pursuing employment and leisure occupations in one’s community (Park & Tietjen, 2021; Sinko et al., 2020).
The effects of stigma form deeply felt barriers by the stigmatized (Moore et al., 2013). Thus, studies of how diverse understandings of stigma affect the reentry transition can inform programmatic change on many levels. (LeBel, 2012). To better understand the high rates of conviction and recidivism characteristic of the United States, the “stigmatizing conditions” that might have been a precursor to an individual’s justice system involvement may reveal important information on which to refashion and improve the success of reentry programs (Ortiz & Jackey, 2019; Ortiz & Wrigley, 2022; Tyler & Brockmann, 2017).
Other studies have primarily explored the topic of stigma with family members of incarcerated citizens (Gueta, 2018; Park & Tietjen, 2021; Saunders, 2018; Tadros, Fye & Ray, 2020) and distinguished between groups of currently incarcerated women (Bove & Tyron, 2018; Kellett & Willging, 2011) and gender-specific groups of men and women, at a similar stage in their reentry process (Bahr, Armstrong, Gibbs, Harris & Fisher, 2005; Celinska, 2000; Gunn, Sacks & Alexis, 2018; Riccardelli & Mooney, 2018; Willging, Nicdao, Trott & Kellett, 2016). These studies texturize the stigma tapestry, further illuminating the understanding of this unfortunate phenomenon as the basis for its circumvention, diminution, or elimination.
Given the centrality of stigma in erecting barriers to successful reentry and enduring community-dwelling, considering the call for alternative, multiple, context-specific methods of evaluation as the foundation on which to reduce recidivism and improve the flourishing of previously incarcerated persons, this study sought to examine the nature of stigma as experienced by those who share the experience of having been incarcerated.
This emancipatory research, relying on mixed method techniques, examines the nature of stigma and its effects on reentry into the home, community productivity, and civic participation. Mixing sampling from the quantitative tradition with multi-method data collection comprised the methodology (DePoy & Gitlin, 2020).
The study took place in a reentry organization in a Northern New England community. We conducted each interview individually in a single session by telephone over three months in the spring of 2021. The average interview length was fifty-six minutes. Participants included all genders, 18 years or older, who had completed their terms of incarceration and were not currently on probation. The study recruited participants by an emic researcher from a single nonprofit organization designed to create a network for individuals to share resources, develop relationships and form connections with organizations, volunteers, allies, advocates, and service providers involved directly or indirectly in reentry efforts. Weekly network meetings occur and include community organizations, agencies, nonprofits, employers, formerly incarcerated citizens, recovery coaches, students, law enforcement personnel, district attorneys, representatives of the Department of Corrections, and several currently incarcerated citizens completing terms of incarceration within the state.
Participant age varied from twenty-seven to seventy-five years old. Of the fifteen participants, three identified as female, with the remaining twelve identifying as male. The length of participants’ term of incarceration ranged from one to thirty years, with an average of seven years incarcerated. The average time participants had been back in their communities following their release from the correctional facility was six years, with lengths varying from one to eighteen years. All participants were current residents of the state in which the organization resides. Those who volunteered for the study participated in an interview, with the possibility of follow-up member checking and clarifying constructs revealed in the analysis.
Data collection, conducted by one of the researchers and two student research assistants, relied primarily on semi-structured interviews followed by an open-ended question with additional probes. The semi-structured questions sought to collect demographic information, knowledge about community adjustment and comfort, and the role of stigma indicators derived from contemporary understandings of stigma discussed in the literature review. The interview protocol utilized open-ended questions to ensure the study gave participants a full voice.
Table 1: Interview Questions
1. What is your current age?
2. How long were you incarcerated?
3. How long have you been released?
4. How has your history of incarceration impacted your relationships with family members?
5. How has your history of incarceration affected your relationships with non-family members (e.g., romantic partners, friends, co-workers)?
6. How has your history of incarceration affected your interactions with your community?
7. How has your history of incarceration affected your ability to obtain housing?
8. How has your history of incarceration affected your ability to obtain employment?
9. How has your experience of stigma changed over time since you have been back in your community?
10. Is there anything else you might like to add?
The study uses thematic analysis, an inductive, abductive approach to finding commonalities in data, combined with reflexive analysis to identify and bracket researcher bias (DePoy & Gitlin, 2020). Each researcher conducted an independent analysis, reading and re-reading interviews to examine emergent themes. Once noted, the researchers documented, labeled, discussed, and negotiated the identified themes. The study examined the strength of the theme based on its repetition in the data set. One researcher was emic to the re-entry organization, attending weekly meetings and organizing activities. The others were etic, having limited knowledge of criminal justice but bringing an understanding of stigma theories to the analysis. Each examined verbatim transcripts of the interviews, inductively derived themes, and coded the transcripts by theme. Finally, we carefully examined the themes and their relationships to one another through taxonomic analysis (DePoy & Gitlin, 2020). This process resulted in the multi-directional relationships reflected in Figure 1 and discussed in detail below.
Figure 1: Taxonomy of Experiences (Proximal and Distal)
As is often characteristic of naturalistic inquiry (DePoy & Gitlin, 2020), the initial areas of focus were centered on the nature of stigma, the effects of barriers, and the incidences of bias that formerly incarcerated citizens encounter as they navigate their way back into communities, the interviews revealed much richer and complex knowledge about the personal, historical and current life experiences of informants. While obtained data were consistent with existing literature on perceived and perpetrated stigma, additional understandings of post-incarceration experience and insights into the failure of current programming to curtail discrimination and barriers to full reentry were derived. Although not explicitly asked, prevention of carceral involvement was also a topic raised by informants, as discussed below.
The taxonomy in Figure 1 above presents the themes as proximal (close to the individual) and distal (referring to the broad potential realm of policy and programmatic change) (DePoy & Gilson, 2009).
How I got to this Point
Although not directly elicited in interview questions, an unexpected but strong theme that emerged from interviews related to aspects of participants' lives that resulted in their involvement in the criminal justice system. Two-thirds of participants chose to enter their interviews with this information; thus, it was a prevalent theme that bears discussion. Of the respondents who participated in the study, sixty-six percent specifically identified substance use disorder (SUD), thirteen percent referenced unaddressed mental health needs, and thirteen percent mentioned family dysfunction and instability of childhood home environments as primary factors contributing to one or more episodes of incarceration.
One respondent commented that her incarceration failed to present opportunities to improve her life. She also remarked that she did not feel the prison system provided a path for the incarcerated population to equip themselves better to manage life after release. “I’m really strong in my feeling that I don’t think that prison is the right place for rehabilitation at all.” She introduced this insight through “how I got to this point,” explaining that her incarceration occurred because of addiction and stated that she had engaged in substance use due to existing, unaddressed mental health issues. “So, my incarceration was because, I’m a recovering addict, so I think that when you have these people that are mentally, um, I was mentally not okay, and I needed help with that.”
The comments of another participant reflected a similar trajectory. “I got arrested for trafficking [drug trafficking]. There went my college career, my baseball career. And then started my life of crime, and I never got treatment. I never got help. My mother never got help. They always just arrested us.” He stated that after he got out of prison, he was “a full-blown criminal.” He explained that he eventually found the support he needed in the recovery community upon release.
I was around all of these people in recovery who were trying to help other people. That’s what was the difference. A whole community came around and helped me—held my hand—and guided me how to do things I didn’t know how to do. That’s what we need is connection. That’s what we lack.
Another respondent attributed his legal trouble to his battle with alcoholism. He also viewed addiction as the primary cause for the incarceration of most of the currently detained population in correctional facilities.
You can have a bad day and a lot of it has to do with addiction and alcoholism. As far as I can see, there are no real criminals anymore, that went out like in the seventies and eighties—the guys who would rob banks to take care of their family, you know, to buy a house because they couldn’t get employment or whatever, real like old-timey criminals, you know? It’s all drugs now, or drug related, or drug and alcohol-related.
Although not sought as data to inform stigma, close to participant values and emotions was the realization that incarceration was described as an impediment to reentry progress rather than an impetus for personal transformation.
When you are locked up, you get back out exactly where you were when you got locked up, starting all over again. And if you are starting back over, you don’t have a network, right? Because when we get out of jail—I was not connected with anyone. So, I had to restart all over, where if I didn’t have the tools from the beginning when you put me in jail in the first place, how in the hell am I going to deal with it now? Keep sending me into the same situation, looking for a different result. It just doesn’t—it sounds like insanity if you ask me. And now you have all these crimes against you on top of everything else, and no help to deal with any of it. How do we do that? How does that even happen?
One participant spoke candidly about the events that led to his last term of incarceration.
The second time I went to prison, it was for just about three years, I stole two pumpkins and twenty dollars in change. Swear to God. You can look it up. It is public record. So, two pumpkins and twenty dollars in change and I got almost three years in prison, when all I…it was like a cry for help, I just needed a detox. I needed to clean my shit up.
This pre-release theme identifies two additional, unanticipated, critical areas for intervention: Pathways to incarceration that might pose opportunities for prevention and the failure of carceral experience as remedial. In themselves, both suggest that incarceration postpones the resolution of existing problems, making the reentry process even more difficult and complex post-release. The social and political establishment may intend incarceration to solve past transgressions, but it also pauses the present and creates a labeling opportunity (Park & Tietjen, 2021). Additionally, it confines and constricts the futures of those released in a manner that fails to promote a successful return to life beyond the walls of an incarcerated setting, including encountering barriers related to access to care for substance use and mental health services during reentry (Watson, Benassi, Agic, Maharaj & Sockalingam, 2022).
According to the informants, the criminal justice system does little to disrupt and repair the repetitive influences leading to and perpetuating incarceration, serving only to confer the label of and response to deviance. While not temporally linear, each theme affects the current punitive arrest and containment system.
This theme contains the diversity of perceived and actualized interactions experienced by returning citizens within their immediate and extended families, frequently part of an ongoing cycle. All the respondents reflected on the negative impact of incarceration and subsequent frequent communication gaps, misunderstandings, missed histories, lost closures due to the missed death of relatives, and guarded or absence of trust afforded to returning citizens by their family members. Some acknowledged their responsibility in the discord as well. Restoring trust, if at all, was an arduous and long-term process. Expectedly, efforts, such as earning a degree and sustained recovery from substance use, on the part of the returning citizen facilitated acceptance.
One respondent spoke of how her substance use affected her adult children's lives and led to the loss of valued family relationships. Illustrating the findings of Park and Tietjen (2021) were her reflections on her estrangement from the family following her most recent and last period of detainment in a correctional facility.
They didn’t expect this last bout of using that took me to prison, so it was, uh, I don’t know how to explain it, but it was really hard. I mean, you know, I wasn’t allowed to see my grandchildren. They still spoke to me and everything, you know, my daughter and son were a part of my life, but they weren’t going to bring their grandchildren to come to see me in prison. And I was told that even when I got back out that look, before you can see them again, uh, this is the deal, you know, the boundaries were set, and if I didn’t think I could do it or if I screwed up again, then I knew it was going to be done. I wasn’t going to be able to see them again.
This respondent also commented on the stigmatizing impact of the news coverage of her arrest and the eventual circulation of this information on social media platforms.
I knew both kids deleted their Facebook pages during that time, not that it was some high-profile case or anything, you know, it wasn’t. It was just the fact that my name was in the court news, you know, it was in the paper that I was arrested for drug charges. It was embarrassing for them too.
A participant who regretted his incarceration's effect on his child discussed the sudden loss of a parent for the children of incarcerated individuals.
It was a horrible trauma for my daughter, who was ten. And you know, when a ten-year-old sort of understands it enough to think they do, but they don’t, there’s a lot of confusion and personal stuff with that. I mean, you know, as with any abandonment, it always feels more personal than it sometimes is.
Another participant alluded to the fear and worries experienced by immediate and extended family members for an incarcerated loved one and the toll that level of concern can have over time.
You aren’t the only one doing time when you are inside, your family is suffering too. Especially if it’s your first time in, your family doesn’t know if you’re going to get stabbed or what will happen to you in there. They hear stories, you know, and it can be really scary for them. It really affected my kids, my significant other and my mother, and my little brother before he passed away. That’s the ones that it really, really affected, but it also affected my cousins too.
One participant described the corrosive nature of continual substance use, crime, and incarceration as a long cycle of destruction inflicted upon his family.
I destroyed my family relationships, especially with drugs and alcohol and crime life, and all of the above. My mom did too. It started with my mother, and I kind of followed in my mother’s footsteps, and there was really a lot of damage done to my family for a long time.
Time and effort toward rebuilding trust among loved ones are essential when repairing family relationships following release.
I mean, uh, nobody trusted me for a long time—for a very long time. I mean even trusting me, you know, taking my daughter and being around at family functions, there was that—the element of trust was gone, so I would show up and be around, and it would be uncomfortable because I didn’t know if they wanted me there—and even if they wanted me there, you know, they couldn’t trust me to be alone in their house, so it was rough.
In addition to emotional and social consequences, economic strain took its toll on families, including the extremes of surrendering house deeds as collateral for bail to all-out bankruptcy. Incarceration placed new hurdles into an often-long history of complex family dynamics rather than addressing and resolving previous conflict or strain, particularly considering linear public policy and service response designed to protect children, but perhaps with unintended results.
A respondent spoke of the custody change enforced because of her criminal justice system involvement. “My kids’ father was in prison, and DHS [Department of Health and Human Services; Child Protective Services] stepped in and took my kids because I did thirty-three days, and you can’t have both parents incarcerated.”
Participants’ comments raise awareness concerning the damaging impact of incarceration on the entire family unit, both originating from family and the participants’ defensive responses to family members’ mistrust. Also revealed, as suggested by Nguyen (2022), is the notion of collateral stigma affecting the entire family. Respondents noted a need for more significant support to preserve or sustain family relationships during incarceration and measures to assist with reunification during the reentry transition.
Geography Matters: Sheltering in Place
Moving more distally, 53% of informants found that relocation was more tolerable and/or growth-producing than attempting to reestablish themselves in pre-incarceration communities. Returning posed a delicate confluence of shame, temptation, and support.
According to one respondent, moving to a new community post-release represented a fresh start and an opportunity to reside in an environment that would support her commitment to recovery and eliminate the stigma of being known as an offender associated with substance use and crime.
I didn’t want to go back to the community that I was arrested in because my face was plastered on the news, and um, you know, everybody knew, and I just, I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to go back to doing things that I was doing that got me incarcerated. And I just didn’t want to like face people that knew who I was.
Another informant shared similar views and added that he wanted to avoid labeling and targeting by local law enforcement.
I had to geographically relocate. I wouldn’t be able to go back from where I am from and get sober. I would’ve been surrounded by the same people and the same police who were gunning for me, it would be a nightmare.
One participant commented that his experience in communities after incarceration varied based on his geographic location.
It’s different depending on where I am. You know, like downstate, when I was living in the Rockland area, uh, people knew that I was incarcerated, but they didn’t really see me that way because when I came out, I was going to school, and I opened up a sober living house, and I was doing case management for free at the jail, and I was involved in the church and community events, so people—I don’t think it really affected them.
Returning “home” was not necessarily viable even after time had passed due to past reputation and negative expectations.
When I moved back to my hometown, even after everything that I have accomplished, you know I still get that iffy feeling from most folks. Most people don’t even know what I do for work, like I’ve been building a home on the lake, and uh, you know, usually people stop by, and that’s the first thing they ask is like, how the hell can you afford this? You know, because they think maybe I am still that person that was on drugs and in jail, and because I went through that, you know [they assume] I can’t afford to do good things or have nice things for myself if that makes any sense.
Respondents’ reported experiences represented common difficulties and friction in achieving successful community reintegration. Some of the obstacles related to personal struggles associated with ongoing recovery, yet many accounts related to the inability of communities to open themselves to the returning, stigmatized citizen effectively. Whether through public policy or cultural bias, more generally, social and political structures demonstrably stack the odds against formerly incarcerated individuals. Nearly all the burden of reentry success lies with the returning citizen; little with the culture or policies of the community into which they are attempting to return. Yet, as modified labeling theory suggests, returning citizens often react to perceived stigma with strategies that fly in the face of successful reentry.
Barriers to Reentry Regardless of Place
Pervasive barriers to successful reentry across geographies were noted, particularly due to a lack of acceptance in housing and employment resulting from pejorative stereotyping. Dissolution or discomfort in pre-incarceration family residences, cost, and legal exemptions (from civil rights to privacy) conflated to limit opportunities further.
Specific to housing
One respondent described the inexorable linkage of employment and housing in perpetuating stigma.
Uh yeah, nobody wants to rent to a violent felon. Background checks, that’s one thing, then you have the lack of steady employment that’s another, um, it’s another thing that you face. Yeah, you are doubly screwed right there, you can’t get a job, you can’t get a place, you’re out on the streets doing whatever you can, what you did before.
This interviewee solved his housing problem creatively through his employment as the manager of a sober living residence, which provided room and board.
Background checks emerge from stigma. To circumvent the heightened background checking resulting in rejection by affordable housing rental companies, reentering citizens, even several years past release from prison must seek housing from private renters whose properties are typically more costly and unstable than those offered by larger corporate entities.
Several respondents suggested that the housing problems for formerly incarcerated individuals do not dissipate over time. One participant discussed the ongoing difficulty of obtaining housing decades after his release.
It has been 20 years, but I still…I’m looking to move now, and I pretty much don’t even bother trying to apply for a place where it is being run by a management company—I don’t get past them…
He explained the unpredictable nature of privately owned or independent rental properties.
You know, individual people can just decide to toss you out. I’m on a month-to-month relationship here. If my landlord decides he just doesn’t like me, and tells me tomorrow, I’ve got thirty days to get out, I will, despite my financial resources, which are really considerable at the moment, probably experience homelessness for a while before I get into someplace else.
“A tremendous struggle” is how an interviewee described obtaining housing. He shared that he had obtained temporary accommodations immediately after his release. However, when that agreement ended, he faced the same problem repeatedly until he could shift from being a tenant to becoming an owner.
I was looking at places beyond my budget and still couldn’t find anything. And uh, finally did find a place, and every time I moved was a thing. Finally, I was able to buy a house. This isn’t something that I thought I could ever do, but I did. That was, by and large, an answer to the housing thing because it solved all the previous barriers to housing.
Employed at a peer-support-based agency, assisting formerly incarcerated with housing, a participant described his experience attempting to locate housing for individuals after release.
I have made so many calls trying to connect folks with housing. And as soon as I explain to them—to the landlord, or the owner—that the individual does have a felony or that they are just coming out of an incarcerated setting, they don’t want to have anything to do—it’s like, no, I don’t want that—I don’t want to have nothing to do with that. There is an automatic disconnect. It’s a hard no, without even knowing the person or knowing the situation.
Specific to employment
Employer human resource policies create significant barriers for returning citizens in the workplace. To ensure safe workplaces and reduce liability exposure for employers, their legal and talent teams frequently create wide-ranging restrictions which filter out a job candidate’s incarceration or criminal history regardless of the nature of the offense or the time passed since release. In doing so, the reentered citizen experiences diminished or eliminated opportunities to compete fairly for a role he or she might be qualified to do.
One respondent recognized that he carried around with him a stigmatizing shadow of his criminal history, which is accessible to potential employers through background checks, and evident because of his physical appearance.
Uh employers, I mean, I have a criminal record—I have a felony criminal record—I’ve done state time, it’s all violence, I’ve got prison ink all over my face, I have these huge gang tattoos all over me…prospective employers are few and far between.
Another interviewee commented about his frustration obtaining and keeping a job when he was fully transparent about his history.
I was hired five times and un-hired during the qualification process. In every single one of those cases, I was upfront about my criminal history in the first conversation. The recruiter I talked to said no problem, it has been twenty years, we don’t care. I had gone through the application process, gone through the interview process, been well-liked by one or two interviewers, formally been offered the position, asked to do onboarding paperwork, including W4, W2, blah, blah, blah, and then someone higher up gets wind of the background check—which, mind you, I’ve already told them—this is what you are going to find—and they decide, oops, it’s actually an issue after all, never mind. Five times.
Respondents were equivocal about compliance with background checks, and several could use creative strategies to obtain employment. After making a considerable effort to apply for jobs without success, one interviewee spoke about his decision not to reveal details about his history of incarceration.
I didn’t disclose that I was a felon, and I was like okay, well, let me just go ahead and once again, through example, let me show them my work ethic, and maybe that will make the difference. And then three weeks into the job, I got called into human resources, and they had my files, and they said, can you explain this, and I was like, well unfortunately, I can. And I told them I did not disclose that I was a felon because I knew that I wouldn’t have an opportunity with this company. And I said I wasn’t trying to be, you know, dishonest, it’s just the nature of the beast, and that’s how it has always worked out for me, and I wanted you to see me for who I was, not for who I am on paper—because there are two different truths. And you know, they appreciated it, and they were like, you are a great employee; we had hopes to move you up into management, but unfortunately, our contract prevents us from hiring felons. The next thing you know, I was being walked out of the building.
Regardless of whether applicants were transparent during the interview or chose to delay revealing details about their past, the outcome appeared to be the same. At the point that a potential employer conducted a background check, employment opportunities were severely limited. The work of Smith and Herring (2022) foregrounded the association between stigma and background checking as a critical policy consideration.
Several participants discussed ways to get around the background check problem. Because they felt their chances of hiring improved when personal contact and relationship existed, most participants stated that they tried to seek out local, family-owned businesses. One respondent explained:
I purposely went for small companies. I didn’t try to apply at Wal-Mart or Home Depot or someplace where nobody that was going to make the decision was going to see my application. I figured if you can give your application directly to the owner and meet the owner at the same time and let them see you and have a good first impression then you have a lot bigger shot [at being offered a job].
Access to employment is necessary for returning citizens to find housing, and absent both these necessities, the prospects for successful reentry become incredibly bleak. According to respondents, obtaining employment after release was the exception, rather than the norm, due to low expectations and negative stereotypes that form the basis for stigma.
Branding the Unworthy
Respondents consistently referred to the permanence of a criminal record reminiscent of stigmata (D’Abruzzo, 2021). According to participants, the prison system administers justice as a form of punishment, but at the end of a sentence, punishment transforms rather than terminates. Restitution, while rhetorically acknowledged, is rebranded as perennial worthlessness.
According to one interviewee, “…once you go to jail, you are basically labeled a criminal your whole life.” Respondents reported that even if they could move on from their past, this was not always the case for residents in the community with whom they interacted. “When people find out, I feel like it always gives them a different perspective of who I am.”
In concert with Park and Tietjen (2021), one participant reported limiting his community involvement, not because of a lack of interest or an inability to meaningfully contribute but because of his fear of the social ramifications associated with the stigma of his past criminal justice system involvement.
In one way or another it affects just about everything that I do. My employment options are, shall we say, vastly different, I encounter a lot of stumbling blocks and roadblocks. There are some things that I don’t even try to do because of the potential complications of having to deal with my history should it come out. So, it prevents me from, say, for example, getting involved in the theater too heavily or even like thinking about serving in a political capacity, like as a campaign manager for somebody or even as an envelope stuffer for somebody. I have to think to myself, well, is it going to hit the news if I do something positive for that campaign and some reporter decides that my criminal history is somehow relevant to that person’s candidacy?
Similarly, another respondent remarked about her experience of feeling undervalued and judged because of her criminal record. “They look at you like a lesser person. And it doesn’t matter what you’re in there for, it could be for driving, which I’ve been in there for before, and you’re still nothing.”
Despite multiple personal and professional successes and years of a stable, productive life post-release, an interviewee described the experience of feeling perpetually stigmatized by the community as if he existed in a place of impending judgment.
Like I said before, actions speak louder than words. So, I just have to, I keep my head down. I stay quiet. I don’t go out too much or see too many people, but when I do go out, you know, I try to volunteer once or twice a month at the food pantry and help deliver food, you know, I tried to join the church up here and a couple of other little organizations, the Knights of Columbus, I was in the army, so you know joining the Legion, and different things like that to try to show people that you know, I’m not that person anymore, and it’s starting to come around. I don’t think people look at me like I’m an addict/criminal as much anymore, but as soon as I know—as soon as something small happens, and if it’s like a speeding ticket, or as soon as something happens, then all of that is all over with—all the years of hard work—and the one mistake I might make would affect all of the good things that I’ve done, if that makes any sense.
Taking the Reins
This theme refers to respondents' strategies to regain legitimacy and worth, a particularly uplifting finding of how individuals move beyond stigma. Engaging in recovery coaching, substance use, and peer support and serving as community liaisons, managers of sober living residences, and other relevant volunteer activity with reentry at county jails created employment, volunteer, and “pass forward” opportunities for formerly incarcerated citizens. A participant explained the motivation behind her efforts to assist others exiting correctional facilities:
I think one of my biggest reasons why I want to help people who are leaving the jail is because—even with women in prison, you know, I’ve gotten to see this, some women don’t have a choice, they either go back to their drug dealer or back to their abusive boyfriend or their mother or back to something that wasn’t healthy, because they never really had the strength to be able to stand on their own two feet and be told that you know, maybe they could do this, you know, you could do this. Even if you get a second in your head that you think you can make it, you think, well, nobody is going to help me. So, people think, I might as well go back to what I was doing—that type of thing.
Another respondent commented about her work in the community to educate others about substance use. She also spoke about extending this outreach to include conversations with healthcare providers who might have preconceived beliefs about individuals struggling with addiction.
So, I try to advocate and try to show people that, you know, addiction is a disease, and it’s something that you can’t face yourself, and that people need help, you know, and you can’t do it alone. So, that’s something that I deal with every day, and try to help people and show them if you help people and if these doctors would get on board and there was less stigma, we might be able to battle addiction.
Another interviewee shared that he considered legislative advocacy efforts a critical step toward reducing stigma. He viewed his willingness to speak openly about his experience consulting with decision-makers as a way to educate and promote a more progressive assessment of incarceration and reentry legislation.
It’s become abundantly clear to me that in my work through legislative advocacy and when I go to testify, and in relationships I’ve built with lawmakers, that going in and speaking about these topics breaks down the barriers of stigma.
Participant comments point to the need for profound reconsideration of what the criminal justice system proposes to accomplish. Criminal justice system processes should deal with dangerous and violent offenses in a way that ensures the safety of the larger community, but individuals causing that degree of harm represent less than half of the incarcerated population in so many locales (Carson & Golinelli, 2013). Many are sent to jail for an underlying substance use disorder that occasionally presents as a misdemeanor or felony. The crime represents only a symptom of an unaddressed mental health or social problem. Moreover, when courts choose to punish the symptom instead of addressing the cause, they effectively issue a sentence of a life-long stigma without end for the subject and his/her/their family and community members.
The themes are not mutually exclusive or linear. The taxonomic analysis presented above in Figure 1 reveals the multi-directional, permeable boundaries of each theme and its sub-themes. Noteworthy are the relationships among formerly incarcerated individuals' lived experiences and the strategies they innovated to address stigma and concomitant lack of opportunity for profound change. This taxonomy emerged from carefully analyzing relationships among individual themes, revealing the potential for complex theory development and subsequent research opportunities.
Conclusions and Implications
Methodologically, the context-embedded nature of this study is noteworthy. Contrary to Muhlhausen’s (2018) recommendation for actual experimentation, the insights revealed by investigating place-based voices of those who are most proximal to the current system through mixed method approaches were highly productive, not only to inform the nature of stigma experienced by returning previously incarcerated citizens but further in developing new knowledge necessary to inform reform and provide innovative direction for profound systemic change. Thus, the knowledge and theoretical tenets developed exceeded the initial aim of the study to detail the nature of stigma. Such research is critical for local through national rethinking and system redesign.
There is no doubt that, in concert with the literature, informants experienced significant stigma, which interfered with work, social, intimate, and civic participation. Moreover, initial responses to stigma are consistent with Park and Tietjen’s (2021) findings, which focused on withdrawal from productive roles as a response to labeling.
Yet, two unexpected mechanisms from the thematic findings illuminate areas for change: non-example and innovative insight. Non-example refers to forensic analysis, a careful and detailed analysis of what is or went wrong and thus did not happen on the failed way to goal attainment of recidivism reduction. Multiple fields of study, including criminal justice, use this method of analysis, but perhaps not for redesigning systems and policies that have not met their asserted objectives (DePoy & Gilson, 2021), in this case, successful and enduring reentry.
An important lesson articulated by the respondents and illustrated by their lived example is the unfortunate outcomes of criminalizing substance use disorders, rendering the term “corrections” oxymoronic. Relegating substance use to crime ignores its potentially correctable social, economic, and familial causes. It invites and amplifies stigma and other types of criminal behavior, such as theft and violent crimes, into the already troubled lives of the users.
Cogent approaches that repeatedly surfaced in interviews and positionally reflected in the taxonomy included four major proximal to distal alternatives to punitive incarceration and post-release surveillance: diversion and restorative justice programming, mental health and SUD treatment, community education, and significant policy revision.
We cannot overstate the value of restorative and diversion programs that reduce stigma and address interpersonal conflict, substance use, mental health, or inadequate housing through methods other than incarceration. There was consensus among respondents that society should provide non-violent offenders with opportunities to connect to resources to address these needs before or instead of their involvement with the criminal justice system. Looking distally, respondents acknowledged the broad economic and moral benefit of strategies to beget a useful and productive approach to non-violence and reparation within their home communities.
Restorative Justice measures, diversion options, and public safety programs to intercept non-violent offenders can keep young people and adults out of the criminal justice system, reducing pejorative labeling and refocusing on attenuating the root causes of offending behavior, including mental health issues. Similarly, and crucial to this effort is providing treatment for substance use disorder.
Informed by the respondents’ articulation of ongoing, unsolved challenges related to employment and housing, programmatic innovation appears warranted. For example, combining housing employment and previous experience in residential sobriety programs can provide the opportunity to circumvent stigma while developing employment skills and experience while also contributing to the community.
Said succinctly and directly by an informant about the failure of the criminal justice system:
It has been my experience that um, there’s a certain logic in focusing on the recovering inmate when it comes to reentry because obviously, well let’s not sugarcoat it, they did something wrong and that’s how they ended up locked up… [But] the current incarceration assistance really isn’t that good at helping them figure out where they went wrong, so reentry—in a triage sense—focuses on adapting their behavior to society, getting them on the right track, um, we are not doing anything really to change the minds of society with regards to these people.…unless we actively change the way that the community responds to them, I don’t think we are going to get very far. And um, that’s been my experience, we take these people who are doing the wrong thing and we start getting them to do the right thing—they are still being treated as if they did the wrong thing anyway and then they are just like what the heck did I reform for, I might-as-well go back to what I was doing, you know, nobody checks my resume before I sell them cocaine or whatever negative behaviors got them in trouble in the first place and sometimes people just gravitate to new negatives just because. In order to convince reentrants that being part of society is worth it, we have to make being a part of society worth it.
Alexander (2020) articulated in her original 2010 work over a decade ago that completing one’s sentence is now met with a policy that mediates against adjustment. Although one would expect the punishment to fit the crime, informants articulated that within the current context of containment for unlawful behaviors but not injurious to others and the community, release from incarceration is in no way accompanied by restoration of opportunity for reform, destigmatization, and successful reentry. While expecting the punishment to fit the crime, informants articulated that within the current context of containment for unlawful behaviors but not injurious to others and the community, release from incarceration is in no way accompanied by restoration of opportunity for reform, destigmatization, and successful reentry. On the contrary, differential privacy policies, failure to eliminate maligning mass media, continued surveillance over support, and stigma inherent in the current policy set the praxis stage for discrimination and recidivism.
The respondents' words in this study have been powerful in revealing the nature of stigma. However, the informants gifted the study with insights about ruptures and thus policy and praxis needing major revision. By non-example, personal innovation or by reported experience, alternatives, such as “nip in the bud” policies that can address the causes of incarceration before one ever moves to that tipping point, fair housing, innovative employment, and education efforts for both offenders and communities in which they reside emerged in this study. Beyond its initial aim to examine stigma, this study highlights the need for further research, carefully evaluated program and policy change, and the theoretical and applied value of context-embedded, participatory studies. Moreover, a geographic analysis of stigma, programs, and policies appears warranted, given that this study involved a small, rural location.
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Amy Frankel is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at the University of Maine, Orono, from which she also holds a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. She is an advocate for reentry and criminal justice reform.
Elizabeth DePoy is a Professor of Social Work, Interdisciplinary Disability Studies, and cooperating faculty in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maine, Orono. She holds M.S.W and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Maine, Orono, and has taught and conducted research for over thirty years.
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