Abstract: Regional Challenges and Resources in the Reentry of the Formerly Incarcerated and Mentally Ill

This summer, I plan to investigate the barriers that former prisoners face when they finish their sentences and reenter normal society, as well as the resources and services available to assist them with this transition. There are local-level organizations and programs that provide reentry services, which can include case management, assistance with employment, housing, and transportation, computer use, donated clothing and hygienic items, education, therapy, and referrals to other service providers. These organizations work to ensure that their clients do not recidivate – that they do not commit another crime and return to prison or jail. I hope that my project can contribute to a body of research that can improve the effectiveness of such programs by identifying which barriers to reentry they need to target, which resources are most useful to their clients, and how they should tailor their services to the particular community that they serve.

Within the more general question of how best to coordinate effective reentry services, I want to focus in on two factors, one individual and the other environmental, that shape that process: mental health and geographic region/community context. Mental health problems are common among the incarcerated and can affect their ability to obtain and maintain a job, housing, and health care, all of which are additional challenges to successful reentry. Their environments/communities are also important to consider, as their success can depend on local laws regarding the status of people with criminal records, community attitudes toward crime and former criminals, and the physical availability of housing, jobs, and health services, among other factors. I plan to broadly categorize environments/communities into rural, suburban, and urban regions and obtain information from samples of each type of region.

I will begin by reviewing existing literature on the barriers to successful prisoner reentry and the scope and effectiveness of reentry services, particularly in the ways that they address regional and community differences and needs specific to former prisoners with mental illness. The bulk of my investigation will consist of interviews conducted with representatives of reentry service organizations located in rural, suburban, and urban regions of Virginia. I will ask them about their organization and reentry in general, then about challenges specific to clients with mental illnesses to the region/community that they serve. I also plan to gather additional information about the regions under study from publicly available data, including spatial data that could be represented with GIS software. The focus of this will be tailored to the information I obtain from my interviews. For example, if the amount of nearby mental health services is judged to be a concern in a rural area, I could investigate the spread and density of population in that area compared to the locations of mental health providers, and see how the landscape differs from my suburban and urban regions where mental health service availability might be less of a concern. My final project will be an academic paper that synthesizes all of my findings.

From this project, I personally hope to obtain a better understanding of how different people function in and interact with their environments. I hope to continue to reform in myself an opinion that I began to shed in my Community Psychology class last year, the idea that problem behaviors are individual, and people who break the law are entirely at fault for their actions. We can’t disregard free will, but if you can’t get a job, housing, or health care, if you live in a distrustful community where crime is common, if you don’t have family and friends to support you – of course you’ll be more likely than the average person to commit a crime. And if you serve your time and find yourself back in the exact situation you started in, it’s not unreasonable to expect that you might recidivate. And maybe it matters less whether or not that situation is your fault, and it matters more that if there was a reentry organization that could provide you with services and referrals, you would be more likely to avoid crime, work a job, own a house, pay taxes. I myself hope to become a clinical psychologist one day, and while I’ll interact with most of my patients one-on-one, it’s essential that I don’t neglect to consider and address their environmental contexts.