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On Eve of Release, Illinois Prisoners' Optimism is Shadowed by Long Histories of Substance Abuse and Criminal Involvement

Only 14 Percent Have Jobs Lined Up, 31 Percent Lack a Place to Go

Document date: September 09, 2003
Released online: September 09, 2003

Contact: Stu Kantor, (202) 261-5283, skantor@ui.urban.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 9, 2003—Inmates about to leave Illinois prisons are confident they can pick up the pieces of their lives and make a successful return to society. However, extensive personal and family histories of crime and substance abuse, plus limited education and spotty job experience, could undermine their efforts, a new study from the nonpartisan Urban Institute concludes.

"Illinois Prisoners' Reflections on Returning Home," which surveyed 400 male prisoners preparing to return to Chicago, shows a troubling past and foreshadows a challenging future for the ex-inmates:

  • Criminal history: Forty-six percent were convicted of drug offenses, 30 percent were in prison for property crimes, and 23 percent had been convicted of violent crimes. Seventy-five percent had been in prison at least once before.
  • Education: Fifty-nine percent had less than a high school education when they entered prison. Ninety-one percent said they need or want more education.
  • Substance abuse: Twelve percent said they would be likely to take drugs after being released even if they would be arrested for it.
  • Employment: Sixty percent said some of their income came from illegal activity before entering prison. Just 14 percent had a post-prison job lined up.
  • Financial status: Only 13 percent had a savings account to draw from once they left the prison gates. Three percent indicated they would pursue financial support through illegal means after release.
  • Housing: Sixty-nine percent had housing arranged for after their release, with 72 percent of them expecting to live with a family member.
  • Gang involvement: Thirty percent reported being in a gang prior to their current prison term. Only 5 percent expected to be affiliated with gangs after release.
  • Family relationships: Thirty-one percent had a family member currently in prison and 58 percent said someone in the family had a problem with drugs or alcohol. Sixty-one percent left children under 18 years old behind when they entered prison.

At the same time, 57 percent said it would be easy or very easy to support themselves financially after their release and 86 percent expected their families to be helpful. Sixty-six percent of those to be under parole or community supervision believed it would be easy or very easy to avoid a parole violation.

"Never before have we put so many people behind bars. The consequences for ex-prisoners, their families, and their communities are intertwined and must be dealt with if inmates are to avoid returning to prison," said Christy Visher, a principal research associate with the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center and coauthor of the study with Nancy La Vigne and Jill Farrell.

The Impact of Drugs
Between 1970 and 2002, Illinois' prison population rose 505 percent, from 7,326 to 44,348 inmates, reflecting a dramatic jump in drug-law violations, a steady increase in convictions for violent offenses, and a significant increase in parole revocations of released prisoners. In 2001, the Illinois Department of Corrections released 30,068 prisoners, a 157 percent increase since 1983. Fifty-two percent returned to Chicago.

Sixty-six percent of those surveyed for "Illinois Prisoners' Reflections on Returning Home" used drugs and 48 percent were intoxicated some time in the six months before their prison term. Of those who took drugs, 22 percent used heroin daily, 15 percent used cocaine every day, and 25 percent smoked marijuana on a daily basis.

"Only 20 percent had participated in a program for drug or alcohol problems, suggesting that many prisoners will return to the community with persisting addictions, which, if not addressed, could lead to subsequent substance abuse and criminal involvement," Visher, La Vigne, and Farrell state in their report.

Based on the prisoners' other characteristics, experiences, and needs, the report observes that employment readiness and referral services are critical resources; prisons should incorporate families into their prerelease programming and post-release supervision; and efforts to encourage prisoners to leave behind their gang status could have positive implications for successful reintegration.

"Illinois Prisoners' Reflections on Returning Home" is based on a fall 2002/winter 2003 survey of the inmates 30 to 60 days before their release. The sample was selected to be representative of the state's prison population returning to Chicago on such factors as major offense, release reason, security level, time served, race, and age.

"Returning Home" Project
"Illinois Prisoners' Reflections on Returning Home" is part of "Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry," a multistate research initiative exploring ways to improve reentry outcomes for individuals, families, and communities. Research in Illinois is being conducted with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Illinois Department of Corrections, and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

The Illinois study is gathering data on the reintegration process from a number of sources, including one-on-one interviews with the prisoners one month, six months, and one year after their release; interviews with their family members, community leaders, and state and local officials; focus groups with area residents; analysis of local indicators of community well-being; and reviews of state sentencing and release policies. A comprehensive report based on the research in Illinois will be published in 2004. Similar research will be conducted in Texas and Ohio. Maryland served as the project's pilot site.

"A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Illinois", issued in April, examines the policy context surrounding Illinois reentry, the characteristics and geographic distribution of Illinois' returning prisoners, and the social and economic climates of the communities that are home to the highest concentrations of former inmates.

"Illinois Prisoners' Reflections on Returning Home," by Christy Visher, Nancy La Vigne, and Jill Farrell, is available at http://urban.org/url.cfm?ID=310846. It is part of the Urban Institute's ongoing research on crime and justice issues. For more on this subject, go to http://urban.org/r/crime.cfm.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice

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