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Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry

Maryland Pilot Study: Findings from Baltimore

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Document date: January 01, 2004
Released online: January 01, 2004

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Executive Summary

This publication presents the final technical report for a pilot study of Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry. This pilot study, which examined the process of prisoner reentry in Maryland and more specifically, within the city of Baltimore, involved self-administered surveys with 324 male and female prisoners approximately 30 to 90 days prior to their expected release date, and two post-release interviews with subsets of the original sample, one within 30 to 90 days after release, and one approximately 4 to 6 months after their release. In addition, 41 family members of prisoners were interviewed and focus groups were conducted with residents in two Baltimore neighborhoods experiencing high rates of returning prisoners. The purpose of this pilot study was both to examine the process of prisoner reintegration in Baltimore through the experiences of released prisoners in our sample, as well as to test our survey instruments and research design in preparation for implementation of the study in the three full-study sites.

For the pilot study, our goal was to recruit a sample of male and female prisoners who: (1) had been sentenced to at least one year by a Maryland court, (2) were returning to the city of Baltimore, (3) were within 30 to 90 days of release, and (4) were representative of all releases for the year (in terms of release reason, offense type, time served, race, and age). In accordance with Institutional Review Board approval of the study, only those prisoners who were 18 years of age or older were eligible for recruitment. Working with the Maryland Division of Correction, we chose nine facilities (six for men and three for women) that were in close proximity to Baltimore, housed prisoners of a range of security levels, offered a variety of programming, and would enable us to reach our sampling goal of 350 respondents within four months. As implemented, we surveyed 324 prisoners before release. Our pre-release sample is generally representative of all state prisoners returning to Baltimore with the exception that the Returning Home sample has fewer parole violators and more prisoners whose sentences expired than the general population of prisoners returning to Baltimore.

Our pre-release sample consisted of 235 males and 89 females and had an average age of 34 years. Eighty-three percent of respondents were black, eight percent were white, and the remaining nine percent identified with other racial groups. Three percent of respondents were Hispanic. About two-thirds of respondents had served a prior prison term, and 29 percent had served time in a juvenile correctional facility. With regard to their current conviction offense, over half were drug offenders, convicted of either dealing or possession. About 11 percent were serving time as a result of a parole violation. Over two-thirds (69%) were single and never married before incarceration, but 59 percent were parents of minor children at the time of admission. As of February 2003, all but eight of the survey respondents had been released from prison. Approximately 44 percent had served less than one year in prison this term. An additional 25 percent had served between one and two years, 21 percent had served two to five years, and the remaining 9 percent had served five or more years. Further descriptive information about our sample appears below in the topical sections of this summary.

Limited resources and the pilot nature of this study dictated smaller samples for the interviews conducted after respondents had been released from prison. The first post-release interview was conducted with 153 of the original respondents and the second post-release interview was conducted with 104 of the original respondents. When we compared those we interviewed at the first post-release interview with those we did not interview, we found virtually no differences between the two groups, including similar rates of reconviction and return to prison or jail. However, readers should exercise caution in generalizing our research findings from the second interviews at four to six months after release to the larger population of prisoners returning to Baltimore for two reasons. First, analyses of outcome measures were limited due to the relatively small sample of former prisoners interviewed a second time. In addition, those whom we did not interview a second time were more likely to have been returned to prison or jail, suggesting that those we did interview were generally more successful at remaining crime free than the average released prisoner.

This report is structured to present findings on specific types of reentry challenges faced by men and women released from prison and factors that might influence post-release success or failure, such as employment, substance use, individuals' expectations and attitudes, health challenges, criminal histories, and the family and community contexts awaiting them. The purpose of this report is to inform policymakers and service providers about how released prisoners returning to Baltimore navigate these challenges of reentry, what services they need that are not currently being provided, and the extent to which certain individual and contextual factors can serve as either risk or protective factors with regard to subsequent drug use and criminal behavior. Highlights from the report are presented below by topic area.


  • Many respondents in our sample entered prison with poor educational backgrounds and inconsistent employment histories. Less than half (42%) had high school diplomas before entering prison, and nearly half (45%) had been fired from a job at least once.
  • Although most respondents expected to use newspaper ads or yellow pages to find jobs, the methods that proved to be successful for those who found jobs typically involved personal connections through family or friends. A significantly larger share of respondents who had worked since release (19%) talked to their former employer to find a job, as compared with those who had not worked since release (3%).
  • About four of ten respondents were currently working full-time at the first interview 30 to 90 days after their release. More men than women found employment following their release from prison. In addition, respondents who reported working after release were more likely to have held a work release job, participated in job training, have work as a condition of supervision, and have debts than those who did not work.
  • Nearly two-thirds (62%) of respondents reported owing some amount of debt for supervision fees, child support, and other costs. Average monthly debt exceeded average monthly income for 20 percent of respondents interviewed at the first interview after their release.
  • After release, respondents depended on their families for financial support to a greater extent than expected. Before release, the largest share of respondents (54%) expected to rely on their own jobs for financial support; after release, the largest share (51%) reported relying on their families for financial support.


  • A significant share of respondents had extensive and serious substance use histories. The majority reported some drug (78%) and/or alcohol (61%) use prior to prison, with cocaine and heroin topping the list of drugs by type. Thirty percent of respondents reported using cocaine on a daily basis, and 41 percent reported using heroin daily in the six months before entering prison.
  • Pre-prison drug and alcohol use caused serious problems for most respondents. Nearly two-thirds of drug users reported arrests caused by their drug use, about one-half of drug users reported relationship problems and arguments at home about their drug use, and about one-third of drug users reported missing school and/or work and losing jobs as a result of their drug use.
  • With regard to in-prison substance abuse treatment, 27 percent of respondents reported participating in a specific drug or alcohol treatment program, and 46 percent reported having attended Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous (AA/NA).
  • Almost a third (32.6%) of respondents reported some type of drug use or intoxication during the first few months after their release. A number of factors were related to postrelease substance use: younger respondents were more likely to use drugs after release than older respondents; drug users after release were also more likely to have family members with substance abuse problems and friends who used or sold drugs; and respondents who reported receiving drug treatment in prison were more successful at avoiding subsequent drug use than those who did not.


  • Over two-thirds of respondents (70%) reported participating in at least one program while they were in prison. Average participation rates varied by program; the largest shares (around one-third) participated in employment readiness and substance abuse programs. Women were significantly more likely than men to have participated in a program.
  • Respondents who participated in educational/employment and substance abuse programs were more likely to have been sentenced to longer prison terms and to have had longer stays in prison than non-participants.
  • Almost half of respondents (45%) reported participating in some kind of post-release program, but few said that programs had been helpful in their post-release transition. In fact, the largest share (41%) said nothing had been helpful to them. The next most common response was that family or friends had been helpful in the transition. When asked what programs or services they would have liked to have but did not receive, the most common responses dealt with employment: 26 percent of respondents said they would like job training and 13 percent simply said they wanted a job. Other common responses included housing (11%), education (10%), health care (8%), and drug treatment (6%).


  • Most respondents expressed positive opinions about their physical health prior to, during, and following their stay in prison. Eighty-eight percent of those interviewed prior to release rated their pre-prison health as good or excellent, compared to 80 percent of those interviewed after release.
  • Almost 40 percent reported having at least one physical ailment. Furthermore, one of every four respondents were taking medication for a chronic health condition prior to and during incarceration, and two-thirds of those individuals (66%) were still taking prison-distributed medications after release. The most common illnesses reported were asthma (17%) and high blood pressure (13%).
  • After release, most respondents had no type of medical coverage or health insurance. Only 10 percent reported having private insurance or belonging to an HMO. Very few respondents (less than 5%) reported receiving a disability pension, being on Medicaid or Medicare, or having Veteran's Administration (VA) health insurance. Despite the lack of health insurance among respondents, more than half of the sample (58%) had visited a doctor for a general checkup since their release from prison, and 19 percent had used emergency room services for a heath-related problem.
  • Exactly half of the respondents indicated a desire for help obtaining counseling following their release from prison, and 30 percent wanted help acquiring mental health treatment. Less than 10 percent of the respondents interviewed after release believed they suffered from mental illness, although about one-quarter of respondents reported experiencing serious anxiety and depression.
  • About one in five respondents reported experiencing symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the 30 to 90 days after their release, including feeling upset when reminded of prison, avoiding thinking or talking about prison and having repeated, disturbing memories, thoughts, or images of prison.


  • Familial criminal and substance abuse histories among sample members were significant. Sixty percent of respondents had someone in their family who had been convicted of a crime, and over one-quarter reported having three or more family members with a substance abuse or alcohol problem.
  • Respondents reported close family relationships before, during, and after prison; over 40 percent reported four or more close family relationships at every data collection point. Ten percent of respondents reported no close family relationships after release from prison, indicating that a subgroup of returning prisoners has little or no support network to assist in their transition back into society.
  • Forty-two percent of respondents expected family to be a source of financial support during the first month after release and, at 30 to 90 days after release, 51 percent were receiving some financial support from family. Expectations of family for living arrangements were equally high: when interviewed in prison, two-thirds of respondents indicated that they expected to live with family after release, and 80 percent of respondents ended up doing so, including 20 percent who reported living with an intimate partner.
  • Prisoners' expectations for family support overall—both emotional and financial—were generally realized after their release from prison. At the time of the first post-release interview, 82 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their family had been as supportive as they had hoped after their release from prison.
  • Intimate partner and family relationships and support were significantly related to the intermediate reentry outcomes of employment and staying off drugs. Respondents with closer family relationships, stronger family support, and fewer negative dynamics in relationships with intimate partners were more likely to have worked after release and were less likely to have used drugs or become intoxicated.


  • Almost 60 percent of Maryland prisoners return to Baltimore each year, and of this group, reentry is further concentrated in a few communities. Specifically, 36 percent of our prisoner sample returned to only 6 of 55 Baltimore communities. All six of these communities had above-average rates for unemployment, percent female-headed households, and percent of families living below the poverty level.
  • Half of the respondents did not return to their old neighborhoods either because they were living with family members who had moved to new addresses or because they wanted to avoid trouble.
  • Released prisoners in our sample generally felt safe and comfortable in the communities to which they returned. However, less than one-third (30%) of the respondents thought that their neighborhood was a good place to find a job, and 60 percent believed that drug selling was a problem there.
  • About two thirds of respondents (68%) reported that they had a place to live before they were released from prison. At the first post-release interview, 82 percent said that they were living where they expected to live. However, less than half (48%) planned to stay at that location for more than a few months. Many of those who intended to move hoped to live on their own or with their children.
  • Community members interviewed through focus groups were discouraged by the problems presented by prisoner reentry. Specifically, they expressed concern about the crimes committed by returning prisoners and the lack of police response. They had more sympathy for older ex-prisoners who were returning to the community after serving relatively long prison terms, versus younger ex-prisoners, whom they believed are not sincerely interested in seeking legitimate employment and becoming law-abiding citizens. Opinions varied between communities about the level of services available to returning prisoners, but most felt that the community should help with the prisoner reentry process.


  • Before they were released from prison, respondents ranked highly on measures of self-esteem, control over their lives, and readiness to change. Importantly, prisoners who reported higher levels of control over life were more successful with employment outcomes than those who reported lower levels. In contrast, ex-prisoners who experienced unemployment and reported substance use after release had expressed greater intentions to commit crimes and use drugs while they were incarcerated. And those who were rearrested after their release had lower self-esteem scores than those who were not.
  • Many in our sample expressed negative views toward the law and the criminal justice system—what researchers term "legal cynicism." Similarly, respondents held negative attitudes toward their local law enforcement officials. At least half of the respondents reported that the police in their neighborhoods were racist (49%) and that they brutalized people in the neighborhood (62%). Legal cynicism was significantly related to post-release outcomes. Respondents who had been rearrested had higher measures of legal cynicism than those who had not. In addition, those who were employed for at least a week after release had lower ratings of legal cynicism than those who were not employed.
  • Most respondents expected that dealing with reentry issues would be easy. For example, 82 percent thought that it would be easy to renew family relationships, and about two-thirds (65%) expected that it would be easy to find a job. However, not all reentry matters were as straightforward as prisoners had anticipated. At least half of the respondents who thought it would be easy to find a job, support oneself financially, and pay off debts, reported that these tasks were actually difficult in their post-release interviews.
  • The majority of respondents wanted post-release assistance of some kind. For instance, 70 percent of those who would be looking for work said they would like some help finding work. Moreover, only 10 percent did not want additional educational instruction, and very few (11%) did not want additional job training. Women were more likely than men to report a need for assistance after release, especially in the areas of housing and financial assistance.


  • Criminal histories among our sample members were extensive and began early in life: most respondents (84%) had at least one prior conviction, over two-thirds had served time in prison before, and over one-quarter had spent time in a juvenile correctional facility. More than half (56%) had been first arrested before they reached the age of eighteen. In addition, 60 percent had at least one family member who had been convicted of a crime, and 39 percent had a family member who was serving a prison sentence at the same time as they were.
  • In spite of their extensive criminal histories and high levels of familial criminal involvement, 78 percent of respondents expected that it would be pretty easy or very easy to stay out of prison.
  • Over three-quarters (77%) of respondents were released to parole supervision. Most of the remaining quarter completed their sentences (i.e., "maxed out") and were therefore released with no further supervision.
  • While in prison, most (82%) of the respondents who expected to be on parole believed that their parole officers would be helpful in their transitions back to the community; upon release, however, only about one-half felt that supervision had helped with their transitions, or would help them to maintain drug- and crime-free lives.
  • Six months after being released, one-third (32%) of the sample had been rearrested, one-tenth had been reconvicted, and 7 percent had their parole revoked for a technical violation or new crime arrest. Collectively, 16 percent of the sample was reconfined to prison or jail within six months following release. Twenty-eight percent of charges were still pending as of June 2003.
  • Drug charges accounted for half (49%) of respondents' current convictions and half (51%) of their reconvictions after prison release.

The policy implications of these findings are wide-ranging and pertain to the roles that families, jobs, the community, and substance use play in the reentry experience. Perhaps the greatest resource in reentry planning is the family. Families are an important source of housing, emotional support, financial resources, and overall stability for returning prisoners. Strategies and resources designed to strengthen family ties during the period of incarceration and after release (e.g., prerelease family conferencing sessions) are recommended.

Families were also a source of support with regard to employment; returning prisoners who were employed after release relied largely on personal connections—family, friends, and former employers—to find their jobs. Social connections that are maintained during the period of incarceration can be an important resource in helping released prisoners achieve positive postrelease outcomes. It is also noteworthy that those who found jobs after release were more likely to have participated in work-release jobs while incarcerated than those who did not find jobs. Expanding work-release programs could increase the employment rates of former prisoners in Baltimore.

Community also plays a role in the reentry process. We found that a significant proportion of returning prisoners are clustered in a handful of neighborhoods with high levels of social and economic disadvantage. Residents in two such neighborhoods cited parenting skills, education, more intensive policing, and a greater involvement of public agencies as areas in which to focus reentry efforts. In addition, focus group participants believed that the community should play a role in addressing the needs of ex-prisoners.

Substance use was prevalent among those in our sample: younger respondents, those with family members with substance abuse problems, and those with friends who sell drugs more likely to use drugs after release. Substance abuse treatment programs should target ex-prisoners with these characteristics. In addition, those who participated in substance abuse treatment programs while in prison were less likely to use drugs after release than those who did not participate. Expanding such programs could improve postrelease outcomes for more returning prisoners.

Finally, our most powerful findings from a public safety perspective are those pertaining to recidivism: one-third of respondents were rearrested within six months. Those who were rearrested were younger, had more extensive criminal histories, and were more likely to engage in substance use both prior to incarceration and after release. These data on recidivism underscore the overarching policy challenge of finding ways to slow down the revolving door of individuals cycling in and out of prison. One place to start is to focus squarely on the high levels of drug and alcohol use reported by prisoners themselves.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


Production of this report was a team effort involving a number of talented researchers from the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center: Avi Bhati; Jennifer Castro; Jill Farrell; Meagan Funches; Vera Kachnowski; Kamala Mallik Kane; Sarah Lawrence; Rebecca Naser; John Roman; William Turner, Michelle Waul, and Laura Winterfield. Many of these researchers were authors of individual sections of this report, and attribution is noted at the beginning of each chapter. In addition to this outstanding research staff, the authors would like to thank the many individuals and organizations that made valuable contributions to this report. We are indebted to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (MD DPSCS), and specifically to Bob Gibson and Tom Stough from the Office of Planning and Statistics, and Kristy Corrado and Sam Strasbaugh from the Criminal Justice Information System Central Repository who provided valuable advice on the administrative data used in this report. Former commissioner William Sondervan, former deputy commissioner Jack Kavanagh, and former administrative officer Clif Burton, all of the Division of Correction, provided information on prison programming and the overall policy context of reentry in Maryland. Facility wardens and staff provided vital assistance in gaining access to facilities, identifying study participants, scheduling, and conducting interviews. We would like to thank deputy commissioner Patricia Allen, warden Marsha Maloff, Maureen Reid, Sylvester Bracey, and Theresa Labiano. Linda Pemberton, Margaret Blasinsky, and Taryn Foster of CSR Incorporated (CSR), along with interviewer consultants hired by CSR, coordinated and conducted the original data collection for this project. Nidhi Tomar of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA) provided demographic data on Baltimore neighborhoods. Grant Young provided invaluable data entry support. Finally, we would like to thank our funders without whom this report would not have been possible. This research was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Open Society Institute - Baltimore, the Abell Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Maryland Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of these organizations.

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice

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