Substance Abuse and Prison Recidivism: Themes from Qualitative Interviews

Article excerpt

This qualitative analysis explores the role of substance abuse in reentry from prison to society. Participants who recidivated (N = 20) in an urban prison system identified substance abuse as their primary reason for recidivism. Treatment implications are discussed.


Counseling and criminal justice literature has linked substance abuse with recidivism to criminal justice settings, yet past research has not investigated the role that substance abuse plays in reentry from prison to society and recidivism from the perspective of individuals who are incarcerated. This qualitative analysis aims to address this gap in previous literature. This analysis is a focused component taken from a larger qualitative research project on coping strategies used during reentry from prison to society. Specifically, in this research, individuals who returned to prison were asked to examine their most recent reentry process and identify the barriers to successful reentry that they faced at this time. The research question at the core of this analysis is What themes describe the role that substance abuse plays in reentry and recidivism? The following literature review addresses prison-to-society reentry literature and previous research on substance abuse and recidivism and concludes with a rationale for a qualitative analysis of individuals' views on substance abuse and their reentry experience.

Reentry From Prison to Society

This analysis focused on substance abuse during the critical experience of reentry from prison to society. Research about this transition is vital because the number of individuals reentering society from prison has increased from approximately 170,000 in 1980 to 585,000 in 2000 (Lynch & Sabol, 2001). Given that most individuals who are incarcerated will be released at some point, as the median time of incarceration is only 21 to 28 months (Lynch & Sabol, 2001), reentry of individuals from prison to society is a significant concern for individuals in the criminal justice and counseling systems as well as for the public.

Successful reentry is defined as abstinence from criminal behavior. Research on the recidivism rate has indicated that individuals are more likely than not to return to criminal behavior. For example, according to one of the largest recidivism studies, Langan and Levin (2002) found that 67% of individuals who were released returned to prison within 3 years, with 47% being convicted of new crimes and 52% violating the mandates of their paroles.

Previous literature has addressed barriers to successful reentry, although little research has examined barriers to reentry from the perspective of individuals who reentered society from prison. In previous literature, several barriers to successful reentry have been discussed: limited education (Lynch & Sabol, 2001; Petersilia, 2003), employment problems (Petersilia, 2003; Sung & Richter, 2006), financial problems (Petersilia, 2003), difficulty finding adequate housing (Legal Action Center, n.d.; Petersilia, 2003), problems reintegrating with family (Lynch & Sabol, 2001; Petersilia, 2003; Travis, 2005), physical health and medical problems (Beck, 2000; Belenko & Peugh, 1998; Hammett, Roberts, & Kennedy, 2001), mental health problems (Beck, 2000; Draine, Wolff, Jacoby, Hartwell, & Duclos, 2005), and the stigma of a criminal history (Harris & Keller, 2005; Marbley & Ferguson, 2005; Petersilia, 2003; Pogorzelski, Wolff, Pan, & Blitz, 2005; Ruddell & Winfree, 2006; Travis, 2005). In previous literature, substance abuse has also been discussed as a potential barrier to successful reentry.

Recidivism and Substance Abuse

Previous literature has examined statistics on substance abuse in prison populations to link substance abuse with recidivism. For example, in a review of literature and criminal justice statistics, Beck (2000) proposed that individuals who are released from prison will likely encounter difficulties with substance abuse, because 73. …