The Importance of Social Support for Prisoner Reentry: The Effects of Visitation on Offender Recidivism

By Duwe, Grant; Clark, Valerie | Corrections Today, April-May 2012 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Social Support for Prisoner Reentry: The Effects of Visitation on Offender Recidivism


Duwe, Grant, Clark, Valerie, Corrections Today


During the last several decades, the expanding prison population has resulted in a record number of former inmates attempting to reintegrate back into communities. (1) The capacity of state and federal correctional systems to manage prisoner reentry has not kept. pace with the increasing number of returning prisoners. (2) Supervision agents, who are often overwhelmed with large caseloads, must focus exclusively on supervision. and are unable to assist with the reentry process. (3) Communities are reluctant to accept convicted felons, and released prisoners are not eligible for many forms of public assistance. (4)

Saddled with large budget deficits in the wake of the recent financial crisis, many states are realizing the high cost of housing record numbers of prisoners. (5) Reducing prison populations, and thereby reducing corrections spending, has become a central concern for many states. Newly released offenders, however, are often unprepared for life outside the prison. (6) Returning prisoners face a number of obstacles to successful reintegration, including unemployment, debt, homelessness, substance abuse and family conflict. (7) Indeed, research has shown that roughly two-thirds of prisoners will be rearrested within three years of release. (8)

Findings from recent research, however, underscore the importance of social support in helping offenders desist from crime and, more narrowly, recidivism. (9) Social bonds and social support are common elements in many criminological theories, both as a key to crime prevention and a mechanism for desistance from crime. Social control theory suggests, for example, that an individual's attachment, or bond, to a conventional lifestyle prevents him or her from offending, (10) whereas general strain theory proposes that family bonds and social support help ease the stresses related to reentry, making prisoners less likely to engage in subsequent criminal behavior. (11) Life course theorists, meanwhile, view the release from prison as a potential turning point in the lives of offenders in which attachment to family members could provide them both the opportunity and incentive to desist from crime. (12)

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While offenders are in prison, visits from family and friends offer a means of establishing, maintaining or enhancing social support networks. Strengthening social bonds for incarcerated offenders may be important not only because it can help prevent them from assuming a criminal identity, (13) but also because many released prisoners rely on family and friends for employment opportunities, financial assistance and housing. (14) Anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of newly released offenders rely on their families immediately after release. (15)

Previous research on prison visitation and recidivism. Decades of research indicate that visits from family improve institutional behavior and lower the likelihood of recidivism for inmates. (16) More recent research has found similar results. Bales and Mears (2008) (17) examined the effects of prison visitation on recidivism among 7,000 Florida state prison inmates who were serving at least a one-year sentence. Looking only at visits that occurred during the final year of incarceration, Bales and Mears found that any and more frequent visits during the last year of imprisonment significantly reduced the risk of recidivism. Visits that occurred close to the time of release had the strongest effect on recidivism. Following up on this study, Mears, Cochran, Siennick and Bales (2011) (18) used propensity score matching to assess the effects of visitation on recidivism. They found that visitation had a modest effect on all types of recidivism, particularly property offending.

In another recent study, Derkzen, Gobeil and Gileno (2009) compared post-release outcomes among 6,537 Canadian inmates who did not receive any visits, inmates who received standard prison visits, and inmates who received special private family visits.

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