Academic journal article Family Relations

Young Men's Reentry after Incarceration: A Developmental Paradox

Academic journal article Family Relations

Young Men's Reentry after Incarceration: A Developmental Paradox

Article excerpt

We apply a life course perspective to study young men's transition to adulthood within the context of their return to family after a period of incarceration. Our phenomenological analysis was based on 9 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with formerly incarcerated men between the age of 18 and 24. Our findings revealed that reentry was a developmental paradox that embodied contradictions about employment, maturity, and dependence on family. A key developmental contradiction was that although employment was essential for young men's ability to become independent, it was out of reach for most of the study participants due to their criminal justice involvement. Furthermore, lived meanings around dependency on family as a result of incarceration ran counter to young men's selfdefinitions of adult manhood. Recommendations are discussed to help resolve these contradictions and facilitate young offenders' ability to move forward in life.

Key Words: emerging adulthood, incarceration, life course theory, phenomenology, prisoner reentry, transition to adulthood.

Incarceration at younger ages poses special difficulties for prisoner reentry. Young adults have yet to establish conventional social ties, roles, and activities prior to their incarceration (Travis & Visher, 2005). Subsequently, imprisonment at younger ages is characterized by a life course trajectory that includes cycles of future imprisonment and poor life outcomes such as economic hardship, poor mental and physical well-being, and lower life expectancy (Freudenberg, Daniels, Cium, Perkins, & Richie, 2005; Mears & Travis, 2004; Uggen, 2000; Western, 2002). The purpose of this phenomenological study was to apply a life course perspective of the development of crime (Sampson & Laub, 1997, 2005) to the examination of young men's emerging adulthood within the specific context of prisoner reentry. Life course theory is particularly applicable to the current investigation because life course studies relate lived experience (in this instance incarceration and reentry) to developmental processes (Elder & Giele, 2009). In this study, we posed two research questions: (a) What is the lived meaning of young men's reentry? Lived meaning refers to how a person experiences and understands critical aspects of the world (van Manen, 1990). (b) How do the lived meanings of reentry influence young men's developmental transition to adulthood?


The problem of prisoner reentry is one of the most pressing challenges in American society (Manina, Immarigeon, & Lebel, 2004; Travis, 2005). With more than 1.6 million individuals held in federal and state corrections facilities (Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009) and over 12 million individuals with prior felony convictions, successfully integrating this large and growing population has become an urgent priority (Pager, 2006). It is estimated that 735,000 prisoners were released in 2008 (Sabol et al.). The great majority of these prisoners were men who returned to their communities and families. Included in this number are the 200,000 juveniles and young adults under the age of 24 who left secure juvenile and adult prisons and returned home (Mears & Aron, 2003; Mears & Travis, 2004). Unfortunately, many released offenders will return to prison. For example, in a study encompassing 15 states, two thirds of state prisoners were rearrested, and more than half went back to prison within 3 years of release (Langan & Levin, 2002). Like their older counterparts, young adults return to prison at extremely high rates (Freudenberg et al., 2005; Mears & Travis, 2004). Furthermore, the evidence suggests that the risk of a return to prison in the first 3 years after release is even higher for young adults than for older prisoners (Langan & Levin), with recidivism rates for youth between 50 and 70% in some localities (Nellis & Wayman, 2009).

Decades of research document the multiple challenges associated with reentry (Pager, 2006). …

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