A Longitudinal Survey of Newly-Released Prisoners: Methods and Design of the Boston Reentry Study 1

By Western, Bruce; Braga, Anthony et al. | Federal Probation, June 2017 | Go to article overview

A Longitudinal Survey of Newly-Released Prisoners: Methods and Design of the Boston Reentry Study 1


Western, Bruce, Braga, Anthony, Kohl, Rhiana, Federal Probation


GROWTH IN AMERICAN prison and jail populations over the last 40 years has propelled the U.S. incarceration rate to the highest in the world and made incarceration commonplace for residents of poor inner-city communities. The U.S. penal system now houses around 2.2 million people in state and federal prisons and local jails, and incarceration rates are highest among racial and ethnic minorities and the poor (Glaze & Kaeble 2014; Western, 2006).

Efistorically high rates of incarceration produced large cohorts of prison releases-over 600,000 annually-who entered a relatively small number of mostly poor neighborhoods, often equipped with few social policy supports. Large numbers of prison releases motivated research on the effects of incarceration on crime and other social and economic outcomes, including employment, health, and the well-being of children with incarcerated parents (Travis, Western, & Redburn 2014; Wakefield & Uggen, 2010, Wildeman & Muller, 2012).

Despite a large body of research studying the effects of incarceration, relatively few studies have examined in detail the process of leaving prison and entering a community. Specialized data collections of post-incarceration experiences have mostly been ethnographic, making field observations on relatively small groups of men and women, often networks of research subjects in a few neighborhoods (e.g., Efarding et al., 2014; Fader, 2013; Leverentz, 2014). While qualitative research has been invaluable in its account of life in poor communities under conditions of high incarceration, it often struggles to represent the heterogeneity of prison releasees. Panel surveys have collected data on relatively large samples of released prisoners. In some cases, like the Fragile Families Study of Child Well-Being, formerly incarcerated men were interviewed in a general population survey design (Teitler et al., 2003). In other cases, like the Urban Institute's Returning Home study, specialized samples of newly-released prison and jail inmates were interviewed over a one or two year follow-up period (LaVigne & Kachnowski, 2003). With both general population and specialized data collections, formerly-incarcerated respondents showed high rates of study attrition and other kinds of nonresponse.

A longitudinal data collection from a sample making the transition from prison to community offers at least three contributions to research on the effects of incarceration. First, a major challenge for research is the problem of under-enumeration. The formerlyincarcerated are a significantly under-counted population that resists observation with traditional methods of social science data collection. Pettit (2012) describes the incarcerated as "invisible men" whose under-enumeration distorts conventional measures of poverty and inequality. After release, they may be "on the run," as Goffman (2014) describes, evading both researchers and social control agencies. Large-scale data collections are typically built around close attachment to mainstream social institutions like stable households, steady employment, and, among the poor, enrollment in social programs. Men and women released from prison are a large, hard-to-reach population that are often only weakly attached to households, often residing with family and friends or in homeless shelters, and revolving in and out of institutional settings (Travis, 2005; Goffman, 2014; Metraux, Roman, & Cho, 2007). Employment is often unstable and undocumented, and social programs are under-used. As a result, the formerly-incarcerated are so weakly connected to mainstream social institutions that they are often inaccessible in standard data collections using surveys or administrative records (Harding et al., 2011; Kornfeld & Bloom, 1999). Those that are observed in the usual data sources are likely to be relatively advantaged compared to the general population of those with prison records.

Second, people who go to prison are acutely disadvantaged in many ways that are often difficult to observe. …

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