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A collaborative project led by Bruce Western, Anthony Braga, and Rhiana Kohl (Research Unit, Massachusetts Department of Correction), the Boston Reentry Study (BRS) is a longitudinal survey of Massachusetts state prisoners newly-released to the Boston area. With support from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and Harvard University, the BRS collects data on 122 men and women, first interviewing them a week before prison release, and then repeatedly over the following year. The BRS yields exceedingly rich data on a key life transition for a sample of men and women from poor, urban communities.
The data collection combines a panel survey, qualitative interviews, interviews with family members, and linkage to administrative records on criminal history and program participation. The interviews and supplementary data collections aim to provide a detailed picture of householding, employment, health, family history, and criminal involvement of people returning to their communities from prison.
The sample itself is demographically diverse, including men and women ranging in age from 19 to 59. About half of the study sample is African American, nearly a third is white, and the remainder is Latino/a. Unlike other recent reentry studies, which have largely focused on parolees, the BRS includes a significant number of former prisoners who have completed their sentences and been released without supervision, in addition to those on probation or parole. With data collection nearly complete, the BRS has also managed to maintain a very high rate of study retention. A high response rate with a large and diverse study sample will allow for a more complete understanding of respondents’ experiences of social integration after release from prison.
Early results through the first two months after prison release indicate the obstacles to social integration. Over half the BRS sample left incarceration with less than $400, about a third went to unstable or temporary housing (in shelters, transitional housing programs, motels, or on the street), and fewer than half were in paid employment after two months. Independent housing and full-time employment were very rare in the first two months after prison release. While released prisoners were materially insecure, two key supports are indicated in the data. First, respondents reported a high rate of enrollment in public assistance. Two months after prison release, around 70 percent of respondents were enrolled in food stamps or some other social program. Second, over half the sample obtained significant support from family. Nearly two-thirds reported receiving money from family in the first week after release. After two months in the community, over half the sample was living with family members.
Answers to the question: What's the best part of being out? from the Boston Reentry Study (full size)
With support from the National Science Foundation and Harvard University, the study team is undertaking an analytical transcription of nearly 700 interviews to construct narrative life histories of the 122 BRS respondents. Combining the quantitative survey data with administrative records and qualitative life history narratives allows an analysis of how individual biographies shape the transition from prison to community. Because the data extend from childhood to one year after prison release, we will be able to study the association between early life experiences and respondents’ social integration after prison, in adulthood. We aim to explore how the process of community return is associated with individuals’ histories of family relationships, institutionalization, and their sources of material and social support. The richness of the data offers two advantages over earlier efforts to study community return for ex-prisoners. In contrast to prior quantitative research, we expect the mixed methods approach to yield far more detailed information, particularly about the early life experiences and sequencing of major life events. And unlike ethnographic research, the relatively large sample size represents the real diversity of those leaving prison, from the young men involved in drug dealing and serious violence, to the older individuals who have struggled over a lifetime with drug addiction and mental illness.
Clockwise from bottom left are: Catherine Sirois, Caroline Burke, Bruce Western, Jaclyn Davis, Tracy Shollenberger, Anthony Braga, Jessica Simes, and David Hureau
Current team members not pictured: Rhiana Kohl, Abena Mackall, Kendra Bradner, Monica Bell, Wynne Graham, Kelley Fong, Jennifer Arzu, Rosa Otieno, LeShae Henderson, and Caroline Walters
Photograph by Jim Harrison, Harvard Magazine