Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Risk of Returning to Prison: What Should We Really Focus On?

The following  blog post from Prison Fellowship volunteer, Becky Beane is so full of good information I had to share it. Often it's difficult to understand why prisoners re-offend especially when they have suffered so much from being incarcerated. Becky offers keen insight.

What makes prisoners more likely to re-offend when they get out of prison? Is it the lack of a job? Hanging around with friends from the “old neighborhood”? Low self-esteem?

Quite a bit of research has been done to identify criminogenic needs—a tongue-twister of a phrase that refers to major risk factors highly associated with criminal conduct. Researchers consistently list these major risk factors:

  • • Antisocial values and beliefs (criminal thinking)
  • • Antisocial peers
  • • Personality traits
  • • Family dysfunction
  • • Low self-control
  • • Substance abuse

Let’s look at each factor in more detail. Then we will consider how Prison Fellowship volunteers help address these needs.

Antisocial Values and Beliefs

Offenders generally exhibit certain thinking errors that affect how they interpret and process information. These errors include a sense of entitlement, self-justification, blaming others, unrealistic perceptions of reality, and taking on a “victim stance” (for example, “the system is out to get me”). They often misinterpret benign behaviors or harmless remarks as threats (“he disrespected me”). They confuse wants with needs.

Antisocial Peers

Associating primarily with friends involved in criminal behavior puts one at high risk of sharing in that behavior. Over time, the offender loses contact with “pro-social” people, and then has no social support network to help reinforce appropriate behaviors. In fact, research indicates that a person’s companions may actually be the greatest predictor of criminal behavior. However, offenders often deny the influence of others on their lives, as that would threaten their sense of autonomy. They fancy themselves as leaders, not followers.

Personality Traits

Some offenders have what could be legitimately diagnosed as an antisocial personality disorder, characterized by a “pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” They are habitually deceitful, irresponsible, aggressive and violent, impulsive; they fail to conform to social norms and laws, show reckless disregard for others’ safety, and experience little or no remorse for their mistreatment of others. Any of these traits can steer a person toward criminal conduct.

Family Dysfunction

People first learn attitudes, values, and behaviors within the context of the family. Broken families, abusive or neglectful relationships, permissiveness, family members involved in drug or alcohol abuse or criminal activities—these and other unhealthy family factors typically contribute to individuals’ negative, harmful ways of thinking and acting.

Low Self-Control

Repeat offenders often engage in impulsive, risk-taking behavior. People with low self-control are easily persuaded by situational and environmental factors. If they lack healthy attachments (to positive friends, family, employment, etc.), there is little to constrain them from risky or criminal behavior.

Substance Abuse

The risk of criminal behavior rises with the degree of dependency on drugs and level of use. Some are true addicts; others are “dabblers,” whose use of drugs may be related more to opportunity than to compulsion. Still others are in-between.

Factors NOT Heightening the Risk of Recidivism

Equally important is being aware of the factors not included in the list of criminogenic factors—which means these factors donot generally predict a high risk of returning to crime:

  • • Low self-esteem
  • • Mental-health issues
  • • Low education status
  • • Lack of employment options

Interestingly, these are the kind of factors that many reentry programs target. Certainly any of these areas can cause a strain on a person’s life and relationships. But if programs and support networks focus only on these issues without addressing the criminogenic needs, research shows they will have little effect on recidivism. Getting a job, for example, is essential for an ex-prisoner to take care of his family and become a productive, contributing member of society. But if his antisocial, self-centered attitudes stir up conflicts with his employer and other workers, he’ll soon be kicked to the curb.

Inner Transformation

Prison Fellowship introduces prisoners to the One who can truly make them into new creations—the Lord Jesus Christ. Our programs focus on helping them gain new attitudes and values based on Christ’s life and teachings. Roman 12:2 tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” and this comes through consistently studying God’s Word and exploring how it applies to all of the contexts of our lives. We have found that many Christian prisoners may have a wealth of Bible knowledge but little wisdom in how to apply it. Prison Fellowship works on that with them.

Comprehensive Networks

Prison Fellowship is developing strategic networks of organizations and agencies that can effectively address clusters of criminogenic and non-criminogenic (but still important) needs. These collaborative efforts allow us to serve the whole person by identifying the range of needs and developing comprehensive plans to provide effective resources. For example, one organization in the network might provide substance-abuse treatment; another might offer reentry employment services that focus on employee attitudes as well as job contacts; churches can provide a positive social network (to replace antisocial friends) as well as spiritual nurture. One report by University of Cincinnati researchers said “programs that target at least four to six criminogenic needs can reduce recidivism by 30 percent.”


Perhaps the greatest human resource to help a returning prisoner succeed is a mature and positive mentor (or group of mentors)—a friend, coach, guide, and role model to counter the influence of antisocial peers and illicit temptations. A Florida ex-prisoner named Twain, with a history of drug addiction, leaned upon his mentors when drug cravings slammed against his resolve to stay straight. One day while driving to pick up supplies for a home repair job, a fleck of drywall on his truck seat reminded him of a rock of crack cocaine. Instantly he was on the phone to one of his mentors, who helped him resist the temptation to “go get high.”

Through their interactions, mentors help ex-prisoners develop good decision-making and problem-solving skills. Mentors also help expand ex-prisoners’ positive social network by introducing them to friends and a church family, getting them involved in more pro-social activities.
Dinner served at Hope Aglow Fellowship 

Church Family

Through its partnership with thousands of churches across the U.S., Prison Fellowship helps connect returning prisoners and their families with a caring congregation that will welcome and support them—not only through the tough transitional stage from prison to community, but also for the “long haul” of their ongoing spiritual journey. A church family provides ex-prisoners with a positive support system and opportunities for continued growth in their faith and character. Just as important, it gives ex-prisoners valued opportunities to serve others in positive ways through the ministry of the church.

Copyright © 2011 Prison Fellowship
By Becky Beane

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