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Physical, Mental and Substance Abuse Problems Fuel Recidivism

by Gary Hunter

In February 2008 the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center issued a report detailing three major factors fueling the high recidivism rate in U.S. prisons. These factors included Physical Health and Reentry, Mental Health and Reentry and Substance Abuse and Reentry.

While the study only examined subjects in Texas and Ohio the longitudinal and survey methodologies used allow for a legitimate amount of generalization to the U.S. prison population as a whole.

The study included 838 men and 262 women. The 262 women and 414 men were taken from a sampling in Harris County (Houston) Texas. The remaining 424 men came from Cuyhoga County (Cleveland), Ohio. The study itself focused on deterrents to successful reentry into the urban lifestyle.

Physical health at the time of release from prison has a profound effect on a parolee’s success. For both, men and women hepatitis, tuberculosis and HIV were the most common communicable diseases reported. While the rates for each of these ailments were similar for both sexes, 12.5%, 4.5% and 4% averaged respectively, they were still lower than the national average as a whole. About 20% of men and 33% of women reported having some type of physical and mental health condition. However, certain mental conditions such as addiction can be attributed to drug or alcohol abuse.

Problematic for both sexes was the fact that treatments available in prison could not always be obtained upon release. This was usually due to a lack of funding and a lack of insurance for released prisoners.

Physical ailments also had an adverse effect on employment of parolees. While healthy parolees and parolees with physical ailments reported similar employment histories for the first 2-to-3 months after release by 8 months after release the rates decreased significantly for those with health issues. This drop in employment was greater among women than men.

The report concluded that one-half of men and two-thirds of women released from prison did not receive the amount of treatment needed to sustain a successful lifestyle outside of prison.

Drug use and drug abuse also enhance recidivism. According to the report one-third of men and one-half of women were serving time for some type of drug offense. Because addiction and substance abuse are closely tied to mental disorders this statistic is significant when studying recidivism.

Since prisons are disproportionately made up of minorities it can be extrapolated that the effects of combined drug abuse and chronic illness are disproportionate in minority neighborhoods. The study found that 25% of all persons released from Texas prisons returned to Houston and 25% of those to just seven neighborhoods in Houston.

This high concentration of problematic conditions, within such a small area, sheds light on what the report calls a “revolving door” process of incarceration. Of the 700,000 U.S. prisoners released each year “two-thirds are re-arrested within three years and one-half are returned to prison.”

Given that 82% of men and 74% of women reported having received some type of help from family members upon release it is easy to see that minority neighborhoods contain high concentrations of at risk family relationships as well. Family violence and drug abuse among family members can only increase the risk of recidivism.

From eight to ten months after release 20% of men and 33% of women report having committed some type of crime, the most common being drug possession, drug sales, robbery and theft.

In many instances the study points out that health issues and recovery issues addressed in prison are often abandoned or are not available to parolees. While a variety of social and financial reasons exist for this lack of post-release care it is clear that some form of follow-up is needed to curb high rates of recidivism.

The study does not detail any specific suggestions but it does crunch enough numbers to highlight problematic areas. The report is also distinctive in that it isolates gender-specific issues.

The incarceration rate for women has exploded over the last decade. Given that women are the primary caregivers in our society, especially in minority neighborhoods, where single-parent families are greatest, this study is highly beneficial. But as with any study, fact’s without acts are of little value.

Source: Health and Prisoner Reentry: How Physical, Mental, and Substance Abuse Conditions Shape the Process of Reintegration. The report is available on PLN’s website.

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