In effort to break cycle, researchers seek to understand why ex-inmates re-offend

For years, employees of the state Criminal Justice Policy & Planning Division have been following thousands of ex-inmates, tracking whether or not they re-offend.

While statistics show statewide recidivism rates among male inmates have been decreasing slightly since 2005, about 56 percent of those who are incarcerated are convicted of another crime within three years of release.

By looking at sentencing records, researchers can paint a good picture of which age group is most likely to re-offend.

But details about why ex-inmates in that particular age group re-offend are less clear.

"For example, we know that young male offenders come back more quickly and often than other age groups, but we can't explain why some don't," said Ivan Kuzyk, director of the state Statistical Analysis Center, which is housed within the CJPPD.

In 2014, the division embarked on a mission to get qualitative rather than quantitative data — data that officials said could help them begin to understand and address the specific factors that make someone more likely to commit multiple crimes.

From November 2014 to June 2015, the CJPPD employees — with the permission of state Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple — interviewed 120 prisoners as they came into MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, where many of the state's male inmates are processed before being sent to other facilities in the system.

Using random selection, CJPPD officials interviewed only those inmates who had sentences of two or more years and who agreed to participate in the confidential survey.

In the interviews, which often lasted more than an hour, researchers with the so-called "Walker Project" asked open-ended questions about everything from childhood and family relationships to education and employment history.

"I always tried to stay out of jail," one inmate told an interviewer, explaining that many of his relatives and friends had been incarcerated multiple times. "It's only so long before everything hits you."

"My mom, my grandmother ... when I was child, they used to sell drugs so we could survive," another said. "I was just following (in their) steps."

It's not a scientific study, or one intended to be published in an academic journal, CJPPD Undersecretary Mike Lawlor emphasized, and it has all the limitations of any other self-reported study.

But even as researchers continue to sift through hours of audio recordings of the interviews, grouping common narratives and keywords, they've already found that, for all the inmates' diversity, two main storylines emerge: the urban minority with a history of family incarceration, and the suburban or rural white with a history of substance abuse issues.

Of the 48 white inmates interviewed, 41 are identified as being nonurban.

Conversely, only eight of the 47 participating black offenders are identified as the same.

More than 90 percent of the urban blacks said family members had been incarcerated in the past, compared to 57 percent of urban whites.

And, while 74 percent of the nonurban whites admitted to having used heroin, 0 percent of the nonurban blacks did.

The latter, Lawlor said, could help explain a trend within the DOC's institutions: While the overall offender population has been declining in Connecticut for years — it stood at 15,300 on Thursday — the percentage of incarcerated whites has been slightly on the rise.

In each of the past six years, he pointed out, about 44 percent of those who died of an overdose had a record with the DOC.

The statistics likely wouldn't come as a surprise to Maureen Price-Boreland, executive director of Hartford-based Community Partners in Action.

Her 140-year-old organization runs prison and re-entry programs such as Training to Work, which prepares just-released offenders to land themselves in in-demand careers.

"For years we really have been taking a complex issue and trying to fix it with a more punitive approach: You're incarcerated and that should fix you," Price-Boreland said.

"But it doesn't," she continued. "If you're an addict going in, and you don't deal with the issue of addiction in a way that leads to a path of true sobriety, then you're an addict when you get out — an addict without the proper resources to overcome your addiction." 

It's the same story for many ex-inmates, who face a variety of "barriers to re-entry" as they attempt to find stability and jobs upon release, Price-Boreland said.

Those who were never taught good decision-making skills, for example, could benefit greatly from learning crisis management and other related skills while incarcerated, she explained.

In the case of those whose relationships with their families have been dysfunctional — whether because of their time in prison or because of something deeper — courses on how to repair those relationships could be helpful.

And, for newly released parents, whose children statistically have a higher chance of becoming offenders themselves, education about how to decrease those chances is crucial, Price-Boreland said.

"There's an aspect of society that simplifies the expectations of what one should or should not be able to do post-incarceration," she said. "But it's complex and needs more in-depth attention for us to truly build a system that increases the chances for success and thus reduces the high level of recidivism."

Price-Boreland said embracing "meaningful, systemic and evidence-based opportunities for people to turn their lives around" would benefit everyone in the long run, as ex-prisoners end up in just about every community.

Community Partners in Action is one of multiple organizations that may play a role in taking the Walker Project's findings and turning them into something tangible in the future, according to Kuzyk.

"What we're trying to do is just to put as much data and information in front of people as possible to get them to understand that one-size-fits-all solutions are a bad idea," Lawlor said.

"If your goal is to reduce crime," he added, "then you have to understand exactly who you're talking about."


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