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Humane, cost-effective systems for formerly incarcerated people

By Leonard A. Jason and Ron Harvey


A recent New York Times article, reports on a study that found private, corporate-run transitional halfway houses were less effective in preventing recidivism than releasing inmates directly into communities. For those interested in understanding and improving outcomes among ex-offenders, these results are discouraging.

However, the size and scale of the halfway houses could have contributed to these disappointing results. The study included 38 facilities across the state housing up to 4,500 individuals; one private company had four facilities that could together house almost 800 individuals. Successful outcomes rarely occur when individuals are taken out of one dehumanizing large-scale system and put in another. Human warehousing is no replacement for real community reintegration.

Re-integration programs need to offer useful, scalable features with specific goals and consequences for program administrators as well as program recipients. As reported, inspections of these facilities revealed residents had too much unstructured time. Residents need support to use their time looking for employment or training opportunities for jobs. However, one individual mentioned that the private companies running these facilities seemed more concerned with filling up beds than providing effective services.

These recovery systems exist within the larger economic and social system. The current economic climate continues to provide few job opportunities, particularly for ex-offenders. As such, those with the most needs at the bottom of the social ladder have even fewer opportunities to positively change their life.

We need more naturalistic, humane, and cost-effective systems to address the more than 600,000 individuals released from jail and prison each year. In contrast to large facilities, we have seen much lower recidivism rates in Oxford Houses, which are small-scale (7-12 person), democratic, self-run, self-financed recovery communities. When ex-offenders in these small scale recovery houses have experienced mentors and hope, they are less likely to relapse and go back to prison. Today, there are over 10,000 former addicts who live in over 1,500 of these Oxford houses across the country, many of whom are ex-offenders.

What makes systems like Oxford House an attractive and economic alternative to other large systems is their adherence to specific goals (providing sober housing) modeled after a general program of mutual help and support groups. In these democratic settings, there are specific requirements (abstinence, employment, resident participation) and sanctions for violating these principles (immediate eviction). We need to explore alternatives to large, de-humanizing institutions that often perpetuate the problem of recidivism.

Leonard A. Jason, professor of clinical and community psychology at DePaul University and director of the Center for Community Research, is the author of Principles of Social Change published by Oxford University Press. He has investigated the self-help recovery movement for the last 20 years. Ron Harvey is a graduate student in Community Psychology at DePaul University.

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Image credit: Two hands clutching prison bars. Photo by jgroup, iStockphoto.

Recent Comments

  1. Sarah Callahan

    Thank you for making the important differentiation between the facilities mentioned in the New York Times article and mutual help recovery residences like Oxford House. Housing large amounts of people in transition in unsupportive environments is not conducive to successful recovery or community reentry. Simply providing a bed is not enough to facilitate re-integration. Oxford House is an excellent model for supportive, cohesive settings that produce contrasting results to those mentioned in the Times articles.

  2. Daphna R.

    The authors provide an excellent discussion of why we cannot and should not lump together all “halfway houses” when assessing treatment outcomes. The Oxford House model, which emphasizes a democratic-run residence, encourages autonomy, responsibility, and collaboration, all characteristics that are essential for reintegration, finding, and maintaining jobs.
    All people function best when they have support, help, and guidance.
    Relationships are important, and providing skills to maneuver them successfully is imperative for a population that has the overwhelming task of being reintroduced into society.

  3. Laura Sklansky

    It seems obvious that placing ex-offenders in large, unfriendly facilites that don’t offer encouragement, emotional support, or hope would lead to recidivism rather than recovery. Pehaps the principles that make Oxford House successful–required abstinence, employment-seeking, group participation, etc. could be looked at seriously by those wishing to improve the large facilities.

  4. Marcie Myers

    Dear Dr. Jason,
    Before becoming debilitated by ME/CFS in 1999 five yrs s/p dx, I was Nurse Manager for several SC Dept of Corrections medical clinics for almost 14 yrs. To the best of my knowledge, at that point in time there was only ONE house that would accept inmates who had paroled out and had no address. Alston-Wilkes.
    I would like to comment regarding inmates having served their time for non-violent felonies and their plight as well. Few companies will hire someone convicted of a felony regardless of the actual charge and the fact that the individual had “done their time” as the saying goes.
    As well, I wonder how many states even allow for an individual with a past felony to apply for “expungement” of their past record in order for them to really begin their lives again. I know that NJ does while my state, SC, does not. In my personal opinion, this only increases the rate of recidivism because they will, for their lifetime, continue to pay for the felony for which they have already been incarcerated and released.
    It’s a sad state of affairs that private corporations and the usual lobbyists have created this prison mentality by gladly building and housing the inmates, at great cost to the states involved. Money that could and should go to other programs such as those being hit by sequestration. During my years with the SC Dept of Corr. (86-99), the state built Evans, Lieber, McCormack, BRR&E, BRCI, Allendale, and Trenton. All but Trenton max-security and housing thousands more of SC’s population. I don’t need to add that most of our incarcerated population are those with the least amount of power and/or money and/or education.
    To keep someone in prison: $17,000 per yr.
    To keep someone on probation: $1,000 per yr. per stats printed in Columbia, SC’s newspaper, The State.

    Nuff said? Cool. MM
    Marcie Myers, BSN, BA, AA. And CFS/ME.

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