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The Family and Recidivism, American Jails, 2012

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R yan S hanahan


S andra V illalobos A gudelo

Incarcerated men and women who maintain contact with supportive family members are more likely to succeed after their release.
Although corrections practitioners and policymakers often understand the positive role families can play, they may not know how to
involve the inmate’s loved ones as a resource within a correctional
setting. Research on people returning from prison shows that family
members can be valuable sources of support during incarceration
and after release. For example, prison inmates who had more contact
with their families and who reported positive relationships overall
are less likely to be re-incarcerated (Martinez & Christian, 2009).
Families can motivate formerly incarcerated relatives to seek or continue drug treatment or mental health care, and they most frequently
provide housing for newly released family members.



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To date, most of the research and
programming that discusses the use
of family resources to aid reentry has
focused on prisons. Because jails are
substantially different, it is not clear
which policies and practices can be
applied successfully. To determine
the effectiveness of family-support
strategies for people in jail, the Vera
Institute of Justice (Vera) launched
the Close to Home project, which
provided training and technical
assistance to two jails in Maryland
and one jail in Wisconsin.
The project’s name, Close to
Home, reflects that jails are often
located geographically close to the
family and friends of inmates, and
thus they can easily stay in contact
with their families and friends.
With funding from the Bureau of
Justice Assistance, Vera initiated a
pilot study of the Relational Inquiry
Tool (RIT) in the three jails and
provided complementary communication techniques intended to help
the inmates plan for their return
to society. It was developed with
support from the National Institute
of Corrections and in partnership with Safer Foundation and
the Department of Corrections of
Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and
Relational Inquiry Tool
The staff of Vera’s Family Justice
Program created RIT to help corrections staff identify the family
resources of their inmates. (Note: The
Family Justice Program interprets
“family” broadly to include immediate, extended, and elected family
members, such as romantic partners,
friends, neighbors, and clergy.)
RIT is a series of eight questions
designed to introduce inmates to the
idea of involving supportive family
members as a resource. In particular,
it was developed for case management and reentry planning, and as
a complement to standard corrections risk and needs assessments.
Case managers use the information
from the eight questions to connect with family members who



Table 1. Characteristics of Jails Participating in the Close to Home Project.


Capacity Average Daily


Green Lake County
Facility, Green Lake,




(1–49 beds)

Montgomery County
Pre-Release Center,
Rockville, Maryland





Montgomery County
Correctional Facility,
Boyds, Maryland




(250+ beds)

could help them meet some of the
inmate’s reentry needs. Those with
family-based reentry resources may
require fewer social service referrals.
Moreover, conversations spurred
by RIT could build rapport between
staff and inmates. The aim was to
improve long-term outcomes for
former inmates, their families, and
their communities.
Close to Home Project
Close to Home, launched in
October 2009 and concluded in April
2011, proceeded along two tracks:
	 1.	Personnel in three jails (two in
Maryland and one in Wisconsin)
were trained by Vera to provide
the jail version of RIT to their
	 2.	During RIT training, Vera staff
conducted qualitative and quantitative research to gauge inmate
and staff attitudes toward RIT.
Vera staff had two goals for their
research. The first goal was to assess
RIT’s utility in facilities of varying
size and location. The partnering
jails were the Montgomery County
Correctional Facility (MCCF)
and the Montgomery County
Pre-Release Center (Pre-Release
Center) in Maryland, and the Green
Lake County Correctional Facility
(GLCCF) in Wisconsin. The three
facilities differed in terms of size and
setting (see Table 1).


The second research goal was
to gather information about the
inmates’ families and other sources
of social support, their experience
maintaining contact with family
members while in jail, their thoughts
about returning to the community,
and the impact of their incarceration
on loved ones. Vera staff conducted
surveys with incarcerated men and
women and gathered more in-depth
information during interviews.
Family members were surveyed
with similar questions to learn about
family members’ perspectives and
Vera trained participating jail staff
to use RIT to query incarcerated
people about their strengths, challenges, and the supportive people in
their lives. Jail staff were also trained
on the benefits of family support for
inmates, how to introduce the tool,
and ways to follow up on the information that participants shared.
Before implementing the tool
at each site, Vera held work group
meetings of staff ranging from case
managers to parole officers to identify policies and practices that could
be more supportive of incarcerated
people’s relationships. Vera staff
gathered information about the utility of RIT by conducting interviews
of randomly selected inmates who
completed RIT. They also surveyed
and interviewed jail personnel about
the implementation and use of RIT.

Project Participants
MCCF was the largest jail that
participated in the Close to Home
project. Located in an urban
Maryland county less than 20 miles
outside Washington, D.C., it houses
men and women awaiting trial and
those who are serving sentences of
up to 18 months. Ninety-five percent
of people in the jurisdiction’s facilities are from the county and are not
transferred to a State prison. People
of color are overrepresented, and
most individuals are under maximum-security supervision.
MCCF has created an environment that emphasizes what Warden
Robert Green calls “reentry for all.”
This ambitious goal signals a commitment to prepare everyone at
the facility for reentry, even though
some inmates will be transferred
from MCCF to State or Federal
prisons. MCCF provides educational
and vocational opportunities, as well
as programming and treatment for
mental health and substance use.
In addition, MCCF has a dedicated
reentry case manager. Inmates who
expect to be released within three
months can voluntarily participate
in case management services to prepare for reentry.
Like MCCF, the Pre-Release
Center is located in an urban setting.
People incarcerated at the 171-bed
facility are scheduled for release
within 12 months. The average
length of stay is between three and
five months, and most of the inmates
return to the nearby community.
The environment at the PreRelease Center is more like a residential step-down program than a
jail. The Pre-Release Center provides
a continuum of programming, has
an open campus, and allows contact
visits. Visiting is offered seven days
a week, and as individuals achieve
privileges, they can have unlimited
visits. Case managers typically have
caseloads of 18 to 25 men or women,
allowing them to meet with inmates
as needed. Families are included in
case planning and can be trained as

Table 2. Comparing Results from Vera’s Research in Jails and Prisons.
“Which people do you plan
to rely on when you return to
the community?”

Respondents in

Respondents in







GLCCF was the smallest jail in
the Close to Home project. The jail
is located in a small, rural county in
east-central Wisconsin with a population of about 19,000. GLCCF has an
average daily population of 60, and
the majority of incarcerated individuals are Caucasian. During the Close
to Home project, the jail moved from
a 40-plus-bed, linear-style courthouse jail to a state-of-the-art facility
with a 108-bed capacity. At the former facility, staff functioned merely
as custodians; the education, mentalhealth, and substance-use needs
of incarcerated men and women
were not addressed. The sheriff and
corrections administration used the
change of facilities as an occasion to
change the culture.
As noted earlier, information was
gathered from the inmates through
surveys and interviews, whereas
information about families and
staff came from surveys alone. The
following three sections describe
findings that pertain to each of these
groups. The final section discusses
the findings related to the implementation of RIT and corresponding
Inmate Reponses. Among the
inmates surveyed, 84 percent
reported that their families were
supportive during their incarceration. Most inmates planned to rely
on their family (82%) and friends
(74%) to help them meet their needs,
with a much smaller percentage
(40%) planning to rely on services
from government agencies or nonprofit organizations. In comparing
the findings to similar project work
with prison facilities, Vera staff
found that a greater percentage of

people in jail than in prison reported
that they rely on friends (diZerega &
Agudelo, 2011).
Sixty-seven percent of incarcerated survey respondents were
parents. Almost all of their children
(97%) lived with a family member,
and 66 percent of those children
were living with their other parent.
Eighty percent of respondents in
jail reported having visitors, and 40
percent said they had a visit at least
once a month. These visitation rates
were higher than what Vera found in
similar surveys of people in prison
(diZerega & Agudelo, 2011). Among
people incarcerated for up to two
years, those in prison were visited an
average of 9.5 times a year, whereas
those in jail received an average of
16 visits a year (diZerega & Agudelo,
2011). Respondents who reported
having close relationships with their
mothers, fathers, and significant
others also had higher numbers of
visits. Table 2 shows a comparison
of the results from Vera’s research in
jails and prisons.
Vera also found that 59 percent of
men and women inmates welcomed
the opportunity to discuss their families with jail staff. This noteworthy
finding runs counter to a common
perception among corrections personnel that inmates are unwilling to
discuss personal matters with them.
Family Responses. The majority
of family members (85%) reported
visiting at least once a week. Visiting
family members listed numerous
barriers to staying in contact with
their loved one, including distance
(29%); costs—such as gas, tolls, and
for some, renting a car—(24%); and
facility rules (23%). Family members
drove an average of 30 miles each
way to visit and also reported the



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cost of phone calls as a significant
barrier to communication (39%).
While a large majority of visiting
family members reported that staff
welcomed them when they visited
(78%), almost as many said they did
not receive any information about
their loved one from staff (76%), and
some said staff did not reach out to
family members with concerns or
questions they had about the incarcerated family member (68%).
Staff Responses. Most personnel (99%) said that families are an
important resource for reentry, and
that families can help find stable
housing and employment, improve
drug treatment outcomes, and
reduce recidivism. However, only 64
percent of staff reported involving
family members in case management
or reentry planning, and 58 percent
reported that families were involved
in their facility’s programming.
Facility Responses to RIT Project
The three facilities participating in Close to Home had different responses to RIT project.
These responses stemmed from
administrative challenges at the
time of implementation, concurrent
programming that complemented
RIT, and the existence or implementation of a more family-focused
culture at the facility. The two sites
in Maryland chose case managers to
pilot RIT. In Wisconsin, corrections
officers were trained to administer
RIT. Unexpectedly, the corrections
officers—not case managers—had
the most success integrating RIT
into their standard case flow. Staff
unanimously reported that RIT
gave them a better understanding
of the inmates at GLCCF. Further,
93 percent of staff reported that
they would recommend RIT to
other jail professionals. The inmates
interviewed at GLCCF felt their
experience completing RIT with
corrections officers was beneficial.
Because of the overwhelmingly
positive response to the project, correctional officers at GLCCF will con22	



tinue to use RIT with inmates who
are held for more than two weeks.
Practitioners and policymakers
who want to involve inmates’ families in their programs should note
that GLCCF leadership consistently
expressed support for a familyfocused approach and envisioned
corrections staff as role models. Lt.
Joel Gerth says this about RIT at
At GLCCF, RIT was originally administered by mental
health staff. The enthusiasm
and buy-in staff displayed
during Vera’s training, as well
as the introduction of a new
avenue of communication
between staff and the men and
women incarcerated in the
facility, were key factors in the
decision to shift this responsibility away from mental health
practitioners. Vera’s training
and technical assistance helped
staff feel confident in discussing these topics with incarcerated individuals and allowed
staff to see positive changes in
the incarcerated individuals
they work with—a departure
from the usual atmosphere of
a correctional facility…. The
more they understand why
they do the job and the impact
they are capable of having
on another person’s life, the
greater the impact on morale.
Stefan LoBuglio, Chief of Prerelease and Reentry at Montgomery
County’s Pre-Release Center,
believes wholeheartedly in a familyfocused approach. “The commitment
to work with families leads to an
institutional culture that promotes
respect and drives the rehabilitative
focus of a facility,” says LoBuglio.
“The respect we show family
members leads to cooperation and
compliance with program rules.”
The positive perception of family at the Pre-Release Center creates
a markedly different environment
from traditional correctional settings
because the policies and procedures
in place foster a family-oriented


environment that emphasizes
people’s strengths. The inmates at
the Pre-Release Center welcomed
RIT because it helped them create
lists of potential visitors and reflect
on people who had been supportive
as well as those who are not invested
in their success or may not influence
them in a positive way.
In addition, RIT program revealed
a need for corrections personnel
to build rapport with residents.
However, because of various constraints on the facility, the case
managers were assigned to pilot
RIT. Though corrections staff were
trained by Vera on the value of
integrating family information into
their work, they have not yet administered RIT.
The size of MCCF made implementation of RIT more difficult than
in the smaller facilities. Because
of fiscal constraints, MCCF case
managers were working on multiple
housing units with caseloads of
more than 100 people. These large
caseloads hindered their ability to
implement RIT effectively. Case
managers reported feeling overwhelmed, resisted additional work
(such as RIT), and often did not follow the recommended directions for
administering the tool. For example,
Vera staff trained case managers
to use a script that explained the
purpose of RIT and described the
importance of family in reentry
planning. During interviews, some
inmates who had completed RIT
told Vera staff that certain case managers rushed through the questions,
did not explain how information
about their families would be used,
and complained about being forced
to use the tool.
When MCCF staff administered
RIT according to Vera’s guidelines,
incarcerated people responded positively. For example, a man motivated
by his young daughter to deal with
his drug addiction told researchers
that completing RIT “helped pick me
up and change my attitude,” adding that the conversation changed
his perception of his case manager
and perhaps her perception of him.

He noted that after the conversation,
she completed paperwork to transfer him to a unit where he could
participate in drug treatment and
return to the community—and his
Given the challenges at MCCF, it is
notable that the reentry case manager, Wendy Miller-Cochran, chose to
continue using RIT after the Close to
Home project concluded. She says:
The Relational Inquiry Tool
is a welcome addition to the
reentry social work assessment
procedures at MCCF, especially since family involvement
complements the professional
and community services available to individuals returning
home. Family relationships can
be the most powerful resource
available to men and women
in jail, and this tool enables me
to explore family relationships

and identify other supportive
people in the client’s life. RIT
allows me to assess the level of
support available to the client,
and, if appropriate, seek to
involve the support person [or
people] as part of an individual’s reentry planning.
The overall results from this
project suggest that inmates in jails,
like those in prisons, rely on family
members to support them during
their incarceration, and also as they
reenter the community. Because
thousands of people cycle in and out
of jail every year, it may be possible
to reduce these numbers by testing
and implementing ways for families
to help reduce the negative impact
of short-term incarceration on their
loved ones and to help them reenter
society successfully.

Additional Resources
Mental Health Treatment
•	 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2004). Substance abuse
treatment and family therapy. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP)
Series, No. 39. DHHS Publication No. (SMA) 04-3957. Rockville, MD:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Family Motivation
•	 Dalton, K. S. (May/June 2004). Beyond transition—Working with
inmate families. American Jails, 18(2), 48–53.
•	 La Vigne, N. G., Visher, C., & Castro, J. (2004). Chicago prisoners’ experiences returning home. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
•	 Nelson, Deess, P., & Allen, C. (1999). The first month out: Postincarceration experiences in New York City. New York, NY: Vera
Institute of Justice.
•	 Sullivan, E., Mino, M., Nelson, K., & Pope, J. (2002). Families as a
resource in recovery from drug abuse: An evaluation of La Bodega
de la Familia. New York, NY: Vera Institute of Justice.
•	 Naser, R. L., & Visher, C. A. (2006). Family members’ experiences of
incarceration and reentry. Western Criminology Review, 7(2), 20–31.
Child Care
•	 Glaze, L., & Maruschak, L. M. (2008). Parents in prison and their
minor children. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report.
Overrepresentation of Minorities
•	 Schiraldi, V., & Ziedenberg, J. (2003). Race and incarceration in
Maryland, A policy analysis by the Justice Policy Institute commissioned
by Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus. Washington, DC: Justice Policy




Moreover, it reveals that, at least
in some jails, corrections personnel as well as case managers can
be assigned to help incarcerated
people connect with social supports.
However, to access this potential,
a shift in organizational culture
toward a family-focused orientation
may need to occur, as evidenced by
the varying degrees of RIT acceptance in the three jail facilities. More
work is needed to determine the
most effective strategies for implementing RIT and whether proper
implementation will yield the
desired outcomes of positive behavioral change, a reduction in disciplinary infractions in facilities, and
lower recidivism rates. The present
results suggest, however, that jails
are indeed a promising arena for
developing family-focused reentry
planning. ■
diZerega, M., & Agudelo, S. V. (2011).
Piloting a tool for reentry: A promising
approach to engaging family members.
New York, NY: Vera Institute of
Martinez, D. J. & Christian, J. (2009). The
familial relationships of former prisoners: Examining the link between
residence and informal support
mechanisms. Journal of Contemporary
Ethnography, 38(2), 201–224.

Ryan Shanahan, a senior program
associate at the Vera Institute of Justice’s
Family Justice Program, works with
criminal and juvenile justice agencies
and community-based organizations.
She holds a master’s degree from the
University of Maryland, where she is
working toward a doctorate. For
more information, please contact
Ms. Shanahan at 212–376–3071 or
Sandra Villalobos Agudelo, a Vera
research associate, evaluates the Family
Justice Program’s work and studies
the roles families play for incarcerated
people. She holds a master’s degree
in psychology from Universidad de los
Andes in Bogotá and a master’s degree
in urban policy analysis and management from Milano, The New School for
Management and Urban Policy.
For more information about the
Vera Institute, visit



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