Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Out 4 Life Conference in Texas

As I mentioned below, I attended Prison Fellowship’s Out 4 Life conference in San Antonio last week. The conference focused on prisoner reentry into society. Here are a couple of thoughts and observations.

First, there was something of an irony in that the officers of several organizations that ran transitional housing talked about the need to extend their ministries into prisons, because they couldn't do enough with ex-prisoners during the short time they were in transitional housing. This was something of an irony because my interest in the conference stemmed from my concern that in-prison ministry has little last effectiveness beyond the walls because of the lack of support upon release. Perhaps this is version of the grass-is-always greener syndrome.

Nancy La Vigne, of the Urban Institute, gave a keynote speech in which she discussed results of a study regarding factors that affected prisoner reentry in Houston. (You can view the research report here

While La Vigne took care to say that her findings were statistical “associations” for most of the speech, she did slip into causal language (as many investigators do) in the conclusion of her talk.

In almost all of these studies there is a real problem with causal inference. To wit, there are positive associations between all sorts of factors (e.g., in-prison job training) and prisoner reentry success. The temptation is conclude that these factors cause the lower recidivism rate for prisoners. But there’s a huge self-selection problem there, in that the prisoners who choose to receive in-prison job training prior to release may be precisely those inmates who are most likely to succeed upon release, and not recidivate. To put it another way, the statistical association could merely be a reflection of the behavior of inmates with individual characteristics that lead them to choose in-prison training and also lead them to be more successful on the outside than prisoners without those characteristics. The upshot is that we do not know from the statistical associations that the in-prison programs “caused” the higher success for participating inmates upon their release.

At little more pointed is that it’s unclear what impact in-prison ministry has on the long-term success of prisoners once released. To be sure, I do not think that lower recidivism rates is why Jesus instructed his disciples to go into prisons. That said, if in-prison ministries truly bring the Gospel to the prisoners, then one would expect fruit to follow believing inmates both in and out of prison. (Of course, just how much the Gospel affects the behavior of professing Christians who have never been in prison in the same question – and the level of significance there is not entirely clear either.) So I wonder whether I have any real impact on lives of those I visit in prison, and I wonder how much marginal impact I should reasonably expect to have when I see men for several hours a week over a period of several months. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in serious doubt about the need to go into prisons to visit prisoners. But the social scientists in me wonders whether there are any measurable results, not only to my own personal ministry, but to interventions more generally, both of religious and non-religious programs. The evidence to date seems scant. I chatted with La Vigne briefly after her talk, and she admitted that, for all of her and others’ studies in the area, evidence allowing causal inferences of success is little, and not particularly compelling.

I did learn a lot about transitional housing at the conference, and a lot about some important, if modest, things that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is pursuing to help with prisoner reentry. There were a number of TDCJ leaders at the conference, and I have to say I was impressed with their commitment to helping with reentry with extremely limited resources. And I think that my view was shared by many of the other participants – many of whom came to the conference with highly skeptical views of just how intent TDCJ is toward helping with reentry issues.

More than anything, I think I was hoping that I could come away with some penetrating insights into successful transitional housing for released prisoners. What I learned mainly just confirmed what I had already learned from my time on the Board of Directors of a local transitional residence for released offenders. The house closed after a year or so. I was asked to join the board after it had already started. It quickly appeared to me that the “business model” for the residence was fatally flawed in its inception, and the residence could not be sustained. The residence closed within six months, mainly because of the inability of the Board to locate a full-time manager for the facility (and that was due to the inadequate financial support for a real manager, and for the facility more generally). The upshot is that there is no quick and easy means, and lots of pitfalls, to set up transitional housing facilities for released prisoners. I guess that’s not a surprise, but I had hoped, perhaps naively, that someone had worked out a business model that could be easily copied and transplanted. No such outcome, however.


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