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An Examination of the Impact of Formerly Incarcerated Persons Helping Others. Thomas P. LeBel University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee Paper Presented at the Prisoner Reentry Institute Occasional Series on Reentry Research John Jay College of Criminal Justice April 18, 2008.

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An examination of the impact of formerly incarcerated persons helping others

An Examination of the Impact of Formerly Incarcerated Persons Helping Others

Thomas P. LeBel

University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee

Paper Presented at the Prisoner Reentry Institute

Occasional Series on Reentry Research

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

April 18, 2008


Interest in a career helping others among formerly incarcerated persons
Interest in a Career Helping Others Among Formerly Incarcerated Persons

  • “Most of the program staff themselves, often the directors, are ex-convicts….This type of career is very popular among prisoners and ex-prisoners. When I have asked prisoners what they would like to do in the future, many say they want a job counseling other people, usually young people.” (Irwin, 2005, p. 178).


Theory and research about benefits of helping others
Theory and Research About Benefits of Helping Others Incarcerated Persons

  • Helper therapy principle (Riessman, 1965, 1990)

  • Wounded healers (White, 2000)

  • Retroflexive reformation (Cressey, 1955, 1965)

  • The professional ex- (Brown, 1991)

  • Desistance from crime (Maruna, 2001)


Helper therapy principle
Helper Therapy Principle Incarcerated Persons

  • Calls attention to the benefits the ”helper receives from being in the helper role” (Riessman, 1965, p. 32).

  • Reinforcement of personal learning

  • Social approval and acceptance

  • Sense of meaning, purpose, and accomplishment

  • Improved self-esteem and self-worth

  • Better treatment outcomes


Wounded healers white 2000
Wounded Healers Incarcerated Persons(White, 2000)

  • Persons in recovery from substance use helping others

  • Assets:

  • Personal experience

  • Emotional identification (kinship)

  • Absence of condescension and contempt

  • A zeal (calling) to heal others

  • Ability to use own stories to incite hope

  • A willingness to be more directive

  • The capacity to serve as a role model

  • Mutual aid societies


Retroflexive reformation
Retroflexive Reformation Incarcerated Persons

  • Social psychological foundations for using criminals in the rehabilitation of criminals (Cressey, 1955, 1965).

  • “A group in which criminal A joins with some non-criminals to change criminal B is probably most effective in changing criminal A, not B. In order to change criminal B, criminal A must necessarily share the values of the anti-criminal members” (Cressey, 1955, p. 119).


The professional ex
The Professional Ex- Incarcerated Persons

  • It is important to consider how one might “adopt a legitimate career premised upon an identity that embraces one’s deviant history” (Brown, 1991, p. 220).

  • “Professional ex-s” are individuals who have “exited their deviant careers by replacing them with occupations in professional counseling” (Brown, 1991, p. 219).

  • For the study discussed today:

  • Several staff members stated that “this is the only job where my criminal record is viewed as an asset.”


Helping others and desistance from crime
Helping Others and Desistance from Crime Incarcerated Persons

  • Individuals “going straight” are significantly more care-oriented, other-centered and focused on promoting the next generation (Maruna, 2001).

  • “The desisting self-narrative frequently involves reworking a delinquent history into a source of wisdom to be drawn from while acting as a drug counselor, youth worker, community volunteer, or mutual-help group member” (Maruna, 2001, p. 117).


Research questions
Research Questions Incarcerated Persons

  • 1) To what degree do formerly incarcerated persons think of themselves as helpers/wounded healers?

  • 2) What factors might account for any differences in the helper orientation?

  • 3) Is thinking of oneself as a helper related to well-being and criminality?

  • How do staff differ from program participants?


Sample and data collection
Sample and Data Collection Incarcerated Persons

  • Sample (N = 228)

    • Formerly incarcerated persons in NYC and Upstate NY

    • Men and women

    • Participants in 6 reintegration programs

  • Data collection

    • Part of larger study of perceptions of and responses to stigma

    • Self-administered questionnaire

    • “Closed-ended” questions – Likert scales


Organizations where participants were recruited
Organizations Where Participants were Recruited Incarcerated Persons

  • Father Peter Young’s Housing, Industry, and Treatment Network (PYHIT)

  • The Fortune Society

  • Exodus Transitional Community (ETC)

  • The Women’s Prison Association (WPA)

  • The Osborne Association

  • The Center for Community Alternatives (CCA)

    • The Syracuse Recovery Community Service Program (SRCSP)


Select sample characteristics
Select Sample Characteristics Incarcerated Persons


Measuring the helper orientation
Measuring the Helper Orientation Incarcerated Persons

  • I often share my past experiences to help others avoid making the same mistakes I made.

  • I am a good role model for other former prisoners who are trying to go straight.


Measuring the helper orientation cont
Measuring the Helper Orientation (cont.) Incarcerated Persons

  • I act as a mentor of sorts for prisoners and former prisoners that need help to get back on their feet.

  • I plan to pursue (or am currently pursuing) a career where I can give back and help other people such as former prisoners, youth in trouble with the law, or people with drug/alcohol addictions.




Factors related to the helper orientation
Factors Related to the Incarcerated PersonsHelper Orientation?

  • Demographics –

    • Age, gender, race/ethnicity

  • Social bonds –

    • Family and friends, education, full-time job, remorse

  • Criminal history –

    • time served, # felony convictions, violent felony conviction, supervision status

  • Program - voluntarily attend, time involved

  • Group identification

  • Perceptions of stigma (personal)

  • Normalization of prison experience in neighborhood where grew up


Correlates of helper orientation
Correlates of Helper Orientation Incarcerated Persons



Importance of helper orientation
Importance of Helper Orientation? Incarcerated Persons

  • Criminality

    • Criminal attitude

    • Recidivism

      • Forecast of rearrest in next 3 years

  • Well-being

    • Satisfaction with life

    • Self-esteem





Formerly incarcerated persons as program staff
Formerly Incarcerated Persons as Program Staff Incarcerated Persons

  • 29 completed questionnaire

  • Age: Mean = 42.59

  • Gender

    • 18 male, 11 female

  • Race/ethnicity

    • 15 Black, non-Latino, 12 Latino, 2 White, non-Latino

  • Time served: Mean = 119 months

  • Violent felony conviction (lifetime): 50%

  • Supervision status (none): 69%



Summary of findings
Summary of Findings Incarcerated Persons

  • Many formerly incarcerated persons strongly endorse the helper orientation

  • Helpers are remorseful, identify strongly with others, are not under supervision, and are Black, non-Latino

  • Helping helps the helper

    • Positive relationship with well-being

    • Negative relationship with criminality

    • Findings especially strong for staff


Research implications
Research Implications Incarcerated Persons

  • Document the growing role of formerly incarcerated persons as helpers, wounded healers and professional ex-s

  • Learn more about mutual-help groups and mentoring among formerly incarcerated persons

  • Study the effectiveness of mutual-help for both the helpers and recipients of help


Policy implications
Policy Implications Incarcerated Persons

  • The helper orientation transforms formerly incarcerated persons from being part of “the problem” into part of “the solution” as they give back

  • Devise ways of creating more helpers

    • Make opportunities to engage in mutual-help more widely available

    • Provide aid and support to promote the completion of certification programs and college degrees


Lifers public safety steering committee at graterford pa
Lifers Public Safety Steering Committee at Graterford, PA Incarcerated Persons

  • “One ensures change by assisting in the efforts to change others” (2004, p. 60)

  • “Society should begin to use the experience, knowledge, insight, and expertise of transformed ex-offenders to do the work that members of the community and those in positions of authority are not equipped to do” (2004, p. 65).


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