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Volume 9, Number 1

Spring/Summer 2011

Can Social Capital Networks Assist Re-entry Felons to Overcome Barriers to Re-entry and Reduce Recidivism? 


Earl Smith


Angela Hattery

Wake Forest University


    Research suggests that in 2011 nearly three-quarters of a million people—mostly men and disproportionately African American and Hispanic men--will return from jail or prison to communities all over the U.S. (Travis 2005).  In just the county in which we conducted this research (Forsyth, North Carolina) we expect at least 1200 people to be released from prison before the end of 2011 —into a community of less than 200,000 people---or 0.6% of the county's population.

    Though the common belief among Americans is that everyone deserves a second chance, especially after an individual has paid for his or her crime, the reality is that successful re-entry is difficult at best and elusive for most.  And, though some may argue that this is nothing to worry about because it simply amounts to more punishment for an individual who made bad choices, the reality is that barriers to re-entry significantly shape the probability for recidivism—which is approximately 70% in three years (Petersilia 2005; Visher LaVigne, and Travis, 2004; Western 2006); recidivism is a problem that affects all individuals and communities.  Furthermore, recidivism is a major contributor to the overall size of the prison population; if we can reduce recidivism we can significantly reduce incarceration rates (Newman 2008).

    Critical to successful reentry are several core issues, especially stable housing and employment.  Re-entry felons (1), especially those with drug felonies, face enormous barriers to securing both of these key elements.  And, though many of the men we interviewed set up their own barriers to re-entry, for example by not seeking treatment for an addiction, the barriers to re-entry are largely controlled by the government (e.g. bans on social welfare) and by the beliefs and prejudices that employers and real estate rental agencies hold about individuals who have been to prison.  And, after reviewing the data on barriers to re-entry the situation may seem hopeless, however our interviews revealed that one avenue for hope is providing re-entry felons with access to social capital and social networks that can serve to open doors of opportunity—especially with regards to housing and employment—that would otherwise be closed.  In this essay we focus on the role that social capital can play in the re-entry experience.

Employment and Housing

    Two of the most pressing problems facing re-entry felons—those men and women re-entering society with a felony conviction—are employment and housing (Petersilia 2003; Visher et al., 2004).  Clearly, employment and stable housing are critical elements to the success of all individuals and families.  And, critical to both is the fact that housing and employment form a sort of "feedback loop;" it is difficult if not impossible to keep a stable home when one is unemployed and it is difficult and often impossible to keep a job when one is homeless.   Thus, the success in obtaining one is inextricably linked to the success in obtaining the other.

    Though much of the research on homelessness (Bloom 2005) documents many of the problems of seeking a job when one is homeless-- such as the lack of a permanent address or phone number to list on job applications to the stigma associated with listing a homeless shelter as one's address--we learned from many of the men we interviewed that there are other barriers as well, specifically the fact that most homeless shelters have a curfew, a time by which all guests must be checked-in, typically 7 pm.  Yet, many of the jobs that the homeless and re-entry felons in particular are eligible for involve factory and warehouse work that is done round the clock—three shifts are operating daily.   Based on principles like "last hired, first fired," the re-entry felons we interviewed noted that often they were only offered those jobs that were second or third shift.  Taking a job during the second or third shift meant missing the curfew at the homeless shelter and jeopardizing one's housing arrangement.  Thus, the catch-22s of housing and employment; the feedback loop between them went far deeper than other researchers or we ourselves anticipated.  We turn now to a discussion of the specific barriers that re-entry felons face to securing employment and stable housing.

Employment Bans

    A felony record creates an enormous barrier to employment (Pager 2003, 2007).  This is especially true for African American men.  Specifically, Pager's (2003, 2007) experiment documented that when male "testers" applied for employment, White men were more likely, overall, to be offered a "call back" than African American men; White men without a felony were the most likely to be offered a "call back;" but most disturbing, White men with a felony were more likely to be offered a "call back" than African American men without a felony.  Only 3% of African American men posing as "testers with a felony record" were offered a call back.  This study illustrates the severity of the impact on employment opportunities faced by men with felony convictions and highlights the double whammy faced by African American men in particular (Pager 2003, 2007).

Source: Pager 2003.

    In addition to the discrimination they face with potential employers, re-entry felons also face bans on certain types of jobs and employment certificates.  Mukamal's (2004: 10) research notes that:

Employers in most states can deny jobs to people who were arrested but never convicted of any crime…. Employers in a growing number of professions are barred by state licensing agencies from hiring people with a wide range of criminal convictions, even convictions which are unrelated to the job or license sought. (10)
    To make matters worse, Mukamal notes that some of the licensing bans apply to trades that inmates are taught in prison as part of rehabilitation programs.  For example, she notes that many prisons offer inmates the chance to certify in barbering, but most states ban individuals with a felony record from holding a barber's license (Mukamal 2004).  Thus, there is a huge disconnect between the skills prisons invest in teaching to inmates and the jobs they will be able to obtain once they re-enter the free world.  This finding seriously draws in to question the professed rehabilitation goal of state corrections departments.

Housing Restrictions

    The federal government allows public housing authorities to use evidence of a criminal record in determining eligibility for public housing.  The federal government imposes lifetime bans on eligibility for public housing on two groups: 

  1. those convicted of the production of methamphetamine and
  2. those required to be registered on the state's sex offender registry. 
In addition, Mukamal's (2004) research of housing authority guidelines found that the majority of housing authorities do consider a person's criminal record when determining their eligibility for public housing.  The most common bans were for felony drug convictions and violent offenses.  Furthermore, her research noted that more than half of housing authorities, 27, "make decisions about eligibility for public housing based on arrests that never led to a conviction" (Mukamal, 2004, p. 10). 

    Thus re-entry felons with a drug conviction—which constitute approximately one-third of all men and nearly half of all women who are incarcerated—may find upon their return to the "free world" that they are banned from living in public housing.  This poses a serious barrier to the search for stable housing for re-entry felons, a situation that is exacerbated by two key issues:  the likelihood that the re-entry felon will have difficulty finding employment which will in turn limit his or her ability to pay rent and the likelihood that he or she lived in public housing with whom he or she might seek temporary shelter. This ban, however, applies even to temporary housing and the relative he or she seeks to live with would risk losing his or her housing by allowing the re-entry felon to spend even one night.  Additionally, this burden is substantial and disproportionately born by women re-entry felons.  Because children are most likely to live with their mothers, children of mothers with a drug felony conviction will be ineligible to live in public housing.  Therefore this ban poses a serious threat to the safe housing of more than one million children, the majority of whom are African American (Hattery and Smith 2010). 

Theoretical Framework:  Social Capital Theory

    The concept of 'capital' is generally understood to be a set of resources that individuals (or institutions) access in order to have agency in a market.  Karl Marx (2005) wrote about capital in terms of one's relationship to "the means of production."  Specifically Marx conceptualized capital as the resources that are necessary to produce commodities for the market: land that was necessary to grow and produce food, natural resources such as taconite or coal mines, and the machinery necessary to transform resources into commodities.  "Neo-capitalists" as Lin (2000) refers to them, used Marx's concept of capital and expanded it in order to analyze the kinds of resources that individuals hold inside themselves, such as education or training (human capital) or among their social networks (social capital).   Specific to our argument here, Lin argues: 

Social capital may be defined as investment and use of embedded resources in social relations for expected returns.  Social capital is conceptualized as (1) quantity and/or quality of resources that an actor (be it an individual or group or community) can access or use through (2) its location in a social network (Lin 2000: 786). 
In other words, there are two key aspects to social capital:  social networks and the resources that are embedded within these social networks that an actor can access.  In short, social networks are comprised of the people with whom one has sufficient relations to be able to ask advice or seek assistance.  Social capital theorists often distinguish between what they refer to as "strong ties" and "weak ties."  Perhaps counter-intuitive, it is better to have social networks comprised of many weak ties than those comprised of just a few strong ties.  Strong ties are those relationships we have that are very close:  with parents, spouse/partners, other relatives, long-time friends, and so forth.  Weak ties can be thought of more in terms of acquaintances:  the other parents we see at our children's weekly soccer games, colleagues at work—especially those with whom we rarely socialize—members of our congregation or temple, and so forth. 

    Why would social capital theorists argue that social networks built on weak ties are better than those built on strong ties?  Primarily because of the principle of homophily, or the tendency we have to build our strongest relationships with people whom we are the most like.  The majority of Americans spend most of their time in social groups that are homogenous with regards to key variables such as race, religion, and especially educational background and social class.  Thus, social networks based on strong ties will tend to be homogenous.  If one's social networks are incredibly resource rich, then this may not be so problematic, but for the most part scholars of social capital agree that the best returns on social capital occur when social networks are diverse and thus the types of resources embedded in the network are also diverse.

    What are the types of resources that are embedded in social networks?  Primarily the resources to which theorists analyzing social capital are referring revolve around information and the ability to provide a reference.  For example, a social network that is resource rich will typically include people who have access to information about jobs, or better yet the ability to refer an individual directly to the person in charge of hiring, or better still, the ability to hire!  Similarly, the types of resources that constitute social capital also include information or the ability to provide a reference or better yet the ability to influence the admissions process at prestigious institutions of higher learning (2).    Thus, the more resource rich one's social capital network, the more access one has to opportunities related to education, employment, running for political office and so forth.

    Why does diversity matter?  Diversity in social networks matters primarily because very few individuals possess information, the ability to refer, or the ability to influence outcomes—such as hiring or admission—that extends beyond more than one area—education OR employment—or beyond more than one or two institutions.  For example, the authors' ability to provide information about higher education is relatively high, but either of our abilities to provide a strong referral are limited to a few institutions at which we have previously worked or studied or where we have colleagues who are on the faculty or part of the administration.  Thus, a student seeking to attend graduate school would be best served by having "weak" relationships with many faculty members rather than a network built on "strong" ties with only a few faculty. 

    Perhaps this is best illustrated when we think about running for political office, be it at the local, state or national level.  Because many votes must be garnered in order to win an election, a candidate with a very diverse social network built on weak ties will be able to mobilize many more votes than a candidate with a very homogenous social network built on very strong relationships with a few individuals.  Certainly the support of key individuals is important—that's why candidates seek endorsements from powerful people—but the key to winning is mobilizing thousands or even millions of people one has never met to go to the polls and vote.

Social Capital and Inequality

    Of course, not everyone has access to the same types of social networks and thus not everyone has access to the same social capital resources.  As Lin (2000) demonstrates, social capital and social networks

  1. vary by social location and
  2. produce and re-produce existing social inequalities. 
For example, research on social capital and gender notes that women have less access to diverse social networks and their networks tend to be poorer in resources than are men's.  Scholars of gender and social capital (Green, Leann, Tigges, and Browne 1995; Hanson and Pratt 1991) generally attribute this to the public/private split that arose during the industrial revolution and relegated women to the work of the home (the private sphere) and men to the paid labor market (the public sphere) (Padavic and Reskin 2002).  The resultant sex segregation in the work place, which has persisted despite the fact that currently nearly half of all paid employees are women (Padavic and Reskin 2002), structures the types of social networks that men and women have access to and thus contributes to the persistence of gender inequality, particularly that associated with employment and pay.

    Similarly, as Portes and others (Portes 1998; Portes and Stepnick 1985; Wilson and Portes 1980) have documented, access to social capital also varies tremendously, and in the expected direction, by race and ethnicity.  Overall, Whites have the most access to social capital and the most diverse and resource rich social networks, African Americans have the least access and the "poorest" networks, and Hispanics and Asians fall in the middle.  As with gender, the history of racial segregation that has persisted throughout U.S. history, plays a crucial role in structuring differential access to social networks and the social capital embedded in these networks.  As Lin (2000) argues, people have a tendency toward "homophily" or the desire to associate mostly with people like themselves.  Additionally, the severe and intentional segregation that has persisted with regards to housing, education, and religious affiliations is perhaps more important in producing social networks that are largely racially homogenous.  Either way, these differences in access to social networks and the resources embedded in these networks, produce and reproduce racial inequality.

 Social Class

    Though Lin (2000) begins with a brief summary of the development of the term "social capital" by neo-capital theorists, he does not return to a discussion of class as a status with regards to differential access to social capital; rather he deals with social class only as an outcome of social capital.  Yet, we believe that class can be both a status and an outcome and thus it is worth following the logical path and examining its power to segregate or be segregated and thus shape access to social capital and social networks.

    We argue that as is the case with both gender and race, social class as a status significantly shapes access to social networks and social capital that thus produces and re-produces class status.  For example, just as housing is segregated by race/ethnicity, it is also segregated by social class, especially for Whites, but also for members of other racial/ethnic groups.  Driving through any community illustrates this point.  Zoning laws shape the social class make-up of neighborhoods by either preventing or encouraging multiple family dwellings, for example, or by requiring that homes be of a certain minimum size.  As a result, it is very uncommon for neighborhoods to be socio-economically "mixed."  This in and of itself shapes individuals' access to social networks and social capital.  Furthermore, because the neighborhood an individual lives in dictates things like the schools his or her children will attend, the access high and low income children have to social networks and social capital will be highly shaped by their social class alone and in combination with their access to the social capital resources embedded in particular school settings. 

    Secondly, though employers employ people of all social classes, both structures and norms severely limit interactions among people who occupy different locations in the employment hierarchy.  Professionals of any type—physicians, lawyers, accountants, investors, even college professors—rarely interact with staff who clean our bathrooms and offices or who groom the grounds on which we work.  Certainly there are many professionals who have hallway "chat" with the specific person who cleans their office, for example, but these interactions rarely if ever leave the workplace nor do they often extend beyond the two individuals to include the entire janitorial staff, for example or either person's family.  Thus, one's social class determines one's position in the employment hierarchy, which in turn determines the physical location of one's work and ultimately his or her access to social networks and social capital.  Finally, we should note, that because of the ways that systems of inequality are interwoven, there will be significant variation inside of each system based on one's other identities.  For example, women of color will experience a higher level of exclusion from social networks and social capital than White women and poor women of all races will experiences more exclusion than their wealthy and/or professional counterparts.  Thus, the interlocking systems of inequality and privilege (Zinn and Dill 2005) will further shape the likelihood that an individual can access heterogeneous social networks that are rich in social capital.

 Principle of Exclusion

    Clearly then institutionalized segregation such as occurs in the workplace, housing, education, worship and any other institution shapes the core elements Lin (2000) argues are central to social capital: 

  1. social networks and 
  2. the social capital embedded in these networks. 
Because re-entry felons are predominately members of racial and ethnic minorities—African Americans and Hispanics—who have been subjected historically to high levels of institutionalized segregation and because they are predominately from low-income backgrounds, another "group" that is highly segregated, they are likely to have limited social networks that are resource poor.  That said, based on the work of (Murray 2007) we argue here that an additional process—exclusion—produces outcomes similar to institutionalized segregation with regards to social capital. 

    The principle of exclusion focuses on the way in which certain statuses exclude individuals with that status from participation in mainstream life (Foster and Hagan 2009) and according to Foster and Hagan (2009) this exclusion often extends to the excluded individual's family members as well.  Scholars who study status note that there are certain statuses that trump all other statuses—referred to as "master statuses"—and that cling to an individual's identity for his or her entire life.  Examples of master status include being handicapped—particularly if the disability is readily apparent such as having lost a limb or being blind—suffering from mental illness or a chronic disease—again especially if it is readily apparent as is frequently the case with a seizure syndrome such as epilepsy.  The status of inmate or prisoner, even when it is preceded by "ex" is a prime example of a master status.  Not only is it symbolically attached to an individual for the remainder of their lifetime, but this particular status is reinforced by laws such as Megan's Law that requires a convicted sex offender to register and regularly update his (or her) contact information in both a book that his kept at the county sheriff's department but also is contained in an electronic database that is available to the public and "searchable."

    More generally, all individuals with a felony record feel this master status because of employment laws that require job applicants to disclose that they have a felony and requirements inside the TANF laws that demand disclosure of a felony so that services can be denied.  These legal measures reinforce the master status, especially for sex offenders and those with felony convictions, in a manner that is unique compared to the other types of master statuses we noted above.  Furthermore, the legal reinforcement of these statues further cements the master status to an individual's identity.

    Separate from a re-entry felon's segregated existence due to race/ethnicity and/or social class, their master status as a felon or sex offender operates similarly through the principle of exclusion.  Individuals with felony convictions and/or sex offender convictions are excluded—both formally and informally-- from many aspects of social life.  For example, as noted above, drug felons and sex offenders are banned for their lifetime from living in public housing.  This ban creates a form of exclusion that denies them access to certain social networks and the consequent resources.  For example, scholars of employment note that the most likely pathway to a job is through social contacts or networks—what we colloquially refer to as "word of mouth."  Though residents of public housing are unlikely to have social contacts or social networks that include employers looking to hire, they are capable of bringing home news that the boss at their job is hiring.  By excluding drug felons and sex offenders from the social networks in public housing they are denied access to valuable social capital—in this case information about a job—that are embedded in these social networks.   This type of exclusion is formal, but there are other forms of exclusion that are informal yet create the same type of marginalization and disadvantage.  For example, frequently one who watches the news or reads the newspaper will learn of a community in which a sex offender is denied the right to purchase a home or rent an apartment.  Though sex offenders may not be legally banned from living in certain neighborhoods as long as the potential housing they are considering doesn't violate the other limitations placed on sex offenders, because they are required to register and in some cases to notify their potential neighbors when they are moving in, neighbors may band together and ostracize the individual to the point that he (or she) feels so unwelcome that they decide not to move in to their potential new home.  This type of informal exclusion is very powerful in shaping the housing patterns of sex offenders.  And, similar to de jure or de facto housing segregation this process of exclusion will ultimately limit the types of social networks that sex offenders will have access to vis-à-vis their neighborhood and thus limit their access to social capital.

    A similar process occurs with regards to education: both formal and informal mechanisms of exclusion significantly shape felons' access to social capital.  Formally, there are certain occupations that felons and/or sex offenders may not hold, including being a certified barber or tattoo artist (Mukamal 2004) or in the case of sex offenders, any job that is near any number of locations where children are present-- including working as a janitorial staff in a school.  As is the case with the way in which occupational sex segregation limits the social networks and access to social capital for women, formal exclusion from occupations results in a similar limitation for felons.  Informally, employers who work in occupations or occupational settings that do not ban felons or sex offenders are also not legally obligated to hire a felon or sex offender:  they can legally discriminate.  Thus, as we heard over and over and over from the men and women we interviewed, the process of disclosing their status as a felon was, at least in their minds, the key factor that prevented them from obtaining employment.  Again, just as was the case with housing, the principle of exclusion as it operates in employment severely restricts a re-entry felon's access to networks and social capital. 


    During the summer of 2008 we conducted in-depth interviews with 25 men and women who were attempting to re-enter the "free world" after periods of incarceration.  Subjects were recruited through our partnership with the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice(3)  .  The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice provides a range of re-entry services to those exiting jail or prison.  Services include everything from providing referrals to temporary housing (shelters), help with filling out paperwork to obtain food stamps and prescription drug assistance, to GED classes, financial literacy classes, and employment referrals.  Overall, our sample included individuals who were highly connected with the program and who participated in a variety of services as well as those who had simply registered with the program but who had received very few services.

    Based on our sampling requirements—subjects had to have served a prison term (rather than simply served time in jail), they had to have a felony conviction, and the overall sample should be diverse with regards to race/ethnicity and gender—the program director identified approximately 30 individuals who met our criterion.  We then contacted each of these individuals and further pre-screened them in order to capture diversity with regards to the types of offenses they had committed—drugs, violent crime, property/financial crime and sex offenses.  Our final sample included twenty-five individuals.  Reflective of the U.S. prison population as a whole, of the 25 individuals we interviewed, only 2 were women and only 3 were White, 1 was Hispanic, and the remaining 21 were African American.

    The interviews, which frequently lasted two hours, were essentially mini-life histories (Shaw 1930) that focused on subjects' families of orientation, history of "deviance," pathways to prison, and experiences with re-entry. Some of the individuals we interviewed had only been to prison once, while others had cycled in and out. Some had served only a year or two whereas others had served more than 35 years (not always continuously) in prison. 

    Among other things, our interviews provide a deeper and more precise understanding of the biases faced by re-entry felons in the labor market. Most interviewees shared discouraging stories of applying for job after job, yet many were not only employed but had secured many different jobs across the different periods when they were not locked up. This discrepancy held across race, gender, class, length of conviction, and type of conviction, a finding that somewhat contradicts the large scale studies of re-entry felon employment (Pager 2003, 2007; Travis 2005; Visher et al., 2004). 

    We turn now to the stories we heard from the men we interviewed about their access to social networks and how this access translated (or not) into employment and housing.

Social Capital, the Principle of Exclusion and the Re-entry Felon

    So, how does all of the theory we have reviewed and developed in this essay thus far translate into real outcomes for re-entry felons?  What kinds of social networks do re-entry felons have access to and do they help or hurt the re-entry felon with regards to his or her attempts at re-entry?  We will explore these questions through the lens provided by men and women we interviewed.

 Family and Friends

    As most scholars and practitioners know, no matter how much an individual has hurt his or her family, most inmates report that their greatest access to and contact with the "free world" is through their families.  And, even inside of this broad category, for male inmates it is their mothers and their female partners who provide the most contact—visits, letters, phone calls—and emotional support.  For female inmates it is often just their own mothers who consistently write and visit them and provide support (Hattery and Smith 2010). Thus, upon release, it is this very small social network, based on very strong ties, to which an inmate returns.   For example, we interviewed many former drug dealers like Llee who, upon their release, moved back in with their mothers!  Adult men, who had once strolled the streets with pockets of cash, were reduced to relying on the only social support they had—their mothers—for their survival (Hattery and Smith 2010).

    Relying on social capital theory as a way of analyzing the experiences re-entry felons encounter when they return to the "free world," it becomes immediately clear that one barrier they face to successful re-entry is a lack of social capital.  As a result of their behavior prior to incarceration as well as the stresses of incarceration itself, the majority of re-entry felons have burned many bridges and their social networks have shrunk to just a few people with whom they have had long and intimate relationships—immediate family members.  These social networks are obviously very narrow and lack the diversity of contacts that Lin (2000) and others claim improves the likelihood of accessing important resources.  Additionally, as noted above, most inmates come from communities on the margin:  they are typically racial/ethnic minorities from low-income backgrounds.  Thus, the few ties they have in their social networks are comprised of individuals who are not likely to have access to the kinds of information and power that produce resources that will enhance one's ability to find housing or employment or gain access to further education.  Thus, the inmate is doubly disadvantaged:  he or she is disadvantaged based on his or her location in the social hierarchy (status) and within that location his or her period of incarceration (exclusion) is likely to shrink the little social capital that existed prior to incarceration.

    Though Llee's circumstances of having to live with his mother are dismal, what is even worse is when an inmate has burned all of his or her bridges--as was the case with both of the sex offenders we profiled in our book on prisoner re-entry (Hattery and Smith, 2010)—and is released from prison to a homeless shelter.  Though a homeless shelter population will certainly produce a social network based on weak ties, the population itself is so homogenous and the resources each individual has are so extremely limited, that there is very little useable social capital that can be derived from a social capital network built on homeless shelter residents.  Thus, the individuals released to a family member or spouse/partner—as resource poor as these social networks are—are clearly at an advantage over those released to a homeless shelter.

 Homeless Shelters and Re-entry

    As we have noted elsewhere (Hattery and Smith 2010), for a significant sub-population of re-entry felons, a cycle develops between two marginalized institutions:  prison and homeless shelters.  As noted above, one aspect of re-entry that differentiates ex-inmates from most other populations is their master status that leads to their exclusion from much of mainstream society.  The majority of Americans have probably never been inside a prison and though slightly more have probably been to a homeless shelter as part of a volunteer project, most Americans know very little about either of these institutions. 

    Though prisons and homeless shelters are clearly very different institutions, they share much in common, not the least of which is their isolation from mainstream culture and, for the purposes of this discussion, social capital networks.  Homeless shelters, like prisons, are structured such that individuals living there have very little personal choice:  they eat what is served, they sleep where there is an open cot, and they wake each morning when the shelter director tells them to—usually around 5:30 or 6 AM. Shelter residents have to abide by numerous rules, such as a curfew—most shelters require residents to be inside by dinner time and they are not allowed to leave once they arrive each evening—most shelters require residents to vacate the property during the entire day—typically from 7 AM till 7 PM—most require sobriety, they severely limit the number of personal items that can be stored, and they often have rules such as at our local homeless shelter where men are not allowed to have more than two cigarettes in their possession at one time.  As our students report after volunteering overnight at the shelter, they find it humiliating that grown men must ask them—teenagers and young adults—to dispense no more than the allotted number of cigarettes from their individual packs which they are required to leave behind a counter where they can be monitored by a volunteer.  Finally, most shelters offer no personal privacy—residents sleep dormitory style and use dormitory or "gang" type showers and toilets.  The authors were both struck upon analyzing the interviews that homeless shelters share so much in common structurally with prisons. 

    Thus, part of the struggle that many re-entry felons face is that they are "trapped" in institutions that are marginalized and kept far away from mainstream society.  Additionally, and we observe this frequently when we visit the shelter, perhaps because shelters resemble prisons or perhaps because so many of the residents have been incarcerated, norms of behavior and interaction look very similar in and around the shelter as they do inside a prison and especially in the "yard."  Working with re-entry felons and spending time observing them, it is painfully obvious that they carry norms and the prison "culture" with them when they exit prison.  Re-entry felons, especially those who have been released relatively recently, might as well have their master status tattooed on their foreheads because their behavior reveals their status so apparently. For example, re-entry felons often pace, sometimes they stand, at a doorway or on the curb at an intersection, almost as if they are waiting for someone to tell them when to walk and where to go.  Inmates quickly develop an ability to observe what is going on around them—this is necessary in order to avoid being shanked or blind-sided by a punch or raped—and they carry this habit back in to the "free world" such that they appear as if their heads are on swivels.  Many re-entry felons retain the habit of looking down and not looking another person directly in the eyes.  The list goes on and on.  And, for those who cycle back to homeless shelters, where they are surrounded by other re-entry felons in a structure so similar to prison with little privacy and reason to fear, these habits not only don't die, they are reinforced and embedded more deeply into a re-entry felon's mannerisms.  This is yet another negative, though perhaps unintended consequence, of the principle of exclusion that has potentially significant consequences for those attempting to rebuild their lives, find employment, and re-establish relationships.

    In addition to being physically excluded from mainstream culture—most homeless shelters, like prisons, are not within walking distance of the local mall or movie theatres or any of the other institutions we take for granted—the population at homeless shelters is about as resource poor as possible.  Thus, a social network populated primarily by residents of a homeless shelter is not likely to provide access to the types of resources that Lin (2000:786) describes as being likely to produce "instrumental returns, such as better jobs, earlier promotions, higher earnings or bonuses, and expressive returns such as better mental health."

    What we have observed among the re-entry felons whom we have interviewed and with whom we have worked, is that the homeless shelter social network is primarily valuable in providing information (resources) about which church runs the best soup kitchen or which organizations can be approached for other types of handouts such as clothing or bus passes.  Certainly a small percentage of homeless shelter residents are employed and they might be able to pass on information about hiring that is being done at their current job, but they lack the social and political capital to serve as a reference or influence the hiring process.  Furthermore, the types of jobs about which they have knowledge are typically the lowest paid, most undesirable jobs in the local economy.  And clearly, if they had information (resources) about housing they wouldn't be homeless themselves!  Thus, whether it be the exclusion that results from the physical marginalization of the homeless shelter or the exclusion from resource rich social networks that homeless shelter residents experience, re-entry felons who are released from prison directly to a homeless shelter are likely to cycle back to prison in part because the homeless shelter and its residents are excluded from mainstream culture and from key social capital resources, especially those related to employment and housing that are the critical elements to successful re-entry.

Hanging Out in the 
Neighborhood/Gang Bangers

    Of course, not all social networks and not all social capital is contained within mainstream culture.  Historically we have many studies that demonstrate the role that networks in the illegitimate economy can play in providing access to social capital (Venkatesh 2008). In organizations such as the mafia or in gangs that populate our major cities today—the Crips, the Bloods, and so forth—social networks embedded in the illegitimate economy can and do provide resource rich social capital (Venkatesh 2008), and can provide the types of "returns" Lin (2000) describes:  housing, "employment," "promotion" and even safety.   Of course because these social networks exist outside of the mainstream and they rely primarily on illegitimate activities in order to generate income and wealth, the likelihood that one will successfully re-enter and not recidivate is low if one chooses to rely on this type of social network for his or her social capital. 

    A majority of the men we interviewed who had cycled in and out of prison, often for more than two decades, recounted a lifetime of these choices.  Many, including William and Kevin, and so many others, recalled that after their first or second or tenth prison sentence was served they returned to their home community with a vow to stay straight and get their lives turned around.  For some, the return to drug dealing was immediate:  they knew nothing else.  For others, they made sincere attempts to "go straight" but unable to find employment and generate enough income to take care of themselves, pay child support, and so forth, they returned to "hustling" out of frustration and in order to survive.  As Kevin said (we paraphrase), "why would I labor all day at a job that pays minimum wage when I can pick up a few rocks (crack-cocaine), walk around the block a few times, and turn $100 profit?"  Or for men like Brandon and Eddie who are released to a homeless shelter, as noted not exactly rich in social capital, they may find they have no other option than to return to their former friends or associates and engage in hustling in order to survive.  Clearly, then, gangs or "associations" are interesting because they do provide social capital, but the resources embedded in these social networks—rich as they may seem—are so far removed from the mainstream, that they typically require a return to illegitimate or criminal activity and more than likely a return to prison.

Alternative Social Networks

    As noted above, Devah Pager's (2003) study demonstrated that men with a felony record face serious barriers to employment and the impact is significantly intensified for African American men with felony convictions.  Thus, one of the issues we wanted to explore in our interviews with re-entry felons was their experience with seeking and obtaining employment.  The majority of men reported that job seeking was both frustrating and unfruitful.  The majority had not been able to secure a job since they had been released from prison.  But perhaps more devastating were the lessons they learned that reinforced Pager's findings.  Some men reported, for example, that were initially hired, but once the employer ran the background check (usually within the first 30 days but no later than 90 days after the commencement of employment) and their criminal record was disclosed they were fired.  Others reported that an otherwise enthusiastic interview turned suddenly cold when they revealed that the certificates they had earned in welding, electrical and other constructions trades, were earned at a correctional facility.

    Countless men we interviewed who had spent any reasonable length of time in prison (more than five years) talked at length about the various certification programs they had completed; partly as a way to fill time and partly as a way to prepare—they thought and were told—for their re-entry.  Bill's experiences were echoed by many.  Bill had spent his time in prison pursuing training and certifications in the trades:  construction, electrical wiring, plumbing and so forth.  Well equipped with his certificates, when Bill was released from prison he immediately started applying for jobs in the construction industry.  Potential employers were usually impressed with his credentials, but questions arose when they looked at his certificates and noticed that all were earned at places with names like:  Morrisville State Institutional Facility.  When they inquired where exactly his certificates were earned, Bill had to admit that he had earned them as an inmate in a state prison.  Suddenly the once-interested employer no longer had a need to hire in Bill's areas of expertise.  This simple but critical illustration was experienced perhaps hundreds of times by the men we interviewed.  We can only surmise how frustrating it is to commit to the types of training these certificates require, all along believing they are your "ticket" to a better life post-prison, only to find them discarded by potential employers who are more worried about the felonies and incarceration than the skills one developed.  After conducting several interviews that told this story we wondered if there were any stories of hope. 

    Early on, we got our first indication that social capital might be an important factor when Tito revealed that after several stints of incarceration—primarily for possession of drugs and dealing drugs in Miami, FL-- he was able to find employment through family members and friends who owned small businesses.  He was certain that his current bout of unemployment was primarily a result not of his long criminal record but was due to the fact that in order to escape the gang influences in Miami he had moved to rural North Carolina to live with his mother.  He assumed that the fact that he didn't know anyone in North Carolina was the primary reason he couldn't get a job.  Without knowing it, Tito was giving us our first clue about the importance of social capital in the re-entry experiences of felons.

    As we interviewed more and more people the story that emerged got more and more complicated until it culminated in the last interview we conducted, which happened to be with Mr. Lyman Sykes.

    When we met Lyman he was in his early 60s and he had spent a total of nearly 35 years in prison, primarily for property crimes that he committed as part of his heroin addiction.  One of the most interesting and compelling aspects of Lyman's life is that following his last stint in prison he was able to do something the majority of men we interviewed were unable to do:  get a job and keep it.  Curious about Lyman's experience because it was so unique, we questioned him at length.  Lyman described his most recent exit from prison, some two years before our interview.  He had met Darryl Hunt while they were both incarcerated.  He and Darryl became friends.  Several years before Lyman's release from prison Darryl was released—he was exonerated for a rape and murder he did not commit—and shortly after his exoneration, determined to contribute to the community that stood by him, Darryl established a non-profit organization focused on prisoner re-entry.  Immediately upon being released, Lyman sought out Darryl.  Lyman was also fortunate in that his wife stood by him during all of his periods of incarceration such that unlike Nick or Brandon or Eddie, he moved back home with her rather than in to a homeless shelter.  Seeing some potential in Lyman, Darryl made a commitment to personally help Lyman with the battles a re-entry felon with a long list of drug felony convictions faces.  Darryl drew on his own political capital and he brokered a job for Lyman at a local Church's Chicken--a low-level fast food restaurant that is popular in the south, especially in low-income communities.  The manager gave Lyman a chance.  Lyman's smile lighted his whole face when he talked about the pride he felt getting his first job in the legitimate economy at the ripe old age of 60!  Since he was initially hired, Lyman has been promoted to assistant manager and he has been steadily employed for the past three years.   William, an African American man in his 30s who has cycled in and out of prison on property offenses and drug convictions, is also employed.  Though he served much less time in prison than Lyman, he is the typical person Pager's (2003) study identified as least likely to get a job:  an African American man with a drug felony conviction.  Like Lyman, he was hired after Darryl leveraged a personal relationship:  he knows the owner of a local restaurant who agreed, based on Darryl's reference, to give William a chance.  Most recently, in talking with some re-entry felons who participate in the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice "Homecoming" program, they revealed that Darryl has leveraged some personal relationship he has with the city of Winston-Salem and as a result the city department of sanitation and transportation has agreed to hire some of the re-entry felons Darryl refers.

How Do These Cases Muddy Findings Such as Pager's?

    One of the most interesting aspects of doing social science research involving interviews with real people is that often their experiences are contradictory to the reigning theory and scientific literature.  These cases are perplexing and force us to go beyond what we currently hold to be true and seek alternative ways of explaining the phenomena.  This was certainly the case when we conducted these interviews.  Though our sample size is small enough that statistics are inappropriate, general patterns are revealing.  For our purposes here, we note that none of the White men we interviewed were employed following their most recent period of incarceration but one-third of the African American men were.  These findings run entirely counter to what all of the literature, including Pager's (2003) landmark study, reveal about the intersection of race, incarceration and employment.  As we worked to make sense of the data, it was immediately apparent that one of the key differences between the experiences of the men who were employed and those who were not was their access to the personal resources of a single man:  Darryl Hunt  (4)

    Thus we began to ask the question, can a re-entry program and in particular a staff member of that re-entry program, provide a surrogate social network that is embedded with enough social capital resources to overcome the double trap that the African American men with drug convictions—like those examined in Pager's study-- experience?  In observing and working with Darryl Hunt, the answer seems to be, cautiously, "yes."  Though the re-entry program is built primarily around one person, Mr. Hunt, and some supporting staff, and though this hardly constitutes the diverse social network that Lin (2000) proclaims enhances an individual's returns on their investment, for men who experience the highest levels of exclusion and who have access to very little social capital outside of the re-entry program, the resources embedded in the re-entry program's social network appear to be the best chance they have of successful re-entry.  Clearly, as noted in the accompanying footnote, other things must be in place as well:  the men must be free from addiction and it is useful if they have other social relationships that help them to meet other needs that they have for housing and/or intimacy.

    Additionally, as with any individual accessing a social network, the re-entry felon must convince the individual with the social capital (Darryl Hunt) that they are worthy of the investment.  And, perhaps the success we saw in these men was in part a result of selection bias---Mr. Hunt is only willing to broker for men he truly believes have the potential for success.  Yet, these findings suggest that in addition to those factors (race and felony status) that Pager identifies, social capital may be one of the most important factors in shaping prisoner re-entry.
 This would certainly explain why most white collar criminals are able to re-enter successfully---in addition to the human capital they retain they also retain social capital.  This may explain why social organizations like the mafia or gangs are able to provide help with re-entry---that is until the individual is caught again participating in illegal activity, arrested and recidivated.  What all of these cases share in common is access to social networks that are rich enough in resources to provide the kind of social capital that is necessary to secure employment and stable housing: the two critical elements in successful re-entry. 


     For those of us concerned about extremely high recidivism rates  (67% in three years) and the barriers to successful re-entry, we should work to develop and invest in programs and people that can create and provide the kinds of social capital that can be accessed by re-entry felons:  men and women who are otherwise excluded from mainstream society as a whole and viable social networks in particular.  Re-entry felons have a lot of work to do to be accountable for their previous behavior, for beating addictions, and for making amends in their personal lives.  But, for those who do, re-entry programs like the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice and so many others that are housed in church ministries or run by ex-inmates who have successfully re-entered the "free world" themselves, may be a viable source of social capital that can assist re-entry felons in successfully beating the cycle of incarceration.  We urge other scholars as well as those interested in public policy and public safety to turn their attention toward a rigorous and detailed examination of this potential source of social capital for re-entry felons.  Lastly, we suggest that it is in all our best interest to identify and seek mechanisms that ease re-entry for as a matter of public safety we all benefit when recidivism rates are low and those who have made mistakes return to our communities better positioned to contribute as citizens rather than victimize us and consume the resources of our local criminal justice system.


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(1)We use the term "re-entry felons" to draw attention to the fact that first and foremost one's status as a convict is what sociologists call a"“master status."  In other words, long after the term of one's incarceration, the status of "convict" sticks with individuals much as their race/ethnicity or gender significantly shapes their lives; one cannot then really be an "ex" convict.  Including the term "felon" distinguishes these men and women from those exiting jail without a felony conviction.  Because so many of the barriers to re-entry turn on a felony, this is an important distinction.
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(2)At the time of the writing of this paper, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Harvard University Professor, was arrested for disorderly conduct when he was questioned about breaking in to his own home.  At a "beer summit" held by President Barack Obama, Gates offered to "help" the officer who arrested him "get his kids into Harvard."  That's the ultimate in resource rich social capital!
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(3) For more information please visit the program website:  link
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(4) The men who were employed were also different in that they maintained relationships with female partners while they were incarcerated and none was living in a homeless shelter, though one man was living in a pre-release halfway house.  Although all had been convicted of selling drugs, all had beaten the addiction before they were released for the last time.  Finally, none were convicted sex offenders.  However, it is important to point out that there were White men who met these criterion as well, for example J.B. (Hattery and Smith 2010).
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