How Can Former Prisoners Rehabilitate Prisoners?

Research PaperLaw

In recent years, there has been a shift from a punitive approach to crime to rehabilitative, transformative, and restorative justice approaches. Numerous countries that have made this change have seen a drastic decline not only in crimes and imprisonment but also in recidivism. While the concept of rehabilitation and anti-recidivism has been around for more than two decades, the United States still has a long way to go. A long-term study by the US Department of Justice revealed that 84% of former prisoners get arrested within 9 years of their release (Clarke, 2019). These high recidivism rates are attributed to a lack of comprehensive rehabilitation programs and re-entry programs for prisoners in most states. However, there are rehabilitation and re-entry programs that employ former prisoners to help rehabilitate and prepare prisoners or newly released prisoners for re-entry into society and reduce recidivism rates. These programs have been proven to be more effective and successful at rehabilitation and re-entry support.

Imprisonment and Recidivism in the United States

Two of the major problems besieging the American justice system today are the high rate of imprisonment and the high rate of recidivism. In fact, the United States has the highest prison population per capita among OECD countries. According to Statista, around 1.47 million people are imprisoned in the US and an additional 6.6 million are in adult correctional facilities (Duffin, 2020). This number represents more than 50% of the global prison population. Apart from high incarceration rates, recidivism is another issue in the US. In a 2018 long-term study by the US Department of Justice, of the total number of prisoners released in 2005, almost 45% were arrested within the first year of their release, 16% in the second year, 8% in the third, 11% in the fourth to sixth years, and 4% in the seventh to ninth years (Clarke, 2019). The high rates of recidivism in the US are no surprise since rehabilitation programs are not integrated into incarceration facilities, and there are hardly any support programs to help with re-entry into society. With the exception of a few states like California, the US’s criminal justice systems continue to favor punitive approaches.

There are many factors that contribute to these problems. The high rate of imprisonment is not just due to a high crime rate. Numerous studies have shown that incarceration rates intersect with institutional racism . For instance, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (2022) reports that young black men are more likely to be imprisoned than their white male counterparts. Institutional racism happens when social institutions, structures, and legislation increase the likelihood of people of color turning to crime. For instance, policies that place more barriers between people of color and social mobility increase the chances of turning to crime for survival. Institutional racism also happens when people of color endure biases. The same problem affects the juvenile justice system. Furthermore, numerous factors cause recidivism, including but not limited to lack of employment, untreated mental illness, difficulty transitioning to life outside of incarceration facilities, lack of social/familial support or inability to change lifestyle or social circle, ineligibility for public housing, student loans, stamps, and other benefits (Prison Insight, n.d.). These are the results of inadequate, if not nonexistent, rehabilitation and re-entry support systems within incarceration facilities. Former prisoners who have successfully integrated into society are in a uniquely advantageous position to help newly released prisoners rehabilitate. 

How Former Prisoners Can Help Rehabilitate Prisoners

Former prisoners need holistic support from inside incarceration facilities, up until the first day of their release, and until they reach full self-sufficiency. Surviving and reaching self-sufficiency is a long and difficult road for former prisoners. There are numerous ways that former prisoners can help newly released prisoners rehabilitate and stay away from crime.

Ride Home Program

One way by which re-entry programs can help former prisoners is through ride home initiatives. Former prisoners agree that the first 24 hours after release are the most frightening and overwhelming for people who have been inside an incarceration facility for years (Ride Home Program, n.d.). They are unfamiliar with the newest technology, as well as changes in infrastructure, and they are usually released with just their clothes. An example of a successful program that helps newly released prisoners is the Ride Home Program, which also employs former prisoners. In the Ride Home Program, re-entry counselors and drivers, who are also former prisoners themselves, pick up newly released prisoners and spend time with them (Ride Home Program, n.d.). The program transports the former prisoners to an approved residential assistance center and stays in touch to give them guidance in navigating their re-entry. Having someone with a similar experience as a guide does not only give former prisoners comfort, but also helps them develop a realistic plan.

Inmate Group Therapy

Group therapy has been proven to be an effective method for treating or managing mental illnesses like drug addiction as a result of the US Opioid Crisis. Between 1976 and 1984, Dr. Patricia Firsch and Alan Emery conducted a comprehensive inmate group therapy in San Quentin. These were facilitated by a graduate student intern and an inmate peer counselor (Firsch & Emery, n.d.). The inmate peer counselor is someone who has participated in inmate treatment groups for a minimum of two years and has completed the peer group facilitator program (Firsch & Emery, n.d.). Furthermore, participation in the group therapy was voluntary, however, as a testament to its success, a large number of prisoners joined throughout those years and found it helpful (Firsch & Emery, n.d.) What makes this rehabilitation program unique is that it employs an experienced inmate peer counselor as the head of the group therapy instead of an outsider.

Being part of an inmate group therapy fosters a sense of community among inmates while also encouraging self-awareness and empathy. These ultimately help develop a new set of values (Firsch & Emery, n.d.). In their psychology research paper , Firscher & Emery (n.d.) explain that through its group context, the Inmate Group Therapy helped develop a new culture within newly founded communities. The program is indeed therapeutic as it shifts the violent culture that commonly prevails in incarceration settings to a culture of consciousness, responsibility, and community (Firsch & Emery, n.d.). This type of community contributes positively to the rehabilitation of inmates as it prepares them to be part of a community once they are released. 


Rehabilitation and re-entry support programs that tap former prisoners are a sensible solution to the problem of inadequate rehabilitation programs and high recidivism rates in the United States. Former prisoners, through their experiences, are in a strategic position to help and guide inmates and newly released prisoners. Rehabilitation and re-entry support programs would benefit greatly by tapping on former prisoners as experts or consultants as well as volunteers to help newly released prisoners adjust to life outside and avoid recidivism. But while there are clear solutions to these issues, there are many other pressing issues in the justice system, among them long-standing ones like the debate over the effectiveness of gun laws and relatively new ones like the issue of cybercrime and the role of cybercrime law.

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Clarke, M. (2019 May). Long-term recidivism studies show high arrest rates. Prison Legal News. Retrieved from

Duffin, E. (2020, May 20). Incarceration rates in OECD countries as of May 2020. Statista. Retrieved from

Firsch, P. & Emery, A. (n.d.) Inmate counseling & therapy: Eight years inside San Quentin.  Orgonomic Therapy. Retrieved from:

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. (2022). Race and juvenile justice.

Prison Insight. (n.d.) Recidivism: The ultimate guide. Retrieved from:

Statista Research Department. (2020, January 28) Prisoners in the United States – statistics & facts. Statista. Retrieved from

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