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Research IDs Key Factors That Help Women Ex-Convicts Avoid Recidivism

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New research identifies four factors that help women ex-convicts avoid committing crimes, offering insights that can be used to help former inmates integrate more successfully into their communities after time in prison.

“In essence, we wanted to know what factors make women who have been in prison less likely to engage in criminal activity after they’re released,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-author of a paper on the work. “This was a research question that prisoners themselves came up with. They wanted to know what could give them the best chance of successful community reintegration.”

For this study, researchers conducted baseline interviews with 400 women shortly after their release from prison. The study participants then self-reported on their behavior over the course of the following year. Their reporting was confidential, and the research assistants the women talked to were all former prisoners. The study was conducted in Canada.

“We wanted these women to let us know what was helping them and what was not,” Desmarais says. “That requires trust. And having them interact with women who had been through similar experiences seemed like the best way to establish that trust.”

The researchers found four factors that were significant in helping women avoid recidivism: good nutritional health; good spiritual health (as defined by the study participants); having a high school education; and having been convicted of drug offenses, as opposed to incarceration for other crimes.

“The link was strongest for women who had been convicted of drug offenses – they were 70 percent less likely to return to crime,” Desmarais says. “This highlights the fact that drug offenders would benefit more from treatment than from incarceration – the addiction is the biggest problem there.”

Women who had at least a high school education were 56 percent less likely to return to crime than those without a high school degree. Having good nutritional health reduced the likelihood of recidivism by 50 percent, and good spiritual health cut the likelihood of recidivism by 40 percent.

“We don’t usually think of health as something that can improve reintegration into society, so this was a surprising finding,” Desmarais says.

“Altogether, these findings offer insights that can help us develop programs and policies to improve the ability of ex-offenders to rejoin their communities. That would be valuable for communities, government agencies and the ex-offenders themselves. The study also highlights the fact that ex-offenders are not just a voiceless group to be studied, but can also offer important insights into their experiences.”

The paper, “Factors that support successful transition to the community among women leaving prison in British Columbia: a prospective cohort study using participatory action research,” was published in the journal CMAJ Open. Lead author of the paper is Patricia Janssen of the University of British Columbia. The paper was co-authored by Mo Korchinski, Lara-Lisa Condello, Jane Buxton, Ruth Elwood Martin, Marla Buchanan and Carl Leggo of the University of British Columbia; Arianne Albert of the British Columbia Women’s Hospital and Health Centre; Alison Granger-Brown of Fielding Graduate University; Vivian Ramsden of the University of Saskatchewan; and Lynn Fels of Simon Fraser University. The work was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Factors that support successful transition to the community among women leaving prison in British Columbia: a prospective cohort study using participatory action research”

Authors: Patricia A. Janssen, Mo Korchinski, Lara-Lisa Condello, Jane A. Buxton, Ruth Elwood Martin, Marla Buchanan and Carl Leggo, University of British Columbia; Sarah L. Desmarais, North Carolina State University; Arianne Y.K. Albert, British Columbia Women’s Hospital and Health Centre; Alison Granger-Brown, Fielding Graduate University; Vivian R. Ramsden, University of Saskatchewan; and Lynn Fels of Simon Fraser University.

Published: Sept. 19, CMAJ Open

DOI: 10.9778/cmajo.20160165


Background: In Canada, the number of women sentenced to prison has almost doubled since 1995. In British Columbia, the rate of reincarceration is 70% within 2 years. Our aim was to identify factors associated with recidivism among women in British Columbia.

Methods: We prospectively followed women after discharge from provincial corrections centres in British Columbia. We defined recidivism as participation in criminal activity disclosed by participants during the year following release. To identify predictive factors, we carried out a repeated-measures analysis using a logistic mixed-effect model.

Results: Four hundred women completed a baseline interview, of whom 207 completed additional interviews during the subsequent year, contributing 395 interviews in total. Factors significantly associated in univariate analysis with recidivism included not having a family doctor or dentist, depression, not having children, less than high school education, index charge of drug offense or theft under $5000, poor general health, hepatitis C treatment, poor nutritional or spiritual health, and use of cannabis or cocaine. In multivariate analysis, good nutritional health (odds ratio [OR] 0.52 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.35-0.76]), good spiritual health (OR 0.61 [95% CI 0.44-0.83]), high school education (OR 0.44 [95% CI 0.22-0.87]) and incarceration for a drug offence versus other crimes (OR 0.30 [95% CI 0.12-0.79]) were protective against recidivism.

Interpretation: Our findings emphasize the relevance of health-related strategies as drivers of recidivism among women released from prison. Health assessment on admission followed by treatment for trauma and associated psychiatric disorders and for chronic medical and dental problems deserve consideration as priority approaches to reduce rates of reincarceration.

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  1. The Osher lifelong learning institute (OLLI) of NCState would be interested in talking with you about giving one or two lectures on this excellent research during our summer or fall 2018 terms. If this might be a possibility for you, please let me know and we can discuss this idea in greater detail. I am a volunteer in the OLLI program and serve on the science and technology subcommittee. Many thanks.

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