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The Way Back Home: The transition factor
By Berkeley Harris, MSW
Published: 10/15/2007

Editor’s note: In his new column, The Way Back Home, Berkeley Harris applies his social justice and parole and probation experiences to re-entry and other corrections matters.

Berkeley Harris is a program manager of Families in Transition Community Services Inc., an organization that provides technical assistance to youth-based educational and mentoring programs, 21st century emotional intelligence skills, Transitions Management training, workshops for adult and seniors transitions, and project evaluation.

I have been in and out of prisons for more than 15 years of my adult life. From minimum institutions, to super-max institutions. Yes, I have done them all, from being face-to-face with shoplifters to murderers. Yet, I’ve never had to worry about “transitioning” into the community, until one of those fateful days, when a prominent member of the community saw me leaving a “halfway house” and refused to acknowledge my presence.

I later learned from some of my colleagues that word had got around that I had been concealing my debt to society, and that I had blown my cover having been caught by this person as I was leaving a place of rogues and vagabonds. It was soon after this circumspect was revealed, that I could bear stronger witness to the feelings of being an inmate. Of course I’d studied all about “labeling theory,” “rehabilitation process,” “Merton’s Theory of Anomie,” and more. But to be framed in a reverse role-set, is a significant experience.

Prisoner reentry to communities continues to pose very complex and conflicting challenges to society. The debt of re-entry is ever with the person who has done his/her time. There’s not much review on the matter of the transitioning factor in the life of the returning offender.

I reference William Bridges’ (1991) framework of understanding change and transition. He defines “change” as an event that is situational and external to us, and “transition” as the gradual, psychological reorientation process that happens inside us. He targets three phases of the transition process: Endings: Feelings of loss for things important to you, of things familiar to you, which are now ending; Neutral Zone: A sense of confusion and disorientation in the Neutral Zone; and New Beginnings: The risk of uncertainty, not knowing what to expect; the risk of failing in the new situation. While these paths may appear to be rather simple, Bridges rightly cautions that, “it’s not a simple, straight line between two points.” Each transition in our lives starts with an ending, or loss.

What’s ending for the released one? Release from jail, never mind how frightening it is on the inside, has its losses: forged relationships, predictability, daily routine, even status among peers have taken place.

Leaving, and hearing those doors closed behind you, often puts “an eerie feeling in the pit of the stomach,” say several offenders, “I wanted to rush back before the doors banged!” Doing business all of a sudden has taken new meaning in a different world. Scary stuff! Often difficulties in the housing market, labor market, uncertain family reunions, outstanding child support, socially acceptable interaction and the old gang further compound the view of a social reject.

I believe the reentry process should be one of “No Offender Left Behind.” If ever there’s a time for non-traditional programs and resources; prisoner reentry programs require it! Mainstream cultures fail to incorporate the prisoner reentry culture in its planning, development and implementation.

There’s a strong need to review and reconstruct programming to meet the systemic barriers facing the re-socialization process of this population. Granted, pre-release and post-release programs have come a long way, but the opportunities to support new beginnings are far from adequate, such as rebuilding control, understanding and purpose!

Harris has a lengthy career in the areas of social justice; community development; community policing; cultural competence; crime prevention; organizational behavior and change management. He piloted the first Federal and Provincial evaluated Police Youth Mentoring Program in Canada, which has been used as a case study for Federal Provincial Partnership Building. Harris also designed and piloted a Campus Peer Mentoring project for Foster Youth, as part of their emancipation process, at Mt. San Antonio Community College in the San Gabriel Valley, and Los Angeles City College. He also is an adjunct counselor at Mt San Antonio College. He can be contacted atBerkeley@tstonramp.com.


  1. Margaret on 10/24/2007:

    MHolder: Berkeley great article, you have captured the essence of what happens to individuals after being incarcerated. You have vast knowlege on the subject as a correction officer. Working in the justice system for manys years you witnessed the difficulties the inmates face on rentering society.

  2. SSosa on 10/21/2007:

    Transitioning - or re-entry into society as an equal to all others - is an admirable concept. However, the stigma of a criminal record, and in particular, incarceration is one that is not easy to leave behind, even for the offender. If society could be so forgiving, the offender may not be for his or her self. What may be needed to effect the aims of "rebuilding control, understanding and purpose" is to address the thing that cause these to be lost in the first place - i.e., our customary 'solution' of incarceration. Granted, incarceration is needed for certain types of violent offenders. However, there are other ways I believe we can punish certain types of offenders without the need for incarceration - and the seminal loss of control, understanding and purpose - with long days of meaningless time. Perhaps we can look to constructive deterents like radical seizure of assets, long-term reparations for damages, or similar ways to ensure that the debt to society and the victim are repaid in tangible ways. This still leaves an aspect of control, understanding of impact, and a sense or redemption (i.e., purpose) with the offender. For the violent offenders, our approach has to be different. A way to more intelligently segregate the incarcerated populace according to offense and behaviour is something that we must explore, I feel. In this way one bad apple won't corrupt the whole bunch as quickly. And as Mr. Harris says, non-traditional programs and resources to effect prisoner re-entry planning need to be more systemic - but take shape the day the prisoner is assigned his cell.

  3. rcarr on 10/20/2007:

    Berkeley's understanding of what it's like to re-enter public society after prison was strengthened by his halfway house experience, but it's also clear he knows the types of dilemmas that people who are out-of-the-mainstream from sociey face from their early years on. I like the way he has used Bridges' work to provide a perspective on transition. My own work in corrections with establishing mentoring and peer support services brought me to see three problem areas for offenders re-entering from prison: Trust, Honesty, and Respect. These are three elements that are often missing from the peer group that recovering offenders hang out with, and consequently often get them back into trouble and back into prison. While teaching offenders specific skills can be useful, they could benefit more from being with people who have mastered these three areas. Mentoring is one way this can happen, but working with life coaches may provide even more impetus to learn how to put these three into practice as life goals.

  4. marymayfield on 10/19/2007:

    I think this article is true and very informative. I agree and believe this is a population that has been over looked for too many years. I feel that we as people have problems adjusting to change, we are living on a daily basis seen the changes happening without being in prison. So if you are in prison (in a closed environment)not seeing the changes happening how well will you be able to adjust. One is expected to migrate back into society(after paying their debt) without any problem. It will never happen. This population of people need to be taught how to deal with every day issues and learn rejection (because this is what our society will do to an offender once they become an offender debt paid or not)

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