What Do We Know about Prisoner Re-entry?
A Review of Research, with a Focus on
Scandinavian Findings

(Summary)

The literature review summarizes available research on re-entry from prison. The aim is to describe and discuss findings emerging both from research within the so-called “What Works” paradigm, and from research based on other epistemological and methodological positions. Although the scope of the review is international, we have paid special attention to research conducted in the Scandinavian countries in general and Norway in particular.

The Scandinavian countries are given special attention in the review for several reasons. One is the role these countries have been given in contemporary penology. Several authors have argued that the Scandinavian countries and their prisons are somehow special cases; that they are exceptional in some sense, compared with similar institutions elsewhere. Others have criticized such claims and argued that there is no reason to put the Scandinavian prison systems on a pedestal. With this review, we want to see whether we find support for the so-called Scandinavian exceptionalism thesis in the literature. Another, related, aim is simply to make research findings that have only been available in the Scandinavian languages accessible in English.

The review reflects and is tailored to the specific needs of the EPTrans project, and research that we have seen as particularly relevant for the project has been given priority. Our aim in the EPTrans project is to study the impact of cultural, political and social environments on the reintegration process in two countries. The results of re-entry work are hard to measure, however. Research highlights the importance of hope, agency, and motivation. This factor is also emphasised by the former prisoners in contact with third sector organizations in Norway. Moreover, the literature is replete with evidence that social structures such as employment, accommodation, family and so on play a crucial role in desistance. The fact that prisoners' post-release situation has major implications for the recidivism rate is a common finding in the research studies, rapports and policy papers included in this review.

The literature goes on to identify some key areas of concern. The difficulties newly released prisoners experience when it comes to finding a suitable place to live is the aspect that has been given the most attention, but also unemployment, substance abuse and anti-social social networks have been highlighted as problems. All four aspects are seen as important obstacles to overcome on the road to desistance. Social attitudes such as discrimination, exclusion, and intolerance are other factors that can frustrate the process of re-entry. Many studies conclude that different prisoner groups have different reintegrating needs or at least that different people prioritise different needs differently.

The idea that the re-entry processes must be understood in its specific context, including the specific welfare system surrounding the prison system, means that research findings cannot always be easily transferred between countries and cultures. The Scandinavian literature suggests that improved collaboration between different relevant government agencies and a strengthening of the third sector involvement in the release process have been important success factors. Many issues remain unaddressed in the Norwegian/Scandinavian literature, however. Our aim is that the EPTans project will contribute to fill some of these knowledge voids.