5th April 2023

By Josh Dumbrell, Research Assistant, Drugs Research Network Scotland, University of Stirling with thanks to the Lived Experience Group members of the Post Prison Participation Project.

‘Reintegration’ back into the community is central to determining the success of criminal justice policy and services globally. What reintegration looks like isn’t often well described. People involved in the justice system may have never felt, or been considered, ‘integrated’ in the socially acceptable sense. They may have faced barriers to participating in socially valued activities and roles, or may have participated in activities and roles that brought them into conflict with the justice system. Reintegration should be considered from the perspective that it may not be a return back to ideal circumstances, and that support is needed to achieve a different outcome. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. Returning to existing structures and circumstances following imprisonment can reinforce and perpetuate social isolation and increase the risk of reoffending. Yet release without appropriate support is too often standard care internationally. Successful approaches to reduce reoffending must look beyond individual level punishment and towards addressing the barriers and disparities within social systems that co-produce crime.

The Post Prison Participation project was led by Dr Catriona Connell based at the Salvation Army Centre for Addiction Services and Research, University of Stirling. The researchers still looked at individual outcomes, but went beyond reoffending to consider whether interventions work to help people to participate in activities and social roles in their community. They completed a systematic review of trials conducted internationally. Drawing on input from a series of workshops with people with experience of Scotland’s prisons, this blog post reflects on the project. Over the project, workshops were attended by three men and two women, each with experience of prison, community justice, substance use and recovery. Two group members were embedded in faith-based communities.

Photo: John and Alan were both participants in the workshops. 

In early 2022 our lived experience group were presented with the results of the research. It found that interventions worked to increase the number of people who start work, and the amount of time worked in the follow up period, but not to sustain employment over time. There was very little research into interventions to improve other important outcomes like parenting, or physical activity. The group was surprised at the lack of high-quality work in this area, given that rehabilitation and reintegration are key measures of the success of criminal justice policy. Just two of the studies came from the UK (England), with none from Scotland.

Employment was the most common primary outcome. Group members felt employment should follow community-led trauma and addiction recovery work. Members contended that without a supportive community to help deal with the challenges of adapting to work, people would drop out. This may explain why employment-centred interventions were unable to sustain early benefits. Rather, group experience suggested a focus on health, wellbeing and family roles and relationships would be more realistic and beneficial in the long-term (the research didn’t focus on health and wellbeing, but did include social roles and relationships). There was, nevertheless, unanimous acceptance of the need for post-prison activity, and agreement that, like employment and vocational training, this should be meaningful and life enhancing.

A key question emerging from our workshops was, whose interests are being served when success is determined by economic metrics (employment rates), potentially at the expense of more personally meaningful measures, like wellbeing? Discussion of the research landscape, and the focus on getting people into employment, called into question the values of funders and policymakers. Somewhat awkwardly, we questioned whether limited-scale research projects were as far as efforts towards improvement ever went – perhaps reflecting frustration with the slow pace of progress.

The group considered the implications of this research for Scotland. We discussed how barriers exist at multiple levels, and include intergenerational poverty, substance use, homelessness, stigma, and pervasive trauma. We acknowledged that meaningful change requires real political appetite. Our group suggested interventions should be trauma-informed, recovery-oriented, individualised, peer-led, and non-time-limited. We preferred therapeutic community-type models, and those offering one-to-one support to address health, wellbeing, and general life admin alongside employment and other activities. Although interventions that showed an effect tended to be focused on one issue, it is clear to us that people need wider support. We felt that newly liberated people need a place “just to be” among their peers, and that approaches should address the fear and anxiety experienced upon release, incorporate realistic time-frames, and include outcome measures that reflect participants’ needs. The group were optimistic about the future for people involved in the justice system in Scotland, due to the (slow) shift toward characterising addiction as a public health rather than criminal issue. Taking a co-production approach, future Scottish research might begin by establishing outcomes meaningful to those involved in the justice system, and evaluating interventions that consider trauma, complexity of need, and factors such as ‘time’ and ‘safety’.


Publication: Connell, C., Birken, M., Carver, H., Brown, T., & Greenhalgh, J. (2023). Effectiveness of interventions to improve employment for people released from prison: systematic review and meta-analysis. Health & Justice, 11(1), 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40352-023-00217-w  


Criminal Justice and Health

Criminal Justice Process and Institutions