This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
After a sixteen-year civil war, Mozambique underwent a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program in 1992, administered by ONUMOZ (the United Nations Operation in Mozambique). The program was widely hailed as a success. Weapons were turned in, and combatants were demobilized, given money, education, and support in transitioning from their lives as soldiers. DDR programs, like the one in Mozambique, have become a mainstay of post-conflict reconstruction efforts, with over 60 documented programs from the late 1980s to 2008. Yet today, reintegration success "is still an open question." In 2009, the Mozambican government established a new program to carry out reintegration efforts in order to address the unmet needs of 100,000 former combatants, suggesting the prior "success" was more limited than initially thought. The particular complexity and challenges of reintegration efforts as part of DDR programs have been frequently cited.
In the United States, reintegration challenges are faced by another group, former prisoners. Success in reintegrating former prisoners (commonly called "reentry") is most often measured by low recidivism rates. The fact that recidivism rates consistently run above 50% suggests that success remains elusive despite decades of effort. In fact, an influential report produced in the 1970s suggested that "nothing works: no transformative intervention had been shown to be effective in reducing re-offending. The report formed the foundation for subsequent decades of policy which reduced transitional and developmental programming for ex-offenders during prison and post-release. The study was eventually rejected with contrary evidence. However, while promising new reintegrative practices have emerged, they have yet to gain systematic adoption. Despite renewed hope, reintegration has not yet demonstrated widespread success.
While initially these two groups — former civil war combatants and former prisoners in the U.S. — may seem to inhabit two different worlds, striking similarities appear upon further investigation. This paper will explore these similarities and consider whether lessons can be learned from the comparison of reentry and reintegration efforts. This paper will also highlight the vital role of community in both forms of reintegration and conclude by identifying possibilities for further study and application, noting the significant challenges remaining for future research.
Similarities: Research and Theoretical Frameworks
Given the divergent contexts of ex-offenders in the U.S. and ex-combatants in civil wars (primarily in developing countries), the numerous similarities between the people and processes across the two categories may be at first surprising.
A. Personal Characteristics
Ex-offenders and ex-combatants share many characteristics. Upon their initial return to communities, many face individual barriers of low education and few employable skills. Secondly, ex-offenders and ex-combatants have not only inflicted trauma on others, but have also experienced trauma through incarceration or war, often making them more violence-prone upon return to their communities. They also experience changed communities; for ex-prisoners, their home community and relationships may have shifted after years of separation, and for ex-combatants, society will have significantly changed due to the war. Finally, both groups face particular challenges related to family integration. The majority of both groups are male, many of whom were either parents that left their children (and sometimes spouses) at home, or were children themselves upon entering prison or fighting in war. The family that awaits them, if one exists, may be a source of support and encouragement, or may be a source of temptation, discouragement, and pain.
B. Transition Needs
Due in part to their shared characteristics, the needs of ex-combatants and ex-prisoners transitioning from war or prison are also similar. Both ex-combatants and ex-prisoners face the daunting challenge of entering civilian life and successfully finding employment. While both reintegration and reentry programs have taken on job training and employment as a priority, neither has seen significant success. Ex-prisoners face significant hurdles and restrictions including jobs to which they cannot apply because of their criminal record. Additionally, as previously mentioned, many have limited skill sets, and the skills which they have do not meet the needs of an increasingly service-oriented (less entry-level) job market. Similarly, ex-combatants are also often under-skilled; job-training programs may be included in reintegration efforts, but have mixed results due to incomplete market analysis of the economic context.
Ex-combatants and ex-offenders face significant social stigma upon their return. In the U.S., ex-prisoners face severe social stigma, as their identity is equated with their past – committing a crime is sometimes seen as not just a poor choice, but a reflection of a deficient personality. Once out of prison, an ex-offender often remains a "criminal" and therefore a "bad person" less deserving of services, unwelcome in communities of "good people" who have not been to prison. While simplistic and not universal, these perceptions nevertheless continue to be replicated in communities across the U.S. Particularly noticeable is the "not in my backyard" backlash against community-based initiatives such as halfway houses (transitional intermediary homes for ex-offenders) from people concerned about the presence of an ex-offender population or individuals. Ex-combatants also face stigma for the acts they committed as soldiers, particularly atrocities committed in their own communities. Their communities may also harbor resentment at the special treatment they receive through DDR processes, including money, job training, and other assistance. Interestingly, the resentment seems to come mostly from the reality that the communities also need money and assistance after the war, and less that the ex-combatants do not deserve the assistance. Communities in post-civil war contexts are more likely than communities in the U.S. to welcome and, see the need for healing and rehabilitation of their ex-combatants--which may be due to a less communitarian orientation in the U.S. This may also be due to the fact that post-civil war communities have typically experienced broad social upheaval and widespread trauma, which can prompt the recognition that "atypical" actions, including combatant reintegration, must be implemented for the ultimate good of rebuilding much of society (such as the reintegration of many genocide perpetrators into Rwandan society due to the sheer number of participants). Conversely, in America, ex-offenders' crimes in modern times do not typically disrupt all of American society, but contrast this with the reintegration of soldiers on both the Union and Confederate sides after the American Civil War.
Beyond social stigma, ex-offenders also face structural obstacles, including restrictions in voting, housing, and employment. Government-subsidized housing is often not available to persons with a felony conviction, and ex-offenders' low income and hesitation from landlords to rent to ex-offenders leaves an extremely limited private housing market. In the U.S., persons with a felony conviction are often barred from voting in elections and running for political office, sometimes indefinitely (depending on the state and crime committed). As previously mentioned, some convictions carry barriers for certain jobs. Yet beyond the legal barriers, institutionalized hurdles/legal mechanisms, many employers are naturally less likely to hire someone with a criminal background. While the restrictions on ex-combatants are much less systemized and generally less common, the post-war environment leaves significant challenges in acquiring employment. Additionally, while formal housing barriers generally do not exist, many ex-combatants face land-rights claims upon returning to their communities after an extended time of war.
Significantly, ex-offenders and ex-combatants share common needs for healing and rehabilitation. Numerous studies have been published on the traumatic nature of the prison environment. Additionally, many ex-offenders can trace trauma to their childhoods. While prisons seek to offer assistance for prisoners' mental, physical, and spiritual health, ex-offenders must also continue to address these needs after release. Mental health concerns and substance abuse are common in the ex-prisoner population, necessitating a range of support services. Ex-combatants similarly face significant scars from trauma. Addressing ex-combatants' mental, physical, and spiritual health is vital to work through the trauma. Unfortunately, professional counseling and assistance is often limited to the immediate services provided in demobilization camps. Yet encouragingly, many post-conflict societies have embraced local reconciliation and healing ceremonies to assist the integration of ex-combatants. However, full healing takes time, significant community commitment, and support over the long-term.
The communities to which ex-offenders and ex-combatants return have surprising similarities. Ex-offenders in the U.S. often return to communities of internal strife. The communities receiving ex-offenders from prison are disproportionately communities of poverty with a high proportion of reentry cycling, decreasing the stability of social structures that help hold communities together. Similarly, ex-combatants are often returning to communities without robust social structures and institutions, many having been torn apart by the war. Because of the war, community members leave and new ones enter on a regular basis. Reintegrating estranged persons, when the existing community continues to face unmet needs at basic levels, increases the challenges of healthy reintegration possibilities.
D. Reentry and Reintegration Programming
Finally, significant similarities exist in the programming of reentry and reintegration efforts. An overarching goal in programming, for both ex-offenders and ex-combatants, is to encourage an alternative livelihood beyond criminality and the combatant identity - which will discourage recidivism and promote peaceful communities. Reentry programs in the U.S. vary between states due to legislation and community-level implementation differences. Reintegration programs for ex-combatants also differ between countries, but since DDR programs are often administered by the United Nations or World Bank, the programs look remarkably similar from country to country.
Both reintegration and reentry efforts prioritize job acquisition as the first building block for success. For reintegration efforts, large-scale job skill training programs are often implemented for demobilized combatants as part of their transition. For reentry efforts, where there is a structured program, job training and acquisition is nearly universally included. Job training may be conducted, however, through the state, private organizations, or even by parole supervisors. The results, therefore, are widely divergent.
Second, reentry and reintegration efforts both include an element of emergency assistance. When prisoners are first released, they are given cash for their immediate needs, ranging from $25 to $200 depending on the state. Often they are also given a bus ticket. Unfortunately this hardly gets someone through the first day or two of release, especially if it is only $25. For ex-combatants, many DDR programs include cash assistance through a "reinsertion" phase which also often includes a basic package of supplies (mattresses, pots/pans, blanket, etc) to assist them in the immediate transition period.
Reentry and reintegration programs have also recognized the need for transitional centers, which extend support beyond emergency assistance and seek to address wider needs, including psycho-social challenges. For ex-combatants, this often happens in reintegration or demobilization centers, where ex-combatants are processed to determine their needs for reintegration. Services are often provided on-site, where possible, including counseling. For ex-prisoners, halfway houses gained widespread use in the 1970s and continue in communities today to provide a transition point between prison and independent living, helping ex-prisoners adjust to life beyond prison. While these houses and similar programs vary widely, many employ a counseling element in their efforts.
While both reintegration and reentry programs have formalized processes to assist in addressing the needs of ex-combatants and ex-offenders, both also rely on informal social controls and networks to address long-term integration needs. While ex-offenders have formal assistance through parole supervision, the parole officer is often unable to give the individualized attention and mentoring required for the parolee to effectively navigate reintegration challenges. Likewise, for ex-combatants, DDR programs assume that communities will take up the bulk of the psycho-social reintegration needs beyond any formalized support.
Lessons from Practice
Given the level of similarities, there are lessons from practice that are applicable in both arenas, and two are mentioned here. First, the necessity of starting early – and as quickly as possible – is frequently mentioned for both reintegration and reentry efforts. The first months after release from prison include high rates of rearrest and are the most critical in preventing recidivism. Additionally, DDR experts recommend beginning the process of reintegration early, and sometimes even before the peace negotiations end. These suggestions not only reflect realities that these processes are complex and need sufficient planning, but also that early intervention is a vital preventive element for transitioning persons into a new way of life.
Second, reintegration programming is best accomplished when ex-combatants, ex-offenders, and their respective communities participate in the design of programming rather than relying on outside professionals. Offender participation in rehabilitation is vital for attaining high quality and ownership of the process. Unfortunately, while clearly a common recommendation, it is less clear whether, and to what extent, ex-offenders and ex-combatants have participated in the design of any program.
The Immeasurable Factor: Community
As previously mentioned, reentry and reintegration efforts struggle to run "successful" programs. Success is often measured by reduced recidivism and dropping the "ex-combatant" label, signaling an equal identity within the population. The ability to meet the broad needs of transitioning persons is the barrier to achieving a successful program. Additionally, perhaps the complex needs of ex-offenders and ex-combatants are unable to be addressed solely through best practices of well-designed programming. In fact, an overreliance on programming itself may be limiting the possibilities of success. In other words, while effective programming can go far to mitigate structural, systemic, and practical hardships, the unique needs of each individual offender or combatant may not be able to be met programmatically. Developing trends in reentry efforts and in reintegration efforts for ex-combatants suggest that social and community support are equally significant in reducing recidivism and integrating persons after lives of violence or incarceration.
In 1994, Francis Cullen famously wrote about the impact of significant social supports in decreasing crime. Other scholars have since suggested that social supports are critical for all transition points in life, including after significant events such as incarceration. Furthermore, continued familial contact during and after incarceration reduces recidivism and fosters reintegration. Such community support is important for a variety of reasons. "Access to supportive networks" improves chances for a successful transition and, "family and other close social connections are the most likely people to provide the needed emotional and financial support." These "informal social bonds are the strongest predictors" for successful reintegration.
Certainly success is not just reliant on the existence of a family support system, but on such a system being positive and meeting the substantive needs of reintegrating persons. As mentioned earlier, families and communities can be places of negative reinforcement. Perhaps it is for this reason that research has suggested that a transitional locale, such as a halfway house, can also be a critical element of success since it offers an alternative community and social support system. Yet it is the strengthening of relationships, common to family and communities, which helps in desistance from crime and violence.
In summary, community, as an expression of supportive relationships, is both a need of ex-offenders and ex-combatants, and also a means to address the needs of ex-offenders and ex-combatants. Reintegrating persons need a community of supportive relationships throughout the transition process to be successful. Additionally, through community, needs such as financial assistance, job security, acceptance, and holistic wellbeing (physical, emotional, spiritual, mental) can be met.
Differences and Research Challenges
While the similarities in addressing reintegration challenges for ex-combatants and ex-offenders are striking, there are also significant divergences that must be mentioned for a complete analysis. These differences suggest a potential comparative research challenge — that arguably the difference could be significant enough to warrant comparison invalid. For example, is the foundational difference between the contexts of civil war and prison surmountable in order to consider comparative lessons? Skeptics may suggest that a country "at peace" and a country at war are too divergent for comparison, or that the trauma and impact of war is altogether different and more significant than in prison. However, further analysis suggests significant overlaps exist. Scholars and practitioners increasingly recognize the significant traumatic impact of incarceration, and while the U.S. may not be in civil war, community disintegration, through incarceration and reentry cycling, has arguably created a situation comparable to "war-affected communities" in the U.S. These overlaps, among others, suggest the comparison is potentially valid, though this analysis should continue to be critically considered. Other differences may be less significant from a research stance, but nonetheless important to note. Therefore, a summarized chart of some differences is below:
Comparing the Reintegration Challenges for Ex-Offenders and Ex-Combatants
|Re-entry of ex-offenders||Reintegration of ex-combatants|
|Community||U.S. communities tend to be individual-driven, and have low social cohesion||Communities in many post-civil war countries tend to be (during peace time) more communitarian with a higher level of social cohesion|
|A majority of ex-offenders come from and return to communities with a concentration of ex-offenders, where reentry cycling is common||Reintegration may fail but individual repeated cycling is less common|
|Society||Legal barriers and restrictions for ex-offenders for life||Potential beneficial preference of ex-combatants over recipient communities|
|Long-standing systematized processing of ex-offenders, though different in each state||Newly developed processing of ex-combatants, relatively similar across different countries|
|Re-entry of ex-offenders||Reintegration of ex-combatants|
|Theory of change||Individual rehabilitates and changes mindset and ways||Community acceptance rehabilitates and new employment brings a new way of life|
|Disarmament and Demobilization||Informally accomplished, through default of entering prison||Formal disarmament and demobilization, without entry into a separate institution|
This paper has sought to draw comparisons between reentry efforts for ex-offenders in the U.S. and reintegration efforts for ex-combatants in post-civil war contexts. The primary contribution of this paper has been to identify the numerous similarities and begin a conversation for further research and exploration. It is no surprise that transitioning persons back into their communities after separation will include similar activities even across significantly different contexts. However, that these similarities may lead to the opportunity for shared learning and development of best practices — despite the unique contexts — may be less clear.
For reentry and reintegration efforts, a vital and underutilized ingredient is community participation, development, and support. That is, the participation of the community in designing reintegration and reentry practices, the development of community to better address basic needs, and the support of community needed for effective transitions. Reentry and reintegration efforts can be strengthened through the community. To this end, further research should consider the potential contributions of frameworks such as restorative justice to better address the needs of ex-offenders and ex-combatants. In particular, restorative justice recognizes that addressing the needs of ex-offenders and ex-combatants involves a comprehensive approach, including attending to the needs of victims and affected communities. Additionally, the central role of relationships and the means and ends of "community" can be found within a restorative justice framework.
Demobilization – the formal and controlled discharge of active combatants from armed forces or other armed groups. The first stage of demobilization may extend from the processing of individual combatants in temporary centers to the massing camps designated for this purpose. The second stage of demobilization, called reinsertion, encompasses the support packages provided to the demobilized combatants during demobilization but prior to the longer-term reintegration. Reinsertion is a form of transitional assistance to help cover the basic needs of ex-combatants and their families.
Disarmament – the collection, documentation, control, and disposal of small arms, ammunition, explosives, and light and heavy weapons of combatants and often also of the civilian population.
Recidivism – A subsequent return to prison by those who were formerly in prison.
Reentry – "happens when incarceration ends." The process of reintegration for former prisoners.
Reentry cycling – The "removal of relatively large numbers of residents from the community and relocation to prisons, return to the community from the prison, and (often) removal to the prison once again."
Reintegration – is the process by which ex-combatants acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income. Reintegration is essentially a social and economic process with an open timeframe, primarily taking place in communities at the local level. It is part of the general development of a country and a national responsibility, and often necessitates long-term external assistance. This paper also uses "reintegration" more broadly to include rehabilitative and integrative programs and efforts for ex-offenders and ex-combatants returning to their communities.
Use the following to cite this article:
Kniss, Sharon. "Rebuilding Lives in Community: Linking Lessons from Ex-Offender and Ex-Combatant Reintegration." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. March 2013 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/ex-offender-ex-combatant-reintegration>.