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The Prison Journal


Incarcerated Sex Offenders' Expectations for Reentry

Richard Tewksbury and Heith Copes

The Prison Journal 2013 93: 102 originally published online 3 December 2012 DOI: 10.1177/0032885512467318

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Incarcerated Sex Offenders’ Expectations for Reentry

The Prison Journal 93(1) 102–122 © 2012 SAGE Publications

Reprints and permission: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0032885512467318 http://tpj.sagepub.com

Richard Tewksbury1 and Heith Copes2


Returning to the community after incarceration can be a difficult challenge. These issues are exacerbated for sex offenders, who reenter society car- rying strong stigmas and who are subject to a variety of both legal and extralegal restrictions. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 24 incarcerat- ed, soon-to-be released sex offenders, this study examines their perceptions and expectations of reentry challenges and opportunities. Analysis shows that sex offenders have very limited understandings of reentry legal restric- tions. In addition, offender accounts revealed sex offenders generally held positive expectations for community reentry. They reflect the belief that they will be able to draw upon personal, familial, and social resources to avoid the consequences of stigmatization.


sex offenders, reentry, stigmatization, legal restrictions

One of the most frequently discussed criminal justice issues in recent years centers on how communities should respond to the “threat” of sex offenders. In response to these concerns, state and local legislatures have enacted numer- ous laws that have made sentences harsher, created and expanded community

1University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA

2University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA

Corresponding Author:

Richard Tewksbury, Department of Justice Administration, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY 40292, USA

Email: richard.tewksbury@louisville.edu

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supervision, and imposed accompanying restrictions, regulations, and other consequences on sex offenders. Although legislators show a concern and desire for continuing the ever-increasing move toward harsher responses to sex offenders, there is a paucity of knowledge about how such responses affect offenders and the general public (Brannon, Levenson, Fortney, & Baker, 2007; Sample & Kadleck, 2008; Schiavone & Jeglic, 2009).

Although seemingly well intended, legal developments such as sex offender registration and community notification (SORN) laws, residency restrictions for convicted sex offenders, and increased supervision of sex offenders post- incarceration show little or no impact on rates of recidivism (Socia, 2011; Tewksbury & Jennings, 2010; Zgoba, Witt, Dalessandro, & Veysey, 2008). And, when examining experiences, research has shown that sex offenders subject to registration, community notification, and residency restrictions experience increased levels of stress (Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2009; Tewksbury & Zgoba, 2010), social isolation and a persistent sense of vulner- ability (Mercado, Alvarez, & Levenson, 2008; Tewksbury, 2004, 2005, 2007; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006, 2007), and relegation to socially disorganized, impoverished, and undesirable neighborhoods (Hughes & Burchfield, 2008; Hughes & Kadleck, 2008; Mustaine, Tewksbury, & Stengel, 2006a, 2006b; Suresh, Mustaine, Tewksbury and Higgins, 2010; Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2006, 2008). What remains unknown is the degree to which sex offenders who will soon return to the community from prison are aware of and prepared to cope with such sanctions and restrictions.

Reactions of Society

and System to Sex Offenders

The general public, criminal justice officials, the media, and law makers all seem to consider sex offenders as the most serious danger to society and daily life. As a result of the widespread condemnation of sex offenders, myriad laws have been passed to attempt to control sex offenders. Most notably, this includes the now universal practice of SORN and residency restrictions.

One of the primary accompanying restrictions of SORN, residency restric- tions, focuses on where offenders reside. Nearly universal in urban areas, residence restrictions prohibit registered sex offenders from living within specified distances of “child congregation locations,” most commonly defined as schools, day cares, and public parks. The implementation of resi- dence restrictions has meant that, especially in urban communities, registered sex offenders are prohibited from residing in a majority of available housing

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(Socia, 2011; Zandbergen, & Hart, 2006, 2009). However, as is the case with SORN in general, the empirical evidence fails to support the efficacy of such laws (Barnes, Dukes, Tewksbury, & De Troye, 2009; Duwe, Donnay, & Tewksbury, 2008).

Collateral Consequences for Sex Offenders

It is generally assumed and accepted that SORN laws are designed to protect law-abiding citizens from sexual predators. But like most laws, SORN laws have created unintended consequences, especially for those subject to them. Scholars have identified and discussed a range of practical, social, and psy- chological (presumably unintended) consequences that confront registered sex offenders (Burchfield & Mingus, 2008; Levenson, 2008; Levenson & Cotter, 2005; Mercado et al., 2008; Tewksbury, 2004, 2005, 2007; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006, 2007). Among the more common collateral consequences experienced by registered sex offenders are difficulties in finding housing and employment and maintaining social and familial relationships. In some jurisdictions (e.g., Florida, Nevada, New Jersey) sex offenders may be pre- vented from having access to computers and the Internet. This exacerbates problems with finding and maintaining housing and employment (see Tewksbury & Zgoba, 2010).

The most intensively examined of the documented collateral consequences for sex offenders has been their difficulty in finding suitable housing (Levenson, 2008; Levenson, D’Amora, & Hern, 2007; Levenson & Hern, 2007; Levenson, Zgoba, & Tewksbury, 2007; Tewkbury, 2004, 2005, 2007; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006, 2007; Vandiver, Dial, & Worley, 2008). Registered sex offenders (both with and without legal restrictions on where registered sex offenders may reside) often reside in socially disorganized communities (Mustaine et al., 2006a, 2006b; Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2006, 2008). The location of large numbers of registered sex offenders in communities charac- terized by economic disadvantage, low degrees of social cohesion and collec- tive efficacy, and high crime rates is seen as an involuntary process or a “relegation” of sex offenders to the least desirable neighborhoods (Mustaine et al., 2006a; Tewksbury & Mustaine, 2006).

In addition to the objective experiences of collateral consequences, it is common for registered sex offenders to report experiencing a number of sub- jective consequences, including social ostracism, a recognition of being neg- atively labeled, a pervasive sense of being vulnerable to recognition and attack, and fear of personal violence (Mercado et al., 2008; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006; Zevitz & Farkas, 2000). However, it appears that actually

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experiencing violence and attack are relatively uncommon (Tewksbury & Lees, 2006).

The effects of collateral consequences impact individuals beyond sex offenders themselves. Family members are subject to both harassment and the practical and economic consequences that are applied to registered sex offenders (Farkas & Miller, 2007; Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009; Tewksbury & Levenson, 2009). Family members, especially those who live with a regis- tered sex offender, experience collateral consequences of the offender’s sta- tus, what Goffman (1963) referred to as “courtesy stigmas.” Common among these are financial hardships (53% of surveyed family members of registered sex offenders), receipt of threats or harassment from neighbors (44%), and having property damaged or destroyed (27%; Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009). Perhaps the strongest and most potentially deleterious courtesy stigmas are applied to the children of registered sex offenders. More than 50% of sur- veyed family members of registered sex offenders report experiencing conse- quences for registrants’ children. These consequences include depression, anxieties, fears, frequently expressions of anger, and ostracism and ridicule from peers (Levenson & Tewksbury, 2009).

Knowing that community reentry can be a significant challenge for felons, and that sex offenders returning to the community under SORN and accom- panying restrictions can be daunting, the present study seeks to identify the expectations that incarcerated sex offenders have for their return to the com- munity. If registered sex offenders are aware of the legal and social barriers that they are likely to encounter upon release, they may be better equipped socially, psychologically, and emotionally for reentry. They may also be bet- ter prepared to help their families get ready for the challenges they all may face. If such offenders are not aware of, and prepared for, such barriers and challenges, their likelihood of successfully reentering the community may be lessened. The goal of the present study is to examine what expectations, both positive and negative, incarcerated sex offenders have about their return to the community.


Data for the present analysis come from semistructured interviews conducted with 24 sex offenders incarcerated in one medium security prison in a Midwestern state. All interviewees had release dates within 3 years of the time of their interview (with a mean of approximately 1 year until release).1 Prior to initiation, the project was reviewed by institutional review boards for both the state Department of Corrections and the lead author’s university.

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All interviewees were male and were between the ages of 24 and 67 (mean age was 40.6). Twenty-one percent (n = 5) were African American and 79% (n =19) were White. The most frequent charge for this sample (45.8%; n =11) was first-degree sexual abuse, followed by third-degree rape (29.1%; n = 7), 20.8% (n =5) for third-degree sodomy, 16.6% (n =4) first-degree rape, 8.3% (n = 2) second-degree rape, and 4% (n = 1) each for second-degree sodomy, promoting a minor in a sexual performance, and incest.2 Interviewees had served a mean of 47.3 months at the time of the interview (range = 15-95).

The lead author collected all data using semistructured interviews. This style of interview allows the participants to discuss their thoughts and beliefs in detail. Moreover, it allows the researcher to gain in-depth knowledge about the subject matter, in this case, the expectations sex offenders have for their lives once they are released into the community. The interviews focused on offenders’ plans and expectations for community reentry, knowledge of SORN laws, policies and procedures, community contacts (e.g., family, friends, and acquaintances) with which contact has been maintained while incarcerated, and perceptions of how others will perceive and respond to them upon release.

The interviews took place in a private office at the prison and were audio recorded with the participants’ permission. Interviews lasted an average of 30 min (range of 20-60 min). Interviews were analyzed manually. To ensure interrater reliability, the authors read the transcripts independently to identify relevant sections of data and common themes and, ultimately, to agree upon an appropriate coding scheme. For the current analyses, we were attentive to accounts about participants’ perceptions of how being registered sex offend- ers will affect their lives after release. Prior to data collection, all procedures were reviewed by the institution warden, state Department of Corrections, and the first author’s institutional review board to ensure that ethical stan- dards were met.

What Sex Offenders Know

About Restrictions and Conditions

Beyond simply assessing their expectations for community reentry, incarcer- ated sex offenders approaching their release dates were queried about their legal restrictions or conditions to which they would be subject upon release. The overwhelming theme in the responses of offenders was that they had little understanding or knowledge about such restrictions. The large majority of offenders reported knowing of only two conditions: registration and being on a conditional release status.

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All offenders knew that they would have to be listed on the state’s sex offender registry, although their collective knowledge about what registra- tion entails and the length of registration showed a great deal of confusion and uncertainty. In addition, in the state where the study was conducted, upon release from incarceration all sex offenders—regardless of whether they serve out their maximum sentence or not—are required to be on a 3-year conditional release. This condition was recognized by nearly all interview- ees, although some were unsure of what “conditional release” meant, and what type of supervision would be included. Some also did not know how long their conditional release would last. The recognition of there being con- ditions on their release, but confusion about what would be entailed is clear in Jose’s words, “I really don’t know. Just sounds like probation they hold you on, or something like that.”

In addition, almost no sex offenders were aware of the state’s residence restriction law prohibiting their residing within 1,000 feet of child congrega- tion locations. And, for the few who did know that there was “some kind” of restrictions on where they could live, none accurately reported knowing the specifics of the law.

In summary, although nearly all soon-to-be-released sex offenders were aware of the legal requirement to register, there was a general lack of knowl- edge about SORN conditions and accompanying restrictions. This lack of understanding is perhaps best reflected in the words of Marcus, who was expecting to be released in approximately 11 months, “I don’t know what the rules are, I’ve heard different things, I’ll have to check it out when the time comes.”

Negative Expectations

The sex offenders interviewed for this project often believed they could return to the community with little trouble. They thought that with the sup- port and assistance of family and friends, they could secure steady employ- ment and eventually return to a “normal life.” Key to their hopes was having community members, both those they already knew and those they did not, see them for the people they believed themselves to be, instead of seeing them only as the label that they carried. However, the positive expectations that were held by these offenders need to be tempered with their less posi- tive, and negative, expectations for what awaits them upon release. The major concerns they had about their reentry centered on finding stable hous- ing and employment, maintaining and establishing social relationships, liv- ing with or overcoming the sex offender label, combating the assumption that they are dangerous to others, and being vulnerable to attacks.

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Housing and Employment

Two practical issues that stand out as especially significant in the expectations of soon-to-be-released sex offenders are obtaining safe, affordable, and legally permissible housing and securing viable employment. The issue of housing was generally seen as a more formidable obstacle. The common placement for released (nonsex) offenders with family members is not possi- ble, due to either where family members live (in a legally restricted location close to a child congregation location) or the household having children resid- ing therein. Dylan explained, “The biggest problem I have noticed for sex offenders trying to get out is home placement: ‘Where am I going to live?’ It adds a lot of stress.” In discussing his plans, Reese said that he would like to be released to live with his ex-wife; however, he acknowledged that “I’m not going to be able to live in my ex-wife’s house, because my grandson’s prob- ably going to be staying there. That’s all the little stipulations.”

Halfway houses, a common housing placement for released offenders, were also perceived to be inaccessible. Some interviewees reported having contacted numerous halfway houses around the state, but were turned away because, as Jax reflected, “halfway houses just don’t want to take sex offend- ers.” Housing, whether through a formalized and structured program such as a halfway house, or found and paid for on one’s own, was seen as the most significant practical barrier facing sex offenders seeking to reenter the com- munity. Almost without exception, the offenders interviewed reported being concerned, worried, and/or frustrated with their attempts to locate housing for their impending release. Jimmy explained his frustrations with housing:

I know it’s going to be tough, especially with sex offenders, it’s really tough. I know it’s really tough. They don’t want them living here, they don’t want them here, they don’t want them there. Okay, you’re going to be ostracized.

Clearly these issues are not unique to only sex offenders. However, due to sex offender specific laws (e.g., residency restrictions), the scope and weight of such issues are especially important for soon-to-be-released sex offenders.


In addition to the practical challenges and problems associated with locating and securing housing after their release, interviewees also anticipated prob- lems with their personal relationships, including these with new and old

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friends, current family and significant others, and possible dating situations. Friendships were viewed as especially vulnerable. Most of the interviewees reported that they had lost at least one friend since their offenses came to public light. As a result of experiencing such losses, many of the offenders reported being leery about whether previous friendships would remain intact and reported being concerned about if and how they would be able to make new friends upon release. Although it is recognized that many types of offenders may experience such losses and stresses, for sex offenders—who are among society’s most vilified in our current political climate (Logan, 2009; Quinn, Forsyth, and Mullen-Quinn, 2004)—the decision to self- disclose one’s status must be considered within a climate of ever-present media and public discourse condemnation.

Some offenders expressed strong concerns over family members rejecting them because either they victimized a family member or the loved ones of family members (through marriage, long-standing friendships, etc.) or that family members would experience significant collateral consequences, which would lead them to view the offender negatively. When family members suf- fer collateral consequences—both objectively and/or in the form of social ostracism—offenders believed that they may “simply have enough” at some point, and would subsequently stop all contact with the offender. Dylan, a child pornography offender, related that “with my charge I’m scared because of friends and family. I mean, they seem supportive so far, but there’s always that [possibility] they’ll look at me in a ‘there’s Chester the Molester’ kind of way.”

Offenders saw different types of personal relationships being impacted in different ways and to different degrees. Devon, a 28-year-old admitted Oxycontin addict from a rural community, reported that he expects to have problems establishing “real” relationships, but not to have problems with casual or dating relationships:

I don’t know how dating, or any of that stuff is going to be, you know what I mean? . . . It feels like I’m going to get out and be lonely though. Not with women or anything like that, ’cause I’ve always been, well, it don’t matter about them. Them’s easy to pick up. But, as far as hav- ing real friends . . . you know what I’m saying?

Not all interviewees saw dating and establishing (even short-term) rela- tionships with women as “easy” or something to not be concerned about. For a few interviewees, dating and significant other relationships have already come to an end. For some offenders, long-standing relationships were ended,

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and for others, potential, budding relationships were curtailed in their early stages. As Hunter reported, although he was planning/hoping on living with his wife after release, he was unsure of whether she would still be there for him, and with him, after his release. After explaining that he hoped/planned to live with her after his release he did acknowledge the following about his wife:

I just hope I don’t get out too late, before my wife ends up, you know. She’s going to get lonely after all this time. That’s a long time waiting. I mean, if she does, like I said, I can’t be mad at her . . . I mean I hope she hadn’t. Her daughters, they love me too, and they said she ain’t found nobody else yet.

Aaron related the story of meeting a woman while incarcerated and thinking that he had a real possibility of developing a serious relationship with her, until he told her of his charges. He said that in one of his first letters to her after being introduced:

I let her know, this is the nature of my crime, this is what happened, this is what I’m in here for, this is how much time I’ve got. The reason I’m letting you know this is because I want you to understand that if we become friends or become more than friends, at least you know this is about me.

However, Aaron never heard from the woman again, because in his mind the loss of the potential relationship was due to his status as a sex offender. As he said, “I think it was like a turn-off to her.”

Living With the Label

The most persistently reported negative expectation for returning to the com- munity for sex offenders was the fact that they will have to contend with living with a very public, very negative label. Sex offenders recognize that their labeled status could limit both their social and practical life opportuni- ties. Dustin, reflecting on how he expects members of his hometown to react to his return, said, “It’s just a lot of things that people are so negative towards that sex offense or just the word that really kills a lot of things, a lot of opportunities that, well, these guys out here, they got brains.”

The ways in which sex offenders perceived their labels often centered on the idea that they believed society sees them as “monsters” and that this

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perception is one that will invariably be a permanent part of their identity. This view was illustrated in the words of Marcus, who when discussing how he anticipated community members receiving his return to the community suggested:

Those people all think “Oh! Marcus, was a horrible monster!” . . .

What’s going to be the reaction? Your reaction might be different from others, but if I come right out and say, “Hey, I’m Marcus, I’m a sex offender” then you’re gonna sit there and say “Whoa!” It’s like we’re what was that disease? Lepers.

Or, as Jax succinctly stated, “I’m not a citizen. I’m a sex offender.”

The label that sex offenders perceived being applied to them was almost always seen as a permanent part of their identity. “We are like dirt . . . We made a mistake. A robber made a mistake. A murderer made a mistake. They’re all free to go when they get out of here. Me? When I leave out of here I’m tagged for the rest of my life” was the view espoused by Reese. Similarly, Brent, who said he realistically does not expect to return to the streets for at least another 2 years offered, “That’s the way people think out there. Sex offender? Garbage! Shouldn’t even come back out on the street. Not allowed out there.” Or, in a simple summary fashion that characterized many of Jax’s espoused views, “You’re marked, you’re marked for the rest of your life, until you die. Ain’t nothing I can do about it.”

Assumed Dangerous

As a part of the strong labeling that sex offenders perceive being applied to them was the perception of society that as a sex offender, they are highly dangerous. The label of “sex offender” was experienced as a declaration by society that the individual is to be feared. The danger that the individual is perceived to pose was especially focused on being a danger to children. Reoffending seems to be assumed. Marcus expressed this in his comment: “The ways people view us, they think that we’re the worst of the worst. … They think, once you’re a sex offender, you’re just gonna come back out and you’re just gonna reoffend.” Similarly, Nathan, who had already served over 6 years on his rape and sodomy convictions reflected, “We are the least likely to reoffend, but they probably don’t want to hear that. They just hear ‘sex offender’ and that’s their mindset.”

At the core of the label is society’s fear and assumption that a sex offender is highly likely to recidivate. However, as Marcus and Nathan knew, official

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statistics do not bear this out. In actuality, sex offenders have some of the lowest rates of recidivism of all varieties of offenders (Sample & Bray, 2003, 2006). As with most emotionally laden issues, the facts are subsumed by the emotional responses. And, in the case of how society views sex offenders, the fear of the offender reoffending is primary in how offenders believed the public constructs their perceptions.

Being Rejected

In the end, the ways that sex offenders expected to be responded to upon their return to the community is to simply be rejected. The assumption was that because they are labeled and presumed to be a significant danger to oth- ers (especially children), they are going to be outcasts. Alex, who was approximately midway through his 5-year sentence for first-degree sex abuse, said that his expectations were that he was “probably going to get a lot of hatred and negative reaction from it, I guess. It’s going to be rough . . .

I’ll have to expect harsh words and I stuff, I guess. Whatever. Hatred.”

At least in part, the strong assumption of simply being rejected by society emanates from how offenders have experienced reactions of others while incarcerated. Harassment, ostracism, and labeling occur in prison; one of the most well-known “facts” about prisons is that sex offenders are among the most despised of inmates and occupy the lowest rungs of prestige and status in the inmate community. Numerous interviewees related stories of being harassed by other inmates, called names, avoided, and generally being “treated really bad.” Marcus said this directly when explaining his interac- tions with other inmates who he said “just avoid me. There’s only a couple of them actually, when they see me, they yell ‘sex offender’ or, you know, stuff like ‘child molester!’” Luke captured this idea succinctly when he stated, “I feel like if society treats me like the way I been treated since I been incar- cerated, then it’s probably going to be pretty rough.”

Positive Expectations

Despite acknowledging the possibility of life being difficult once they are released, those we spoke with were remarkably optimistic about their futures. When discussing their expectations and intentions for returning to the community after release, sex offenders in the sample did offer some positive expectations. As they largely did not have much information or knowledge about restrictions or special conditions that would apply to them these offenders expected at least some degree of being able to return to a

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“normal” life. These offenders have a strong desire to unobtrusively reenter the community, to return to life as they knew it prior to incarceration, and to avoid negative consequences of being labeled. Specific aspects of life for which this sample of sex offenders held positive expectations included their reunification with family, friends, and securing employment. Although they also anticipated some negative experiences, they held out hope that others would be able to see past their label and judge and react to them as the person they know themselves to be—something different than the stereotype(s) accompanying their label as a “registered sex offender.”

A significant minority of interviewees believed that upon release from prison they would be able to return to their home communities where they would find, as Devon said, “It’s going to be the same as when I left.” These offenders relied on a belief that community members and loved ones would either not necessarily care about their return or would welcome the individual back. This belief was universally based on the intention to “stay out of every- body’s way, and do what I got to do to be a productive citizen” (Jimmy). For offenders from larger communities, there was a belief that they would be able to return to the community and most others would either be unaware or unconcerned about their return. For those from small communities and rural areas, the intent to return to a “normal” life centered on the belief that others know them and would see them similar to their preoffense identity.


The most commonly cited determinant of a smooth, positive return to the community was the offender’s family. The focus on family encompassed both a typically strong desire to reunite with loved ones and to have family members provide practical and emotional assistance in a successful reentry process. Family is viewed as a likely source of housing, employment assis- tance, and generalized “support” and “help.” For most offenders, family was seen as those most likely to accept the individual and to support them, in whatever ways may be necessary. Dylan, who had served 36 months on a 6-year sentence for a child pornography conviction, talked about his family saying, “My family will be pretty excited about [my return]. They want me back. I was sort of the glue that kept my family pretty much together on the outside. I’m real close to my family, so I’m looking forward to it.” Similarly, Eric looked forward to returning to live with his mother saying, “Mom’s going to be a joyous occasion, when she can actually see me again.”

Others, however, expressed hope and positive anticipations for reuniting with family members, but also recognized that there may be some reservations

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or difficulties in reconnecting with their families. For instance, Hunter dis- cussed his anticipated release in a little over 2 years and 6 months and his hopes of reuniting with his wife saying, “Me and my wife will still be together. She’s not planning on going anywhere. But, if she does, I can’t hate her for it. I still love her, regardless of what happens.” Somewhat similar in his belief that his family will be there to assist and support him, yet not seem- ingly completely convinced, Dylan stated, “I’ve got a lot of family that says they will help me. At least they wrote letters and said that they will.”

In addition to their families, most offenders reported that their friends were one of the aspects of “normal life” to which they were looking forward. As with family, friends were seen as providing support, both practically and emotionally. Benji, who has been incarcerated for 18 months of his 5-year sentence for third-degree rape and sodomy, said that he occasionally talked with friends, and they showed no indication of having reservations of reunit- ing with him. He reported that when his friends ask what he has been in prison for he tells them the truth—sex crimes. He claimed that “most of them are like [oh, alright]. The group of people, the kind of people I hang out with don’t care about that. They’re more interested in ‘What’s it like in prison?’” Other offenders report that they trust they will be able to call on friends for transportation, social outlets, and general types of support when readjusting to live outside of prison. In short, sex offenders were confident that their social lives would return to norm after release.


When interviewees were asked about their plans for returning to the com- munity, the first most commonly discussed issue was employment. Several offenders reported that their family members had already made arrangements for jobs for them, and others reported that they believed their families would be their major resource for finding employment. Aaron, a 31-year-old offender who has already served more than 5 years on convictions for sexual abuse and burglary, said, “my mom, the company she works for, the big boss lady, they hire convicted felons. So, she talked to her, to get me a job there. I pretty much have a place to life and a job lined up then.” Or, as Nathan, who had already served more than 7 years on first-degree rape and sodomy convictions offered, “I got some jobs lined up already. My uncle’s a preacher. He can help out some with a job, if I need it.”

More frequently, however, offenders reported that they “knew” it would be difficult to get a job, but they believed if they simply persisted they would not have too much difficulty. Several offenders reported that they expected the

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fact that they had a felony conviction to be a limit on their ability to find a job. Most focused on the fact that they would have a “felony conviction,” not on the fact that their conviction is as a sex offender. As Jax said, “Well, you got a record, you got a record, so a lot of places won’t hire you.”

For a few offenders, however, there was the recognition that the sex offender label may present special difficulties in securing employment. As Brandon suggested, “It’s hard to get a job period. But, I’m charged with a sex crime too. But, I’m going to try my best and just see what I can do.” In the words of Jax:

My plans are to find a job. Of course, not many places will. That’s the roughest part on me right now . . . I mean, they would actually proba- bly take murderers, bank robbers, arson, drug dealers, (but) not the person with a sex charge, which is my situation. Just because of the title “sex offender.”

As Dustin, a 45-year-old convicted of first-degree rape, reported, “I’ve heard the first thing they ask you is ‘what kind of offense is it?’ And when you put ‘sex offender,’ you don’t get the job.” And, in the words of Benji, who at age 22 was convicted for having sex with a teenage girl, carrying the label of sex offender “limits where you can get jobs. It’s hard to get jobs as a sex offender because, I mean, it’s just so many restrictions.”

In the end, the majority of offenders held positive hopes about being able to find a job. Jimmy, looking to be released in less than a month showed his hopeful yet realistic view saying:

I’m not too much worried about a job, because I’ve always been able to work. If that means going to a job site and being a laborer. I’m not too proud, you know? If that means going out and having to work on somebody’s farm. I’m not too proud. I gotta do what I have to do.

If They Could Only See the Real Me

A final, and perhaps the strongest contributor to offenders’ holding of posi- tive expectations for their return to the community, was a belief that their family, friends, and all others, will accept them and welcome them back to the community if and when they “see the real me, not just a sex offender.” A majority of the offenders explained, often at length, that they had confidence in their abilities to reintegrate to their communities, because, as Jax stated, “they know who I am, and a sex offender is not one of them.”

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Contacts on the outside are presumed to see the person, not the label. Offenders stressed that if they can have the opportunity to reunite with family, friends, and new acquaintances they will be able to understand them as a whole person, not simply a label. As Dustin said, “I’m hoping that people will see who I am, not the title.” For some offenders this meant demonstrating to others that they are not “really” a sex offender, and for others it meant demon- strating that they have changed. As Aaron was explaining how he was confi- dent in his ability to successfully return to the community, he emphasized:

I believe once people see the change in me, my behavior, the way I talk, the way I behave myself, my attitude, as I said earlier, I believe that I will leave an impression on them to where the next time they see me and come around me, they’ll know what to expect, they’ll know how to approach me, how to deal with me. Because, they’ll see that I’m not the same anymore.

The “real” person that sex offenders see in themselves is not someone to be avoided, to be ostracized, or to invoke fear. The “real me” in the eyes of these sex offenders is a good person, albeit someone who has “made a mis- take or two.” Hunter said that one of the main ways he copes with the stress of his situation is to “just keep reminding myself that I am a good person. I’m not what everybody else thinks. I know what I am . . . I mean, I’m a strong person. I been through a lot, nothing like this though.” However, despite their pasts, and despite recognizing the likelihood of some difficulties and unique challenges, As Jaden, a 36-year-old who has been incarcerated for 28 months said, “You can’t let it bother you. You got a life you got to live. You got to move on.” The person that these offenders see themselves being was pre- sented as someone who is worthwhile, strong, and a potentially important, positively contributing member of the community. As numerous offenders stressed at various points in their interviews, “I may be a sex offender, but I am not a monster.” Thus, in the words of Jax, “I just hope for the best. That’s all I can do.”


Reentry into the free world after incarceration can be a difficult challenge for all those who have spent time in prison. Upon release, inmates will have lost the right to vote (although this varies by state, in the current state all con- victed felons are disenfranchised), have troubles finding stable, fulfilling employment, have strained relationships with family and friends, and will

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likely have difficulties forming new bonds with others. These problems are compounded when one has been convicted of a sex crime. It is important for those who are leaving prison to understand what is in store for them after release if for no other reason than to better prepare themselves for reentry. Our results suggest that sex offenders know very little about SORN laws and accompanying restrictions. They know they will have to register, and some know about a state law imposing a 3-year conditional release. However, very few have any knowledge about residence restrictions and laws restricting their contact and involvement with (their own and other’s) children. Overall, they show a very low level of knowledge about the conditions under which they will be placed upon release.

Offender accounts also revealed that among this soon-to-be-released sam- ple of incarcerated sex offenders, most generally held positive expectations for their community reentry, although they did recognize that they were likely to confront a range of challenges and barriers. The challenges and bar- riers that were anticipated encompass both those generalizable to felons embarking on reentry and those specific to sex offenders. Despite the recog- nition of likely challenges and problems though, there was a general sense of optimism and an expectation that their own individual situation was likely to differ from that of others.

In addition, it is important to note that the generally optimistic view of their upcoming release and return to the community was based on limited knowledge about legal requirements and release conditions that apply to all sex offenders across the state. Optimism, then, appeared to stem, at least in part, from a lack of understanding of the legal requirements imposed on reg- istered sex offenders and a belief that collateral consequences commonly experienced by registered sex offenders were not likely to be experienced because of the unique traits and relationships of the individuals. In short, they believed that while others may experience negative consequences, they would somehow be able to overcome such hurdles.

It appears that the sex offenders we interviewed were aware that their return to their lives will be difficult. Nevertheless, they still remained optimistic—perhaps, overly so. They believed that as long as they can show their “real” selves, which they characterize as distinct from true sexual offenders, then all will work out. Contrasting real selves from externally applied labels is not unique to sex offenders. In fact, others have shown that such distancing from negative labels is common place among the deviant. For example, violent offenders often point out that their violent behavior was a rational response to the situation and does not characterize who they are as people (Hochstetler, Copes, & Williams, 2010: Presser, 2008). The way such

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offenders are able to engage in behavior that is contradictory to their beliefs is through the use of linguistic accounts (Scott & Lyman, 1968; Sykes & Matza, 1957).

This ability to sidestep stigma and show how they differ from “real” crimi- nals is important for those who engage in criminal behaviors. Decades of research shows that this ability to make sense of their actions is important for maintaining a positive self-identity (Maruna & Copes, 2005). There is a downside to these cognitive distortions, however. Specifically, this overly optimistic attitude may lead to sex offenders to be ill-prepared for the diffi- culties they will face upon release. Ignoring the realities of life after prison can heighten the problems sex offenders experience. Thus, those designing and implementing reentry programs should address these distortions. Certainly, this will not be an easy task as offenders hold on to these percep- tions tightly. Nevertheless, it is important to present accurate depictions of the legal requirements sex offenders will be subject to and prepare them for the various informal difficulties that exist for successful reentry.

When designing these programs to promote changes in the way offenders think about their crimes, the goal should not be to completely remove their optimism (Fox, 1999). Doing so could lead to greater anxiety and possibly learned helplessness where offenders accept there is no point in trying to desist from crime, which will likely lead to higher rates of recidivism. The goal should be to present an accurate depiction of what is in store for them and provide viable solutions to the problems they will likely face. Doing so may greatly reduce the unintended consequences of sex offender registry and notification laws.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or pub- lication of this article.


1.We recognize that our sample of 24 is relatively low, which some may see as a limitation of the data. However, the goal of exploratory qualitative research is to interview enough participants to reach saturation, which occurs when no new themes or information comes from additional interviews. Although there are no clear guidelines for how many interviews are enough to reach saturation, a review

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of ethnographic research in the top criminology and criminal justice journals shows that the median sample size for studies based on semi-structured interviews was 35 (Copes, Brown, & Tewksbury, 2011). Recent empirical evidence suggests that it can be reached with as few as 12 interviews (Guest, Bunce, & Johnson, 2006). The more homogeneous the population is the more likely saturation can be reached with fewer interviews, and in fact other studies of sex offenders have relied on samples ranging from 9 (Vandiver et al., 2008; Wakeling, Webster, & Moulden, 2007; Williams, 2004) to 20-25 (Tewksbury & Lees, 2006, 2007).

2.Percentages do not total 100% as most offenders were serving time for multiple charges.


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Richard Tewksbury is professor of Justice Administration at the University of Louisville. His research focuses on issues of sex offender registration, criminal vic- timization risks, and criminal justice client and provider experiences. He is currently editor of Criminal Justice Studies and has previously served as editor of both

American Journal of Criminal Justice and Justice Quarterly.

Heath Copes is associate professor in the Department of Justice Studies at the University of Alabama Birmingham. He is a qualitative methods specialist, focusing his research on issues of offender and criminal justice staff experiences.

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