Stranger support: How former prisoners with mental illnesses navigate the public landscape of reentry [2019]

• Former prisoners with mental illnesses find support in public and private spaces.

• Public space provides stranger support through familiar strangers.

• Stranger support counterbalances complicated intimate relationships.

• Providers can help clients navigate risky, but also fruitful public spaces.

Prisoners with mental illnesses (MI) are released from prison into environments where they are under-treated and under-supported by our criminal justice, social service, and health systems. Public space and interactions within those spaces have been shown to have positive effects in similar populations, including individuals with MI. This qualitative study explored the role different interactions play during the course of reentry. The study aimed to understand the more everyday relational dynamics that former prisoners with MI experience in public and private spaces.

Semi-structured interviews on both experiences of public spaces and interactions within were conducted with 36 former prisoners with MI. Go-along interviews were conducted as a follow-up to these interviews with a subsample of 11 participants in order to identify and describe public spaces and interactions within those spaces. Phenomenological analysis was used to analyze data collected.

Participants described an array of supportive relationships with familiar strangers fostered in public spaces. Participants also described receiving stranger support from relationships typically associated with conventional and institutional supports. This form of “stranger support” was juxtaposed against the burdens and risks of reciprocal intimate relationships.

Public space and public space interactions can provide support streams to counterbalance the more complex support of intimate relationships. Providers might consider the utility of familiar strangers in helping clients to navigate these sometimes risky, but potentially fruitful spaces.

Liat S. Kriegel
Health & Place, Volume 56, March 2019