Every year, more than 600,000 people are released from state and federal incarceration. Formerly incarcerated people face unprecedented barriers upon reentry, including diminished access to medical care, affordable housing and employment. In many states, they are legally barred from acessing federal safety net programs that could help them secure economic stabilty. Meanwhile, much of this population must grapple with mental illness, disability, trauma and addiction with little help. In a country that imprisons more people than anywhere in the world—using a punitive system that’s inflexible to human error, especially for impoverished people of color—the concern of reincarceration looms large.
In his new book, "Homeward: Life in the Year After Incarceration," Harvard University sociology professor Bruce Western follows the lives of 122 men and women as they leave Massachusetts state facilities and return to their communities. Western and a team of researchers conducted in-depth interviews with many Black and Latinx people who hailed from segregated Boston neighborhoods.
While many studies on reentry track large datasets to explore rates of recidivism, Western argues that it’s an insufficient way to document people with histories of trauma and violence. Instead, he sought to examine the process of reentry itself. "This is a study of social integration where fortunes are shaped by race and poverty, and personal agency is tested by the frailty of mind and body," Western writes in the introduction.
Western spoke with Colorlines about why racial inequity makes reentry even more challenging for formerly incarcerated Black and Latinx people and how the criminal justice system perpetuates cycles of violence in communities of color.
Many of the participants in the study are Black and Latinx people from historically low-income communities of color in Boston. How does this sample illustrate the impact of incarceration around the country?
The Black respondents in our sample, which was about 60 out of 122, were coming from only a small number of areas within two neighborhoods in Boston: Roxbury and Dorchester. The pattern of incarceration is really spatially concentrated and it’s overwhelmingly concentrated in low-income communities of color. These are also communities that are struggling with a whole variety of problems, not just their relationship with the criminal justice system: rates of poverty tend to be quite high, rates of segregation are high, the schools in the areas are struggling. That’s very much in line with the national story. The neighborhoods that people are coming from have also been sites of political contest in the racial politics of the city. There have been areas that have been socially disinvested over the period of decades and this is where the criminal justice footprint is falling most heavily.
You write that prisons have become “social policy instruments of last resort,” and that this is particularly true in Black and Latinx communities, especially among women whose incarceration rates have outpaced men’s in the last four decades. How did you see this reflected in your findings?
We talk about poverty as having a very low income, but oftentimes it means the accumulation of the whole array of the disadvantages of the real bodily kind, the real infirmity of physical and mental health and often drug addiction. This is the layer of American poverty we don’t talk about enough. As serious as these problems were as a whole, they were really off the charts among the women who we spoke to. Nearly all of the women we interviewed were struggling with mental health problems. Many suffered from chronic pain, back pain and arthritis that really limited their day-to-day functions. The histories of victimization were very, very extreme. Here’s a group of people who have been victimized by violence, often since early childhood, often struggling with very serious drug addiction and mental health problems, a lot of chronic pain and disease that they’re trying to manage. These are the life challenges that bring them into conflict with the law and generate the circumstances in which they’re catching criminal cases. In the absence of a real social safety net for them, the prison becomes a place in which they’re housed. They get a rudimentary level of medical care and drug treatment. This institution that’s designed for punishing crime becomes the place in which women were gaining housing and treatment. It’s perverse.
What challenges do women face during reentry that are distinct from men?
It’s a very different path out of prison for women than for men. Mostly, they are living with family more so than men, so their level of family support is a little bit stronger. One of the biggest challenges that doesn’t quite have the same parallel with men is the relationships that [women] try to build and rebuild with their children. In most of the cases, the women we were talking to did not have custody of their children at the time of their incarceration. So it’s a source of enormous emotional pain. The women we interviewed were not so focused on work, they were more focused on trying to rebuild [those] relationships.
What economic disadvantages do Black and Latinx people have after incarceration as opposed to their White counterparts?
Unemployment in the sample as a whole in any given month was 50 percent higher for Black and Latino men than for White men. When Black and Latino men would find work, it was mostly in minimum wage jobs in retail and food service. Their incomes on average were around $6,000 for the year. Poverty researchers call that a level of deep poverty. The White respondents were earning about double that. A very small number of White respondents got skilled jobs and were making real money in their first year out and getting [union] jobs in the construction trade. A small number of them were making $30,000 or $40,000 dollars in the year after prison release. We never observed anything like that among the respondents of color in our sample. Part of the story is about networks. Black and Latino men were much more likely to go online and apply for jobs or cold call employers. Whereas a lot of the White respondents had social connections to jobs and got better jobs that were more stable. When you’re cold calling employers, you don’t have anyone to vouch for you. Your criminal record becomes more of a problem in job-seeking. A lot of the Black respondents we were talking to said that they were doing okay in a job interview until the background check, [which] would really hurt them.
How does that have an impact on the minutiae of everyday life and trying to find stability?
We saw really high levels of stress among people, particularly in the first couple of months out. People would have anxiety attacks. They became really anxious in crowds. They avoided public transport. They didn’t want to be jostled by people. Technology was difficult for people who had been locked up for a long time. Using a cell phone was really unfamiliar. Using a metrocard to get into a subway. If you’re grappling with a lot of material hardship—like finding work and secure housing—it makes all of these small tasks all the more challenging. Your mind is just racing with all of the different stressors and information that you’re trying to absorb. For a lot of people, after three or four months, things improved a lot. That initial period of great stress gradually receded. For some people, particularly those who were struggling with mental illness, that transition remained very challenging over the whole year that we were talking to people.
You call probation and parole “surveillance bureaucracies.” How does that play into racial inequality in the reentry process?
Rates of probation and parole supervision were slightly higher among Latino and Black respondents. That was largely because they tended to be a little bit younger than the White respondents. Typically, the meetings with the parole and probation officers were quite short. They involved collecting probation fees, $60 a month. This is for a population that has a lot of unemployment and very low [incomes]. You were more likely to go back to jail if you’re on probation or parole. And that was not because people on probation and parole were committing more crime. They’re at risk of violating the technical conditions of their supervision and being returned to prison for that reason. An arrest could trigger immediate reincarceration. If you’re witness to a crime scene, that could trigger immediate reincarceration. Failing a drug test could do that.
Technical violations often felt like a very unaccountable sort of process. People would return to jail, often with little opportunity to get legal representation, often as part of an administrative process instead of a court process. There were weird cases where people were returned to jail for 55 days. The parole hearing was set for 60 days. So they would be back for 55 days and then be released without a hearing. It was unclear to them why they were reincarcerated. They didn’t have any real opportunity to answer the charges against them. It was a very procedural sort of affair where someone comes into violation and as a matter of process they’re sent back to jail for a short time. It’s disruptive for their lives [and the] process of reentry and it doesn’t serve any criminal justice purpose that I can really understand.
Prison reform—such as the Fair Sentencing Act—often focuses on reducing sentences for “nonviolent drug offenders." But you say those kinds of reforms don’t go far enough. Why is it important to take into account people who are charged with violent crimes, too?
There are two kinds of answers to that. If we only reduce sentences for drugs, that would only make a small dent in mass incarceration. The truth is, half the people sitting in prison have been convicted of violent offenses. The second answer is that violence is an enormous problem in the lives of the people that I was talking to. In many cases, we were interviewing people who have committed serious violence themselves, but they had been around violence all their lives and their earliest exposure was as victims. Our main public policy response to this very difficult problem of violence that is emerging under the conditions of racial discrimination, inequality and poverty is very harsh punishment with large sentences of incarceration. We’ve grown this massive prison system as a consequence. We need to find alternative ways and we need to consider in a more authentic way how to support people who have been harmed by violence. Harsh punishment is not solving all of that pain and harm because we wind up punishing people who have been seriously victimized. At a bigger level, we need to reimagine what justice would be for people who have been harmed by violence and that includes a lot of people in the system. That includes a lot of people in very disadvantaged communities of color.
We should not lose sight of the fact that incarceration itself is a type of state violence. When you get put in the hole for a disciplinary problem or sometimes for self-protection, you’re locked down 23 hours a day in a ten-foot-by-eight-foot cell. You have no access to programming. Often your visiting privileges are very limited. So that’s a real deep kind of material deprivation inside a setting that is already very harsh.
You say that institutions should acknowledge the historic violence that they’ve committed. What would it take for that to happen?
Often we try to remedy bad policy in the past with good policy going forward, but that really neglects all of the historic harm that’s been collectively suffered in disadvantaged communities of color. Part of this process of getting beyond mass incarceration has to address the historic harms that have been suffered by communities of color. This means the acknowledgement of harm on the part of elected officials, criminal justice actors, police chiefs, correctional administrative judges, prosecutors, and this could take the form of apology. It could take the form of the acknowledgment of racial bias in the criminal justice system that existed historically and continues today. It’s not enough by itself, but it’s an important part of the meaningful healing process. It is a cultural project, a step toward changing the narrative around the social problem of violence in conditions of poverty and inequality.
Why do you see criminal justice as a poor instrument for social policy? What do you think should be done instead?
The criminal justice system at its root is a blaming institution. It assesses blame and then it punishes those who seem to be morally responsible for harming other people. That’s a very oversimplified moral picture of a very complex reality in which people who have harmed others in most cases have suffered great harm themselves. Most often, they’ve suffered harm under conditions of very serious social inequality. If we take a step back from the individual criminal case, or we view the individual criminal case as the culmination of the whole sequence of social and institutional failures, the remedy is not punishing the person who has come into conflict with the law, but trying to ameliorate and reduce the harsh conditions that produced the harm in the first place. In our response to the harm that people cause to others, we need to find ways of addressing that harm directly in victims and trying to draw people back into communities rather than casting them out and severing their connections to communities. Incarceration is all about severing social bonds. What does that mean in terms of policy? It means healthcare, housing security, income support. Ultimately, these are the kinds of policy measures that strengthen social bonds and help restore the health and safety of communities.