Australian sociologist, Columbia lecturer and award winning author Prof. Bruce Western spoke at Klarman Hall on Monday afternoon on the hardships and resistance routinely faced by formerly incarcerated Americans returning home.
Mass incarceration is the result of the “criminalization of social problems related to racial inequality and poverty,” Western said. More than just “shrinking the system” is required if the problem is to be addressed, Western cautioned — the outlook of the criminal justice system needs to be “fundamentally changed” to be less punitive and more restorative.
In his new book Homeward, Western explored the typical first year of reintegration for formerly incarcerated persons in the Boston area by following such individuals for a year as they re-entered society.
In connection with researcher Anthony Braga of Northeastern University and Rhiana Kohl of the Massachusetts Correctional Department, Western designed an observational study in which a research team interviewed incarcerated individuals both before their release and at intervals over a year. These interviews focused on aspects of life including “employment, health, housing, familial relationships and drug use,” Western said.
There is no shortage of research detailing the extent of American mass incarceration and the impact it has on the people and communities most affected, Western said, but he found that the analytical data often lacked a human element.
He worried that “surveys designed to cover the general population were not very good at teaching us about the life experiences of very poor people who often have very unstable housing, untreated mental illnesses and drug addictions.”
In his work, he wished to identify the human reasons behind recidivism, the tendency of a past offender to recommit a crime and return to prison. Recidivism rates are often highest during the first year, according to the National Institute for Justice.
The study included a broad cross-section of the Massachusetts carceral population — 122 individuals, both men and women, serving all types of sentences in all types of prison settings. Both violent offenders and non-violent drug offenders were included.
Participants were predisposed to “poor health, both physical and mental as well as incredible material hardship,” Western said, and childhood trauma was so often mentioned in inmates’ descriptions of their path to incarceration that the researchers decided to “significantly redesign” their exit interview to address that trauma.
Of the 122 individuals studied, about half reported significant drug use in their household when they were growing up. Western’s observations also often included an early exposure to trauma or the witnessing of a violent event as indicators of incarceration.
Western found that relapse into the use of hard drugs was the number one indicator of a risk for recidivism. Other top predictors include whether or not the individual has supervision by a parole officer, or being young and having maintained the social connections that may have landed the individual in the criminal justice system in the first place.
Until the 1970s, Western said, American incarceration was fairly stagnant and on par with other Western countries. However, a gradual change in U.S. laws — and the way people in power chose to enforce them — changed in a way that made the incarceration rate increase “and continue to grow every year for the next 35 years,” Western said.
One of the stories included in Homeward is that of Peter, a man from the Boston area who faced significant challenges upon his release from a correctional facility.
“He came home on a Friday and on that morning he bought clothes and got a haircut, he spent time with his sister that first day and stayed over that night,” Western said.
Peter worried that he was a burden on his sister’s already cramped household and began to look for other options.
“He could have stayed with his father but his father drank and his brother who also stayed there dealt drugs,” Western said.
Peter subsequently enrolled in the food stamps program, visited a welfare office and attended mental health counseling, Western said. Peter also spent time with family and had to arrange transportation, check into homeless shelters and attempt to find a job.
To help people like Peter, Western recommended that “given the small crime prevention effects of long prison sentences and the high financial, social and human costs of incarceration,” federal and state lawmakers should “revise” current criminal justice policy.
“The feats we ask of formerly incarcerated persons in order for them to successfully reenter our society often require a degree of agency that we have simply destroyed with incarceration,” Western said.