A Harvard Sociologist Breaks Down the Moral Failures Plaguing the U.S. Prison System

incarceration juvenile

Photo: Paul Matthew Photography/Shutterstock
By Ashley Hackett for Pacific Standard

The common narrative reserved for prisons and mass incarceration revolves around one word: retribution. American society as a whole views prisons as places reserved for the most aggressive, dangerous, and malicious citizens whose actions are a product of some innate violent tendency. Prisons seem to reflect that—solitary confinement separates unstable people from their cohorts, beatings and abuse from officers mimic some crimes committed on the “outside.”

Harvard University researcher Bruce Western‘s new book, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, is a captivating account of the lives of people re-entering society, and uncovers the role that the carceral system plays in crumbling minds and bodies.

Bruce Western.

Bruce Western.
(Photo: Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer)

At the core of Homeward is the Boston Reentry Study, which examined people after their release from prison, illuminating the carceral system’s position as a last-resort destination in the lives of the poor, sick, and vulnerable. The longitudinal survey of 122 people released from Massachusetts Department of Corrections facilities around Boston between 2012 and 2014 is the first of its kind to follow people throughout their first year after leaving prison.

The book is a window into the lives of society’s most vulnerable inhabitants, highlighting the diseases and addictions that prevent them from finding the freedom guaranteed by the state.

Western spoke with Pacific Standard about the process of creating his new book and the policy implications that come out of it.

What was the most challenging aspect of your interviews besides trying to stay in contact with the notoriously hard-to-reach population?

We really had to work hard to build rapport with people; that was one of our biggest challenges. Over time we were able to gain people’s trust a bit. A lot of it was just the time we were able to spend with people. We talked to them many times in the course of a year, and we would regularly call or text people to check up on them, and often we’d have short conversations with them. We also got to know family members, so the respondents would know if we had called their mother or something like that.

Human frailty is a central concept to the book, but how can we use that term to educate the public on issues within the prison system?

In political debate about crime, it can be dehumanizing when people who go to prison are viewed as predators who prey upon the weak and innocent public. We didn’t see that so much. We saw a lot of people who were struggling with a whole lot of physical and mental infirmity and a lot of other challenges in their lives. I hope a true accounting of human frailty in the prison population can help us think about mercy.

It became clear to us that a lot of the people we were talking to were really struggling with serious mental and physical health problems, many of which had not been seriously or properly treated for a long time. People with mood disorders were also often struggling with chronic conditions and untreated addiction. There’s a real physical and mental vulnerability in the prison population. It makes life after prison much more challenging.

We’re often very focused on things like reducing recidivism and trying to produce behavioral change in people after incarceration to divert them from crime. But there are real fundamental health-care needs that people have.

Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison.

Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison.
(Photo: Russell Sage Foundation)

Parts of the book were especially poignant to me because they showed the impact that older women almost exclusively had on former prisoners. Do you think that particular finding has policy implications for the future? Should matriarchal figures be more central to plans for successful re-entry?

This was one of the real discoveries of the study for us—the incredible amount of social support older women were providing in communities hit by incarceration. A lot of respondents were living with mothers or older sisters or grandmothers after they got out of prison. So much of the support and caring work is falling on older women. As we think about housing needs for people coming out of prison, we should think: “How should we support these women who are providing all this care?”

In the last chapter of Homeward, you stress education and understanding as two main tenets of future policy regarding re-entry. What do your findings suggest for criminal justice reform as a whole?

We’re really at a time where there’s an opportunity to rethink the foundations of the system. Certainly if we just think about the very specific problem of re-entry in the data I was collecting, there were three clear priorities: immediate income support, health care, and housing. If we zoom back a little bit and think about the system as a whole, we’ve imposed a very harsh punishment on people who themselves have been victimized—often over a lifetime—and people who are frail and vulnerable themselves. This is the context in which we should understand how we respond to violence.

Our response of long prison sentences really oversimplifies a complex social reality that is just fraught with moral ambiguity. I really do hope this can open the door to making values like mercy and human dignity as much a part of our system of punishment as retribution, which has been the dominant value over last few decades.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.