Prison is often just a stop along the road for individuals who have been struggling with victimization all their lives, says Bruce Western, author of a new book exploring returning inmates’ experiences. That’s why the justice system should rethink its approach to who it punishes—and how—he argued during a talk in New York Thursday.
Prison is often just a stop along the road for individuals who have been struggling with victimization all their lives, says Harvard sociologist Bruce Western.
Western, author of the recently released Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, said he was shocked by the findings of his own research showing the amount of violence many inmates had experienced long before they were incarcerated.
“In a world that is so saturated with issues of moral complexity, our criminal justice winds up piling punishment upon people who are the most disadvantaged and have very serious histories of victimization,” Western said.
Western, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard University and a co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab, was speaking at a discussion of his book Thursday.
He was joined by Khalil Cumberbatch and Vivian Nixon, two former inmates who are among the leaders of the prison reform movement. Both said that the help available to them immediately after their release was crucial to their successful reentry to civilian society.
“I have a wonderful career that I love now, but it’s because I had that support when I got out,” said Nixon, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship.“And I attached that support to opportunity.”
She considers herself lucky to have had family support after serving a four-year sentence, but added it still took her 18 months to find work after being released.
Khalil Cumberbatch, associate vice president of policy at the Fortune Society, served a 6 ½ year sentence and took advantage of in-prison programs offered before release.
“People told me, ‘If you wait until the day you get out of prison to talk about your game plan, you’ve already lost,’” Cumberbatch said. “The real ‘game’ begins after you are released.”
According to Western, returning inmates faced systemic disadvantages that often imperiled their ability to lead productive lives. His research, conducted in the Greater Boston area, focused on men and women leaving state prisons in Massachusetts.
But he found that economic security was crucial to their ability to stay out of future trouble with the law, noting that many individuals were simply “leaving prison for poverty.”
He argued that the criminal justice system needed to be more conscious of the life experiences of offenders before and after their prison term. Although in the popular mind there was a clear line between victims and perpetrators of violence, many individuals experienced both roles.
“It always boggled my mind that the rest of the world didn’t know how poor people lived, and especially how poor black people lived,” said Nixon, who grew up in a housing project in Long Island.
“Violence was the norm, frailty was the norm, and constant discrimination was also the norm. Even though it was common to me to understand this was how we lived, not everyone grew up like that.”
Western, one of the nation’s foremost scholars on incarceration issues, said he had once thought statistics on incarceration, reentry and recidivism would speak for themselves in arguments for justice reform.
He said he wrote his new book to bring the human cost of incarceration closer to home.
“The way we use mega-data in our society dehumanizes us all,” she said. “We can all fit into some category of mega-data, whether positive or negative, and that does not tell the entire story of who we are.”
Marianne Dodson is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.