Still Not Free

Claire Elliman

Homeward: Life in the Year after Prison, by Bruce Western, Russell Sage Foundation, 224 pp., $29.95

On August 26th 2018, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of incarcerated activists, announced a nation-wide prison strike that would become the largest since 1971. The strike spanned two weeks and demanded an end to brutal living conditions in prison: an end to prison without parole, to felony disenfranchisement, to slave-labor conditions. While planned as a direct response to the death of seven men in a riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina last April, the strike did not correspond to any particular tipping-point in actual prison conditions. Incarcerated life has long been harrowingly inhumane.

Information on life inside prison is difficult to gather; the iron gates of prisons seal people out as tightly as they trap the incarcerated within. The strike sought, above all, to counter public indifference and attract media attention—to remind Americans that concrete walls do not erase the existence of those men and women living behind them.

America is in an age of mass incarceration. From 1972 to 2009, the rate of incarceration in the US rose from 93 incarcerated per 100,000 free Americans, to 536 per 100,000. The numbers in the last ten years have lessened slightly, thanks to state-level repeals of draconian sentencing laws such as California's Three Strikes law, which required a minimum of 25 years in prison for individuals convicted of prior illegal action. There remain today 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States and more than 4.6 million individuals under probation or parole —more than any other nation in the world.

Structural racism and deep inequalities define our prison system. African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white Americans; Native American youths are 300 percent more likely to be held in a detention facility than white teenagers; and individuals struggling with mental illness are three times more likely to be imprisoned than receive treatment at a hospital. These numbers do not take into account individuals in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention.

The proliferation of literature in the last ten years on the US criminal justice system has ignited a robust conversation about mass incarceration. In 2010, legal scholar Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which highlighted the connection between structural racism and the criminal justice system for the broader public. Director Ava Duvernay developed and popularized Alexander’s thesis in her 2016 documentary 13th, arguing that mass incarceration represents the continuation of slavery in America.

Other researchers and academics have added further evidence and nuance to this conversation. In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, published last year, James Forman Jr. draws a surprising connection between black politicians and the rise of “tough on crime” policies that played such a crucial role in the incarceration boom. Bryan Stevenson, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, focuses on the inhumanity of the death penalty; his observations of systematic injustice from his work in Georgia and Alabama, states with some of the most brutal incarceration trends, are scalable to every level of criminal justice system, from sentencing to re-entry. Most recently, Alisa Roth’s 2018 book, Insane: America's Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, sheds light on America’s shameful attitude towards mental illness and incarceration; across the country, prisons and jails are becoming the nation’s de facto mental healthcare providers—a job for which they are woefully and dangerously ill-equipped.

Bruce Western, a sociology professor at Harvard University, contributed to the mass incarceration dialogue this year with the publication of Homeward: Life in a year after prison. His work deals not with the rise of mass incarceration, but with reentry, the structural difficulties of transitioning home after incarceration.

For a year, Western worked with a team of researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Boston Reentry Study, collecting interviews from 122 men and women returning to society after time spent in Massachusetts state prisons. Homeward provides a series of detailed and sympathetic portraits of the men and women from life before incarceration to their first year home. By portraying such stories, Western reminds his readers both of the pervasive influence of the criminal justice system and the long-term psychological and economic repercussions of imprisonment.

Central to Western’s study is the criminal justice system’s fixation with punishment over rehabilitation. This punitive instinct not only affects individuals recovering from incarceration, but also touches entire families and communities. Those who suffer the greatest consequences are the most vulnerable: the economically disadvantaged, people with psychiatric illnesses, and those suffering from addiction. It is from these very populations that Western draws the majority of participants for his research. He challenges the cold dichotomy often placed between offenders and victims by highlighting the overwhelming exposure to violence among his participants; his case studies portray lives swayed and defined by violence from early childhood through incarceration and into the first months home.

Western divides his book into categorized chapters with titles like “Women,” “Family,” “Race and Racism,” and “Income.” This categorization necessarily flattens the complex identities and stories of his participants, downplaying the reality that each individual’s return home is affected or plagued by a variety of interconnected social positions. Still, across these categories a strong pattern emerges: that of the roles female family members play in supporting formerly incarcerated individuals’ transitions back into society.

One such story stands out for its portrayal of the psychological and economic violence of incarceration, the heavy burden placed on women, and the racially discriminatory employment regime that awaits those returning home. Bobby (a pseudonym) was incarcerated in his early 20s. A young, healthy man, he should have been a prime candidate for employment. But because he spent his early adult years incarcerated without access to work experience or to higher education, his job prospects were limited. When filling out applications, Bobby’s status as a formerly incarcerated black man became an insurmountable barrier to entry into the workforce. While 70 percent of the white participants in Western’s study were employed within four months of their release, only 50 percent of black and Hispanic participants found work in their first year home. The list of impediments to economic security for people of color after incarceration contributes to a cycle of frustration and depression; this often exacerbates the already overwhelming mental health struggles developed during incarceration.

Through housing, payments and emotional support, Bobby’s mother did what she could to ease Bobby’s transition home. She subsidized Bobby’s living expenses and paid his steep probation fee of $65 dollars a month. During his incarceration, she brought Bobby’s young daughter to visit him, ensuring a continued relationship between father and daughter. Bobby’s mother may seem heroic, but she is far from unique. Her role in supporting her relative’s return home parallels that of many family members throughout the study. With systems inadequately equipped to support those coming home, the economic and emotional burdens fall on family members, who are overwhelmingly elderly women and are often suffering their own hardships of poverty and recovery from sexual violence.

Incarcerated women often face an even more difficult journey after release than their male counterparts. The societal stigma attached to female incarceration, the disproportionate number of women suffering from drug addiction as compared to men, and the criminalization of sex work all force women to pay a greater psychological toll when they come home. Women report higher incidences of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after time in prison, as well as difficulty recovering from the stigma of being seen to have “abandoned” their children while incarcerated. In a society where the social welfare system places disproportionate expectations on mothers to be caregivers, incarcerated mothers often experience near-impossible levels of emotional and economic strain.

In Western’s study, nine out of the fifteen women interviewed suffered from drug addictions, particularly to heroin, the chronic use of which often leads to physical disabilities that exacerbate the cycle of drug dependence and extreme poverty. The experiences of incarcerated women highlight the justice system’s extreme injustices; the most vulnerable are the most brutally punished. Instead of receiving comprehensive mental healthcare and rehabilitation aid, they are denied comprehensive support and face continued incarceration.

Much of the political conversation concerning the criminal justice system has centered on recidivism—a formerly incarcerated person’s return to prison. It is a poor metric by which to evaluate the experience of an individual’s return home as it suggests equal agency for all those recovering from prison. As Western reveals, life after prison presents an unequal slew of difficulties. The list of the justice system’s flaws can seem insurmountable – from the state’s failure to provide housing and addiction recovery support, to the imposition of barbaric parole fees, to inadequate mentorship and employment opportunities. Focusing on recidivism disregards the many layers of this failed system. Western admirably shies away from using this metric in his book.

Western’s research team did not include anyone with personal experience in the criminal justice system. It consisted only of undergraduate and graduate sociology students entrenched in a university environment. The structure of his study appears first and foremost academic, necessarily limiting the audience and impact of the work. Western’s greatest shortcoming is a split tone – prose at times academic and at times moving. The book does not offer much new to those already familiar with the failures of our criminal justice system; his heart-wrenching case studies confirm and synthesize trends that are currently much-discussed, and his comprehensive data may further research on reentry. Hopefully similar studies will come to cover areas outside of Boston. The reader looking for an introduction to the criminal justice system, though, will likely find Western’s prose too academic, both in its structure and narrative style.

Western is at his most impassioned when he emphasizes the lack of agency of experienced by those with “human frailty”—his phrase for mental illness, drug addiction, chronic pain and extreme poverty. In many ways, Western confirms in Homeward Bryan Stevenson’s famous statement that, in the United States, “the opposite of poverty is justice.” The detailed portraits that Western provides throughout his book paint a picture of a population recovering from violence experienced both in childhood and in prison, suffering from the continuous grip of a punitive criminal justice system long after sentences end.