The Story of Re-Entry — Bruce Western’s New Book “Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison & The Policy Implications”

Guest Post: Jack Caplan is the current Lawyer Referral Service Co-op Intern at the BBA. Jack is a sophomore at Northeastern University studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.

Imagine living frozen in time for years.  Information is extremely limited.  Your movements are closely restricted.  Your schedule essentially fixed.  Most every part of your life is watched, regulated, and controlled.  This is basically the life of an incarcerated person.  Now imagine that after months, years, and sometimes decades of living like this you’re suddenly released back into the free world with little to no support.  You have to catch up to changes in your community, family, city.  Learn new technology, find a job, find a place to live, and generally figure out what is going on all at once.  Over 40% of recently released persons have reported feeling intense anxiety over something as commonplace as taking public transportation.  Imagine being told to walk in a line every day for a decade and then being thrown into Downtown Crossing during rush hour.

That is just a small peek into the extremely revealing Boston Reentry Study (BRS) – a multiyear effort to follow the lives of about 130 people released from Massachusetts prisons to see how they fared in the year after prison, having served out their sentences, and to possibly understand how they got there in the first place.  The results were detailed in part in the new book Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, by Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist and one of the principal investigators of the BRS, whom the BBA was honored to co-host last week, in partnership with Lael Chester and the Columbia University Justice Lab.  Western shared with attendees some of the team’s findings, and helped to lead a discussion on how sound policy could have a hugely positive impact on the lives of the formerly incarcerated as well as society as a whole.

Natashia Tidwell of Hogan Lovells LLP, and co-chair of the BBA’s Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Section, introduces the event.

Explaining that the team’s goal was to “understand in granular detail the transition from prison to community”—a transition that the vast majority of incarcerees will ultimately make—Western described the countless hours of interviews he conducted with study participants to attempt to see commonalities, trends, and potential problem areas to be addressed in policy.  One of the most shocking statistics was that over 40% of participants had seen someone killed, and half had been physically and/or sexually abused.

Here Western raised an interesting point about how society usually likes to draw lines in the sand and make distinctions between victims and perpetrators, but very often it can be the same person, just at different times.  The serious histories of victimizations and trauma found in a majority of study participants is concerning in and of itself, and telling real people’s stories – even people who may have made terrible mistakes or even committed horrible crimes – helps to humanize the conversation and show that you can’t really define someone for what might have been just one thoughtless, careless, or potentially cruel action.  Furthermore, an alarmingly high number of participants had latent or ongoing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, which were usually made worse while incarcerated due to the lack of proper mental health services available and the general stressors that are constantly present.

Professor Bruce Western, discussing the re-entry research that led to his new book, Homeward.

Western also discussed what a difference stable housing can make in someone’s life.  Naturally, many people return to the same neighborhoods that they lived in before being imprisoned.  When you’re thrown into a world that feels so foreign, it can help to find a small sliver of familiarity.  The problem is that those familiar environments are sometimes what led to imprisonment in the first place, and being around some of the same people, places, activities, and situations can make it very hard to reestablish a life.  At the presentation at the BBA, two of the study’s participants, who had become good friends with Western, discussed this.

John Tavares, a Dorchester resident, and Azan Reid, of Mattapan, both talked about how having more-stable home situations benefited them.  They made sure to surround themselves with positive people who supported them, and avoided those who might bring them into their old habits.  One of their biggest challenges was finding work.  After struggling for a while, Azon ended up starting his own landscaping company, and John became a personal care assistant to a woman with cerebral palsy.  Although they’re both in better places now, they remember the lack of support that they felt when they first got out.  They were suddenly thrust into the world with no idea how to do basic things like get new IDs, and didn’t really have anyone who they felt they could relate to.  That feeling of isolation and worry is one reason they think recidivism rates are so high – when you feel lost and confused it’s easiest to go back to what you know, even if that’s a life of crime.

Sheriff Steve Tompkins, Leslie Walker, Prof. Bruce Western, and study participants Azan Reid and John Tavares, speaking at the BBA, June 20, 2018.

Expanding in part on efforts to combat recidivism, Steve Tompkins, the Suffolk County Sheriff, gave an insider’s look into the criminal justice system by explaining his ultimate vision for corrections around Massachusetts and the country.  He feels we use too many sticks, and not enough carrots.  There’s also just a general lack of opportunities within prisons to access job training, education, and other programming, to not only impress parole boards, but also prepare inmates for life on the outside.  He emphasized that the vast majority of people out there want to find good work, but aren’t able to because they grew up in low-opportunity situations, and got swept up into an unforgiving criminal justice system.

Tompkins decried the wide variety of “linear societal problems that could be improved with more government agency coordination.” Leslie Walker, the legendary and longtime (and outgoing) Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services said we are setting people up for failure—both from childhood, when they don’t get proper services and support, and again, in the criminal justice system, when they’re incentivized to plead guilty, doomed by burdensome requirements, and still don’t get needed support.  Both of them hoped that studies like the BRS are able to better inform policy for legislators and voters alike.

Everyone wants a system that is just. The progress made in Massachusetts’ recent criminal justice reforms are certainly steps in the right direction, but there is always more work to be done.  Using information from studies like the one detailed in Homeward, which is informed by the real lived experiences of men and women who have gone through the criminal justice system, we can better advocate for our fellow Americans to steer people away from the justice system before they enter, properly treat those who do, and then support them by offering a real chance to succeed when they come out, for the good of all of us.