The Prison Problem

Harvard Magazine profiles the work of Bruce Western

February 25, 2013
by Elizabeth Gudrais, Harvard Magazine

When Jerry enters the pizza place next to Boston’s Government Center, he shakes Bruce Western’s hand heartily. Jerry, who has served 25 years for armed robbery and aggravated rape, was released two months ago. Western is studying what happens to prisoners after their release and has come to interview Jerry about his experience.

After ordering them coffees, Western, a sociology professor and faculty chair of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, turns on his tape recorder. “Today is the sixth of November,” he says, setting the recorder down on the table. “My ex-wife’s birthday,” Jerry (not his real name) notes wryly. Western reads out the four-digit number that identifies Jerry for the purposes of the study. “I should play that number in the lottery tonight,” Jerry says.

Jerry is quick with a joke, charismatic and likable—not what comes to mind when one hears “convicted rapist.” For Western, this has been one of the study’s chief lessons. Although he is one of the foremost experts on incarceration in America, in the past he primarily studied prisoners through datasets and equations. Meeting his subjects in person put a human face on the statistics and dashed preconceived notions in the process.

Western has come to believe that just as offenders’ crimes carry a cost to society, so too does the shortage of social supports and rehabilitative services for offenders. A crime-control strategy of locking up more people, and keeping them locked up longer, isn’t working, he says. He is determined to help the American public understand how crime is shaped by poverty, addiction, and histories of family violence, in an effort to promote a more humane—and more effective—prison policy.

Read more in Harvard Magazine.

Photo of Bruce Western

Bruce Western, faculty chair of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management

Western has come to believe that just as offenders’ crimes carry a cost to society, so too does the shortage of social supports and rehabilitative services for offenders. A crime-control strategy of locking up more people, and keeping them locked up longer, isn’t working, he says. He is determined to help the American public understand how crime is shaped by poverty, addiction, and histories of family violence, in an effort to promote a more humane—and more effective—prison policy.


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