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By Robert O’Neill
Photos by Mark Ostow
A large map of Eastern Massachusetts covered with tacks, hangs on the wall of Bruce Western’s spare Harvard Kennedy School office. Each one represents a man or a woman who has spent time in prison, identified by different colors according to gender, race, and ethnicity. The tacks are placed, approximately, at the person’s last known address.
For each former prisoner Western has a file containing transcripts from interviews as well as personal information. The information is coded, allowing Western and his team to compile, categorize, and score the grim statistics of the incarcerated: crimes committed, economic hardship, history of family violence, drug dependency. But the files also contain unique stories, told by the prisoners in their own voices, describing their experience.
There are only 150 tacks, but in a sense the map tells a story of America’s prison system, which on any given day counts more than 2.2 million inmates: overwhelmingly male, disproportionately black, and concentrated among the poorest.
Through massive data sets and intimate portraits, Bruce Western, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, is working relentlessly to document the moral, economic, social, and personal costs of a failed system and spur it to change.
Western remembers a moment when he realized the depth of the problem. A research associate had just given him a number, and Western, thinking it was off by a decimal point, asked her to run it again. As part of a research project into the country’s prison system, he was looking at the incarceration rate for African American men under 40 who had failed to finish high school. The research associate had come up with 35 percent; the national incarceration rate was 0.7 percent. So she ran the numbers again. But it didn’t change; it was frighteningly accurate.
“I thought, ‘We’ve stumbled on a new social fact here,’” recalls Western, who speaks in a slow, thoughtful voice marked by an Australian accent.
America has 5 percent of the world’s population but accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Its rate of incarceration, with about one of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is five to 10 times higher than those of other Western democracies, and the number of American men and women in prison is about eight times what it was in the early 1970s.
Most of those behind bars are male, under 40, saddled with drug or alcohol addiction and mental illness and little in the way of education or marketable skills. Minorities account for 60 percent. Hispanics are sentenced at three times and African Americans at six times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. At the beginning of the millennium, more than a million black children—nearly 10 percent of those under 18—had a father in prison or jail.
Western, a sociologist, began his career studying union workers. Perhaps because of his mixed-race heritage in a predominantly white society (his mother was Thai, his father white), he was always drawn to the underdog, he says, and in his native Australia the underdog was the union member—the factory worker or laborer. Western was interested in comparing union participation in different countries and understanding the contexts of organized labor and inequality. He moved to the United States as a graduate student to continue his work. Several years later, during a casual conversation, a friend and former colleague made a joke: Europe has a social safety net, America has a prison system. It was an offhand remark, but it stayed with Western, and it began to occur to him that in America he would have to go significantly deeper than union workers to find the bottom rung of society.
“Trying to understand the underdogs of American society, trying to understand the floor, meant going significantly deeper than American union workers,” Western says. “I think that prison is getting close to rock bottom.”
And so, in the early 2000s, while still on the faculty at Princeton University, he began digging, and as he dug further, he realized he was unearthing something new and important.
“I really felt I was sort of stumbling onto something big here that wasn’t well understood, and that got me going into prisons, teaching in prisons, and speaking to people,” Western recalls. “I was a quantitative social scientist who was used to crunching these big data sets; this was taking me into a very different social reality from what I was used to, but I found it very compelling.”
His interest developed as America’s prison population was peaking, fueled by decades of tough-on-crime policies that included more-aggressive policing and more and longer prison sentences. Western never lost sight of the real crimes, often violent and with terrible consequences, committed by many of those behind bars. But he focused on the penal system’s emergence “as a novel institution in a uniquely American system of social inequality.”
In 2007, Western published Punishment and Inequality in America, which attempted to look behind the bars at the men who populated prisons and jails and at the social conditions that formed them and that they in turn helped form, focusing particularly on the aspect of race. Later work with the National Research Council, including a seminal report titled “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States,” added to a body of evidence that the country’s criminal justice policies were creating and hiding more problems than they were solving.
“I’ve been talking about the statistics of mass incarceration for a long, long time, and I thought the numbers would speak for themselves,” Western says of his quantitative work.
His work has gained some traction in policy reform. And both the Great Recession, which pushed states to reduce the enormous costs of keeping so many prisoners, and the post-Ferguson conversation on race and criminal justice policy have played large roles in refocusing the conversation. But Western is dissatisfied with the appetite for rethinking and for reform. He is keen to see more being done and believes that the moment is ripe for change.
Just as he had been changed by his direct experience interacting with those behind bars, it began to occur to Western that perhaps more compelling than all the shocking numbers were the voices of those caught in the criminal justice system. Allowing them to speak, through deep scholarly research that also told their stories, could help steer the national conversation about prison reform and the underlying social problems in a different direction.
“It became more and more urgent for me to give voice and shine a light on really a very impenetrable institutional domain,” Western says. “To try and explain the human stories that are in play here and to try and improve public understanding that way. There’s a person there.”
IN BRUCE WESTERN’S OFFICE, AZAN REID is rolling out the names of the state correctional facilities he was locked up in: Norfolk, Pondville, Concord. (Prison authorities don’t want to ever let you get too comfortable, he says, explaining his frequent moves.)
He is about to speak to a Harvard sociology class, Poverty in America, and is catching up with Western, whom he has known since 2012. Reid, now 33, was convicted of being an accessory after the fact to a murder. He spent seven years behind bars and was released in 2013.
He has since worked hard to rebuild his life. He runs a small business with a friend, selling clothes they design. And he works advising at-risk teens on their future, helping them to avoid the pitfalls that he could not.
The pitfalls began when he was eight years old, riding around the neighborhood on his bike and acting as a lookout for drug dealers. His father struggled with drug use and his mother raised him largely on her own, working two jobs.
By 17, he was getting in trouble with the law. He was dealing drugs. School interfered with prime drug sales hours (early morning to noon—“You’ve got to know these things when you’re dealing,” he says), and nobody was around to encourage him to make different choices, to study a little more, to stick with basketball. When the police did arrest him, it was for stuff he wasn’t even guilty of, he says, like the time he was nabbed for trespassing while sitting on a friend’s porch. And then came the accessory conviction.
“It’s just a bunch of violence, drugs, and hard living,” Reid says, summing up his life in Mattapan.
Western appreciates Reid’s directness and thoughtfulness, the way he can see in his own situation and upbringing (while making no excuses for his criminal life) the larger forces at play: the poor schools, the lack of social services, the lack of mentoring or role models. And Reid is here, on a November day, to share his insights with Harvard undergraduates and answer their questions.
Western began looking closely at the lives of former prisoners like Reid in 2012. More than 600,000 prisoners are released each year, most to poor neighborhoods, often with little in the way of support. He wanted to see what happened when they reentered a community, so he and a group of researchers launched the Boston Reentry Study, a collaboration between Harvard researchers and the Massachusetts Department of Correction.
The researchers studied 122 prisoners, as representative as possible of the general prison population in age, gender (15 were women), race and ethnicity, length of sentences, and offenses, which included violent, drug, and sex crimes. (The sample was about one-third of all prison releases to Boston, and the researchers maintained a 94 percent response rate over a year of follow-up—a much higher rate than in previous studies.)
It was a new type of work, Western says, though in the tradition of community studies done by sociologists in the past.
In the meticulously kept files (given the strict privacy rules, each physical file is identified only by a number, with no name; the names associated with each number are kept on a secure computer that is completely offline) is as much information as possible: prison records, unemployment insurance, family history, and, of course, the five interviews conducted immediately before and then subsequent to release.
Although all the interviews have been conducted and several research papers have been published, the study is still ongoing. But it is already apparent that the study is important both for what it describes and for how it describes it: The research includes exhaustive data of a large sample as well as the transcripts of the in-depth discussions.
“Because we’re collecting data at such scale, we can see things that qualitative research doesn’t observe,” Western says. “But we’re doing it with a level of depth that you can’t get with a regular survey.”
Qualitative studies, such as deep interviews conducted with small samples, can lead to overgeneralization. “We think of prisons often as repositories for young men involved in violence and drugs,” Western says. “But it’s the end of the road for all the different social policy failures. They can be the lack of economic opportunities in African American neighborhoods. But it can also be the rank failure of the mental health system for people who are struggling with addiction.”
But the depth of the interviews, which include extensive personal histories, provide richer and more complete portraits.
The Reentry Study’s findings on the role of violence are an example. Violence was often part of the respondents’ lives and, for 40 percent, the reason for imprisonment. The study reveals just how violent their environments were and how often they were victims of violence themselves, both as children and as adults.
At an even deeper level, Western finds the voices of the respondents often profoundly affecting, such as a mentally ill young man’s moving description of his biggest challenges and the enormous meaning to him of small acts of kindness.
When he began, Western says, he was “checking boxes on an interview script,” doing the usual quantitative sociological work. But over the course of the project, he found he couldn’t ignore the humanity of the interviewees.
“That very much moved me,” he says. Western is now exploring narrative as a way of describing these social realities. “You get to know them as people, you begin to care about them as people, and it became important for me to write about that, too.”
AS WESTERN CONTINUES TO WORK on the reentry project, he is launching another project, funded by the Ford Foundation, called the Justice and Poverty Project. He and fellow Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond are exploring mass incarceration, low-income housing and housing instability, and severe poverty.
“The kind of work, or research, that we want to promote I think has a central role for the human voices and stories of the people who are experiencing criminal justice involvement, eviction and housing insecurity, and deep material deprivation,” Western says. “We thought this could come to define a style of work in the poverty field, and part of our hope for it is we could use work like this to engage a public conversation.”
Studying incarceration has moved Western toward a wider understanding of the context of inequality in the country.
“Our prisons and jails are fundamentally entwined with American poverty,” Western says. “It’s true that nearly everyone in prison has been involved in serious crime or has known serious violence in their lives. But it’s also true that just about everyone in prison is poor, and that struck me as a rather overwhelming social fact. That somehow we’d arrived at a place where a whole variety of social problems, not just crime, were being dealt with through incarceration.”
His studies have also helped bring to the surface a less reserved social scientist. Western speaks openly and directly about the huge human and fiscal costs of the American penal system.
“It’s bad policy,” he says. “And so I think as a policy researcher, when you see bad policy, you have to advocate for alternatives.”
Western calls for sentencing reforms, including scaling back prison time, especially for drugs; eliminating mandatory minimum sentences (especially for less serious crimes); and reducing very long sentences. (He points out that in America about 50,000 people are serving life without parole; in the European Union the number is in the double digits.)
“We’ve lost perspective on what’s proportionate,” he says.
He also calls attention to the very real problems associated with poverty, including crime and violence, untreated addiction and mental illness, and persistent unemployment, especially for undereducated men.
But despite the size of the problem, Western is optimistic, because the policy prescriptions are there. “When we start talking about policy, it doesn’t seem too far fetched,” he says, “that someone with a mental health problem should have access to their antipsychotic medication when they come out of prison.”
Western’s perch at Harvard Kennedy School is helping him push in that direction. He remembers a conversation with former dean David Ellwood as he began his work: “Ellwood said quite clearly that it was the mission of the school to do good in the world. That resonated with me so clearly, and it was so liberating to hear a dean speak about the intellectual mission in those terms. This research is an effort to do good in the world.”
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