An acclaimed author and professor of sociology drew connections between poverty, criminal justice and social justice Thursday night.
Bruce Western, a professor of sociology and social justice at Columbia University, where he is also the co-director of the Justice Lab, said the “problem of mass incarceration” is strikingly similar to the “problem of poverty.”
“At one level, mass incarceration is the byproduct of a vast deficit of public investment, particularly in poor communities of color,” Western said. “My basic argument to you today is that mass incarceration is intimately connected to the very harsh conditions of American poverty, and meaningful criminal justice reform will need to account for this reality both in its policy specifics and in its underlying value.”
He presented his talk in three “acts.” The first to provide statistical context for how the “problem” came to be, the second to focus on re-entry studies and the issues that can face those in prison populations and the third to examine individual stories of re-entry.
In the first act, Western opened with a plethora of statistics describing populations under corrected supervision. In 2013, 1.57 million people were in state or federal prison, 731,000 were in jails, 853,000 were on parole and 3.91 million were on probation — a total correctional population of nearly 7 million people, Western said.
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He also presented data from research that showed men’s risk of imprisonment between the ages of 30 and 34. In 1979, the cumulative risk of imprisonment for all white men was 1.2 percent. For white, male, high school dropouts, that rate increased to 4.2 percent. In 1979, the cumulative risk of imprisonment for all black men was 9 percent. For black, male, high school dropouts, that rate increased to 14.7, Western said.
However, by 2009, each of those numbers has seen a stark increase. The risk rate for all white males increased to 3.3 percent and the risk rate for white, male, high school dropouts increased to 15.3 percent. For all black males, the risk rate increased to 20.7 percent and it increased to 69 percent for black, male, high school dropouts, Western said.
“Mass incarceration criminalized social problems related to racial inequality and poverty on a historically unprecedented scale, contributing to the reproduction of poverty and racial inequality,” he said.
In act two, he discussed a re-entry study that examined those who were being released from prison and their re-entry into their communities.
The study looked at both adult men and women returning to a community in Boston. The researchers looked at a variety of people, from those returning from psychiatric facilities to those returning from solitary confinement and the general prison population.
They were interviewed five times over a year: a baseline recorded a week before release, two weeks later when they had been in the community for a week, two months later, six months later and one year later. Data was also collected on housing, health, family relationships, drug use, crime and criminal justice experiences.
“People coming out of prison are in poor health. Very high rate of chronic and infectious disease, lots of chronic pain, lots of mental illness: a lot of mood disorders,” Western said of the findings. “In about 15 percent of our sample, there were diagnoses of serious mental conditions.”
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While some of the people had perpetrated acts of “serious violence,” Western said some had very long life histories of exposure to violence as victims and witnesses.
By the last interview Western had modified his exit survey to capture additional information on this violence, particularly as it appeared in early stages of life.
Finally, Western said there was significant material hardship for ex-convicts in the first year after release. Median income in these groups was $6,000 – half the federal poverty line.
Western presented data showing positive correlations between sexual, physical and mental abuse during a person’s childhood and later incarceration rates, as well as positive correlations between drug abuse, severe poverty and poor health with later incarceration rates.
Western’s third, or closing, act presented a story about a subject he had worked with and interviewed for the project.
“I wanted to tell these stories because I felt it was a different kind of empirical reality,” Western said.
Reading from a book he published last year, “Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison,” he discussed a subject’s first week after release. It included applying for food stamps, seeing two of his three sons and acquiring a transportation card.
When asked what the best part of being free was, the person said, “breathing fresh air.”