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Justice Lab

Meet Our Prisoners

A study lingers on the lives of those we incarcerate.

It is notoriously difficult for social scientists to study people who have recently left prison. They move often, don’t have stable phone numbers, rarely hold steady jobs, and often end up back behind bars. Large surveys like the U.S. census are likely to overlook them for these reasons. And scholars who have attempted to follow a smaller group of former prisoners over a discrete period of time have struggled with high rates of attrition, with up to two-thirds of their subjects disappearing before a study ends.

That’s why the Boston Reentry Study, led by three leading scholars — sociologist Bruce Western of Harvard, criminologist Anthony Braga of Rutgers, and Rhiana Kohl of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections — is unique. The scale of the study is small, tracking 122 men and women who were released from state prisons to Boston neighborhoods between 2012 and 2013. But study retention over the course of 12 months, at 90 percent, was unprecedented.

To achieve this, the researchers paid former prisoners and members of their families $50 for each interview and partnered with the state corrections department, police, probation offices, community service organizations, and family members to track the participants’ whereabouts. It was challenging work. One person in the study used 15 different cell phone numbers over the course of the year.

The resulting working papers provide not only data, but an almost literary glimpse into the life histories of incarcerated people, from childhood through prison and beyond. Here’s some of what we learn about the formerly incarcerated population from the Boston Reentry Study. The project’s results will continue to be released, peer reviewed, and published over the coming months and years.

Childhood trauma is off the charts.

It’s no surprise that former prisoners are likely to be poor, and that many have had troubled upbringings. And yet, the magnitude of childhood trauma among the study participants is stunning. Over 40 percent said they had witnessed a homicide. Half had been physically abused by their parents (spanking did not count) and a third had witnessed domestic violence.

Though there is a large body of research on how childhood trauma affects future health and achievement in school and at work, the Boston study is one of the first to look specifically at the link between childhood trauma and incarceration, Western said.

Many former prisoners and their family members described noisy and chaotic childhood homes. Patrick, for example, was born in 1981 to a heroin-addicted mother, and grew up in his grandparents’ care, with many other relatives moving in and out of the house1. Patrick’s aunt told the researchers, “It was just a crazy house, between my brothers coming in either beat up or having some horrible car accident...or someone falling asleep with a cigarette and a mattress going up on fire. It was a very traumatic house to live in.”

house1The Boston Reentry Study uses participants' first names only.
There is little support at school.

School was rarely a refuge for participants in the Boston Reentry Study. Eighty-one percent were suspended or expelled, many as early as elementary school, according to Western. Except in some cases of a death in the family or a serious drug problem, few children received support services such as counseling or tutoring to address behavioral or learning problems. Eventually, 60 percent dropped out of high school.

Violence is a “normal” part of life.

Beginning at age 5, Patrick was regularly beaten by his mother’s boyfriends. He witnessed his uncle stab a man and helped him steal a car. As an adult, he recognized that his family life had been “emotionally cold” and “insane,” yet told the researchers that during childhood, the violence had seemed “normal” to him. Other respondents expressed similar sentiments, reporting that parents encouraged them to fight in order to defend themselves.

Ultimately, 41 percent of the study participants served time for violent crimes.

There is no clear divide between victim and offender.

Participants’ crimes often looked similar to the victimization they had experienced or witnessed as a child. Peter, at age 12, saw a man stabbed to death in a brawl outside a bar. Later he was incarcerated after a series of stabbing assaults. In prison, the violence continued. Many respondents witnessed inmate-on-inmate assaults, with a smaller group reporting that they also saw violence involving a correctional officer.

Nearly all of the female offenders in the study — 12 percent of the sample — reported being survivors of sexual violence. The researchers noted that although violence against women and children had been a pervasive part of both male and female offenders’ childhoods, no one acknowledged perpetrating such violence as an adult.

Life after prison can be joyful, but the joy is fragile.

Reflecting on the best parts of leaving prison, study participants mentioned “freedom” and “family.” Several described the simple pleasure of taking long walks around the city. Those who were picked up from prison by loved ones, who had welcome-home parties, and who spent fewer hours alone during their first week out seemed to adjust better than others. These positive experiences were more common among younger men and women. (The median age in the study was 34.)

Six months after reentry, more than half of the participants remained reliant on family — typically mothers, grandmothers, or sisters — for either housing or financial support; very few received consistent support from a romantic partner. About a third were living in marginal housing such as a homeless shelter, halfway house, or rooming house.

Having a formerly incarcerated relative can be a significant burden on a low-income family. Jeff, who was 20 when he left prison, returned home to live with his mother, even though an order of protection barred him from being in her neighborhood. As a result, the mother’s housing association threatened to withdraw her Section 8 voucher, and Jeff had to move out.

Getting a job can be transformative — but very difficult.

Previous research shows employment is one of the few proven safeguards against recidivism, but the study participants were not an eminently employable group. Only 59 percent were employed before they were incarcerated. Six months after reentry, 57 percent of the men were working, and just 27 percent of the women — even though more than half of those women had held jobs before they were incarcerated. The gender disparity could have several causes. Women in the study were more likely to be mentally ill or drug addicted, and were also much more likely to have financial or housing support from family members, perhaps making employment less of a pressing necessity.

Of those men who did find work, most were in low-wage, temporary jobs. (An exception was a handful of white men, including Patrick, who used family connections to win union employment at up to $40 per hour.) Western said there is little evidence that former prisoners are being aided by a 2010 Massachusetts law that “banned the box” on job applications, making it illegal for companies to ask applicants if they have a criminal record. Employers are still able to look up criminal histories later in the interview process. “The theory was that if you delay the criminal background check, the employer has the opportunity to collect other info and it will offset the negative effect,” Western said. “But we’re not seeing much evidence of that.”

A paradox: the more closely supervised are more likely to end up back in prison.

The researchers have yet to release their findings on which former prisoners in the study were most likely to return to prison or jail, and why. Yet Western said there is a paradox emerging in the data: Those on parole and probation, and thus under the closest supervision, were more likely to be re-incarcerated. They were arrested most often not for committing new crimes, but for violating the rules of probation or parole.

Automatic re-incarceration for those violations “needs careful review,” Western said. “At times it feels like the system is simply cavalier in its treatment of the deprivation of liberty.”

The study’s overall findings, he believes, should increase our empathy for people who go to prison, most of whom come from “brutal poverty. … From the point of view of justice, we have to ask ourselves if we were in these situations and we were to encounter these complex combinations of circumstances, could we be confident that we would exercise our moral agency to do something different? For me, that’s a really challenging question.”