Highlights

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  • We need to give people the opportunity to restore their dignity, and incarceration does nothing for that project, frankly. Tweet This
  • Communities are made safe because of a whole web of social relationships in the family, at the workplace, in community organizations, and in faith organizations. Tweet This
  • In our response to violence and other crime, we want to make interventions that foster this kind of healthy family and community life. Tweet This

“If we take victimization seriously, what’s the significance of histories of victimization and exposure to trauma for people who have harmed others?” asks sociologist Bruce Western. It is a thought-provoking question that is impossible to ignore if you read his latest book, Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison, which details findings from the Boston Reentry Study (BRS), which followed 122 formerly incarcerated men and women for one year following their release from the Massachusetts prison system. 

In Homeward, Dr. Western, who co-directs the Columbia University Justice Lab, goes beyond statistics to paint a portrait of formerly incarcerated men and women’s complicated personal lives, including the traumatic childhoods many endured. Reading their stories, it is difficult to deny the powerful influence of childhood family life on the criminal justice trajectories of the men and women in the BRS, as well as on their ability to reintegrate upon release. It also becomes painfully clear that something is wrong with the "justice" in our current system, particularly for those who commit crime following early years of father-deprivation, family chaos and violence, poverty, and addiction. 

I spoke with Dr. Western about the complex family lives of the men and women in his study, the vital role of older women in these communities, and how to reform our criminal justice system so that it becomes more focused on the restoration of dignity for both victims and perpetrators. 

Alysse ElHageTell us about the family structure makeup of your study sample in terms of the prisoner’s family of origin. Specifically, how many came from father-absent homes? Did this differ much by race or gender?

Bruce Western: In the study, the father was absent for at least part of their childhood for about 70% of the sample. So, in some cases, their fathers were present at least for a while. But as they got older, they left the home, and in many cases dropped out of their lives altogether. Did it vary by gender? I tend to think not. There was a race difference, and so African American respondents tended to have higher rates of father absence than white and Latino respondents. 

Alysse ElHageRelated to that, the complexity of family life for the formerly incarcerated men and women in your study was really striking—and not just in the lives of the prisoners’ children but in their own families of origin. You share a kind of family tree in the book to illustrate the different and often confusing family relationships. What role did this family complexity play both in why they ended up in the criminal justice system and how well they did after release? 

Bruce Western: Family structure was certainly very complex. And if we think about the children of the respondents, we got a very good picture of the full extent of multi-partner fertility. And the respondents who had two or more kids, multi-partner fertility for them was modal. That means for those that had two or more kids, they had two or more partners more often than not. 

We only had a small sample of women. And for the women, things could be extremely complicated because they may have custody of some of their kids, and it was certainly the case for a few of them, at least, that some of their kids wound up in foster care, some were put up for adoption, but others were not. I think this was one of the striking findings of the study. Thinking about family relationships—there’s a lot of heterogeneity, a lot of unevenness. The men and women, the mothers and fathers we were talking to could be very close and supportive with some of their children and be less connected to others. And that depended, in part, on patterns of custody and the kinds of resources they had, particularly their housing. If they were living in private households, they were more likely to be in closer contact with their kids—their kids could stay overnight and things like that. Obviously, in a more institutional setting like a shelter or a housing program, the kids couldn’t spend time with them at home in the same way. So housing wound up being a big factor in shaping the relationships between the parents and the children. 

How was the story of family complexity—the absence of fathers in many cases—related to the criminal justice involvement of the people we were interviewing? You know, it was complicated. I think, in general, there’s a pattern that we saw in the study, which criminologists have documented, that in families without stable male figures, typically biological fathers, there tended to be less structure, less adult guardianship, particularly in the lives of adolescent boys. And that would be a context in which they were spending more time out on the street at greater risk of getting in trouble, greater risk of coming into contact with police, and so on. So that general pattern was definitely there.

In general, there’s a pattern we saw in the study, which criminologists have documented, that in families without stable male figures, typically biological fathers, there tended to be less structure and less adult guardianship, particularly in the lives of adolescent boys.  

I say it’s complicated, though, because there were certainly many cases, I would say, in which biological fathers were absent, but other father figures had come into their lives. And in many cases, those father figures had played a really positive role. Now, that wasn’t always the case. When we think about the exposure of the respondents to violence, particularly in early childhood, we certainly heard lots of reports of exposure to violence, particularly coming from unrelated males in the household. So, in family homes where there wasn’t a biological father present, sometimes there would be other older men in the household who were involved with the respondents’ mothers, and they could be a source of violence and other trouble in the household.

Alysse ElHageI want to talk for a moment about the often traumatic early lives of many of the former prisoners in your book, and how that should impact our response to crime. You write: “Victims and perpetrators are often one in the same. Violence flares in contexts of family chaos, untreated addiction, and poverty. Having grown up in this context, people in prison have histories of trauma and abuse that date from early childhood….” Just to kind of play devil's advocate for a minute, there may be some who read this and worry about excusing bad behavior, and they might argue that no matter what people have experienced, criminal activity, especially violent crime, deserves punishment. What do you see as the best way forward if we are going to approach criminal justice with dignity and mercy as our goal but also with victims in mind?

Bruce Western: I think our system needs to be much more victim-centered. I think it needs to attend to victimization much more readily, more proactively, more resourcefully than it does currently. What we’re doing currently is helping victims in this strange, very indirect way of not providing help directly, but we punish the offender. Layering on top of that is the social reality that the people who have harmed other people often have serious histories of victimization themselves, and they are growing up and living in the contexts of all of the things you just listed. I think we have to re-examine punishment. And if we take victimization seriously, what’s the significance of histories of victimization and exposure to trauma for people who have harmed others? We have to ask that question. I think, at a minimum, it opens the door to mercy and leniency and compassion. And it doesn’t mean that people are not morally accountable for their acts. I think they have to be. But punishment is a very weak tool for moral accountability. People are very passive in incarceration. They don’t have to acknowledge wrongdoing. They don’t have to acknowledge the harms they’ve caused to victims. They don’t have to engage morally with all the different consequences of the things that they’ve done. All they have to do is serve their time. 

I think we should really be re-examining what moral accountability means and where the punishment is really serving that purpose. I’m quite persuaded by a lot of arguments about restorative justice, which are very victim-centered. And victims want a sincere accounting of harm, in many cases, from the people who have hurt them. And I think we could re-imagine what justice looks like in quite a fundamental way—to take on the social reality of violence and how it happens, which would lead us to a very different way of gaining moral accountability from people who have hurt other people, and do it in a way that is consistent with their own human dignity. Because I think ultimately that’s what we want from a system of moral accountability. We want to elevate people’s human dignity because we’re morally debased when we hurt other people. And we need to give people the opportunity to restore their dignity, and incarceration does nothing for that project, frankly. 

I think we could re-imagine what justice looks like in quite a fundamental way—to take on the social reality of violence and how it happens—which would lead us to a very different way of gaining moral accountability from people who have hurt other people, and do it in a way that is consistent with their own human dignity. 

Alysse ElHageOne of my favorite parts of the book were the stories of older women (often mothers, but sometimes older sisters) who provided emotional, physical, and financial support for many of these men and women after release. You call them “the gatekeepers,” and they are really the unsung heroes in these communities. They often served as a bridge between the former prisoner and his or her children, helping them maintain these critical relationships. It seems to me that these women are an untapped resource for reintegration and restoration. 

Bruce Western: Yes, the older women in the lives of the parents in our sample were oftentimes really the glue that held the family together and certainly did a lot of work to maintain bonds between incarcerated mothers and fathers and their children. And this worked in a lot of different ways. In some cases, before one of the respondents was incarcerated, the kids were over at their grandmother’s house (the mother of our respondent) regularly. And then when the respondents were incarcerated, the kids kept coming over to their grandmother’s house, in part, because she wanted to continue a relationship, and because the mothers of those children needed help and support, too. Staying in contact during incarceration wound up being really important because often people…would call over to their mother’s place each week, and if their kids were visiting, they would get on the phone with their kids, too. And sometimes, although it wasn’t common, when the mothers made visits to prison to visit their sons, they would bring their grandchildren along. So during incarceration, the older women in these family networks would do a lot to sustain relationships between fathers and their kids. And then when the fathers got out, it made a big difference. They weren’t so unfamiliar and alien to their kids, though that would happen also. But where the mothers had been working to maintain these relationships, it was easier for the fathers in our sample to become a presence in their kids’ lives, and particularly if the kids were staying over regularly, and the fathers were also living with their mothers. The mothers were also a huge source of housing support. And if the kids were coming over regularly, they would be able to spend some time with their kids in their own household, which wound up being really important for rebuilding those parental relationships. 

I think as a matter of policy, what we need to be thinking about is how we can support these older women who are doing so much caring work oftentimes across two generations: taking care of their sons who have been incarcerated, and their sons’ kids. And often they’re taking care of their sons’ kids while their sons are locked up. One of the proposals in the book is a returning citizens’ tax credit, which would go to the mother if she is housing a son who has been incarcerated. But I think the idea could be generalized beyond that. You could think of service people coming home leaving the military and returning home. So, with this returning citizen tax credit, a mother could claim a credit to help support the costs that she has borne by housing a son or a daughter who has been incarcerated.  

Alysse ElHage: I really like that idea, and this is something I've seen again and again in my own family, where single mothers will really deplete every resource they have to help rescue their son or daughter who has been incarcerated in order to give them a shot at a second chance. And it seems to me that the men and women who were doing well by the end of your study were the ones who had the most family support, just as you've described. In the book, you talk about this support as being a part of a “thick” public safety, which you argue is the best way to reduce and respond to crime. Explain what you mean by thick public safety and what that looks like? 

Bruce Western: Yeah, so when we think about what really safe communities look like, they’re not safe because they’re very heavily policed, and the courts are really throwing the book at people who get into trouble and come into serious conflict with the law and hurt other people. Communities are made safe because of a whole web of social relationships that are in the family, at the workplace, in community organizations, and faith organizations. Community life on the street has, what Jane Jacobs described, as “eyes on the streets.” Community residents know their fellow denizens, and all of this creates webs of mutual obligation and informal social control. It regularizes behavior. It provides guardianship, particularly for adolescent boys and young men who tend to be most involved in crime. So, it’s this thick web of social relationships that are characteristic of healthy and flourishing communities. And this is where we want to get to as a matter of public policy. In our response to violence and other crime, we want to make interventions that foster this kind of healthy family and community life. Incarceration doesn’t do that. It’s very disintegrative of social life. It draws people out of communities, puts them in far-flung facilities, strains family relationships, and creates the entire problem of re-entry, which people have to find work and housing. 

So, what would intervention look like that tries to promote this thick kind of public safety? I think it’s fundamentally about trying to find a place in communities for people who have harmed others, and we try to do that in a way that builds up social bonds within families, to employers, to community organizations, faith organizations, and so on. Rather than separating them, we connect them. That should be both our model of public safety and the way we respond to all the harms of violence and other crime.