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To Reduce Mass Incarceration, Recognize Humanity

Harvard's Bruce Western discusses damaging effects of incarceration

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“Unless you make deliberate efforts to measure institutional populations, incarceration is often going to be overlooked in our social account of the economic well-being of the population,” Western said.”


Mass incarceration, Harvard sociologist Bruce Western argues, has contributed to growing inequality in the U.S.

Today, about 1.6 million people are serving time in a state or federal prison in the United States. When including those on parole, awaiting trial, serving short sentences, or under other forms of correctional supervision, that number rises to 7 million. 

Bruce Western

Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, who has pioneered research on America’s “prison boom,” described the latest research findings in the field, depicted the struggles of former prisoners, and pointed to mass incarceration’s pernicious and widespread effects during the Social Inequality and Difference Lecture on May 7. IPR and Northwestern’s Department of Sociology jointly organized the event.

“The institutional landscape of poverty has been fundamentally transformed [by mass incarceration],” Western said. 

In welcoming him to Northwestern University, IPR sociologist Anthony Chen assured the more than 60 attendees that, “If you’ve been pondering how we got to Ferguson and Baltimore and where we go from here, you’ve come to the right place.”

Incarcerating Groups, Not Individuals

While the scale of the U.S. prison population is a historical anomaly, Western argues that it is not the “how many” behind the incarceration numbers that is as striking as the “who.” 

According to Western, about one-third of African American men born in the 1970s, and without a college education, will likely go to prison at some point in their lives. For those who dropped out of high school, nearly two-thirds are expected to serve time in prison.

“We’re no longer incarcerating individuals, but we’re incarcerating the group,” Western revealed. 

Invisible, Cumulative, and Intergenerational

Western argued this unprecedented growth in concentrated incarceration has created a “very unusual kind” of social and economic inequality in the United States—an inequality that he calls “invisible, cumulative, and intergenerational.” 

Because incarceration is “hidden” from mainstream society, those who are incarcerated are often neglected by measures of economic well-being, he said. In examining data from the Current Population Survey (CPS)—a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics used to calculate national employment statistics—Western and his colleagues found that CPS “significantly overestimates” how many low-income African American men are employed because they are not including data on U.S. prisoners.

For instance, while CPS estimates that about 40 percent of black male dropouts between the ages of 20–34 are employed, when the researchers added inmates into their count, they found the true employment rate dropped to around 20 percent.

“Unless you make deliberate efforts to measure institutional populations, incarceration is often going to be overlooked in our social account of the economic well-being of the population,” Western said.

Mass incarceration leads to a snowball effect of inequality, he continued. Its stigma makes it hard for ex-convicts to find jobs once they leave prison—heaping more difficulties on those who are already disadvantaged. Plus, those with prison records who do find jobs encounter more difficulty getting raises and higher salaries when compared with those who never went to prison.

Western also pointed to how the damaging effects of mass incarceration spread beyond those who were jailed, highlighting “intergenerational” inequality. Around 500,000 Latino and 650,000 white children have a parent behind bars. Among African American children, 1.2 million have an incarcerated parent—or one out of every nine black children. Current research suggests that children with incarcerated parents—especially boys—act out in more aggressive or depressive ways and do worse in school.

“The people who are affected by incarceration are also passing along disadvantages to their children as well,” Western said. 

Finding Solutions

Reversing the system of mass incarceration, Western said, requires those without criminal records to listen to the stories of former convicts and find common ground.

In April 2012, Western led a team of Harvard researchers, who began a series of interviews with 135 men and women after they left prison and returned to neighborhoods in the Boston area. 

In playing clips of interviews with a former convict during his talk, Western chronicled the struggles that former prisoners faced growing up in poor, often violent, neighborhoods—and the obstacles they encountered after leaving prison.

“Peter,” for example, spent most of his adult life in prison for stealing cars, after living through a particularly violent childhood and drug and alcohol addiction. Today, he has found a minimum-wage job through a temporary agency, working from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. He was able to reconnect with two of his three children, and gave his food stamp money to his sister, who housed him. Yet, as Western explained, there is always the possibility that he could relapse, or return to prison. But in order to break the cycle of mass incarceration, he said, Americans must recognize the possibility of failure—offering help to those who relapse to addiction or who might again come into conflict with the law.

“Can we imagine a citizenry that includes Peter along with the rest of us?” Western asked. “We help people, even when the outcome is uncertain. Because in these cases, the struggle itself is intrinsically meaningful. It’s meaningful for those who might envision a better future, and it’s meaningful for a community that’s done something more than abandon the most disadvantaged among us.”

Bruce Western is Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy, professor of sociology, and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard University. Anthony Chen is associate professor of sociology and an IPR fellow. 

Top photo credit: Krystian Olszanski

Published: June 13, 2015.