Co-funded with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Incarceration in the U.S. has long been troubling and deeply problematic in both its scope and consequences. One of the many ways this is true is in its implications for social life in poor communities and communities of color. More than 600,000 individuals are released from state or federal prison each year, with most returning to (and originating from) poor urban neighborhoods. Individuals returning to these communities after incarceration lack the human and social capital that enables a trouble-free return to society. Former inmates have particularly low levels of education, poor work histories, few social and economic resources, often face institutionally mandated barriers to work, education and residence, and often leave prison with fewer skills than when they were initially incarcerated. Prison separates individuals from the community and leaving prison presents the formerly-incarcerated with the challenge of social integration, of establishing membership again in a free society, of reestablishing social relationships, and learning new social roles. The transition from prison to community is a complicated process that is often unsuccessful, as defined by the high number of individuals who are either rearrested or reimprisoned. Despite several decades of increasing focus and research, much is still unknown about the turning points after prison that lead to success or failure.
One reason so little is known is that prison ex-offenders are an elusive population for social research. To address this issue, Professor Bruce Western, working with Professor Anthony Braga at Rutgers University and the Massachusetts Department of Correction, and with funding support from NIH and NSF, implemented the Boston Reentry Study (BRS). The study combines an intensive one-year panel survey of 122 formerly-incarcerated men and women with extensive qualitative interviews and administrative records. This study largely takes the perspective that leaving prison and returning to an inner city neighborhood is, for most, a transition to poverty that affects low-wage labor markets, vulnerable families, and community safety. As part of this study, Western will focus on a number of key questions about community return, including whether the stigmatizing effects of a criminal record vary by race, ethnicity, and gender; whether social integration differs for those who have experienced violence or trauma, those with histories of drug and alcohol problems, or those who suffer from mental illness; and the dynamics of prisoner reentry during the first year, especially with regard to employment, supervision, and social relationships.