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In this episode of Who Belongs? we talk with Professor David Harding, UC Berkeley sociologist and member of the Haas Institute's Economic Disparities faculty research cluster, about a new book he co-authored called On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration. For information on ordering the book visit this page.
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David Harding: It's really the families that are doing the work of reintegrating their loved ones as they come out of prison from day one. When you come out of prison, you basically have nothing, and you're out there on the street, sometimes with no place to live. So, what would any of us do in that situation? We would get back in touch with our families.
Sara Grossman: That's the voice of UC Berkeley's David Harding talking about his new book, On The Outside, with Jeffrey Morenoff and Jessica Wyse, which examines the lives of 22 people as they pass out of the prison gates and back into society. Hello and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs, a podcast from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley.
Sara Grossman: My name is Sara Grossman, and I am one of the co-hosts of this podcast. Today, I spoke with Professor Harding, a UC Berkeley sociologist and a member of the Haas Institute's Economic Disparities Faculty Research Cluster. His book examines the challenges faced by former prisoners as they try to find work, housing and stable communities. I spoke with him about the book and why reentry in the US is just so difficult for the majority of former prisoners. This is our conversation.
Sara Grossman: Professor Harding, thank you so much for joining us on Who Belongs.
David Harding: Thanks for having me.
Sara Grossman: So, to start, can you tell us a little about the impetus for On The Outside? There's been a lot of research about mass incarceration already, so what new topics do you bring to the conversation or findings?
David Harding: Sure. So, at the point we started the project and writing the book, a lot had been written about mass incarceration, and the impacts of imprisonment on individuals, on communities, on our democracy. But not a lot had been written about the experience of reentry. What is it actually like for people day to day when they come out of prison and try to construct new lives for themselves, and how does the process of being in prison impact that, and what are the factors that lead some people to be successful at that, and others not so successful? Either ending up back in the criminal justice system, or ending up very much on the margins of society, homeless, for example.
Sara Grossman: And what kind of findings did you discover in the course of this book?
David Harding: So the thing that is the biggest theme throughout the book is the role of families in reintegration. It's really the families that are doing the work of reintegrating their loved ones as they come out of prison from day one. When you come out of prison, you basically have nothing. You probably have your glasses, you might have two weeks of any prescription medication. You have the clothes you're wearing, maybe you'll have an ID. Maybe not. And you're out there on the street, sometimes with no place to live. So, what would any of us do in that situation? We would get back in touch with our families.
David Harding: And so, the families are providing that day to day material support. Not just in the period right after imprisonment, right after release, but also oftentimes in the long term as people struggle to get into the labor market. And they're also doing the work of reconnecting people socially to churches, into social networks, and larger friendship networks and things.
David Harding: One of the things that was most surprising about the study is that we often assume that, when someone comes out of prison, they're just going to go back to where they were before, this sort of cycling in and out of prison. And we actually found that that's not the case. The majority of the people coming out of prison are going back to new neighborhoods and new communities after release. But what they do have ties to is their family.
Sara Grossman: And obviously, that leads to different outcomes compared to people who have really strong family support and people that don't. Is there a way that the government or the state can step in and offer what families offer and kind of close that gap?
David Harding: Yeah. There's a couple things that could be done. One thing is, we could do more to help people in prison reconnect or maintain contacts with their families in the first place. We build our prisons far out in rural areas often, very hard to maintain that contact. Visiting policies, expensive phone calls, thing like that make it hard. But for those who don't have family support after release, oftentimes, they do rely on government or even private charities, so living in homeless shelters, or treatment programs, or programs like the Salvation Army, relying on soup kitchens and food stamps for food, just to get by to meet those basic material needs.
Sara Grossman: The research you discuss in the book followed more than 24 million incarcerated people after their release. Could you share a typical story of such a person? Obviously, every story is different, but can you kind of describe that process?
David Harding: Sure, yeah. So I'll tell you about one of our subjects who we call Randall in the book. These are all pseudonyms, of course. The first thing he told me when I met him in prison about a week before release was, he said, "I've got nine felonies, firearms, drug selling, car theft." And he was just really stressed out about what was going to happen when he came out.
David Harding: He had experienced a lot of trauma as a youth, and a young adult, and around childhood abuse, sexual abuse. His revelation about his family had sort of broken a lot of ties with his family. Some of his family members were still involved in drug use, alcohol use. He was very worried about coming into too much contact with them, but on the other hand, they were the only people he was going to be able to rely on.
David Harding: He came out and had a very unstable living situation. He was in drug treatment programs, homeless shelters, he was living on the streets in the dead of winter in Detroit. And eventually, he found ... Doing couch surfing with different friends and distant family members, but he would quickly kind of overstay his welcome and move on. He eventually found a kind of more permanent home with a distant family member, and sort of became a little bit more settled, but he really struggled to find any sort of job.
David Harding: He had actually had work experience before prison. He had worked at a fast food restaurant as a manager, for example. But with his criminal record and in the neighborhood he was living in, in Detroit, jobs were very far away. It would be a whole day's trek just to go apply for a few jobs.
David Harding: Eventually, he connected with a new romantic partner whom he met in a drug treatment program. She was also a former addict. And they eventually started living together. She was able to help him apply for lots of jobs using the internet, going online, which he didn't have any experience with. And he eventually, three years later after he got out, he eventually found a job as a line cook in a diner type restaurant, and that's where we left him.
Sara Grossman: And is that kind of a typical story, that it takes three years?
David Harding: Not everybody took three years, necessarily, to find work. Often, people found work and then lost work, and so struggle with the same material problems, but for slightly different reasons. I think what is typical is that experience of trauma prior to prison, which in many ways, sort of led to the crimes and the decisions he made that got him in prison, the struggle to sort of reconnect with family, the difficulty of navigating high poverty neighborhoods where jobs are scarce, and opportunities to do other things are quite plentiful. So that's the sense in which Randall is typical.
Sara Grossman: I'm curious, with this anecdote and with others, obviously there's interpersonal biases that come to play when it comes to finding jobs and housing, but what about structural barriers to finding housing and stability?
David Harding: Yeah, so, one big one is the criminal record itself, and the stigma that that carries. Many people sort of struggled with, "How should I present myself with this criminal record to an employer? Should I tell them up front, and maybe then I just won't even get considered? Should I hide it and then try to tell them later after I maybe get the job, but then I might be fired?"
David Harding: And that also applies to housing. Landlords are doing criminal record checks, also. The other thing that happens to people when they go to prison is, because you're just sort of plucked out of society almost on a moment, and have very little ability to have any sort of contact or manage your affairs, is you often end up with a lot of debts. If you have rent to pay, because you just disappeared, and the landlord's wondering why haven't you paid your rent, you can't keep up with your bank accounts, your credit cards, anything like that.
David Harding: And so, these days, a lot of people are doing credit checks. Of course, landlords are doing it and employers are doing it, and people who've been to prison often have very poor credit, as well, in part because of their involvement in the criminal justice system. So that's one structural thing.
David Harding: I think the fact that people are moving to high poverty neighborhoods, we would also think of as kind of a structural factor. That these are the communities both where they're from but also that are going to accept them, and where all of our institutions are drug treatment programs and homeless shelters, in particular, where they're going to be located. And so, the mismatch between locations where people are, the difficulty with transportation, and then the distance to jobs is a real barrier, too.
Sara Grossman: Are there any specific policy measures you could envision that would help solve some of those challenges?
David Harding: Well, I think we could be smarter about where we place the services and the housing that we are providing to people, and be more sensitive to these questions of transportation and location of jobs. Certainly, some of the subjects describes being on parole as kind of a full time job, especially the first few weeks after you're out. You've got to go see your parole officer often, they've got all these programs and treatment things and services they want you to check in with.
David Harding: If you combine that with not having any transportation, trying to get around a whole metro area to meet all those requirements, it's actually quite hard to find time to look for a job and to reconnect with family, so there's the question of how we do parole.
David Harding: I think one thing we could do is, we could do a much better job preparing people for release. So when we talk to people, part of the study was interviewing people before they were released. Sometimes a few days, sometimes up to a month. Once they had that parole date, they could enter the study. And they certainly described being kept busy in prison, doing a lot of make work jobs like cleaning, gardening, things like that.
David Harding: But they didn't feel like they had the opportunity in prison to really get prepared for release, in terms of educational goals, or job training. And it's a real missed opportunity, because people are just sitting around doing mostly nothing, and prison isn't the ideal place to do schooling, but it is a missed opportunity to use that time productively.
Sara Grossman: Could you give some concrete examples of the type of training or preparation you'd like to see?
David Harding: Well, I think we could ... There is a focus these days on basic literacy and numeracy skills. That's where a lot of it comes in, and then helping people with GEDs. But people talk about wanting to be able to take college courses, or job training programs for jobs that are actually plentiful and appropriate for their skill level, and also appropriate for their criminal record. A lot of jobs are forbidden for people with a criminal record due to various either laws or occupational licensing rules, and so selecting those carefully.
David Harding: So, for example, a barber would be a pretty reasonable thing you could train someone how to do in prison, but there are kind of fitness, quote unquote, requirements for being a barber, for some reason. And sometimes people aren't able to pass those, or to be able to effectively jump through those hoops to get their barber license to do that kind of work.
Sara Grossman: You talked a bit about family, and I'm curious if there are any other factors that kind of separate the successful reentry person from the unsuccessful one, and what are those other factors?
David Harding: The big thing we noticed, so there was kind of three levels. There were the people who were most disadvantaged with regard to family, who really didn't have any family support, and they were the ones who were just struggling literally day to day to feed and house themselves.
David Harding: There was another group whose families were able to provide that food and housing for them, often at somewhat of a strain on the family itself. These are mostly poor families, to start with. Then there was a third group whose families were a little bit better off. Particularly if there's a lot of people in the family who were working. That sort of did two things.
David Harding: First, it gave people a little bit of a kind of time to stop and focus and figure out what they wanted to do now that they were out. They weren't sort of immediately needing to help contribute to food or rent or something like that, and they didn't have to sort of have to jump out and start doing day labor work, or something like that, and really sort of figure out, kind of, "Do I want to do some job training now that I'm out?" or, "Do I want to go back to school?"
David Harding: It's providing, sort of, that foundation time. And then, also, those kind of more advantaged families were able to connect their loved ones back into job networks. And the people we saw who actually ended up with stable, living wage jobs, it was always because a family member had used their social networks to connect them to something.
Sara Grossman: So, fundamentally, family is the dividing line.
David Harding: Yeah, that's what we saw, yeah. And both what support you have and who your family is, in terms of what they're able to provide.
Sara Grossman: I also wanted to ask about kind of the methodology of how you followed these people, and also, you're an educated white man with a PhD. Did you have trouble to relating to people, or getting them to trust you, and how did you foster these relationships?
David Harding: Yeah, that was something we were really concerned about when we started this study, especially because we were starting the study in the prison, so it was very easy for us to be perceived as somehow connected to the prison, as well, and so there were going to be questions of trust just based on that, let alone all the social distance issues that you just mentioned.
David Harding: I think what was most important in doing this was just building relationships with people over time, so, because we interviewed them multiple times, and we followed them over time, over time we developed relationships with people where they started to reveal more and more. And in some cases, they started to kind of go back and say, "Hey, you know, when I first met you, I thought X, Y, and Z, so I was sort of telling you this, and that wasn't quite the case, I thought I needed to tell you that in case you were connected to parole or the prison or something like that."
David Harding: Actually, the person who most did that was the person who was most similar to me demographically. Middle class white man. So, that was important in building trust, and I think for a lot of our subjects, we did build these relationships over time where they didn't really have anybody else, necessarily, to confide in, and they had never had the experience of someone from a more advantaged position, actually, interested in what they were experiencing, and so I think that's what kind of turned things around.
David Harding: So, because we were separate from all their other social networks, if they told us things, we wouldn't have much way of getting that information out about them anyway. And then the second issue you raised was, how do you even just keep track of people given all the housing instability we just talked about?
David Harding: We used a couple sort of standard social science techniques. So one thing we did was, in our first interview, we asked for a list of people who would know who they were, where they were. And so, if we did lose track of them, we could contact those people and say, "Hey, do you know where so-and-so is? Can you put us in touch?" We were paying people for the interviews, for their time, and in many cases, people would contact us before their next interview was due because they were just in such dire need of the money for the interviews.
David Harding: And then, the other thing we did was, once they came out, we did get to know, often, people in their household a little bit, and that sort of helped. And then, I guess, the last thing was, almost all of them gave us permission to access their parole records. So any time the parole officer knew where they were, even if we hadn't been updated, we could look at those records and get the most recent information, and that helped us find some people, also.
David Harding: Because they were very good, as long as they weren't getting back into trouble, or starting using drugs again, or something like that. They're very good at keeping their parole officer informed, because of the consequences of not doing so, potentially having to go back to prison.
Sara Grossman: In addition to these more qualitative interviews, you also did a large quantitative study. Can you talk a little bit about that, how you did it, and the main findings from it?
David Harding: Sure. So, what we did for that is, we worked with the Michigan Department of Corrections. One of our research team members was actually working in the headquarters in Lansing, Michigan, in the state capital, to extract data from all their databases. So we selected ... Actually, the population ... So, everybody who was paroled in Michigan in the year 2003, and then we followed them over time. And for a third of them, we actually went through and coded up in detail all their parole agents' case notes about where they were living and who they were living with, which is how we got all this information about the neighborhoods-
Sara Grossman: What does that mean to code it, for people listening?
David Harding: So, we just looked at it, it would say like, "So-and-so is living here, here's the address," we would enter that in our database, and then we could use that address to quote unquote geocode it, to attach it, to see what neighborhood is that, what are the characteristics of that neighborhood, and then also, we took great care to write down, what household are they living in? Who's household is it? Is it their own household, is it their mother, or their aunt? Are they living with an adult child? Who else is in the household? And so that's how we were able to sort of track a lot of this residential instability.
David Harding: And basically, the way we used that information in the book is to provide kind of the big picture. What are the rates of employment? How often do people move? Something that it wouldn't be very good to measure with only 20 people, but if we have over 3,000 people, then we can get a pretty good measure of those kind of things when we aggregate them all together.
Sara Grossman: And what do those numbers reveal to you?
David Harding: Well, the residential instability number is just shocking. People who study housing instability, housing insecurity, and homelessness think moving once per year is residentially unstable, and the median person in our data was moving four times per year. And then when we looked at this more carefully, the other thing that we noticed was that, because we could see their residences, so we could see where are they moving from and where are they moving to, a lot of times, about a third of the time, these moves were linked to their criminal justice contact.
David Harding: So, they would have a parole violation, say they would have a dirty urine, or contact with the police in some way, instead of necessarily just sending them back to prison, the parole officer would have them go to a treatment program, or to a halfway house, or residential reentry centers, they call it in Michigan. And so, there was a lot of kind of cycling in and out of those things, which created a lot of residential instability.
David Harding: And going to one of those actually increases the probability of you moving later, so it sort of disrupts the ties you had to whatever private household you were in before as well.
Sara Grossman: Do you think this kind of ... I don't know if it's hyper-surveillance, but really heavy surveillance after reentry is actually ... Can be harmful to people trying to make it?
David Harding: I think so. I think if we're trying to observe everything somebody does, we're of course going to find them slipping up in small ways, and then those things are going to get recorded, compounded, and so, a lot of the things that are parole violations are things that would either be very minor crimes for someone who wasn't on parole, or perfectly legal.
Sara Grossman: Like what? Can you give something-
David Harding: Like drinking alcohol, for example, or moving residences, or having contacts with the police. Even if you're walking down the road, and the police stop you and ask you what you're doing, that's contact with the police.
Sara Grossman: Really?
David Harding: And if you don't tell your parole officer about it, and they find out, then that can be, not always, the parole officer has discretion, that can be ... Lead to a parole violation. Especially if it starts to combine with other things. Contact with other people who are on parole, or who have criminal records, things like that, or drug use, which is illegal, but not something we would send people to prison for.
Sara Grossman: I'm curious, because you've said that family is obviously the most important factor in success, but what about the relationship with the parole officer, since they're kind of the face of the state? Is there a way that that relationship can be improved, or that system? In what ways?
David Harding: Yeah. I think what's happened, this is more of a historical perspective, not directly from our data, but people who have studied parole have noticed that, along with mass incarceration, and just sort of the ramping up of our criminal justice system, or generally, in greater punitiveness, has come a change in what parole is.
David Harding: So a shift from parole officers being sort of both social workers and law enforcement to them being almost entirely law enforcement. Them being held responsible, at the end of the day, for any sort of crimes that their parolees commit, and not necessarily responsible for any other aspect of their wellbeing.
Sara Grossman: Oh, interesting.
David Harding: And that's the greatest fear for a parole officer. We got to know not many parole officers directly, but a lot of people who worked in the Department of Corrections who explained these systems to us. The biggest fear if you're supervising somebody is that they will have done something that was sending a signal that you should've reacted to, and then they do something serious later. That's how you're going to be a failure at your job.
David Harding: So the whole system makes the parole officers very risk averse. Any signal of a problem, if they don't sort of clamp down on it, even if only one out of ten or one out of 20 times that's actually going to be predictive of committing a serious crime, the potential is, they're going to be held responsible, especially given that they may be supervising dozens or hundreds of people.
Sara Grossman: I think that's interesting, and on a rational level, it totally makes sense. Is there a way that the system itself can be shifted so that the relationship is less risk averse, and more towards people's wellbeing?
David Harding: I think we could change both the training and the orientation of parole officers, and the expectations we have on them, what it means to be successful. They could be doing things like building relationships with service providers, so they can provide better referrals, and more accurately place people with the services they need. We could be spending more money on providing people with services like some sort of transitional housing, for example, to have that sort of foundation of stability right at release versus paying all this money for many, many drug tests, or home visits and things like that. The surveillance side that's the dominant part of parole these days.
Sara Grossman: Looking ahead, are there any developments that are happening now that people should be paying attention to in terms of prison reentry?
David Harding: I think people are starting to wake up, especially here in California, about ... When we do send people to prison, almost all of them come home at some point. And we are starting to wake up and say, "What can we do to better prepare people?" So there's movements to provide more access to college education in prison in California, and there's movements to rethink, "How do we punish parole violators? Do we necessarily send them back to prison? Are there things that we could do that are going to be more constructive?"
David Harding: There's a bill in the legislature right now that would provide quote unquote "Good time" for parole, to actually reward people on parole for doing positive things, like completing drug treatment programs, going back to school, getting job training. So as you do those things, as you accrue that quote unquote "Good time" by doing the things you're supposed to be doing to rebuild your life, the time you have on parole gets shorter. That's the idea of the bill.
David Harding: And then we're saving money on the end of less supervision time, and we can be sort of reinvesting that back into better preparing people and supporting people in release.
Sara Grossman: Going back to the qualitative study you did, or ... Yeah, qualitative. What percentage of the people that you followed actually kind of successfully stayed out of prison? Or made it, you know?
David Harding: Yeah, yeah. It depends on what you mean by "Made it." The number of people who really, at the end of the three years we were following them, had kind of stable jobs so they were able to support themselves and their families, was probably 10 to 15%. If "Made it" means simply staying out of prison, never going back to prison again, slightly over 50%.
David Harding: So we followed people as they went back into prison, and then interviewed them in prison, and then if they came out again, our study period kept interviewing them in the community. So I guess by that measure, about half, which is about what the national average is.
Sara Grossman: So those outcomes are not very good, though.
David Harding: No, the outcomes are not very good, especially if we focus on recidivism as the key measure.
Sara Grossman: Moving specifically to the book, can you tell us a little bit about the cover? It's quite unique.
David Harding: Sure. Yeah, so, the centerpiece of the cover is a painting called "Troubled Man," which is by an artist who's name is Curtis Chase, who is currently in prison in the Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan. He's been in prison since he was a teenager. He had a life sentence as a juvenile. And we found this image, this painting, and a digital version of it, through the Prison Creative Arts Project, which is run by the University of Michigan and works with prisons in Michigan to bring not just visual arts like painting but also poetry, creative writing, theater, into the prisons, and provide that to prisoners.
David Harding: And he's been painting for many years now, and sort of developed that skill that he never knew he had as a child and an adolescent, he basically went to prison in late adolescence and has been there ever since. And so, we have one other of his paintings, also, on the website for our book, but he's been quite successful in selling some of his paintings, as well.
Sara Grossman: And for listeners who want to read your book, how can they find it?
David Harding: You can got to the website for our book, which is ontheoutsidebook.us, and you can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, all those places.
Sara Grossman: Thank you so much for being here, we really appreciate it.
David Harding: Thank you.
Sara Grossman: And that concludes our conversation with UC Berkeley professor David Harding, who spoke with us about his new book, On The Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration with co-authors Jeffrey Morenoff and Jessica Wyse. Find this episode and others at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Thank you for listening.