Why is life after incarceration just another prison sentence?

April 25, 2023

This week’s guest is the remarkable social scientist and author, Reuben Jonathan Miller. His book, "Halfway Home," is a powerful and insightful examination of the American criminal justice system. Drawing on his own experiences as a researcher and advocate for criminal justice reform, Miller brings a unique perspective to the conversation about the complexities of incarceration and re-entry. His writing is engaging, thought-provoking, and, above all, deeply human, reminding us that those who have been incarcerated are more than just statistics or labels; they are individuals with their own stories, struggles, and aspirations.

- Hello everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. My pronouns are he and him, and welcome to the next episode of "Here To Help." For accessibility, I'll offer a quick visual description. I am a middle-aged man with dark-rimmed glasses, wearing a blue T-shirt and a black cardigan. And behind me is the skyline of North Austin. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day, and what powers that mission is people. "Here to Help" is a look at how experience, strength and hope inspires people to want to help others. Helping others is also about looking at the world with a new lens, and with every guest, we aim to challenge old assumptions with new ideas. It is my great pleasure to introduce a remarkable social scientist and author, Dr. Reuben Jonathan Miller. His recent book, "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration," is a powerful examination of the American criminal justice system. Halfway home introduces us to the lives of those who have been incarcerated and are now navigating the challenging terrain of re-entry into society. Miller sheds light on the overlooked struggles faced by those who are seeking to rebuild their lives after serving time, and he does so with compassion, intelligence, and a deep understanding of the issues. Drawing on his own experiences as a researcher and advocate for criminal justice reform, Miller brings a unique perspective to the conversation about the complexities of incarceration and reentry. And as you'll hear, he has a personal connection to these issues, as do so many other Americans. His writing is engaging, thought-provoking, and above all, deeply human, reminding us that those who have been incarcerated are more than just statistics or labels. They are individuals with their own stories, struggles, and aspirations. Reuben, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Oh, it's such a pleasure. Such a great pleasure to be with you, Chris. Thank you for the invitation.

- Let's start where we always start these conversations. How are you doing today? Right now?

- Today, right now, it is the day after a snow... It snowed last night in Chicago. So last night we had to cover the plants in the front and just embrace for the frost, but it should only last a day or two. It was 80 degrees three days ago. It'll be, you know, 60 degrees by the end of the week. It kind of is what it is. But I'm doing very well actually, you know? Just doing very well.

- All right. I want to start the conversation with a quote of yours, which is that we are made in the imaginations of those who would judge us. And as we open this conversation, I'm sure there's a lot of people listening today who, when they hear the word criminal, they have an image that pops up in their mind. And we're going to explore and talk about why that image really matters so much. You spent in researching this book, 15 years interviewing nearly 250 people caught up in the prison industrial complex. Prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families. Can you talk about why you took on this problem of mass incarceration and decided to write this book?

- Yeah, thanks so much for this question. So it started off for me as an ethical commitment. I'm a religious guy, and I was moved by a scripture. This was Matthew 25. I come out of a Pentecostal, Christian tradition, and the scripture asks a couple questions. So it's the end of days. In the Pentecostal tradition, we say it's the valley of decision. This is where what we presume to be God is making a set of decisions about who makes it. And so the stakes are high, you know? In this moment. And he separates groups, and the group that he lets in, he asks, "Were you there for me when I was hungry? Did you feed me? Did you clothe me when I was naked? When I was sick and when I was in prison, did you visit me?" And you know, we spend a lot of time on the, "When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you clothe me?" And it struck me. The sick and in prison struck me. "Were you there with me?" And so I started to visit jails and prisons in the city of Chicago. I started at the Cook County Jail. I was a volunteer chaplain. This was 2003. And I was there from '03 to '08. This, of course, is the height of mass incarcerations, during the period where we're incarcerating more people than... And we currently incarcerate more people than any other developed place. But while I was in that jail, I was confronted with realities of mass incarceration. I mean, so I was at Cook County Jail in Chicago, a city that's about a third black, and something like 80% of the folks who were inside were black. 80%! I mean, I'm not... This isn't hyperbole, it's not exaggeration, you know. This is fact. Well over 3/4 of the folks inside Cook County Jail were black, upwards of 80%, in a city that's just 1/3. And then I started seeing people from my neighborhood move in and through that place. And so I went to social work school because I wanted to be a better chaplain. I thought people needed treatment and some folks did. You know, some folks needed somebody to talk to. Some folks needed kind of expert care and help. Some folks needed to reorient how they thought and felt about themselves. And certainly folks need... I mean, I come from a religious tradition. I think most of us need some sort of spiritual grounding. So certainly those things were real, but it was no more real for them than it was for me or anybody else that I ran into. I mean, their grandmothers drug'em to church just like mine did, right? Like, their people had knew all the things that I knew. They had the experiences I had. And then, so I went to do a PhD in sociology because I needed to understand the contours of the thing. You know, why does it look like this? Why does it feel like this inside of it? Why is it shaped like this? How do we get to a place where it's so racially disparate, where everybody in that place is so desperately poor, where there's so much misery? And while I was doing the research that became this book, my brother got locked away. And so I decided to write about what it meant to do that work. But I was also at that time following families who were caring for their loved ones who were returning home, and of course, following people who I met through my research. And so that's the birth of the book.

- Yeah. And that personal connection is so important to how the book reads and how someone like me as a reader actually gets brought into the stories. And what we'll get to that and we'll talk about Jeremiah, your brother. I want to kind of lay out, when we had a chance to meet and talk last week, you said that there's two big ideas in the book and it's citizenship and radical hospitality. And we're going to get to both of those but let's start with citizenship first. So as you said, we have the largest prison population in the world here in the US with the highest incarceration rates. And what you say is that mass incarceration is not really about crime, it's about citizenship. So can you explain what you mean by that?

- No, for sure. I mean, so jails, prisons, and what happens after, is really about exclusion. I mean, so you come home... So let's say you do your time. One thing we have in common in this country... I mean, so we have the largest prison system in the world and the prison is racially disparate. I mean, you know, black folks are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, they do more time, 10% longer sentences on the average in the state system, 20% longer in the federal system and black folks tend to be overwhelmingly the victims. And then for a certain group, you know, certainly the perpetrators of certain kinds of crimes, one thing we have in common is the fact that all of us make mistakes. And so the prison is 38% black, but it's 38% white. You know, there're nearly 800,000 white people sitting in an American jail or prison. If you let every black prisoner go, we still have one of the largest prisons in the world. So what happens when they come home? So everybody... Many people make mistakes. One in two Americans has a loved one who's been to jail or prison. One in eight white women in this country has a loved one who's right now sitting in an American jail or prison. What happens when all those folks come home? About 95% of the people we lock away make their way back home. Well, they're greeted by 44,000 laws, policies and administrative sanctions that bar them from the political economy and culture. Then 19,000 labor-market restrictions across the country. This was tabulated by the American Bar Association. And so what we've done is we've excluded people, and this is the point of citizenship. We've excluded people from what scientists will call the political economy and culture. So what we mean is from the labor market, from housing, over 1,000 housing restrictions, from civic participation. We tend to think about civic participation as the right to vote, but that's the surface. That's among the most important. It's central, it's key. And there are about 11 states in the country where if you've got certain kinds of felony records, you'll never be able to vote. That's absolutely true. There're 4,000 regulations that bar people's full civic participation, everything from sitting on a jury to being able to sit on boards of organizations, 1,000 housing restrictions. And so what we've done is we've excluded people from the political economy. From all of economic, social, and civic life, there are over 1,000 regulations on how one might spend time with their family, you know? And so what we've done is we've excluded. Citizenship is about political membership. It's about belonging to a political and human community. And what we've done through all these laws, policies, and sanctions is we've excluded people and we've produced for them what I write about is an alternate form of citizenship. And this is why I say it's not just about... Of course, it's on some level, people break laws, people do awful things, people make mistakes, of course they do, but that's a small part of the picture. The bigger, the larger, perhaps part of the picture is about the exclusions that they face from the very beginning, from the moment that they're targeted for arrest, right? So 50% of black boys will be arrested before they turn 23 years old in this country. 38% of white boys will be arrested before they turn 23 years old in this country. So we're arresting over half of our children, which is wild to think about. So from the moment you are targeted, you are excluded from all meaningful forms, most meaningful forms of participation as a citizen. And this is the level of intervention that we need.

- For many people, we have this phrase stuck in our head that when someone goes to serve time, they're paying their debt to society, but unfortunately, and what you lay out so clearly is that that debt essentially is never paid. What does it say about what we really believe as a society about giving people a second chance?

- No. We don't believe in second chances. We've made it so that discrimination in the labor market is legal and companies like Indeed have to go, in some ways, above and beyond what would be standard practice to make sure that people have access to, for example, full employment. It shows that we don't really fully embrace the idea of a second chance, when in a state like Illinois, the rules against what kinds of jobs you can't do feel completely arbitrary. I'll give you an example. If you've got a felony conviction, you can't be in a bingo hall, right? Like, you can't be in a... So forget that dream of being a dealer in a bingo hall, right? Or being one of the guys that sort of host the game. If you got a felony record in Illinois, you couldn't groom a dog in my home state, for example. It took a legislative act, an act of Congress, to allow people who trained on the inside as barbers to be barbers on the outside. And that didn't happen until 2016 where you had access to... This is because of something called the Good Character Clause that shows up in many kinds of licenses that one might need to do a particular job. And so, when we do that, we lose out, we lose out on so much talent. So I mentioned that half of Americans have a loved one who's been incarcerated. Right now, there're 19 million Americans with a felony record. And literature tells us, once they're hired, when they get jobs and when they're given the support that they need, they thrive, they do quite well. They're not only happy to have the job, right, this is an employee who wants to work, who needs to work, and who wants to show themselves kind of worthy of the company having taken the risk. But they thrive in those jobs. They not only are less likely to go back to jail or prison, in fact, you know, big companies, big organizations, for example, Johns Hopkins and their medical center did a wonderful kind of assessment of their decision to do second-chance hiring, and there's one thing that's really interesting. They hired 79 people who had serious records, and I interpret this as like some sort of violent offense. And of the 79, after five years, 73 of those employees were still with them. 73 out of 79. It's a better hiring record than say, folks in the job market regularly. It's a better retention rate, you know, than say just regular employment retention. We lose so much talent, so much skill. The prison sucks up so much of it. And then when we come home, we don't release it, we don't release it into the world. So how much creativity, aside from the comment on whether or not we believe in second chances, let's talk about what we've lost as a society by not allowing people who've made mistakes to take a place and to have a place, a place in the world.

- I want to get a little bit to what you put of yourself into this story. So there's been a number of books written. I've read a lot about... All of these stories, reading about the laws, reading the statistics, I mean, it's all staggering. So the work is a feat of scholarship, but it's also incredibly personal. And I know a lot of people in your field, professionally, try to avoid that, to sort of create a distance from the subjects. This was clearly a decision that you made. And you have a phrase in there. You call it the gift of proximity. And so I'd love to... There's a section in the book, if you could read, on page 138, and then just talk a little bit about what this means to you.

- Of course, of course. Very happy to. And so this is from a chapter called Millions of Details and what I'm doing is, I'm in the moment where I'm trying to make sense of my brother's arrest and incarceration and what that means to me, how I feel it, how I understand it. And I'll read from this. "Any boxer will tell you that it's the punch you don't see coming that puts you down, the collect call you didn't expect, the court date you didn't have the gas money to attend, the conversations you've dreaded having with your children about why their uncle was in prison and when exactly you expected him to come home. The honest answer was that you weren't sure. The $2.95 processing fee that brings your bills above the budget, the $292 that you've overdrawn your account, the six $34-overdraft fees because you didn't budget the last collect call, the overpriced boots, the unexpected embarrassment as you sit at your desk entering your loved one's order for 30 packages of ramen noodles. What it feels like when Michigan Packages runs out of the flavor of ramen noodles he wanted. The fact that you know, or at least you think you know, that no one else is in your shoes. It's these little things, the daily disruptions that manage to put you down. Shame does it too." Yeah.

- Yeah. It's incredibly powerful. So how did you reach the point from starting this research to realizing that you had to put yourself and Jeremiah in this story? What was the turning point for you?

- Thank you so much for this question. I realized that there are things that you can know from a distance. What I found was that there were so many things that I could not know if I distanced myself from the people who I follow. There were so many things that I knew in my body, that I knew personally, that I understood in a deep, emotional and visceral way, because I'm deeply connected to the question. I'll give you an example. I visited my brother, who I called Jeremiah in the book, and there're things that I know about Jeremiah that my whole family knows about Jeremiah. For example, Jeremiah's a great cook. He's a really good cook. He's a little bit of a foodie, you know? He's discriminating just a bit, you know? And you know, we call him the grill master. He comes and he cooks all the meat in the freezer. He's going to grill it all and eat it, just sort of in that session. And he's going to eat all the Oreos. Just don't make a run to the big chain. Don't go to Costco. Forget it. Like, it's going to be a wrap. Whatever you were looking forward to that night, he's going to have consumed. But anyway, here is this foodie who's a little bit discriminating, who eats only the best things in your house. This includes the best liquor, by the way, like, right? So like, he's going to drink the finest liquor you have, right? Like, includes the best liquor. He's going to leave the trash in the trash, right? He's going to consume only the best. And I visited him one day when he was in the Michigan Penitentiary, and I watched in horror as he demolished a soybean hamburger as if it was some delicacy, you know? And my visceral disappointment with how he responded to the prison's food, what he learned to value, what he learned to see as a treat, knowing who he was. The way that felt in my body was something I hadn't read about in the literature, because people either didn't know or didn't care to share. And it was from that place, that feeling, that disappointment and also what it felt like, not just the observation of it, but what it felt like to watch him stand up and be marched back to his cell in chains at the end of our visit. And from that place of feeling it, that place of emotion, I realized that there was something going on here about how the inside was ordered and about my own hopes and dreams on the outside for him, and what it meant to weather all of this. And it was from that place that I was able to connect with other family members who were experiencing something similar. I'd asked them, you know, "Hey, can we talk about the food?" You know? Can we have a conversation about what it's like? What was the visiting... So there was a place that was able to make a connection from, and again, this was something that wasn't covered in the literature. It's not because it's impossible to observe it on the outside, it's just that when you distance yourself from yourself, when you distance yourself from things that are important to you, this includes your passion in my mind, your politics, like my sense of ethics, my sense of justice. When I distance myself from it, those questions aren't apparent, but when I allow myself to get close to it, it allow me to ask new questions. It's not the only way to do good work. I think 1,000 flowers bloom together, but I do think that I was able to find something that other people didn't.

- What's so interesting about what you just said is that I had been thinking, in reading the book, that the decision that you made was because me as a reader will connect to your work in a different way. But the fact that your own story opens you up to tell these other stories in a different way is really extraordinary. And so, in the book, as you said, there's two big ideas. There's this idea of citizenship and then this idea of radical hospitality and what you talk about, actually the radical politics of hospitality. And I recommend everyone go and read the book. It's extraordinary. But you also have a Ted talk on this topic. Can you explain what you mean by the radical politics of hospitality and what that might actually look like in practice?

- So what we've inaugurated is a social policy of rejection and exclusion. A social policy of no. No in the labor market, no in housing, you know? Something like 30,000 parents have lost the right to raise their children, not because of issues related to child abuse or neglect, but because they've been incarcerated. 30,000 parents have lost the right to parent their children. This is rejection. Your parenting is rejected, your labor power is rejected, your contribution to community and society is rejected. And so to combat that rejection, what we need is a politic of hospitality, a politic of community, a politic of welcome, one that brings people in and welcomes them home. You know, we see this all the time where organizations kind of fill in the gaps that are left by all this rejection. So I can think of a wonderful halfway house where, for example, a man who I met who did engage in real violent crime, he was a drug robber for many years, a man who I called Zo in the book. And Zo had robbed dope dealers, and he had shot at people, and he made many mistakes, many, many mistakes over a long period of time and he did lots of time for that. And when he got out, everything in the world rejected him. He couldn't get a job, he was about to be evicted from this home that he was sent to, the Michigan Department of Corrections had paid 30 days of his rent, for example. And on the 28th day, Zo knew he was facing sure eviction, which for him meant homelessness because he had been gone so long that the people who were close to him had all withered away. So here's Zo facing homelessness for the first time in his life. He had been many things, but never quite homeless, been to all sorts of things, juvenile detention, halfway house, never homeless. So he grabs his things in a black garbage bag, and he starts walking the neighborhood because he's worried about being evicted and having to bear the shame or coming back to pack those things up. So he just has'em with them when the hammer drops. And what does he see, he says to me? He says, "I see two dope boys standing on the corner, flashing their little cash." He needs money. He needs $400 to pay the place where he's staying so he can stay and here are these dope boys in front of him. So I asked him what he did. You know, Zo standing there, he's hankering to rob these boys. He knew how to do it. He went to prison because he was a drug robber. And he said, "I cried, man. I stood on that corner and I cried." And he got up and he got on the bus, and he took the bus, it took an hour and a half for him to get from the far south side of Chicago to the west side of Chicago, to this halfway house he had heard about was great while he was on the inside. And it was great because it offered men jobs. It allowed men to connect to work. They had a program where they sent people out into the labor market that acted as bridges for poor people toward resource-rich institutions. In the people would say, "Our guys have been through the program, will you hire them?" And the employer said, "Yeah, we'll hire them because we trust you. We know you've been around for 50 years. You've got a good name." Anyway, So Zo goes down there and he knocks on the door, he's got his garbage bag in his hand. He decided not to rob the dope dealers, and there's no room in that place because it's a wonderful organization so it's got this super-long waiting list. But the program manager sees something in Zo. He says, "Zo, sleep on this couch." We don't have a bed for you, but if you sleep on the couch, you stay there and when a bed opens, we'll let you in. Zo slept on the couch for two weeks. A bed opened for him. He got into the facility. He was first hired as a groundskeeper for the organization. They promoted him to house manager. He got promoted to program manager. Zo runs the organization today. He's the executive director of the organization. He has not committed another... It is been 15 years since Zo's committed a crime. Zo's been home, he's a success. Why is he a success? Because they welcomed him, because they provided a place for him. And now he's helping people in ways that he couldn't before. This is Zo's story, but this is the story of a million people. By the way, this kind of inclusion, this politic of hospitality, this making a place for you despite what you've done, taking the risk. It not only worked for Zo, this is the recipe for every violence prevention organization in the country that shows any real effects. It's making a place in the world for people we've learned to be afraid of.

- So at Indeed, you know, as I said, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what we think about all day long. And it's so clear, the impact that a job can have in a person's life in general, but in a case like this, it can be a life-or-death thing, and certainly an inside-or-outside type situation. So you talk about pushing the labor market to prepare for people with criminal records, and as you said, but there are 19,000 restrictions just around labor. So I wish we had another hour just for this topic, but what can we do? What are some practical things that employers can do? Not wait for legislation or things? What can we do to help people in this situation to get jobs?

- Absolutely. What employers, what organizations of all kinds do in my estimation, is they fill in the gaps that are left behind by the social policy of rejection. And so some very practical ways to do that. I mean, there are examples in the world right now. So what Johns Hopkins did, for example, to great results. They hired many people who had felony records. The first thing they did was they didn't ask about the criminal record until after the person was... Had already been basically accepted for the job. It was a part of the last hurdle. And the second thing they did was they made sure that the record, the exclusion for the record, that the record itself, the exclusion wasn't a broad based exclusion, but the record was directly related to the job that they would be engaged in. And so, you know, if you've gone to prison perhaps for embezzlement or something like that, then maybe you don't need to be over accounting but that doesn't have a lot to do with whether or not you can manage human resources. Maybe it doesn't have much to do with whether or not you can manage facilities or... So it's making sure that the job for which the person is applying for, that their criminal record isn't directly related to it, and if it's not, it's allowing them that. It's being a bridge and allowing people to work there. The other thing. The thing that I would really push organizations to do as they're thinking about how to embrace people in this era of second chances that I hope we engage in fully and forcefully, would be to connect with organizations that work with formerly incarcerated people. I mean, there's certainly national organizations that do this work. The literature tells us that when people with criminal records are hired, I mentioned this, they thrive. The literature tells us that when supports are put in place and hiring happens, that things like crime, theft, you know, problems that one might connect to this image of the criminal, those things don't increase demonstrably. There's no significant increase. In other words, statisticians can't find a difference when they look at the behaviors of this group in relation to criminal activities and the behaviors of just everyday employees. And so it's an opportunity, it's not just a charitable move. Which is wonderful and people should do it out of the kindness of their hearts, but it's also good for the employer to pick up people with... So many people with records, 19 million Americans with a felony record. That's a labor pool that's waiting to be tapped.

- I'm just going to give one more plug. Everyone who has not had a chance, please go to your local independent book seller and pick up a copy of "Halfway Home: Race Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration." Dr. Reuben Jonathan Miller, thank you so much for joining us today, for sharing your experience, and thank you so much for the work that you do.

- It was a great pleasure. Thank you, Chris. Again, this was wonderful. Thank you.