Western: ‘The risk is that incarceration is becoming an inherited trait’

Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Bruce Western, Harvard professor of sociology, delivers Friday’s Interfaith Lecture at the Hall of Philosophy.

Sociologist Bruce Western believes that the United States is in a historic moment of reform. Throughout the last 40 years, the nation has conducted a mass experiment in criminal punishment.

The result of that experiment, Western argues, is the mass incarceration of African-American men, whose families have subsequently lost social mobility.

Western is a professor of sociology at Harvard University and a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He was the final speaker for the Week Six Interfaith Lecture Series on “Crime and Punishment,” at 2 p.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Western said that the level of incarceration in the U.S. is markedly above the comparative and historical norm for other liberal, democratic societies.

In Western Europe, about 100 people per 100,000 are incarcerated on any given day, he said. However, in the U.S., it is about 716 people per 100,000 that are incarcerated.

But Western noted that it hasn’t always been this way. Before the 1970s, the incarceration rate in the U.S. was about the same as it is today in Western Europe — yet it has steadily increased in the last 40 years.

“As striking as those figures are, this is not what is most important about mass incarceration in America today,” he said. “The most important thing … is its unequal distribution across the population.”

Men are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned than women, he said. African-Americans are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans, and high school dropouts are 20 times more likely than college graduates. Western said 35 percent of black men under age 35 who did not complete high school are in prison.

Western has also calculated that that an African-American man who has dropped out of high school has a 70 percent chance of being incarcerated at some point in his life.

“And it’s natural to say, ‘Well, of course all of those young African-American men who failed at school … are committing a lot more crime,’ ” Western said. “But 30 years ago, when crime rates were much higher than they are today … the incarceration rate for those young men was significantly lower.”

The ubiquity of the penal confinement of young, African-American men has only been around since the late 1990s. The only reason the U.S. penal system is at this point today, he said, is for political reasons.

The socioeconomic inequality that has resulted from mass incarceration will be very difficult to change, Western said, because it is invisible, cumulative and intergenerational.

“Inequality created by incarceration is often invisible to mainstream society for two chief reasons: Incarceration is concentrated, and it’s segregative,” he said.

Incarceration is concentrated in a very small demographic group with whom the mainstream of American society has very little social contact, he said. And incarceration is segregative because it removes people from their households, the labor market and their families.

“This is really important for public policy because, when we assess the economic well-being of the population, the incarcerated fraction is frequently overlooked,” Western said. “And, as a result, we’re underestimating how much inequality there is in the population.”

In calculating the employment rate, for example, surveys like the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey often only count people living in households. According to the CPS, 45 percent of black, male high school dropouts under the age of 35 are currently working. But when jail and prison inmates are counted as part of the population, only 25 percent are actually employed.

“The effects of incarceration … are concentrated on those who are already acutely disadvantaged to begin with,” he said. “How does incarceration negatively affect your later life chances? Well, serving time in prison creates a stigma; employers don’t want to hire you. In many cases, prison undermines skill; kinds of behaviors that help you survive inside can hurt you in dealing with co-workers or the general public in free society.”

One of every nine African-American children has a father in prison, Western said. And research shows that children with fathers in prison are more likely to show symptoms of depression, aggressive behavior and diminished school achievement.

“The risk, of course, is that incarceration is becoming an inherited trait, setting apart poor and largely African-American children from their counterparts in the mainstream of American society,” he said.

The U.S. has created a “new class of social outsiders,” purely through the new and harsher policies of recent decades, Western said. And the social marginality of this new class is deepened by the economic inequality caused by incarceration.

“The police, the courts and the prisons have significantly lost the confidence of the poor and minority communities that they regulate so intensely,” he said.

Western shared the story of a man named Peter. Peter is an African-American man in his 40s with a long history of violence, robbery and episodes of drinking and drug use. He was 12 years old when he had his first experience of extreme violence: He and his uncle took part in a brawl which resulted in a man being stabbed to death.

After returning to Boston after spending 15 years in prison, Peter tried to maintain relationships with two of his three children and their two mothers while at the same time trying to contribute to his sister’s household. He couldn’t find work, but he managed to enroll in an employment program where he could do maintenance and operate machinery for less than minimum wage.

Every two weeks he would report to his probation officer, and on weekends he would do community service in lieu of the $65 he had to pay as a probation fee. Through MassHealth, a Massachusetts initiative that helps to provide health insurance, he received treatment for mental health and substance abuse.

He still hasn’t found a job; once his criminal record is disclosed, he can’t move forward in the hiring process.

“This is what mass incarceration looks like,” Western said. “It’s not just a burgeoning prison population, but it’s how American poverty has come to be lived. The poor do not just live below an income threshold. Low income accompanies the tightly correlated adversity of violence, addiction, mental illness, childhood trauma, school failure, labor market discrimination, housing instability and family complexity. And on top of all of this, we, through policy choice, have overlayed lengthy periods of penal confinement.”

To enact positive change, people need to understand extreme poverty, as well as the contexts in which crime flourishes and the costs of untreated addiction and mental illness, he argued. People need to “extend citizenship” to those who are unable to advance due to incarceration and poverty.

“To achieve this extension of citizenship, we need to engage in an active imagination,” Western said. “Somehow, we have to reconceive outsiders as insiders. For this to happen, the insiders — all of us — must recognize something of ourselves in the citizens to be.”