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Out Of Prison But Still Trapped: Examining The 'Afterlife' Of Incarceration

Halfway Home, by Reuben Jonathan Miller

For people serving time in jail or prison, it may seem like punishment ends on the day of release. But in fact, thousands of restrictions dictate the terms of life after incarceration, too.

University of Chicago professor Reuben Jonathan Miller estimates that there are45,000 "laws, policies and administrative sanctions" in the U.S. that target people with criminal records. Some ban the formerly incarcerated from serving on juries. Others prevent people with records from gaining employment.

"For example, in the state of Illinois, it took a legislative act to allow people with criminal records who were trained as barbers in U.S. jails and prisons to get their cosmetology license — and that law didn't change until 2016," he says.

Miller says the most insidious restrictions are those that prevent people with records from accessing homes — or that allow landlords to reject applications based on the fact that people have criminal records. He notes that the formerly incarcerated are seven times more likely to be homeless than members of the general population.

Miller writes about the aftereffects of mass incarceration in his new book, Halfway Home.The book is based on 15 years of research in which he followed the lives of about 250 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women, and spoke with their family and friends.

Among the families Miller writes about is his own; Miller grew up poor on Chicago's South Side and spent four of the first five years of his life in foster care after his mother abandoned him and his brothers. Two of his brothers and his father have been in prison. Miller hopes that his work will help break down some of the barriers that affect so many people in America.

I want us to think about all these traps that we've created, we've produced, and I want us to unmake them.

"One in two people in this country have a loved one who's been to jail or prison," he says. "Why did we make a world in which 49 percent of Black men will be arrested before they're 23, and 38 percent of white men will be arrested before they turn 23? I want us to think about all these traps that we've created, we've produced, and I want us to unmake them. That's my hope."


Interview highlights

On deciding to include his own family's story in the book

I decided to write about it because it touches so many families and because judges and prosecutors don't think about the fact that when they incarcerate a man or woman, that they're locking a family up with them — that they're a son or a brother or a father or an uncle or someone's child. ... This isn't even in the calculus when they're deciding to put a person away for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, because they're afraid of them. And so I decided to write myself in for those reasons.

Reuben Jonathan Miller teaches at the University of Chicago in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. He started his career counseling children in foster care, then worked as a volunteer chaplain in Cook County Prison.
Jonathan Miller / Little, Brown
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Reuben Jonathan Miller teaches at the University of Chicago in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. He started his career counseling children in foster care, then worked as a volunteer chaplain in Cook County Prison.

On the laws and policies that prevent people with criminal records from finding housing

I followed about 250 people over the course of the years — spending time with them, trying to understand what life was like for them when they returned home — and everyone, without exception, was unable to rent an apartment in the very beginning on their own, without help from others. And [in] most leases, there's a clause that bars people with criminal records from being able to live in the apartment. Since changes in liability law — which happened in about the 1980s — took place, we see that landlords are held responsible for the crimes, for example, that happen on the premises of a building, and their response to that has been to evict people with criminal records and, in fact, to evict families who allow people with criminal records to stay in their homes.

On parolees navigating curfews and appointments

My brother had a curfew ... Between 8:00 a.m. ... and 3 p.m. [when his curfew began], my brother had to go to drug treatment or AA meetings, he had to do weekly check-ins with his parole officer. He had to go to workforce development training, which is training to prepare people for the worlds of work. He had to find and check-in with a case manager. And then he had to look for work and find a job — all within a certain period of time. So for him, he had 30 days to look for and find a job. All of this had to be done before 3 p.m. and missing any one of these appointments — so let's say he had four appointments in the course of a day — missing either one of these appointments would be considered a "violation" of his parole. And this is serious, because when we consider prison admissions in a given year, about a quarter of all prison admissions are for violations of parole like this: Missing an appointment with a probation officer; not reporting to workforce development or workforce training; maybe missing one of the two or three AA meetings you're required to attend; missing an appointment with a counselor or something like that. This accounts for a quarter of our annual prison admissions, these small things.

On prisoners incurring debt in legal fees, even with a public defender

So my brother was charged $600 to be represented by a public defender whom he met on the day of his conviction for 20 minutes. ... He was charged an additional $1,600 in other court fees. So my presumption is that these things go to cover the cost of the judgment bailiffs, these sorts of things associated with just general court costs. He was charged an extradition fee. I think that was around $400. He was arrested in Chicago and transported back to Michigan. So it's the cost of the transport van to get him there. He was charged about $60 for the cost to record his felony record in the state archives. And so most people, by the time they go to a jail or prison, they've already racked up thousands of dollars in legal fees just like these.

On how imprisonment costs families, too

On average, to talk to my brother for 15 minutes, it cost me $6.55. That was per phone call. ... But then there was the cost of sending notes. So there's the letters that you can write, but there's also a service called JPay, which allows you to send something like an email and they charge you $1 a page to send an email to your incarcerated loved one. These small things that aren't well accounted for, families take on the burden of these expenses.

And then, of course, there's the cost of food. So prisoners just aren't fed enough. I can't tell you how many people talk to me from the inside. I followed about 250 people over these years who had been in jails and prisons, and all of them told me just about without exception, that they were always so hungry because no matter how much of the prison food you ate, you didn't get enough ... nor is the food nutritious enough. ... So the families are responsible for subsidizing the food. ... So you send money each month to cover the cost of ramen noodles. But then there are also things like toiletries, soap, toilet tissue, writing utensils, calendars, and then there's their shoes. The articles of clothing, the shoes that the prison gives you give everybody blisters, a pair of gym shoes that you could buy at Marshalls or Target or any big box store that would cost you about $30 or $35 dollars, will cost you $60 or $65 or $80 dollars at the prison commissary store and you have to buy it from the commissary store. So these little things, these small expenses add up and it's these little things I think that do the work of wearing you down.

On what prisoners asked him for when he was a volunteer prison chaplain

Most people would ask me to pray for them. That was the No. 1 request. "Will you pray for me? My case is coming up." "Will you go meet with my mother and tell her that I'm here and I care? I love you. I miss you." "Will you meet with my children and tell them that I'm thinking about them?" ... Most of the requests were for bits of human kindness. No one asked me for money. No one asked me to do anything super unethical. I wasn't even asked to testify on anybody's behalf. The request that I got were mostly for prayer and for visits. ...

The question could be, and I think should be: What does this person who's coming out of jail, the prison, need to thrive? Because if we get people to the place of human thriving, then we'll be safe.

I pray for their strength, I pray for their peace. I pray that that justice will be done, whatever that looks like, and I pray that they have the wisdom and patience and understanding to get beyond it. Sometimes, a lot of times, I pray for their freedom, because a lot of men and women in this country are arrested for standing around. A lot of men and women in this country are accused of crimes that they did not commit. We know that there have been [nearly] 2,800 exonerations since 1989 and a lot of people are going to jail for crimes that we might not consider a crime if we stopped and thought about it for a little while.

On the criminal justice reform he'd like to see

I'd start with the 45,000 policies and administrative sanctions that target people with criminal records. And I'd ask myself a very simple question, do we need 45,000? Is that what you need to make yourself feel safe? Is that what we need for "safety?" So that's the first place. That's a very important place and that's a practical thing to do. But really, the question isn't just a question of specific laws and policies. It's a question about making a world in which people belong. This is the place to start from. The question shouldn't be: What do I need to do to make myself feel safe? The question could be, and I think should be: What does this person who's coming out of jail, the prison, need to thrive? Because if we get people to the place of human thriving, then we'll be safe.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.