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Beyond the bars

By Alex Piazza
apiazza@umich.edu

Meet David.

He’s a 28-year-old southeast Michigan resident who turned to burglary to support his drug habit.

David eventually got caught and was locked up. Just a few days after his release, he moved in with an ex-girlfriend and her kids.

They survived on food stamps and rent vouchers, but David struggled to land a job.

“I wasn’t eating for a minute,” he said. “I felt like I was taking out of the children’s mouth. That’s not my food.”

The guilt from not being able to financially support his new roommates drove David to burglarize the neighbor’s apartment. He planned to pawn the stolen items to cover household expenses, but police arrived the next morning with handcuffs.

David’s tale is a familiar one. Last year, U.S. prisons housed about 1.5 million inmates, including 43,000 in Michigan, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

"The way we think about prisoner reentry is woefully inadequate."

Yet many inmates released from prison struggle to get back on their feet. A BJS study released last year shows that 77 percent of inmates who left prison were rearrested within five years of their release.

“They are a materially and symbolically stranded group,” said Reuben Miller, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan. “The way we think about prisoner reentry is woefully inadequate. We don’t yet have our heads around the totality of the problems former prisoners face when they leave prison.”

Miller is among a cohort of U-M researchers who study prisoner reentry and highlight how incarceration impacts communities, families and the economy. Their work could lead to prison reform and initiatives intended to support former inmates as they reintegrate into society.

Life after prison

Miller has a unique perspective when it comes to prisons.

He volunteered as a chaplain for five years at the Cook County Jail, the nation’s largest single site jail, before he joined U-M.  There, he worked with hundreds of inmates housed in both minimum and maximum security.

“I started seeing a lot of these same inmates after they were released, whether it was in the grocery store or just walking down the street,” he said. “That’s what piqued my interest in prisoner reentry. I wanted to figure out how these individuals found jobs and housing, and how they forged relationships once they left prison.”

Miller’s interest sparked his Detroit Reentry Project, in which he interviews men about their experiences after being released from prison, jail or detention centers in Detroit.

Over the past year, Miller has followed 40 men to their doctor’s appointments, family gatherings, church services and job interviews.

“I hang out with a lot of these guys fairly often, which is by design,” he said. “I want to see firsthand how they manage their lives after prison.”

Many of the research participants struggle to navigate the labor market in Detroit, so they take jobs in construction and blight removal. Securing a roof over their head also proved problematic, so many inmates rely on their family and friends to avoid being homeless.

"There’s an emphasis on former prisoners changing themselves, but they’re often changing themselves in a space where there are few resources."

His goal is to educate policymakers about the many barriers faced by former prisoners, which he hopes will lead to improved prisoner reentry initiatives that support inmates as they reenter society.

“There’s an emphasis on former prisoners changing themselves, but they’re often changing themselves in a space where there are few resources,” said Miller, who plans to develop six research papers from this project. “These are good people who are locked out of the housing market and locked out of the labor market because of their criminal record, so many of their modes for self-improvement have hurdles. This project really captures the lived experiences of urban poverty in the shadow of mass imprisonment.”

Root of the problem

So what exactly happened to Detroit?

It depends on whom you ask.

A quick peek at the headlines and the answers are simple.

The auto industry collapsed. Unemployment skyrocketed. Crime increased. And city residents fled to the suburbs.

As a historian and native Detroiter, Heather Ann Thompson has a different perspective.

“The one thing that nobody is really paying any attention to is that over the last 40 years, we’ve completely changed our policy by which we deal with urban communities like Detroit,” said Thompson, professor of Afroamerican and African studies at U-M. “By turning to a policy where we police these communities at record rates in whole new ways, we set in motion what we now understand as mass incarceration. So if we plan on fixing Detroit, we have to look at the origin of its decline and this is the big elephant in the room.”

Thompson travels the country and consults with legislators at both the state and federal levels on various issues related to incarceration, including what she calls in some cases “catastrophic” sentencing guidelines.

Michigan ranked second among states with the most adults serving life without parole in 2011, Thompson said. She added that Michigan also ranked second in the number of children serving life without parole in 2011 with more than 360.

"By removing record numbers of people from their neighborhoods for record periods of time, mass incarceration caused neighborhoods in the Motor City to literally collapse."

And in 2014, Michigan ranked 12th among states with the highest prison population, according to BJS records.

It’s no surprise this takes a toll on the community.

“By removing record numbers of people from their neighborhoods for record periods of time, mass incarceration caused neighborhoods in the Motor City to literally collapse,” said Thompson, who recently served on the National Academy of Sciences’ blue-ribbon panel that studied the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the U.S. “Take drugs for example. When you take an impoverished community where drugs are illegal and then remove other means of employment, people are bound to sell drugs to feed their family and keep a roof over their head. It’s a vicious, vicious cycle and until we can find a solution, our communities will continue to suffer.”

Give me shelter

Drugs kept Christopher in and out of prison for eight years.

When he wasn’t behind bars, Christopher bounced around halfway houses and shelters, and he even was homeless for some time. But seven months after his latest release, he met a woman and moved in with her.

It was her support that helped him remain sober for eight months.

Christopher’s path mirrors that of many Michigan parolees—and that path hardly leads back home.

Jeffrey Morenoff has studied prisoner reentry for years, and a few of his latest studies have focused on where Michigan parolees go after prison.

Morenoff and his colleagues sifted through Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) records on thousands of former inmates and found that, upon release, only 25 percent of them return to the same residential address where they lived before prison.

“Perhaps one of the reasons that you don’t see more prisoners returning home is that home is a moving target,” said Morenoff, director of the Population Studies Center at U-M. “If the breadwinner goes away to prison, there’s a good chance their family will relocate during that time.”

"Having so much population turnover can be very disruptive to the social fabric of a community and could contribute to increased crime rates in some neighborhoods."

There are a number of factors that determine where parolees go after prison. Through interviews with several former Michigan prisoners, Morenoff found that some decided to move away from their old neighborhood after prison to avoid being lured back into a life of crime. Others relocated to find jobs or reconnect with family.

Regardless of their motive, his research shows the average parolee in Michigan moves 2.5 times a year in the first two years after they’re released from prison.

“This is a remarkable level of residential instability, especially considering that one move a year is considered housing instability,” he said. “Secure housing is so critical to former prisoners because it greatly impacts their ability to maintain stable employment and family connections. Having so much population turnover can be very disruptive to the social fabric of a community and could contribute to increased crime rates in some neighborhoods.”

Questions?