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Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy hosted a discussion Friday featuring Reuben J. Miller, assistant professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and author of “Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration.” The talk focused on the constraints of life after incarceration.

The event was led by H. Luke Shaefer, who is the director of Poverty Solutions and associate dean for research and policy engagement, as well as the Hermann and Amalie Kohn Professor of Social Justice and Social Policy. 

Miller discussed his experience having an incarcerated brother and his job as a social service worker at a Catholic charity organization that provided homes to juveniles convicted of a sex offense. He said the latter was his initial exposure to the system of mass incarceration and the inspiration for his book.

“These are kids who were trying to come to grips with something that they did, or maybe they weren’t, maybe they were trying to avoid coming to grips with something that they did,” Miller said. “The crime for which they had not been convicted, but for which they had been taken from their home was one that would bring about great shame and anguish, and really haunt someone over a lifetime.”

Miller reflected on his work as a volunteer chaplain at the Cook County Jail. He said he was inspired to do more research on mass incarceration in graduate school and eventually write “Halfway Home.” 

Miller discussed some flaws in the social sciences and said it is typically expected for researchers to distance themselves personally from their area of study to evaluate their research objectively. Miller explained how he had to distance himself from an area he had personal experience with to make his work acceptable in the field.

“That distance also hides things, for example, 63% have a loved one that’s been to an American jail — that’s half the country, including white people,” Miller said. “If half the country has had this experience, why don’t we know that, why don’t we feel that, why don’t we understand that?”

Miller said the deeply-rooted racism ingrained into the American prison system affects everyone’s perception of the criminal justice system. 

“We’ve done the work of linking Black people with criminality so effectively that when you say the words mass incarceration, you think of Black people,” Miller said.

To reform the criminal justice system, Miller argued the country needs to address the root causes of violence. Mass incarceration has not improved public safety, Miller said, and it is important to figure out what accountability looks like outside of jail time.

“We are going to have to do something with the people who commit acts of violence because they wanted to at that moment in time,” Miller said. “What kind of society do we want — the kind of society that cuts people off?” 

According to Miller, poor, unskilled Black men are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States. The cyclical nature of the prison system impacts young boys and girls before their lives even begin.

“The 1.5 million black men that we throw into our jails and prisons could’ve been me,” said Miller. “People are getting arrested at 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 years old, and then that arrest record is being used against them in sentencing — we lock up our potential.” 

One of the participants in the discussion, Broderick Johnson, a senior counsel at Covington & Burling law firm and a special advisor to Poverty Solutions, emphasized the notion of surrendering to the lifelong impacts of incarceration.

“So many of our brothers and sisters, whether they committed a crime or are wrongly convicted of a crime, they don’t get the opportunity to pay their dues and move on … this is forever,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I feel a tremendous burden in the sense that I made it, I’m an exception — did I deserve that?” 

Miller urged colleagues to evaluate their ethical concerns towards criminals who are feared by the public and not allow their negative feelings to influence their work.

Another participant in the discussion, Anna Haskins, an assistant sociology professor at Cornell University, discussed her work that focuses on how mass incarceration influences families. She specifically aims to evaluate how the children of those incarcerated are impacted.

“These criminal-justice-involved families are vulnerable to surveillance, and they’re powerless under so many restrictions that they engage in characteristically different ways than those who live outside of this legally and morally constructed supervised society,” said Haskins.

Haskins discussed several major flaws in various programs intended to help incarcerated individuals re-enter society. She said these flaws propagate the cycle of incarceration by dehumanizing individuals. 

“The way in which our re-entry programs are set up to support the absence and the return of citizens don’t acknowledge so many of the other structural barriers that are in place that stop that successful full citizenship,” Haskins said. “We have to recognize that the people returning are mothers and fathers, they’re children, they’re aunts and uncles, they’re grandparents … we dehumanize them and then we don’t give them that humanity back in their efforts to return.”

Miller also emphasized the barriers and strains formerly incarcerated people encounter while trying to reenter society, highlighting the experience of his brother.

“These folks are below the poverty line … and these are the people we hit with thousands of dollars of legal fees on average,” Miller said. “$1,600 was the bill for my brother from his public defender, who he met for 20 minutes on the day of his conviction.”  

Daily Staff Reporter Brooke Halak can be reached at bhalak@umich.edu.

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