‘On the Outside’: UC Berkeley professor’s 7-year study on mass incarceration and prisoner rehabilitation

David Harding
David Harding/Courtesy

In 2006, David Harding, then faculty member at the University of Michigan, initiated a seven-year research project on the successes and failures of systemic prisoner rehabilitation.

With two other colleagues, Harding gathered data from roughly 11,000 former state prisoners in Michigan who were released in 2003, 22 of whom they continuously followed up on for three years. They wanted to make readers aware of the various plights prisoners face in their process of rejoining society.

The findings are presented in their forthcoming 2019 book “On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration,” which combines personal narratives as well as statistical data to convey a complete picture of the individuals involved. Harding hopes the book can shed light on the experience inmates go through and the many struggles they face in rehabilitation while teaching about the longstanding legislative discourse on criminal justice. After all, it’s hard to ease their plight while standing on the outside without listening to the voices within.

Harding, now a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, shares his fact-finding journey.

The Daily Californian: What motivated you to study incarceration patterns and prisoner rehabilitation?

David Harding: We are basically at the point now where there are so many people who are touched by the criminal justice system. … Basically people who are at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum or racial minorities are much more likely to be involved in criminal justice (systems), and research shows that the involvement is harmful for families, communities, people’s labor markets, climbing outcomes. So I got into it through that connection to poverty and inequality, which is what I was studying before.

DC: Do you think policymakers are doing enough to help the rehabilitation process?

DH: We’re far from where we should be in terms of helping people to reintegrate back into society. Most states and those prisons have very long waiting lists, even for basic literacy education. … That’s just one example of that as a result of the increase in incarceration.

In California it costs over $70,000 a year to keep someone in prison. In other states it isn’t quite as high as that, but many are at least $30,000 or $40,000 a year. So as we started incarcerating more and more people, the cost kept going up, and politicians and the government tried to find ways to cut costs, and they often do this by cutting back on programs in prisons, overcrowding of prisons.

It was much more common in the past where people have access to college courses in prison — that’s much harder to do now, especially. All that stuff now is being done by volunteers from outside organizations coming into the prison. So we’re not doing a very good job of preparing people to get out. … We know that we could provide better, for example, drug treatment programs in prison, but it’s costly to do.

Most people are relying on their families for help, but most prisoners come from families and communities that are (low-income). People coming out of prison struggle with just getting their basic needs for food and housing and trying to find a job, … let alone doing other things.

DC: The U.S. incarceration rate is the highest in the world, despite a drop during the past few years. Do you think there is a way to structure the criminal justice system to reduce mass incarceration?

DH: Yes. We have much higher incarceration rates than any other industrialized, wealthy country, and we even have much higher incarceration rates than we had 40 years ago. Basically we made the decision to punish people more harshly and put people in prison longer, … and there isn’t really a correspondence between the amount of incarceration and crime.

We just need to rethink the way we respond to social problems. … We don’t provide services to people who are suffering from problems, and of course they get in trouble with the law. And then we don’t have anything to do with them besides using the criminal justice system to punish them.

DC: Can you walk me through the research process behind “On the Outside”?

DH: Sure. My colleagues and I started this quite a long time ago, back in 2006. I was on the faculty of the University of Michigan then, so we were working in Michigan. We got connected with the Department of Corrections in Michigan, and they helped us to get access to administrative data on everyone paroled in Michigan in 2003. Then we did a statistical analysis of those people looking at their neighborhoods, the household they live in, their continued involvement with the criminal justice system. Alongside that, we also did interviews with a small sample of 22 people. We interviewed them first in prison before they were about to be paroled and then followed them over time for up to three years.

The statistical data of all these people gives us the bird’s eye view that allows us to see the larger pattern, and then the detailed data from the experiences of the people we interviewed ourselves and followed over time provides us with not only … their experiences in details, but also help us to understand some of the patterns that we see.

DC: What are some of the challenges you and your colleagues met in the process?

DH: It certainly took us a while to go through all the permissions to do the research in the Department of Corrections. … One of the challenges is just keeping track of people, given how much they struggle with things like housing. One of the things we did was to offer them (former prisoners) interviewed incentives — to pay them for the interviews. … We also tried to get contact information for their family or other people they thought would work.

DC: Is there a specific interviewee whose story stood out to you?

DH: They were all unique in their own way. … There was one guy whom I interviewed 10 times, and he was really one of those who struggled just to meet his basic needs. … He didn’t have a place (to live), and the people he was living with before prison couldn’t take him in again. … He was sent to the homeless shelters and drug treatment program, even though he doesn’t really have a drug problem. And he really struggled to work. He was from Detroit, and the unemployment rate there was really high, … so he suffered from a lot of health problems as a result of the stress and lack of health care he’d had in the past. Eventually he did manage to find a stable housing arrangement — his distant family members took him in. Eventually he ended up getting married.

DC: In what ways do you think your research could impact or reform the rehabilitation process?

DH: Hopefully it will inform the conversation (on criminal justice). A lot of what we’re trying to do is really put in the foreground their experiences, … to see from their perspective what the experience of re-entry is like. We’re trying to make the case that the challenges of prison re-entry are so severe, … and our ability to do a better job of it depends on shrinking the number of people so that the resources aren’t spread out so thin.

DC: For future readers, what should be the most important takeaway from this book?

DH: The services they (former prisoners) are getting, either though the criminal justice system or other programs, is just so overused. … Someone’s ability to succeed (in rehabilitation) depends on what family circumstances they come back into. Another point we are trying to make is that when people come out of prison, most of them really do want to make a change in their lives.

We really need to be supporting them to make that change, because if you do start to struggle and you don’t have any other options, you’re going to go back to what you did before. We were missing a big opportunity … not helping them with housing and employment and health services and to transition back into society.

 

Contact Tianyi Ding at [email protected].