'Halfway Home' Makes Case That The Formerly Incarcerated Are Never Truly Free
To say that this nation's criminal justice system is deeply flawed is to flirt with understatement.
Everything from the oversurveillance of Black and Brown communities, to police brutality, to stop and frisk policies, to a multibillion-dollar prison labor industry demonstrates how a system ostensibly designed for fairness is anything but.
Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of this reality, as Reuben Jonathan Miller explores in his impressive new book Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration, is that even those who leave incarceration are in many ways never truly free. They instead become members of the "supervised society" — and it is this uniquely disenfranchised population that is the focus of his book.
This indictment of the criminal justice system should trouble the soul of the nation. Miller writes in prose that is at once powerful and engaging — and combines an abundance of data with the lived experiences of the people the numbers represent. A sociologist, criminologist, social worker, and former chaplain at Chicago's Cook County Jail, his insights are partly drawn from having spent 15 years interviewing nearly 250 people caught up in the prison industrial complex. This work included a research project during which he spent three years engaging with 60 men and 30 women after their release from incarceration in Michigan. Miller can also claim far more experiential expertise, because he was "born black and poor in the age of mass incarceration" and, like every Black person he knows, "was stopped by the police a number of times." He is a scientist armed with statistical information, and he is the son and brother of incarcerated men.
Miller is thus more than adequately equipped to make the observation that "no other marginalized group — not poor black people without criminal records, not mothers on welfare, not even undocumented immigrants — experience [the] profound level of legal exclusion" that the formerly imprisoned do. The breadth of these restrictions — which can include everything from being ineligible for student loans or public housing to living in a home that has a foster child — is remarkable. As Miller notes, "Forty-five thousand federal and state laws regulate the lives of the accused.... In Illinois, there are over 1,400, including more than 1,000 employment regulations, 186 policies that limit political participation, 54 laws restricting family rights, and 21 housing statutes."
Many of the labyrinthine rules and regulations that govern the lives of the released don't go away even when they are no longer formally under supervision. Take, for example, the story of Sabrina, told in Miller's book. Her accomplishments post-release include working on the successful campaign to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions in Florida, an international fellowship, being featured in a documentary, and taking a tour of prisons in Norway. Nonetheless, despite being employed and having strong credit — plus a letter of recommendation from a state representative — Sabrina couldn't find anyone to rent her an apartment. If an employer wanted to fire Sabrina because of her race or gender, they would be in violation of the law, and she could file a lawsuit. If, however, they wanted to fire her, or anyone else with a felony conviction for that reason alone, they would be completely within their rights to do so.
These are among the many reasons that Miller has concluded that:
"...the problem of mass incarceration is really a problem of citizenship. This is because citizenship isn't just about whether or not someone has a set of legal rights. Citizenship is something each of us practices in everyday life. It is made through everyday exchanges and people at every level, because citizenship is about belonging."
It is long past time we reexamine who we deem as perennially other, and why. When we consider, that "of the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated, 40 percent are black, 84 percent are poor, and half have no income at all" we have to agree that it should be "clear to anyone paying attention that the legal system does not administer anything resembling justice but instead manages the nation's problemed populations," Miller writes.
One member of that population is Miller's older brother Jeremiah, whose present-day experiences with the carceral system are woven throughout the book. Their relationship brings the frustrations and fickleness of the system into sharp relief. It demonstrates the psychic and financial costs of loving someone who is incarcerated and shows how difficult it is to do something as essential as finding a place to lay one's head. It's hard not to see the restrictions on members of the supervised society as intentionally inhumane when considering that homelessness can be a violation of parole.
Halfway Home shines a light on a wide range of absurdities baked into an inherently unjust system. Even though the book's primary focus is on life after incarceration, Miller makes clear that the problems with the criminal justice system are grounded in history. He tackles everything from 15th-century racial slavery to Bacon's Rebellion and the invention of whiteness to gentrification and the dramatically reduced life expectancy that results from incarceration.
This seminal work tracks the path of how we got here, recognizing that "to live through mass incarceration is to take part in a lineage of control that can be traced from the slave ships, through the Jim Crow South, to the ghettoes of the North, and to the many millions of almost-always-filled bunk beds in jails and prison cells that make the United States the world's leading jailer." If we are truly a nation that believes in democracy and freedom, it is incumbent on us to chart a better path forward.
Ericka Taylor is the popular education manager for Take on Wall Street and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, and Willow Springs.