Ava Richards Interview with Dr. David Harding, Author of On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration



David J. Harding is Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Social Sciences D-Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies urban poverty, inequality, education, and the criminal justice system. He is the author of Living the Drama: Community, Conflict, and Culture Among Inner-City Boys (University of Chicago Press, 2010), and most recently, On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration (University of Chicago Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @DJHardingSoc.


You can learn more about On the Outside: Prisoner Reentry and Reintegration at http://ontheoutsidebook.us, and you can purchase it on Amazon, beginning February 18th, at https://www.amazon.com/Outside-Prisoner-Reentry-Reintegration/dp/022660764X.

Interview of David J. Harding transcribed by Ava Richards

What first compelled you to conduct research in the area of prisoner reintegration?

I was actually doing some prior research on adolescent boys growing up in different neighborhoods in Boston, which is the basis of my prior book.  While I was talking to those boys, who were African American and Latino and growing up in poorer neighborhoods, many of them talked about family members, friends, or people in the neighborhood they knew who had been to prison or had otherwise been involved in the Criminal Justice System. I guess that was when it became most salient to me how important the experience of imprisonment is to many in poorer communities and that understanding that experience is really part of understanding what it means to live in and grow up in poorer neighborhoods, especially among people of color. The numbers demonstrate this too in terms of the disproportionate number of African Americans and, to some extent, Latinos experiencing imprisonment and just how common it is in certain neighborhoods and among certain demographics of people. For example, among African American men with a high school education, more than half of them will go to prison at some time in their lives. The experience of prison is one thing, but part of going to prison is coming back out again. At the time we started our research, not that much was known about reintegration and what it was like. Most of that research was looking at recidivism: do people get arrested, go back to prison, or commit new crimes? These quantifiable statistics are a baseline outcome, but they don’t fully capture the experience of prisoner reentry, and so we really started to focus on reintegration, rather than just recidivism.  We sought to answer: how do people find new homes, reconnect with family, form new relationships, get integrated into the labor market or other institutions like churches, or to some degree, political representation?


What gaps in scholarship did you attempt to bridge with this study?


There wasn’t a lot of research that approached the question from the perspective of the people who were experiencing it, which is why we turned to interview methods in order to hear directly from formerly incarcerated people in an unstructured way and let them tell us the most important things they were experiencing. What were the barriers they were facing? What were their concerns? What were the resources they had and accomplishments they were achieving? We hope their voices come through.


Why is understanding prisoner reintegration important?


Are we really bringing people back into our society as full members of our society? We like to say, “you do the crime, you do the time,” but we should also say, “you do the time, that should be your punishment.” We should be willing to welcome you back in as a full member of society. That’s really not what’s happening for many people. They’re experiencing high rates of housing instability and unemployment, which make it very hard for them to maintain family relationships and play the roles that they want to play in their families, especially for men. They should be reintegrated back into the polity and have the same rights and access to political participation once they serve their punishment.


Who do you hope reads your work?


Everybody! While we’ve written an academic book with many graphs and numbers in addition to the stories and have been careful to situate what we’re doing within the literature, we hope that people who want to understand what prisoner reintegration is like will read the book. Given how many people we incarcerate in this country and, therefore, how common the experience of reentry is, what is reintegration really like? What are we sentencing people to when we sentence them to prison? We’re sentencing them not only to serve that time in prison, but also to restart their lives after prison. I hope if people understood better what those experiences are like and how challenging they are, they might think about our Criminal Justice System differently. Of course, we also have policymakers and decision-makers deciding what policies we should adopt, either to punish people who have committed crimes or to try to help them and understand what is needed in order to help. We hope they read the book too.


What were some of the obstacles you faced while gathering data?


The obstacles are closely related to the challenges of the reentry process itself. One of them is how hard it is for many people coming out of prison to find a stable place to live. That makes our job as researchers more difficult because we’re trying to follow people and their experiences over time. If they’re moving around, it makes it harder to keep track of them. There were quite a bit of challenges in terms of maintaining contact with the participants. Another challenge was that those of us who were doing the research haven’t had those experiences ourselves and in many ways, come from very different social backgrounds than the people whose lives we were studying. We had to do a lot of work to really build relationships with them, so they felt comfortable with the project and what they wanted to reveal to us or not. After the second year of the study, we added a question to our protocol that we used to structure the interviews: when we first met you, were there things that you told us that weren’t true or that you deliberately decided were too risky to tell us? Most people didn’t have much to tell us, but we certainly did hear things like some drug use being covered up or people presenting themselves in a way they would to their parole officer or someone making formal decisions about their fate in the Criminal Justice System. One guy told us: “When I first came out, I told you I thought of myself as an alcoholic, and that wasn’t how I really thought of myself, but I knew that was the thing I had to say in order to please the powers that be, so I’m seen as going along with the treatment that they think I need.” The third thing is that it was emotionally difficult. We could separate ourselves from it and go home to our own lives, but people went through some very difficult situations and often didn’t have anyone else to talk about them with besides us. Many were willing to talk about those things with us because we are divorced from other things in their lives, and they could talk about experiences without worrying about repercussions. We heard about deaths of loved ones, being turned away from job after job, and so on.


How has the American Criminal Justice System changed since you began this study?


[laughs] That’s a good question. The word system is a little misleading. The American Criminal Justice System is not one thing. It’s many loosely-connected things. What’s in common is that the same people are being passed through the same institutions and social structures and networks, but the system doesn’t always work together. For example, prosecutors are not always connected to what’s going on with reentry or thinking those 3 steps ahead when making decisions. The system is also very different in different places. Some states have drastically reduced their use of imprisonment, like California. The way parole and probation violators are treated has changed significantly in California. Other places have become more punitive or haven’t changed at all. There’s much more advocacy and attention and general interest in reforming the Criminal Justice System, reducing the amount of punishment we’re giving out, and rightsizing the amount of punishment we’re giving out. For example, since we’ve started this project, there’s now a whole group of right-wing conservatives who are “right on crime,” who are partnering with liberals to reduce the size of the Criminal Justice System. If that existed when we began our study, it wasn’t very public or prevalent. There’s much more discussion now about change and reform than there was when we started. One can look at the current presidential administration, which has no interest in this, but, given that most of the prisoners are in state prisons, the action is in individual states.


What are some policies that you believe should be in place that are currently absent?

With the proviso that different policies are in place in different places and at different times, I believe one thing we’ve learned from our research is that it’s important to provide support and to intervene upon release, if not before. Certainly we’ve always had some degree of rehabilitation programs, many of which were cut during the “tough on crime” era. People are now realizing that it’s sensible to provide individuals with education, not just a GED, but real, secondary and college education in prison. If we’re going to isolate people in prisons, and we’re probably not going to stop that completely (although some people advocate for prison abolition), we should use people’s time in prison productively, not just having them mop the same floor over and over again. The other part of this is the reentry moment. When people come out of prison, almost everybody included in our study was really really focused on doing what they could to change their lives in that moment. During their time in prison, they thought about what they wanted to do and how they would change their lives after. They were really resilient in those early weeks. We could take advantage of that reentry moment, if we could provide a bridge to society with stable housing, access to employment, and some ability to reconnect with and contribute to their families. It’s also a moment when their family is really focused on them as well. For those who are able to get support, family members are usually able to forgive old mistakes and provide support. Whereas when reintegrating individuals struggle and struggle all the time, it’s harder to keep up with them.


What do you want people to take away from your manuscript?


A big part of what determines someone’s ability to reintegrate is the support they receive from their family - not just whether the family is willing to support them but what ability or capacity they have to do so. The only people who were able to create an upward trajectory for themselves, by landing stable jobs that moved into career ladders with enough benefits and a salary that moved into a living salary, had families who were able to help them connect to the labor market with their own social connections. Many families just didn’t have those connections themselves, so many were unable to do that. These connections were the pathway to getting into the working class from starting from zero at release. The people on the flip side, who didn’t really have family support, struggled just to get by day-to-day to feed themselves and house themselves, bounced from homeless shelter to homeless shelter to treatment program, going hungry, living on the streets and really not seeing a pathway to any sort of stability of meeting their basic needs. A big part of what determines what you’re able to build in your life after prison is based on what your family is able to provide for you.


Can you tell me a little specifically about the issues female prisoners face during reintegration?


One thing that was really striking to us as we started this research when we tried to do the interviews was that men and women had somewhat different pathways into prison, and things like long-term substance abuse were much more common among the women. That’s I think because of the things that women are doing to end up in prison. If a man does an armed robbery, that’s going to be a prison sentence because that’s a violent crime. If a woman shoplifts or engages in prostitution or engages in false check-writing, those things don’t typically land you in prison until you’ve been doing them for a long time. Many of the women did have a long history of substance abuse, and with that came a lot of serious health problems like getting in serious car accidents, trauma that comes from a lifestyle like that, and being victimized yourself. That was one big difference. Another big difference is in the type of family roles and responsibilities that they had. In some ways, women had a wider set of roles and could come into a household and take on a caretaking role, for an elderly family member, a sick family member, or children in the household. That’s very gender normative, whereas men didn’t always feel comfortable with that kind of role and were often not satisfied with the role they had in their household. Therefore, in some ways, it was easier for women to find their place in an existing household. Women were also much more focused on getting custody back of their children. Many men were focused on that as well, but gender roles influence the experiences people have in reintegration as well.


Do you think there are any solutions that would specifically help women reintegrate?


It’s important to help them maintain contact with their children and navigate getting to see their children again and gain custody. On average, it was important to more women than men. If we were to provide better physical and mental healthcare, that would probably have a bigger impact on women than men. Some of them really struggle to get the healthcare they need. We’re in a different environment with ObamaCare, the expansion of Medicaid eligibility, and mental health treatment coverage. It’ll be interesting to see if those kinds of changes will make a difference, especially in the states that have expanded Medicaid.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?


The final thing I would say is whatever we’re going to do to improve people’s reentry prospects is going to take more resources. We like to pretend that you can get something for nothing by just changing incentives and policies around and, most of the time, that doesn’t work. People who are coming out of prison and literally have nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few weeks of their prescription medications and their glasses, people who are really starting from nothing, are going to need resources, as are their families in order to effectively support them. We’ve gone so far down this road of mass incarceration that we’re pouring all our resources that might go to communities that are impacted by a sprawling Criminal Justice System, into the prisons themselves, paying anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000 a year to incarcerate somebody. There’s no way we’re going to have enough resources to do something about prisoner reentry and reintegration if we keep pouring our money into mass incarceration, unless you take money from things like public schools or Medicaid, which I don’t think we want to do. If we incarcerate fewer people, we can make the incarceration better, in the sense of providing them with more rehabilitative services, education, drug and alcohol treatment, and contact with their families while in prison and at that reentry moment. We’ve put so many people in prison because we’ve been told that people who have committed crimes, especially violent crimes, are irredeemable and must be incarcerated. But all the research evidence shows that that’s not correct. If anything, incarcerating someone makes them worse off and not better because anybody who goes to prison comes back out again and has to start over.

Ava Richards is a senior at Marlborough High School in Los Angeles. She likes volleyball, creative writing, and journalism. She hopes to continue exploring contemporary issues through social science research in college.

Ava Richards


Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><span>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Each email address will be obfuscated in a human readable fashion or (if JavaScript is enabled) replaced with a spamproof clickable link.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
5 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.

Monthly Feature

Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People's Movement Western Regional Conference

Convened by All of Us or None & Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

Sunday, September 20th & Monday, September 21st

Formerly incarcerated and convicted people, family members, community and spiritual leaders, elected officials and government employees will all come together to strengthen our relationships and work towards making change through community empowerment. We invite you to Voice your opinion, learn your rights and learn what changes we can make together. All of Us or None Contact: (415)-255-7036 ext. 337 www.prisonerswithchildren.org

FREE REGISTRATION: eventbrite.com