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In his talk, Western will bear witness to the lives held captive in America’s experiment with mass incarceration. Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison tells the stories of the men and women he met through the Boston Reentry Study, a series of interviews his research team conducted with people leaving prison for neighborhoods around Boston. They were trying to understand what happens when people return to a community, and the challenges faced by them and their families. How did they look for work and housing? How did they manage their addictions or mental illness, and why did some return to incarceration?

The research showed that imprisonment is followed by deep poverty, in which unemployment is widespread and survival is assisted only by government programs and family support. While earlier studies have focused on the stigma of a criminal record, the men and women of Boston also struggled greatly with human frailty — mental illness, addiction, and physical disability — that threatened success after incarceration and impaired the effectiveness of programs. They had experienced serious violence, often as perpetrators, but just as frequently as victims and witnesses, and often since early childhood. Under these conditions, freedom after prison was not a status granted by release, but something attained gradually. Becoming free was a process of social integration where one had to find one’s place with kin and community. Justice in this world can be found more in the abatement of violent environments than in the punishment of violent people. Justice too, must involve the acknowledgement of harm; not just the harms that follow from crime, but also the harms that follow from punishment that are often heaped on the poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

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Bruce Western is a Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University. Formerly vice chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Causes and Consequences of High Incarceration Rates in the United States, he is on the Harvard Executive Session on Community Corrections and the Boston Reentry Study. He is the author of the award-winning book, Punishment and Inequality in AmericaHe’s written about mass incarceration in the U.S. for the New Yorker, and his new book Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison has been featured in The Atlantic. Watch his animated interview on the impact of mass incarceration here

Amy Lerman is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and writes widely on issues related to political participation, public opinion, and public policy. She is particularly interested in the political attitudes and behavior of the economically marginalized, youth, and racial minorities.



David Harding is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies poverty and inequality, urban neighborhoods, education, incarceration, and prisoner reentry. His current projects include the social and economic reintegration of former prisoners, neighborhoods and prisoner reentry, the effects of incarceration on crime, employment, and health, causal inference for contextual effects research, educational attainment, and labor market outcomes.


This event is co-sponsored by the Institute for Studies on Societal Issues, and the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice.