The Human Cost of Mass Incarceration

    Although his life ultimately turned in a different direction, Reuben Jonathan Miller values his volunteer chaplain service at Chicago’s Cook County Jail nearly two decades ago. Inspired by his faith and a sense of ethics, he believes such outreach illustrates how the nation should approach those behind bars—meeting them where they are, caring for the least among us, and doing what we can to relieve suffering among those many consider “throwaways.”

    In a nutshell, that message is at the heart of Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration (Little, Brown and Company). The product of hundreds of interviews over 15 years and a decade of research, the groundbreaking book’s release earlier this year stirred national media attention and a flood of speaking invitations.

    The 44-year-old University of Chicago sociology professor hopes it can help the public appreciate how mass incarceration injures millions of families beyond prison, and how post-prison restrictions stack the deck against parolees, ruining their chances of starting over.

    “People do cause harm to one another, but the problem of mass incarceration is how we treat the most vulnerable among us,” Miller says. “The failure to respond to their needs has made the world more precarious. It causes additional poverty and impoverishes families. There’s a weight in taking people from their home and permanently locking them out of the labor market, housing market and politics.”

    A supervised society
    This topic is near to Miller’s heart. Had his life taken a wrong turn, his arrest for train graffiti at the age of 14 could have led to more serious consequences. Two of his brothers ultimately landed in prison, a fate he calls all too common in America, where 80 million citizens have an arrest record and almost 20 million own a felony conviction.

    Other sobering statistics Miller cites: of approximately two million incarcerated people, 40% are Black and 84% are poor. Since 1989, more than 2,600 people have been exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit, yet they spent an average of nine years behind bars. Miller says the legal system doesn’t administer justice as much as it manages problem populations.

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    “Mass incarceration has an afterlife, and that afterlife is a supervised society—a hidden social world and an alternate legal reality,” he says in Halfway Home. “The prison lives on through the people who’ve been convicted long after they complete their sentences, and it lives on through the grandmothers, lovers and children forced to share their burdens because they are never allowed to pay their so-called debt to society.”

    That’s because after prison the formerly incarcerated face a labyrinth of regulations, restrictions and lack of housing access that make it still feel like lockup. Miller says there are 45,000 federal and state regulations governing former inmates. Illinois has more than 1,000 policies on parolees’ employment, 186 limiting political participation, 54 restricting family rights and 21 housing statutes.

    One poignant story of the impact such rules exert involves one of his brothers. After parole, he had a 3 p.m. curfew. That left seven hours a day for workforce training and drug treatment or AA meetings, and weekly check-ins with his parole officer. Miss any of up to four appointments in a day and it could be considered a violation.

    “When does the time end?” asks Miller, the spring virtual commencement speaker at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and a recent panelist for a Frederick Douglass Project for Justice program. “Is it forever? Is this the kind of country we want?”

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    Negative trajectory
    In addition to media reviews and speaking engagements, Halfway Home brought invitations from various mayors to join working groups addressing parole conditions. The New York legislature invited him to testify in connection with proposed laws expunging criminal records, although a scheduling conflict forced him to turn it down.

    “I was asked to give a presentation to federal agencies about the economic fallout of incarceration and how housing policy contributes to the negative trajectory,” says Miller, who is married and the father of two children. “People with criminal records have a hard time finding landlords who will rent to them. Technically, that’s not illegal.”

    Fortunately, Miller doesn’t feel like he’s preaching to the choir. Calling his book an attempt to change the conversation surrounding reformation of the system, he sees the topic of injustice drawing intense interest in the aftermath of the 2020 deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

    The professor calls their deaths and related issues “kindling” for the fires of protest that arose; he sees many now asking society to think beyond past reforms. Miller believes the needs are greater than police training, bodycams, workforce preparation training or post-prison housing.

    “Those reforms didn’t scratch the surface,” Miller says. “In that space, my book helps us think about what the needs are and the failures in (what) we’ve done. It gives us another view that I don’t think we’ve had before. I’m trying to show how mass incarceration changes social life… and how it changes relationships in the family, political action and civic engagement.”

    People with criminal records have a hard time finding landlords who will rent to them.

    Harming our children
    Miller’s book has had an informative impact on the reality of society’s harsh treatment of those struggling to rebuild their lives after incarceration, says Susan Burton, who operates five safe houses in Los Angeles for paroled women. She is also the author of a 2017 memoir that chronicled how she overcame despair after getting hooked on crack when her five-year-old son was mowed down by a van.

    “As I read (Miller’s) book it was painful to read the way people were being treated and shuffled around,” says the author of Becoming Ms. Burton. “But I was grateful Reuben was walking with them. It was clear to me the dignity and humanity he saw in each person he interviewed.”

    Miller believes the criminalizing of behavior has had a negative impact on American life. Today 44% of Black women have a loved one behind bars, and one in eight white women. By age 23, some 49% of Black men—and 38% of white men—have been arrested. He calls these statistics a reflection of the country’s overemphasis on police departments to maintain order.

    “It tells us that we’re overusing the police,” Miller says. “It tells us that we’re harming our children. It tells us that we should seek a new way to do things.”

    If there’s a hopeful note to this bleak scenario, it can be found in people like Ronald Simpson Bey, whose story is detailed in Halfway Home. While spending 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Simpson-Bey advocated for the 14-year-old who killed his son to be tried as a juvenile instead of an adult.

    “He believed this child needed a place in the world and locking him away forever wouldn’t bring back his child,” Miller says. “This to me is a model. Ronald is one of the great men of our generation… Ronald is causing us to think about a way for making a place for those who have caused us great harm.”

    So is Reuben Jonathan Miller.

    “I’m trying to show how mass incarceration… changes relationships in the family, political action and civic engagement.”


    My grandmother, Dorothy Jean Miller, came up from Baton Rouge, put herself through secretarial school and raised me. She was pretty incredible. She would make us read a book a week and talk to her about it. My grandfather too. Tommy Miller worked in a steel mill and painted houses to help raise us.

    Ken Walker is a freelance writer and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia, who has profiled numerous businesspersons and spiritual leaders during his career. He has more than 4,000 article bylines and has co-authored, edited or contributed to more than 80 books.

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