Nearly 20 Million Americans Have a Felony Record. What Happens After They’ve Served Their Time?

There is, of course, the immediate experience of incarceration: the detention at any given moment of more than 2 million people in American jails and prisons, or what the sociologist Reuben Jonathan Miller calls “cages” — a word that captures the brute fact of confinement more vividly than the antiseptic vocabulary of “correctional facilities.”

But in “Halfway Home,” Miller wants us to understand incarceration’s “afterlife” — how prison follows people “like a ghost,” a permanent specter in the lives of the 19.6 million Americans who have a felony record. These people have done their time, but they’re still constrained by what Miller, who teaches at the University of Chicago, describes as “an alternate form of citizenship.” There are some 45,000 federal and state laws that regulate where they can work, where they can live and whether they can vote. They reside in a “hidden social world and an alternate legal reality.”

The title of Miller’s book is both literal and ironic. A halfway home can refer to an actual place where formerly incarcerated people are supposed to gain skills for re-entering society. For many of them, though, halfway is just about as far as they’re allowed to get. “The problem of re-entry is not simply a problem of behavior,” Miller writes. Programs hand out “certificates of completion” in subjects like food preparation and anger management. But as one administrator at a human services agency tells Miller, “My guys got 14 certificates and no job.”

The book is the culmination of Miller’s research in Chicago and Detroit, plucking a few stories from the nearly 250 interviews he has conducted since 2008. But it’s also deeply informed by his own personal experiences with the carceral system. In his 20s, he served as a volunteer chaplain at Cook County Jail in Chicago, arriving with a Bible tucked under his arm and noticing how jargon like “feeding time” seemed more suited for herding cattle. Two of Miller’s brothers have done time, and Miller himself was 28 when he first met his father, who had spent two decades in and out of prison. “My family was no exception,” Miller writes. One in three Black men in the United States are currently living with felony records.

Reuben Jonathan Miller, the author of “Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration.”Credit…Jonathan Miller

Miller meets some of the luckier ones. As a kid, Lorenzo used to steal from his neighbors’ back porches; he was 10 when he was first arrested, and he would be again 14 or 15 times before he found a job as an intake worker at a halfway house. Another man, Martin, spent years living on the street, racking up 14 arrests for trespassing and another for drug possession. At 65, Martin has finally managed to get his commercial driver’s license reinstated so that he can drive trucks for a living.

Interviewing these men, Miller wears his social scientist’s hat, but he admits to chafing under its constraints. He’s supposed to maintain a scholarly detachment and use terms like “family complexity” and “social desirability” as shorthand for what he learns. But part of what makes his book stand out is how he parses his own proximity to the material. At one point he meets with another subject, Jimmy, outside of Detroit’s main bus terminal. The two of them walk a mile in the February cold to the work force development agency where Jimmy needs to fill out job applications as a condition of his parole, only to arrive at a gray high-rise that’s closed. Against protocol, a freezing Miller gives Jimmy a ride to one of the other agencies: “Jimmy made it to his next appointment and avoided potential arrest because I felt like giving him a ride.”

Jimmy, in that particular moment, was also one of the luckier ones. His incessant small talk had already irritated Miller, who could see that Jimmy was ingratiating himself because he operated in an “economy of favors.” Subject to so many rules that “one mistake could cost him his freedom,” Jimmy often had to rely on the kindness of others in order to meet his needs.

But as much as such kindness is relied on to plug the holes in an unyielding system, generosity is just as often discouraged or even prohibited. Even the most understanding employer, Miller explains, can in some cases be sued for having a felon on the payroll. If you open up your home to a loved one on parole, you’ll be subjected to what they’re subjected to — random checks, phone calls in the middle of the night, the possibility of a raid. Miller knows firsthand how compassion can be punished: He details the painful, tortuous process of trying to find shelter for his brother when he was released from prison. “If I allowed Jeremiah to live with me, my family could be evicted,” Miller writes.

There is, then, a problem with the rules — which makes Miller reflexively suspicious of the language he encounters from people like Ronald, who spent 27 years in prison after a wrongful conviction and talks about the need to “change people’s hearts and minds.” But Miller begins to understand that policy reform, or attempts to change the system, simply won’t last without a wholesale reorientation of how Americans understand incarceration and its afterlife.

Hearts and minds, in this sense, have little to do with people’s feelings. Ronald’s own son was murdered by a 14-year-old in 2001, and Ronald made the decision to advocate for his son’s killer, not out of forgiveness but out of an ethical commitment. This is a lot to expect from anyone. But Miller, with this powerful book, implores us to try.

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