Review Essay: Prisoners Once Removed

Review Essay: Prisoners Once Removed

John Riley

Riley, John. (Summer 2004). "Review Essay—Prisoners Once Removed." Alaska Justice Forum 21(2): 4-5. For some time, crime policy has focused on the incarceration of offenders, ignoring the families and children they leave behind. Now, however, these children and other family members are finally starting to receive serious consideration, as researchers, practitioners, and policy makers move beyond individual accounts of crime to understand the broader context of family and community life in which criminality arises and is sustained. This article reviews Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities, an edited collection of current writings focusing on the collateral consequences of mass incarceration. An accompanying sidebar story provides current information about incarcerated parents in Alaska prisons and their families.

Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration
and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities

Edited by Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul
The Urban Institute Press, Washington D. C. 2003. 396 Pages

For some time, crime policy has focused on the incarceration of offenders, ignoring the families and children they leave behind. Now, however, these children and other family members are finally starting to receive serious consideration, as researchers, practitioners, and policy makers move beyond individual accounts of crime to understand the broader context of family and community life in which criminality arises and is sustained. Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities is an edited collection of current writings focusing on the collateral consequences of mass incarceration.

Since the 1970s, America’s crime policy has been shaped by a conservative and utilitarian philosophy that assumes that a reduction in crime may be achieved by raising the costs of criminal conduct to the individual offender. In this view, nothing works dependably to rehabilitate offenders, but increasing the likelihood that offenders will be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated will result in a reduction in criminal conduct. In simple terms, our policy has been driven by the belief that tough sentences will deter or incapacitate criminals. In pursuit of this end, we have incarcerated millions of Americans, most of whom have been recruited from poor and minority communities. Today, America’s jails and prisons hold over 2 million inmates, and it is estimated that there are now over 2 million children who have at least one parent under correctional supervision.

The book begins with an introductory piece by Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul which presents an overview of the problems faced by those coping with the incarceration of a family member and sounds a call for greater collaboration between corrections programs and agencies that provide services to children and families. The ten readings that follow are organized in three parts. Part One focuses on the impact of incarceration and reentry into society on individual prisoners. It includes articles on the psychological impact of incarceration, the post-release challenges facing women offenders, and the skill sets and health care needs of newly released inmates. Part Two looks at the impact of incarceration and reentry on the children and families of offenders. It includes articles on the intergenerational effects of criminal sentences, the effects of parental incarceration on children, issues associated with the incarceration of parents of adolescents, and parenting issues during periods of incarceration. Part Three focuses on the impact of incarceration and reentry on communities, with articles on the potential integration of criminal justice, health care, and human services agencies, on social capital and social networks in the communities from which the inmate population comes, and on the development of partnerships in those communities. These readings offer a broad introduction to current scholarship on some of the unintended consequences of large scale incarceration.

The common theme that unites these efforts is a willingness to question the once widely accepted view that aggressive crime control policies involving higher rates of arrest and incarceration will ultimately reduce criminal behavior. The notion that we can reduce America’s crime problem by increasing the probability that offenders will be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated has now been a cornerstone of American crime control policy for more than a quarter century. Today, with many scholars questioning this assumption, a growing body of scientific research provides support for an alternative view of the crime problem. Rather than supporting aggressive efforts to arrest, convict, and incarcerate offenders, a substantial body of recent research suggests that over-reliance on formal criminal justice approaches to the problem of crime may actually contribute to rising crime rates in many of our communities. In short, too many arrests, convictions, and incarcerations may be as problematic as too few.

Social scientists have long understood that communities may be more or less effectively organized to identify and address social problems, including the problem of crime. Residential mobility is one of the variables most often associated with social disorganization, with many scholars observing a relationship between high rates of residential mobility and high rates of crime. Residents in stable and effectively organized communities are typically involved in more complex social networks and may also have a greater stake in conformity than residents of communities experiencing high levels of social disorganization. In stable neighborhoods, with a high level of commitment to community life, more long-term face-to-face interaction, and high levels of trust, people find it easier to work together to identify problems and implement solutions. As residential mobility increases, research suggests that this ability, which is sometimes called collective efficacy, begins to erode. America’s unusually high rate of incarceration is not experienced equally in all communities. In some inner city neighborhoods, for example, residents experience such extremely high rates of incarceration that a prison sentence may be viewed by some young men as a normal rite of passage. Social scientists are increasingly concerned that in neighborhoods such as these the forced removal of those convicted of crimes may actually be contributing to an increase in residential mobility and a decrease in collective efficacy. This process is thought to involve a kind of downward spiral that begins when we reach some critical mass of incarcerated residents and may ultimately become self-perpetuating.

The idea that crime rates may increase because too many prisoners are recruited from some neighborhoods may be called the coercive mobility hypothesis. The coercive mobility hypothesis suggests that increased rates of incarceration may weaken the families and communities that offenders leave behind and actually reduce effective social control efforts and increase crime in neighborhoods characterized by high rates of incarceration. In effect, high rates of incarceration decrease residential stability as prisoners and family members are forced to relocate. Family members of prisoners often relocate to be nearer to an institutionalized loved one or in response to economic and child care contingencies associated with the removal of an incarcerated family member. Neighbors may also move to escape what is perceived as a dangerous environment. Those who remain in communities experiencing high rates of coercive mobility are left to cope without the assistance of those who have been relocated and in a context that features disrupted social networks and rising levels of alienation and distrust. Rose and Clear describe this problem in Part Three of the book in their essay “Incarceration, Reentry, and Social Capital: Social Networks in the Balance”:

As a form of residential mobility, incarceration disrupts social networks in a variety of ways. Some results are straightforward—incarceration removes people from their familial and friendship relationships. Some results are more complex—relationships are strained when residents withdraw from community life to cope with financial problems or the stigma of having a family member in prison....To the extent that excessive coercive mobility can damage local social networks, it can also increase the level of disadvantage in the community overall. According to a growing body of empirical evidence, high levels of coercive mobility can result in increased crime.

Crucial to this understanding of the crime problem is the notion that even those who commit crimes may make some positive contribution to the informal social control efforts of their communities. This is a radical break with contemporary crime policy, which has tended to view the offender in a more uni-dimensional, and less realistic, way.

Prisoners Once Removed not only provides an important account of the coercive mobility hypothesis, it also introduces readers to a body of recent empirical research with implications for current crime policy. The authors discuss innovative programs that are proving effective at reducing crime and reintegrating offenders, including programs intended to intervene in the lives of children with incarcerated parents. The arguments and data make a persuasive case that we can break intergenerational cycles of criminality by providing assistance to both offenders and their families.

The popular idea that we should abandon rehabilitation efforts in favor of longer sentences because “nothing works” to rehabilitate offenders is clearly called into question by the research cited. The idea that more arrests, convictions, and incarcerations will reduce crime—perhaps the chief unexamined assumption of our current crime policy—is also called into question here. Most importantly, this book challenges those of us who are serious about reducing crime to take our obligations to vulnerable children and families seriously too. If we want to reduce crime, we cannot continue to ignore the social context in which patterns of criminal conduct emerge and are sustained. For these reasons, this book raises a challenge that must be answered by those who continue to push the current approach to crime and sentencing policy.

John Riley is an associate professor with the Justice Center.