Bruce Western

Columbia University
Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Justice Lab

Bruce Western is Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and Co-Director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University.

His research has examined the causes, scope, and consequences of the historic growth in U.S. prison populations. Current projects include a randomized experiment assessing the effects of criminal justice fines and fees on misdemeanor defendants in Oklahoma City, and a field study of solitary confinement in Pennsylvania state prisons. Western is also the Principal Investigator of the Square One Project that aims re-imagine the public policy response to violence under conditions of poverty and racial inequality.

He was the Vice Chair of the National Academy of Sciences panel on the causes and consequences of high incarceration rates in the United States. He is the author of Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison (Russell Sage Foundation, 2018), and Punishment and Inequality in America (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006). He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Russell Sage Foundation Visiting Scholar, and a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study. Western received his PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was born in Canberra, Australia.

ABSTRACT

What happens when people are released from incarceration and return to their communities? How did they look for work and housing? How do they manage their addictions or mental illness, and why do some return to incarceration?

I addressed these questions in the Boston Reentry Study, a series of interviews my research team and I conducted with people leaving prison for neighborhoods around Boston. We found that imprisonment is followed by deep poverty and survival is assisted only by government programs and family support. While earlier studies 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 also as victims and witnesses, and often since early childhood.

Pervasive incarceration in the United States is similar in some ways to incarceration in indigenous communities in Australia. Poverty, housing insecurity, poor health, and racial injustice form the backdrop for a peculiarly Australian version of mass incarceration. I explore possible lessons that might be drawn from the US experience for policy reform in Australia.