TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Mass incarceration has directly affected the life of my guest, Reuben Jonathan Miller. His father and brothers did time and Miller nearly did. He grew up poor on Chicago's South Side and spent four of the first five years of his life in foster care after his mother abandoned him and his brothers, leaving them in front of a police station. He was raised by his grandmother, who got custody when he was 5. Now, Miller is a sociologist who studies the lives of people after they leave prison and the laws and policies that restrict their lives when they get out. These restrictions have produced what he describes as a new form of citizenship through practices of punishment and exclusion that make it difficult for the formerly incarcerated to get a job or find a place they are legally allowed to live. Their families and loved ones frequently end up being punished by these policies, too.
Reuben Jonathan Miller is the author of the new book "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." He teaches at the University of Chicago in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. He formerly taught at the University of Michigan and has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He started his career counseling children in foster care, then working as a volunteer chaplain in Cook County Prison. His book is based on 15 years of research in Detroit, Chicago and New York City following the lives of currently and formerly incarcerated men and women and talking with their family and friends.
Reuben Jonathan Miller, welcome to FRESH AIR. There are hundreds and in some cases over a thousand state laws, not to mention federal laws and policies restricting people who are released from prison. Describe a few that make it difficult for people getting out of prison who have been convicted of felonies to get back on their feet.
REUBEN JONATHAN MILLER: Well, some include the 19,000 laws, policies and administrative sanctions that prevent people with records from gaining employment. For example, in the state of Illinois, it took a legislative act to allow people with criminal records who were trained as barbers in U.S. jails and prisons to get their cosmetology license. And that law didn't change until 2016. There are thousands of laws like that. And there are additional laws that prevent people, for example, with criminal records from doing things like sitting on a jury. But I think the most insidious of them are the laws that prevent people with records from accessing homes, that allow landlords and employers to reject applications based on the fact that people have criminal records.
GROSS: A lot of the men and women who you followed, did they have trouble finding a place to live and where their family is, like, afraid to take them in because of the consequences the families or loved ones could face?
MILLER: Every one of the people that I followed. I followed about 250 people over the course of the years, spending time with them, trying to understand what life was like for them when they returned home. And everyone, without exception, was unable to rent an apartment in the very beginning on their own without help from others. In most leases, there's a clause that bars people with criminal records from being able to live in the apartment.
And since changes in liability law, which happened in about the 1980s, took place, we see that landlords are held responsible for the crimes, for example, that happen on the premises of a building. And their response to that has been to evict people with criminal records and, in fact, to evict families who allow people with criminal records to stay in their homes. And a second strain, a strain that's on families who face the consequence of eviction, would often keep them from spending time with people who care for them most.
A great example from the book is from a man named Jimmy (ph). And Jimmy's mother loved him dearly. Jimmy had been in and out of jails and prisons for quite a while. He was trying to get his life back together. And he would often stay with his mother. Well, her landlord told her, you know, if you let Jimmy stay with you again, I'm going to have to put you out. And so Jimmy, who was effectively alone - you know, at this point, he was sleeping in buildings that were about to be rehabbed. He was, you know, sleeping on couches. But he wouldn't come around his mother because he knew that she would offer him a place to stay. So he stayed away from her because if he stayed there, she would be evicted.
GROSS: So what are some of the options that people came up with after prison so that they'd have a place to stay?
MILLER: Well, there was a lot of couch surfing, a lot of staying temporarily with people who would take them in. A lot of folks avoided putting their name on leases, so it would never be their apartment. A lot of work to stay under the radar. This is what I saw. I saw a lot of work to stay under the radar of state management offices or employers or something like that. But very many people who had returned from jail or prison ended up being homeless. In fact, there was a study that showed that people who had been incarcerated were seven times more likely to be homeless than members of the general population. And I saw that over and over again, where people would have to, for example, not stay with family or friends. They'd go sleep in a shelter. They'd sleep on the street. They'd do their best to make things work
GROSS: So with your brother Jeremiah, when he got out of prison, he couldn't live with you. And you tried to find him a place to stay but kept running into obstacles. So, like, what is it like when you're trying to help your family and there's real limits and legal limits on what you can do?
MILLER: It's incredibly frustrating. It's frustrating. And it's painful, really, because you're extending yourself to the best of your ability. You know, for example, with my brother, we lived at. That time in faculty housing. And in faculty housing, there's a box that you check and people with criminal records, people with felony records specifically aren't allowed to live in faculty housing. I offered to cover his rent. I offered to co-sign apartments for him. I offered my word and my reputation, even with friends who may have a place for him to stay. And all of those things fell short. For one reason or another, the application would still be rejected.
Now, I've got an inquiry on my credit, say. The landlord may not care that I'm well-off and middle class. The fact of my brother's felony record means that they have the right to say no legally, and so they don't take him in. And even friends and family, you know, they put themselves at risk if they allow someone with a criminal record to stay. So even my friends who, for example, owned real estate, owned a building or something like that or maybe had a spare room in their home, they put themselves at risk.
So what we learn is that the probation officer has the right to, for example, raid a home where someone with a felony record lives. It doesn't matter who else is in the home with them. And so it creates this kind of cycle of housing instability that's very hard for people to pull themselves out of.
GROSS: Your brother, Jeremiah, his parole was actually delayed because you couldn't find a place for him to live.
MILLER: He stayed in prison for several additional months on that. And I felt incredibly guilty. I felt incredibly - I felt as if I failed him because he ended up doing more time than he would have done because there was no place for him to return to.
GROSS: Where did he end up going?
MILLER: So he ended up being paroled to a halfway house in Michigan. At this point, I had moved to Chicago. So he ended up - there was a halfway house that had a space that opened up for him, and he ended up being able to parole there.
GROSS: And then there's another problem for a lot of people who have gotten out of prison, and that is getting to the parole officer and getting there for the urine tests. So what are some of the things that you have to do or that, for instance, your brother had to do when he got out of prison that make it, again, more difficult to have a job because the hours conflict.
MILLER: That's right. So between - my brother had a curfew at 3 o'clock. So between 9 a.m. or - I'm sorry - 8 a.m., when he had movement, and 3 p.m., my brother had to go to drug treatment, AA meetings. He had to go - he had to do weekly check-ins with his parole officer. He had to go to workforce development training, which is training to prepare people for the worlds of work. He had to find and check in with a case manager. And then he had to look for work and find a job all within a certain period of time. So for him, he had 30 days to look for and find a job. All of this had to be done before 3 p.m.
And missing any one of these appointments - so let's say he had four appointments in the course of a day. Missing either one of these appointments would be considered a, quote, "violation of his parole." And this is serious because all - when we consider prison admissions in a given year, about a quarter of all prison admissions are for violations of parole like this - missing an appointment with a probation officer, not reporting to workforce development or workforce training, maybe missing one of the two or three AA meetings you're required to attend, missing an appointment with a counselor or something like that. This accounts for a quarter of our annual prison admissions, these small things.
GROSS: And getting to those appointments can be hard because you have to have the bus or train fare. You're not going to be reimbursed for that, are you?
MILLER: That's absolutely right. I mean, returning to Jimmy's story, you know, Jimmy was effectively indigent. He had no income. His income was the $40 gift card that I handed him at the end of each of our interviews. And he was dependent on that $40 gift card to get to one of his nine appointments in a given week. And so - and missing those appointments meant that he could be sent back to jail or prison. But he didn't have the money to make those appointments, nor did he have money to cover, for example, the phone calls that he would have to make to the parole officer to say, I may miss this appointment because cellphones aren't free.
So these costs are borne by people with criminal records. But we know that something like 80% of all people who go to jails or prisons qualify as indigent for the purposes of legal defense, meaning these are people who qualify to get a public defender. And to qualify to get a public defender, you must be declared indigent. So we punish the poor, and these folks are expected to cover their transportation, cover their bills, make sure that they eat - like these sorts of things - all while being locked out of the labor market, which would generate the income that they need to attend to these things.
GROSS: One of the problems faced both by the person who has left prison and trying to re-enter the world and by their family and friends, is that often in prison, you've accumulated debt and you've accumulated debt from right before you were sent to prison. And so you don't - if you don't have a job and you were poor before you went to prison and you're poor coming out of prison, where are you going to get the money to pay off your debt? And then you have to turn to family and friends to help you. So let's start with the kind of debt that's accumulated before and during prison. And can we use your brother as an example?
MILLER: Certainly, certainly. So my brother was charged $600 to be represented by a public defender whom he met on the day of his conviction for 20 minutes.
GROSS: Can I just stop you right there? A public defender is supposed to be somebody who you don't have to pay, I thought.
MILLER: Well, you get charged (laughter). The public defender is someone who the courts assign for you that you don't pay up front. But certainly, he was charged for that representation.
GROSS: OK. So that's $600, which is a lot of money if you're poor.
MILLER: It's a lot of money if you're poor. He was charged an additional $1,600 in other court fees. So my presumption is that these things go to cover the cost of the judgment, bailiffs, you know, these sorts of things associated with just general court costs. He was charged an extradition fee. I think that was around $400. This is to get him from - he was arrested in Chicago and transported back to Michigan, so it was the cost of the transport van to get him there. He was charged about $60 for the cost to record his felony record in the state archives. And so most people, by the time they go to a jail or prison, they've already racked up thousands of dollars in legal fees just like these.
GROSS: We need to take a short break here. So let's do that, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Reuben Jonathan Miller. His new book is called "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Reuben Jonathan Miller, author of the new book "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." It's based on his sociological research into the lives of men and women after they've been released from prison. He also draws extensively on what he's witnessed in his own family. Two of his brothers and his father have been in prison. Miller teaches at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.
When we left off, we were talking about the debt that's accumulated by people in prison because they're charged for court costs and other related fees. This debt can add up to thousands of dollars, and then more money gets added on top of that because everything you buy in prison is more expensive than it is outside of prison.
You say everything is just about twice as expensive when you're in prison. So what kind of things do you have access to to buy in prison? And give us an example of the costs that you face.
MILLER: Certainly. So things to buy might include the cost of ramen noodles. It might cost 10 cents or 20 cents a package of ramen noodles on the outside. If you buy a single package at the store, it costs about 30 cents. Well, this is a small thing. Let's think about the cost of phone calls, for example. On average, to talk to my brother for 15 minutes, it cost me $6.55. That was per phone call. That was in the state of Michigan. And that was after a series of reforms that got the costs of phone calls inside jails and prisons down. But then there was the cost of sending notes. So there's the letters that you can write, but there's also a service called JPay, which allows you to send something like an email, and they charge you a dollar a page to send an email to your incarcerated loved one. These small things that aren't well accounted for, families take on the burden of these expenses.
And then, of course, there's the cost of food. So prisoners just aren't fed enough. I can't tell you how many people talk to me from the inside. You know, I followed about 250 people over these years who have been in jails and prisons, and all of them told me - or just about without exception - that they were always so hungry because no matter how much of the prison food you ate, you didn't get enough because they neither feed you enough nor is the food nutritious enough. But what I will say is that they don't feed enough. They don't give you enough to sort of live. So the families are responsible for subsidizing the food, for subsidizing the expenses for the food. And so you send, you know, money each month to cover the cost of ramen noodles.
But then there are also things like toiletries, soap, toilet tissue, writing utensils, calendars. And then there's their shoes. The articles of clothing, the shoes that the prison gives you, gives everybody blisters. A pair of gym shoes that you could buy at Marshalls or Target or any big box store that would cost you about $30 or $35 cost you $60 or $65 or $80 at the prison commissary store. And you have to buy it from the commissary store. So these little things, these small expenses, add up and it's these little things, I think, that do the work of wearing you down.
GROSS: What is the rationale for charging so much money for phone calls and emails? I mean, I would like to think that communication with prisoners would be encouraged because it's healthy for the prisoners to stay in touch with family. It's like if you want somebody to be connected to the world, to be sane when they get out of prison, you know, staying in touch with family is really important. Why are you asked to pay so much money in order to do that?
MILLER: The truth of the matter is when you ask why, one of the reasons why is that phone calls, food services, telecommunications services of all types in prisons aren't run by state government offices. They're run by private entities. And so to communicate, to accept a phone call - you know, I was accepting a phone call from Securus, not from the Michigan Department of Corrections. It was Securus telecommunications service that would charge these exorbitant fees and not just Securus. There are other telecommunication services, of course, that do this by a set and series of private companies. And so the problem is privatization. And this is one form of privatization that doesn't get enough attention.
GROSS: So I think, you know, looking at the big picture here, you're likely to accumulate a lot of debt from the court costs before you're sent to prison and from fees once you're in prison. And that's all going to accumulate. Meanwhile, while you're in prison, people are making a profit off of you.
MILLER: That's right. And those debts are borne by the family. So even the debt that the incarcerated person bears - their legal costs, their court fines - the family takes up much of that debt. In the case of my brother, for example, one Christmas, I sent him $250 because he requested a pair of boots, which inside the prison cost something like $125 or something like that, and a pair of shoes. And also, he wanted money for ramen noodles. And it was Christmas and I was trying to give him an additional bump, you know, buy things that you want and need, here's a present, you know, kind of thing. So I sent him $250. I didn't know when I sent him the $250 that everything over $50 - half of everything over $50 that I sent to him would be taken by the Department of Corrections and applied to his legal fees. So I sent $250. He ended up getting something like $150 or $175 or something like that. So this giant chunk out of that money got taken and applied to those debts. So the family is bearing the weight of this debt because the prisoner is in prison. He cannot or she cannot earn money to cover those debts themselves.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Reuben Jonathan Miller. He's the author of the new book "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." It's part sociological study and part memoir about his family. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DARRELL GRANT'S "FILS DU SOLEIL (FOR TONY WILLIAMS)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Reuben Jonathan Miller, author of the new book "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." It's part sociological study, part memoir. It's based on 15 years of his research following men and women after they've been released from prison and draws on his own experiences. He grew up in poverty on Chicago's South Side, spent four years in foster care and was then raised by his grandmother. His brothers and fathers have spent time in prison, and Miller has helped his older brother during the years he's been in and out of prison. Reuben Jonathan Miller teaches at the University of Chicago in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practices.
So your brothers did time in prison. Your father spent the better part of 20 years in prison. You can almost say that you were on a prison track when you were a child. Your mother left you and your brothers outside of a police station. She abandoned you there. What is your understanding of why your mother did that?
MILLER: She had problems. You know, she had problems. She struggled with her own issues, and there were very few resources for a woman who's struggling either with a drug addiction or mental health or even, you know, women who, say, have trouble raising their kids. I mean, this is - you know, I was born in '76. I grew up in an era where the so-called welfare queen was scandalized and shamed. You know, it wasn't OK really to admit that you didn't know what you were doing. So I don't know. I can't tell you exactly why that happened, but I can tell you that life couldn't have been easy for her.
GROSS: So you spend four of the first five years of your life in foster homes and then your grandmother was able to get custody. So it sounds like your grandmother, once she took custody of you, really tried to make sure you were educated. She had you read a book a week.
MILLER: That's absolutely right. We need to read a book a week. We'd offer a oral book report to her. She made us lip-sync Michael Jackson at family functions so that we were comfortable speaking to people. I think I understood in a deeper way as I grew up how and why she was doing the things that she did. I mean, so now that in the profession of a professor, someone who has to talk to people fairly regularly, I can see why the lip-syncing matters. I can see why the reading matters. I can see what she was doing.
GROSS: You started your work counseling children in foster care. Was that because of your own experiences in foster care?
MILLER: It was because it was a good job (laughter). It was a good job. And I hadn't yet finished college. I had started college, and I was looking for work. And social services was one of the routes to social mobility. So there was certainly a sense of mission. But I wasn't - you know, I began that work at 21. I wasn't fully aware at 21 of the depth of, for example, the reach of these very many systems that are all intertwined - foster care, jails and prisons - that is, the criminal justice system - how anti-poverty policy affected our lives. But a good part of why I took that job was because it was among the best jobs that were available to me at the time.
GROSS: After you worked with children in foster care, you worked as a volunteer chaplain at Cook County jail in the minimum, medium and maximum security units. Why did you become a volunteer prison chaplain?
MILLER: I'm a religious guy. I have a faith tradition, and there was a scripture that moved me. It was Matthew 25. And in this scripture, this is the, quote, "valley of decision" where nations are gathered and the thing that determines whether or not a nation is welcomed into the beloved, as it were in the scripture, is how they treated the most vulnerable. And so one of the lines - of course, the most famous of the lines are, you know, when I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you clothe me? And then the line that really grabbed me was, when I was sick and in prison, did you visit me? And that touched me. It touched me in a deep way.
And maybe it touched me in a deep way because of, you know, my prior experiences, maybe because of this work with the kids. But for whatever reason, that line, those verses, really took hold in a deep way for me. And I started - I asked my pastor at the time if we had a prison ministry and we didn't, and she allowed me to go and start a prison ministry. And so I began volunteering with men who volunteered, visiting, sitting with, going to the Cook County Jail and spending time in those various divisions. But for me, it was an ethical commitment that drew me to this work.
GROSS: You carried a Bible under your arm when you met the men. What was the reaction to the Bible and how did that affect reaction to you?
MILLER: It was so varied. So some men welcomed me and they welcomed the idea of a Bible study, and they were very happy to have someone come and visit with them. And I was also one of the younger chaplains. I was in my mid-20s and among the youngest religious volunteers. Most of the men who visited were older, were middle-aged, in their 40s or 50s or 60s. And some of the men were very happy to see me and some of the guards, too. And some of the men weren't so happy to see me and some of the guards, too. Some called me a fraud. Some thought I was there to peddle, you know, fake religion. Or maybe they believed in different things than I did. And so the reaction was really mixed. But there were these powerful, incredibly sweet moments when even a guard who maybe had a kid who found themselves in the Cook County jail would sneak over and ask me or one of my colleagues to go and sit with their child, or when a man who's locked in a cage would talk to me about their children and would ask me to go visit their children on the outside, and I would. And so while the welcome was varied, there were these beautiful moments of connection that I carry with me.
GROSS: You know, you describe the smell in Cook County jail when you started doing your work. You write the smell of must, instant coffee, hastily brushed teeth, unwashed jumpsuits and stomach flu tells you precisely where you are. So when you first started doing the prison work, when you got a whiff of that, what did you think?
MILLER: Wow, I'm here. This is it. And the reason why I lay it out like that in the book, the reason why I report the smell of a prison and the fact that it tells you where you are is because subsequently, I've been able to visit prisons, you know, in many different countries, in Sweden, in Belgrade, in Glasgow, Scotland and other places. And everywhere, the prison smells the same to me. And everywhere prisons and jails smell the same to me because this is the result of what my dear friend Michael Walker (ph) might call - he's a sociologist. He calls it batched living because people are held together.
And, you know, we know that prisons and jails are vectors for chronic and communicable diseases, certainly for communicable diseases. It's one of the reasons why COVID is so dangerous in prisons is because people are batched, they're held so close together. They use the bathroom together. They're in showers together. When someone in a cell gets tuberculosis, the whole wing gets tuberculosis. And so we know that diseases that aren't even common in the, quote, "free world," those diseases are very common in the prison. And so anyway, the smell leads (laughter). You know, you walk into a place - and I know when I walk in where I am by how it smells and how I feel when I'm encountered with seeing these men walking in coffles down the hallways.
GROSS: You must have been asked for help a lot when you were volunteering as a prison chaplain. What kind of help did you give? And what kind of help were you asked for where you just - you couldn't give it or you didn't want to or you thought it was ethically, you know, wrong in some way or you just weren't allowed to?
MILLER: You know, most people would ask me to pray for them. That was the No. 1 request. Will you pray for me? My case is coming up. Will you go meet with my mother and tell her that I'm here and I care, I love you, I miss you? Will you meet with my children and tell them that I'm, you know, thinking about them? You know, let people know that we're human beings inside here. Most of the requests were for, you know, bits of human kindness. You know, no one asked me for money. No one asked me to do anything super unethical. Nobody even asked me - I wasn't even asked to testify on anybody's behalf. The requests that I got were mostly for prayer and for visits.
GROSS: What kind of prayer would you say for them?
MILLER: I'd pray for their strength. I'd pray for their peace. I'd pray that justice would be done, whatever that look like. And I'd pray that they'd have the wisdom and patience and understanding to get beyond it. Sometimes, a lot of times, I'd pray for their freedom because a lot of men and women in this country are arrested for standing around. A lot of men and women in this country are accused of crimes that they did not commit. We know that there have been 2,800 exonerations since 1989. And a lot of people are going to jail for crimes that we might not consider a crime if we stopped and thought about it for a little while. Maybe we wouldn't send a man to prison or a woman to prison for forging a check. Maybe we wouldn't send a man or a woman to prison for using drugs. And maybe we wouldn't send a man or a woman to prison for 50 or 60 years, even if they committed murder, if we thought about what the punishment should be for a crime or if punishment is warranted for it. So oftentimes, I'd pray for the men's freedom, too.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Reuben Jonathan Miller. He's the author of the new book "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Reuben Jonathan Miller, author of the new book "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." It's based on his sociological research into the lives of men and women after they've been released from prison and while they were in prison. He also draws extensively on what he's witnessed in his own family. Two of his brothers and his father have been in prison. Miller teaches at the University of Chicago in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice.
So - you know, after working with children in foster care and then working as a volunteer prison chaplain, you became a sociologist. And the work that you've been doing is, you know, researching the lives of prisoners and what happens after they leave prison and all the obstacles to getting a foothold after they leave. Why did you turn from actually directly trying to help prisoners to, you know, basically, reporting on them, to researching on them and looking at the bigger picture in a more policy-oriented kind of way through their personal stories?
MILLER: I initially went to social work school because I wanted to be a better chaplain. And I was interested in helping people a little bit more upstream because I noticed while doing the work as a chaplain that people from my neighborhood, and, in fact, people who look just like me, would move in and out of this jail or prison no matter what I did, no matter how many services I referred them to, no matter how much spiritual counseling that I offered, because they had often been exposed to the same things - and because we know that in this country, people are arrested for things that they do. And some people are arrested for nothing.
You know, I know kids whose arrest trajectory started at 10 or 11 years old for doing things like standing on a corner, congregating in groups. They're arrested for playing with each other (laughter). They're arrested for being on the corner too long when there's nowhere else for them to go. And some people are arrested for coping with trauma and violence in the best ways that they know how, which might be drug use, which might be lashing out. And by the time they eventually commit an actual crime that we would consider a punishable offense, that arrest history will be used against them.
They'd say, you've got this long history of arrests. Even though you're being caught right now with three crack rocks in your pocket and maybe you could benefit from treatment, or maybe you could benefit from some counseling or something like that, we see a pattern of criminality. We're going to throw the book at you. You're going to do three years in prison, five years in prison, something like that. I wanted to know what drives all this stuff. And I wanted to stop thinking so much about the behavior that's expressing itself in the moment and think about some of the root causes and some of the consequences.
And so I went to, initially, social work school because I wanted to be a better chaplain. I thought this is what I wanted to do with my life. I - my interests changed. And I started to study mass incarceration and mass incarceration's fallout. So that's sort of how we get to the research trajectory.
GROSS: Do you feel like you carry around a certain amount of survivor's guilt in the sense that you were the one in your family who made it to the middle class. You teach at a university. You have a new book. I mean, you've been very successful. Your book is getting great reviews. Your brother has been in and out of prison. Is he in prison now?
MILLER: He's out now. And he's doing well, as well as can be, with support from me and from my loved ones. And no, I don't feel survivor's guilt at all because I want us all to be free. You know, I - my grandmother made me read. My grandmother forced me to give her a book report once a week. My grandmother made me lip-sync Michael Jackson with my brother to prepare us to enjoy life and to have a full life.
You know, this is the same woman who came up from Louisiana during a wave of the Great Migration and put herself through secretarial school. She came up from Baton Rouge, La., the dead of the South, running from the problems, I'm sure, that were emblematic of that period in time. And she put herself through secretarial school. And it's on no more than $8 an hour - that was at the height of her income - and decided to raise three fairly bad boys who had been left behind. And this woman wanted my success, and I embraced it.
And so I don't have survivor's guilt. I also don't look at myself as some super-exceptional person. I certainly look at myself as someone who is able to thrive, given the support of my family and the people who love me because I've been given chances to thrive. And I want those same chances for the brothers and sisters who are locked away in cages right now.
GROSS: You know, I'm thinking about the question I asked you about whether you have any form of survivor's guilt because you made it into the middle class and have established an important role for yourself, both in the lives of people in prison and coming out and also in the world of sociology. And thinking about my question, I think, that's a kind of stupid question to ask, you know, because, of course, you should feel good and not bad about having, you know, broken out of all of the societal economic traps that are set for the poor.
MILLER: I appreciate that very much. And I want us to think about why we set those traps and whether or not we need those traps. Why do we need those traps? You know, why do we make it so that half of the people in a given family will find themselves locked away? You know, why did we make a world in which 49% of Black men will be arrested before they're 23 and 38% of white men will be arrested before they turn 23? I want us to think about all these traps that we've created, we've produced, and I want us to unmake them. That's my hope.
GROSS: Reuben Jonathan Miller is the author of the new book "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." He teaches at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Reuben Jonathan Miller, author of the new book "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." It's based on his sociological research into the lives of men and women after they've been released from prison. He also draws extensively on what he's witnessed in his own family. Two of his brothers and his father have been in prison. Miller teaches at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice.
I think your brother was jailed while you were writing your new book. Do I have that right?
MILLER: That's absolutely right.
GROSS: So it's this great responsibility for you because you're worried about him. You're trying to do everything you can to help him. You're trying to pay for some of his needs. You're trying to find a home for him after he gets out. And in the meantime, you're doing your research. You're writing your book. You're teaching. Can you tell us a little bit what that period was like for you, trying to do right by your brother while also keeping up your commitments to your work and to, you know, your wife and your son?
MILLER: Thank you for that question. It was difficult. It's interesting that the feeling that I came to often was a feeling of shame. And it was a feeling of shame of being alone. It felt, to me, given the circles that I was running in, that no one else had experienced this. But that's what it felt like. That wasn't true.
GROSS: By the circles you were running in, you meant like the university circles as opposed to...
MILLER: Absolutely, university circles. Absolutely. I'm in the pastoral scene of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. I'm spending time with amazing scholars like Joan Scott and Didier Fassin and these folks who are giants in my field. And I'm having wine and cheese dinners. And in the middle of the wine and cheese dinner, I'm getting a collect call from my brother, and I have to get up from the table and take the call. Or I'm in the library trying my best to concentrate, trying my best to move life forward. In the middle of it, I get a phone call from my brother. Or I need to make a court date on the day that I have a presentation at a university for a conference with other important people who I presumed didn't have the same problems that I had. And so I felt profoundly alone.
But the truth is that I wasn't alone. One in two people in this country have a loved one who's been to jail or prison. This is where we live. This is so many people's experiences. I'll tell you, when I give presentations, all sorts of people - deans, judges, presidents of this or that company - come to me and say, thank you for the presentation. Let me tell you, though - like, that was a really interesting presentation. Let me tell you about my son. Let me tell you about my daughter. Let me tell you about this person who I love very deeply. There's something profoundly wrong with that.
And so the feeling was isolating. You know, it felt like a rupture from the world that I was trying to move in or something like that. But this is one of the reasons why I decided to write about it, to write about my own experiences, because the truth is, it wasn't a rupture. The truth is many of the people in the spaces that I was moving through, if they paid attention to their family and friends, had these very same experiences and many would often tell me.
MILLER: Did you initially try to keep your brother's imprisonment a secret, thinking that it would work against you and that it would work against against you in how people regarded your research or work against, you know, your career path in the university? And if you did try to keep it at some point, what changed your mind?
MILLER: I was very worried about his incarceration, for example, in a Michigan penitentiary, resulting in me being unable to do research out of a Michigan penitentiary.
GROSS: Because you'd seem too biased by the standards of the profession?
MILLER: And also there just being rules about, you know, like so - so who's visitor's list are you on?
GROSS: Rules from the prison.
MILLER: Rules from the prison. I was I was worried about the prison kicking me out of that. I was worrying about the professional costs. My world is a world of jails and prisons. I need to be able to move freely through jails and prisons. You know, what does it mean for my brother to be in a jail or prison while I'm trying to do this work? And so that was a concern. But I decided to write about it because so many people faced a situation like this because our prison system is so massive, because there are 19.6 million people who have felony records, because 80 million Americans have a criminal record, because it touches so many families and because judges and prosecutors don't think about the fact that when they incarcerate a man or woman that they're locking a family up with them, that they're a son or a brother or a father or an uncle or someone's child, that they love people - there's people that they love, that that this isn't even in the calculus when they're deciding to put a person away for 20, 30, 40, 50 years because they are afraid of them. And so I decided to write myself in for those reasons.
GROSS: So if there were any reforms in the criminal justice system that you could single handedly, you know, legislate, what would they be?
MILLER: I'd start with the 45,000 laws, policies and administrative sanctions that target people with criminal records. And I'd ask myself a very simple question. Do we need 45,000? Is that what you need to make yourself feel safe? Is that what we need for, quote, "safety"? So that's the first place. That's a very important place. And that's a practical thing to do. But really, the question isn't just a question of specific laws and policies. It's a question about making a world in which people belong. This is the place to start from. The question shouldn't be, what do I need to do to make myself feel safe? The question could be, and I think should be, what does this person who's coming out of jail or prison, need to thrive? Because if we get people to the place of human thriving, then we'll be safe.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. I've really gotten a lot out of your book. And I really appreciated talking with you today, so thank you. And I wish you all good things.
MILLER: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Reuben Jonathan Miller is the author of "Halfway Home: Race, Punishment And The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration." He teaches at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the threats caused by domestic terrorism from right-wing extremist groups, white supremacists and militias. My guest will be Elizabeth Neumann, who served as assistant secretary for threat prevention and security at the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration. She warned about the growing threat by extremists, but she said not only didn't the Trump White House address it, Trump's rhetoric contributed to it. She resigned from the administration. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.