Harvard Magazine profiles Bruce Western, a sociology professor at the school who is studying prison parolees. Western has come to believe that just as offenders' crimes carry a cost to society, so too does the shortage of social supports and rehabilitative services for offenders. A crime-control strategy of locking up more people, and keeping them locked up longer, isn't working, he says. He is determined to track parolees to help the American public understand how crime is shaped by poverty, addiction, and histories of family violence, in an effort to promote a more humane—and more effective—prison policy.
Tracking this group, though complicated, is essential to Western's goal of understanding what challenges prisoners encounter in reintegrating into communities. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, he is tracking a sample of inmates released from the Massachusetts prison system who return to Boston-area addresses during the course of a year. The researchers collect friends' and relatives' information (to maintain contact when, for example, a subject's phone is disconnected for nonpayment) and work with community street-workers and the Boston police, who may have information on the former prisoners' whereabouts. Ultimately, Western hopes to learn what services might most effectively help the formerly incarcerated lead productive lives and what alternatives to prison might better improve public safety.