“Mass incarceration has changed the social life of the city. It has filtered into the most intimate relationships and deformed the contours of American democracy, one poor (and most often) Black family at a time.” – Reuben Jonathan Miller
As a chaplain at the Cook County Jail in Chicago and as a sociologist studying mass incarceration, Dr. Reuben Jonathan Miller has spent years alongside prisoners, formerly incarcerated people, their families, and their friends to understand the lifelong burden that even a single arrest can entail. What his work reveals is a simple, if overlooked truth: life after incarceration is its own form of prison.
Miller’s new book, Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration, is a portrait of the many ways mass incarceration reaches into American life, sustaining structural racism and redrawing the boundaries of our democracy. Drawing from fifteen years of research, over 250 in-depth interviews with citizens whose lives have been touched by the criminal justice system, and his own experience as the son and brother of incarcerated Black men, Miller shows how the American carceral system was not created to rehabilitate. Instead he reveals how its design keeps classes of Americans impoverished, unstable, and disenfranchised long after they’ve paid their debt to society.
“[A] trenchant guide to the legal and social cruelties piled on Americans who have felony conviction.… Miller writes about criminal justice with the expertise of a legal scholar, but his life experiences and training as a social worker endow his analysis with a vividness and empathy that elude some other critiques of mass incarceration.”―The Washington Post
Each year, more than half a million American citizens are released from prison and join an ever-growing population people who live with a felony record—currently a staggering twenty million. But, as Miller forcefully illustrates, the idea that one can serve one’s time and return to life as a full-fledge member of society is one of America’s most pernicious myths. Formerly incarcerated people returning to the outside face jobs that are off-limits, housing they are barred from occupying, family members they are forbidden to stay with, and votes they cannot cast. As he says in his TED talk (viewed over 1 million times) people living with felony records “live in an alternate legal reality.”
“Halfway Home is a vital and compelling account of the entangled legacies of racism, crime, and punishment in America. Miller shows how the nation’s experiment with mass incarceration harms those far removed from the prison’s bars…. This persuasive and essential work weaves together moral philosophy, in-depth interviews, legal theory, and personal history, reckoning with the meaning of justice and redemption in an unjust society.”—Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted
Miller walks alongside many of these people as they navigate the tightrope of a highly restrictive society often at direct odds with the requirements of their parole, relegated to a “hidden social world and an alternate legal reality.” Weaving throughout his own struggle to best support his brother navigating the criminal justice system, Miller lays plain how this “afterlife” of incarceration catches loved ones in its net as well.
An “indictment of the criminal justice system [that] should trouble the soul of the nation” (NPR), Halfway Home is a call to action that reveals how laws, rules, and regulations extract a tangible cost not only from those working to rebuild their lives, but also our democracy—and in the process get us no closer to justice or rehabilitation. Miller demands America must acknowledge and value the lives of its formerly imprisoned citizens – both in our policies and in our ethos.
Halfway Home was praised by NPR as “impressive.… Miller writes in prose that is at once powerful and engaging — and combines an abundance of data with the lived experiences of the people the numbers represent.… Halfway Home shines a light on a wide range of absurdities baked into an inherently unjust system.” The book earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal. As Publishers Weekly noted, “this bracing account makes clear just how high the deck is stacked against the formerly incarcerated.” The book was a finalist for the 2022 PEN America Literary Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and won two Prose Awards (for Cultural Anthropology and Sociology, and Excellence in Social Science) from the Association of American Publishers, and the Law and Society Association’s Herbert Jacob Book Prize.
Miller is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago in the School of Social Service Administration. Before coming to Chicago, he was an assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, a faculty affiliate with the Populations Studies Center, the Program for Research on Black Americans, and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies. He has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey; a fellow at New America and the Rockefeller Foundation; and a visiting scholar at the University of Texas at Austin and Dartmouth College. A native son of Chicago, he lives with his wife and children on the city’s South Side.here.