Culture & Society
Once released from prison or jail, how does a young man return to the environment that contributed to his being incarcerated and maintain his freedom? UCSB sociologist Nikki Jones is spending two years living in a rough neighborhood in San Francisco to find out.
Jones moved to the Western Addition neighborhood, in the Fillmore area of San Francisco, in mid-2007 after receiving a $350,000, five-year grant from the William T. Grant Foundation for her research project “Pathways to Freedom: How Young People Create a Life After Incarceration.” Her research will look at the various settings that young people return to after incarceration to try to determine which factors contribute to recidivism or success on their re-entry to society.
Every year, more than 200,000 people 24 years and younger are released from detention, jails and prisons in this country. For African-American men, incarceration has become a “common life event” that affects their life trajectories in dramatic ways, Jones says. In recent years, young African-American women are showing similar patterns. When released from jail or prison, most people, especially youth, return to the same neighborhoods, families and peer networks they left. The neighborhoods are likely to have high rates of poverty and are predominantly non-white. Jones is studying how young adults re-assimilate—or don’t—into communities and what factors—social, cultural and economic—affect their abilities to do so successfully. What are the physical, symbolic, social and economic contexts in which young people work to stay free after being released from incarceration?
Jones had to shift gears slightly after moving into the neighborhood. “One of the things I didn’t expect when I started this research was for a gang injunction to be placed on the neighborhood,” Jones explains. The Western Addition has a reputation as a violent, dangerous community. While there have been recent efforts to change that, there were three shootings in the three weeks before she moved in, prompting authorities to crack down. The majority of the names on the injunction list were young black men under 30, she says.
The gang injunction meant those on the list and their associates were restricted from associating with each other in the three geographic areas named in the injunction. The tension between young people who live in those areas also prevented them from moving freely throughout the community. These two things operate together in ways that can complicate efforts to provide programs and services to this segment of neighborhood youth, Jones explains.
After incarceration, it’s very difficult for young men to divorce themselves from the connections they have.
“The challenges are difficult,” she says. “We ask these young men who are returning from incarceration to knife off all their relationships. That’s pretty hard to do. How do you help these guys to do that and then how do you encourage them to help others do the same?”
For those under the gang injunction and anyone who associates with them, “it hardens the boundaries around them. Once again the question of freedom arises,” Jones says.
Young men have differing experiences of incarceration. Some are arrested and booked, then released. Others spend time in a city or county jail or state prison. Jones wants to know, “How do these removals of these young men from the community and then their re-entry affect them as individuals and the community as a whole? How do the networks that support these kids cope? And how do the people in the community groups help them to change?”
Through one particular community-based organization, Jones meets regularly with a number of these young men. She holds GED classes for some, and follows the work of the organization on a daily basis.
“I really wanted to get a sense of how mass incarceration has affected the neighborhood,” she said. “What would a good program look like? How do you build trust within this group? The young boys on the corner are a problem for everyone. You have to connect with them; then, how do you keep them connected?”
The young men have varying degrees of investment in gang activities, Jones says. Some may be heavily involved in criminal activity; others may just be on the corner to hang out with friends and shoot the breeze. But the police response is often to sweep them all up together.
“It’s been remarkable to me in some ways to see how close the law enforcement system is in their lives. The police see them every day, know their parents, their brothers and sisters. One kid said to me, ‘It’s not a gang injunction, it’s a family injunction.’
Typically, these boys would likely “age out” of life on the streets, she says. But under the injunction, their criminal identification is reinforced on a daily basis. “It (the injunction) doesn’t really allow them the freedom to move out. Most people age out of this, but some of these policies formalize criminal identity.”
“We tell them to just leave. But that’s not easy. They have to negotiate a life. It’s a kind of survival strategy for young people. They don’t want to leave their friends, families, places they know.”
Jones will continue to teach at UCSB while she works with the Western Addition community organization and interviews the young men there for the next year or more. Her ethnographic study will describe the context into which the young men return to the community, examine the strategies they use to negotiate their settings after incarceration, and conceptually map how formerly incarcerated young people and neighborhood residents, resources and institutions interact to accomplish successful transitions.
“Sociologically, even though we might feel like we can’t understand these young men and women, they’re all human like the rest of us,” Jones says. “All the ways we deal with issues is very similar. I’m hoping that realization will allow for some empathy for these kids.”