Officers check cars at a Massachusetts prison
Officers check cars at a correctional center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Black and Hispanic former prisoners end up in more disadvantaged areas than whites, and many do not find any place to attach to at all.

Race is an enormous factor in imprisonment. While black people make up just 12 percent of the U.S. adult population, there are more black people in U.S. prisons than white people, and the rate of imprisonment for blacks is five times that of whites. Hispanics are 16 percent of the adult population, yet account for 23 percent of inmates. These racial disparities persist, and are likely reinforced, even when they leave prison.

That’s according to a new study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs by Jessica Simes, a sociologist at Boston University. The study used unique and detailed data from the Boston Reentry Study, which tracked 122 men and women released from state prisons in Massachusetts in 2013 and relocated to Boston. The study collected addresses for these individuals as well as details on their neighborhood conditions, family and support structures, specific type of housing, moves, and more. Simes matched this information to degrees of neighborhood disadvantage using census tract data of incidence of such things as child poverty, unemployment, public-assistance income, and female-headed households (female-headed households are more than twice as likely to be poor as all U.S. households).

The kinds of neighborhoods these prisoners are released into and the ways those neighborhoods affect them is a huge issue, as more than 600,000 are released from prisons into communities every year, more than double the rate of the 1990s. Simes’s study finds that those who are released from prison tend to have very limited choices when it comes to where to live; most head to disadvantaged and socially marginalized neighborhoods. Black and Hispanic respondents were much more likely to move to severely disadvantaged neighborhoods than whites. And many prisoners form no real neighborhood attachments at all to these neighborhoods, which contributes to their further social isolation.

Neighborhoods of Boston Reentry Study Respondents During the First Week of Prison Release

This article is derived in part from an article published in the Journal of Urban Affairs (Aug 2, 2018), copyright Urban Affairs Association, available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07352166.2018.1495041.

Fewer than 25 percent of the 122 people in the study (just 30 respondents) returned to the same neighborhoods they lived in before going to before prison. Roughly 40 percent reported staying in more than one place during the first week after they were released from prison and 60 percent said they stayed in more than one place by the final interview. Slightly fewer than a quarter (29 of 122) lived in shelters or transitional housing and about half (56 respondents) moved in with their family or friends. Sixteen percent of respondents did not report an address at all, living between several households, on the streets, or having returned to jail or prison.

Those with jobs are much more likely to attach to neighborhoods, while older people and those with substance abuse problems or mental health issues are much less likely to attach. In other words, those who need community and the resources it provides the most are least able to find it.

A large number of released prisoners ended up in extremely marginalized neighborhoods. Roughly 40 percent of those tracked in the study moved to just two neighborhoods, Roxbury or Dorchester, areas of Boston that are home to significantly disadvantaged populations and with large concentrations of black and minority residents. The vast majority of those who moved to these neighborhoods were non-white. Indeed, the neighborhoods that released prisoners move to have significantly higher rates of disadvantage, with twice as much poverty, twice the unemployment rate, two times as many female-headed families, and two times as many families on public assistance compared to the greater Boston population.

Distributions of Neighborhood Disadvantage

This article is derived in part from an article published in the Journal of Urban Affairs (Aug 2, 2018), copyright Urban Affairs Association, available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07352166.2018.1495041.

Of course, a big part of the issue is that the locational options open to reentering prisoners are largely concentered in these neighborhoods. For one, group living quarters, shelters, and other transitional housing options are overwhelmingly located in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Such facilities are also frequently disconnected from established residential neighborhoods, thus residents lack a sense of neighborhood identity. “In this way, social marginality mapped onto spatial marginality,” said Simes.

Many prisoners are never able to connect with places or find a real home at all. They bounce around between institutions like mental health facilities, drug-treatment centers, homeless shelters, and the like. For Simes, incarceration is “fundamentally segregative by removing people from places” and forcing them to reestablish community ties.

Released prisoners are placeless in every sense of that term, lacking access to the social and economic support that a real community provides. And that’s another factor in both the persistence of neighborhood disadvantage and the high rates of crime that go along with it.

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