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Sociologist studies lasting confines of imprisonment

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- For the last several years, Bruce Western has been studying the rising number of Americans who are serving time in prison. The professor of sociology has examined how higher incarceration rates have impacted families and how the effects reverberate in labor markets.

Professor of Sociology Bruce Western and Devah Pager

Professor of Sociology Bruce Western and Devah Pager, who joined the department this fall, are conducting a large-scale study of the effect of a criminal background on the job prospects of applicants of different races.

And then he and a colleague decided to explore the connection between imprisonment and race. What they found startled them: When they examined the statistics on black males in their mid-30s who were high school dropouts, they found that nearly 60 percent had been to prison.

''It was an astonishing number,'' Western said. ''We found a dramatic phenomenon that had not been well documented. African-American community leaders have often spoken about the high incarceration rates among disadvantaged young black men. But until the numbers were calculated, the full magnitude of the problem wasn't appreciated, particularly outside of the black community.''

Young black men were more than six times as likely as young white men to serve time in prison. And the prison incarceration rates for young black males had risen by 165 percent in 20 years.

''For young, African-American, low-educated men, imprisonment has become a normal life event,'' Western said.

The results of the study, conducted by Western and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington, were published in the American Sociological Review last April and garnered attention from the mainstream media.

The ripple effects of incarceration

Western arrived at Princeton in 1993 after completing his Ph.D. at the University of California-Los Angeles. A native of Australia, he began his career by studying labor unions, labor markets and employment in other countries. He teaches a graduate course on labor markets and another on empirical investigation, as well as courses on social statistics for undergraduate and graduate students.

''It took me a long time to get up the courage to study American society,'' he said. ''But the longer I live in the United States, the more urgent America's social problems seem to me.''

The findings of the study conducted with Pettit, who earned her doctorate at Princeton in 1999, led Western to explore the effects of incarceration rates on other areas of black men's lives. Having so many young black men in prison has had an impact on the men's children and on the children's mothers. It has had ramifications for the welfare system and the school system. And it affects the men's employment prospects when they get out of prison. Western found that having served time reduced a man's earnings by 15 percent.

Earlier this year he teamed up with Devah Pager, then an assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University, to examine the effect of a criminal background on the job prospects of applicants of different races. Pager had conducted a groundbreaking study of that question for her dissertation, which won the American Sociological Association's Dissertation Award. This semester Pager joined Princeton's sociology department as an assistant professor.

Pager, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hired a group of male college students and gave them fictitious resumes, some of which bore evidence of criminal records. She sent the young men out in teams to apply for low-wage jobs in Milwaukee. The two applicants on one team were white, and the two on the other team were black. Resumes with criminal backgrounds were given to one white applicant and one black applicant; the other two had crime-free backgrounds. Members of the pairs alternated presenting the criminal record information each week to control for any differences within the pairs that might have affected hiring outcomes.

Pager was interested in quantifying the effect of a criminal record, but she was amazed to discover that her research also revealed a surprisingly deep level of racial discrimination by employers in Milwaukee. White applicants with felony convictions were just as likely, if not more likely, to get called back for a job than black applicants without a criminal history.

''The results demonstrated the extent to which direct racial discrimination was a major factor in hiring decisions, at least in Milwaukee,'' Pager said. ''Employers were using race as a way to screen applicants.''

Pager currently is working on a book about discrimination against minorities and ex-offenders, which will be published next year by the University of Chicago Press.

When Western learned the results of Pager's study, he suggested replicating it on a larger scale in a major Northeast city. Pager and Western teamed up to conduct that study, which has been under way in New York since last February.

''It is one of the largest and most complex audit studies ever undertaken,'' Western said. ''The initial results are quite strikingly in line with those in Milwaukee. We hope to learn a lot about employers' decision-making, which is very difficult to study.''

Teaching inmates

It also is difficult to study the opinions and perceptions of inmates, but Western has explored that avenue by becoming a regular visitor at Trenton State Prison, a maximum-security facility where for the last few years he has taught an abbreviated version of his undergraduate course ''Sociology of Crime and Punishment.''

''I thought it was important and useful for me to gain some small understanding of what it feels like to be in a correctional facility,'' Western said. ''It's fascinating to see how men who are deeply involved in the justice system think about academic criminology and social policy.''

Western has discussed urban crime, the prison boom and rehabilitation with the class of 12 inmates, who read books and essays, write papers and hold seminar discussions. When he assigned ''The Society of Captives'' by Gresham Sykes, a study of Trenton State Prison in the 1950s, he was especially eager to hear the students' reactions.

''The book argues that while it's impossible to control everything in a prison, inmates are kept in check by informal social control -- habits and customs that keep them in line,'' Western said. ''But the students at the prison told me that it's the constant threat of repression by guards that maintains order. They didn't buy the book's argument for one second.''