Jobs and Jail
Sandra Susan Smith studies work and incarceration in an unequal, atomized America.
In the 1970s and ’80s, America’s cities were engulfed in crisis. It’s a familiar story: factories were closed, urban centers hollowed out, and fragile working-class communities ruined. Often, it’s told as a white working-class story, but sociologist Sandra Susan Smith, Guggenheim professor of criminal justice, remembers how deindustrialization devastated her mostly black and Latino hometown of Hartford, Connecticut. Her parents, Jamaican immigrants who had never finished high school, were comparatively lucky. They studied for their high-school diplomas in night school and worked unionized factory jobs, operating machines at airplane-parts and roller-chain companies. But once those jobs started to disappear, Smith remembers, “I think my father saw the writing on the wall.” He decided to train as a steamfitter, eventually making much better money. Soon after Smith left for college, her parents left Hartford for the suburbs.
“Hartford used to be this amazing city,” Smith says. “And around the year that I was born,” in 1970, “it just started to decline significantly. It was a topic of conversation at the dinner table. My father was trying to make sense of racial inequality and the changes in the structure of opportunity,” she continues. “It became really important for me to make sense of why this community seemed to be disintegrating. Some of the kids that I grew up with were robbing homes, including the home that I had been raised in. Drug addiction was on the rise. People had to rely more on public assistance to get by. It just felt like everything negative that could happen to a community was happening.”
Smith, who came to Harvard last summer after 16 years as a professor at Berkeley, has spent her career trying to understand the lives of poor African Americans in a postindustrial, highly unequal, and atomized America. She’s renowned for analyzing how people who live in areas of concentrated poverty search for jobs. Her first book, Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism among the Black Poor (2007), takes an intimate, often heartbreaking look at that process, revealing how workers in the low-skill labor market struggle to get help from one another in applying to and getting recommended for jobs. Previously, the reigning theory was that people from communities with high joblessness simply didn’t know employed people who could help them find work.
The reality was more complicated, Smith showed—and arguably more tragic: job-holders were reluctant to help job-seekers, terrified that the latter’s perceived irresponsibility would imperil their own reputations or get them fired. Those looking for work, especially people with major impediments like a criminal record, knew they couldn’t necessarily count on their loved ones for help. Job-searching among the poor was a social process, mediated by trust and fear in a fragile, unjust labor market.
Many scholars had wondered about the role of trust in low-income black communities before, says University of Michigan sociologist Alford Young Jr., who has known Smith since graduate school, but “she’s really crafted a formal research agenda that jumps to the heart of these issues.” Sociologist William Julius Wilson, Geyser University Professor emeritus, adds: “I consider her appointment to be one of the most important single faculty additions to the Harvard Kennedy School since I joined the faculty in 1996.”
Having moved to the Boston area during the pandemic, Smith says she doesn’t yet fully know what it means to be a Harvard professor. She’s settled in Lexington (preferring its accessible green spaces to Cambridge’s density) with her partner, with whom she’s always looking for good vegan food (Boston’s options fall far short of the Bay Area’s). “I’ve not really been to my office on campus. I only ever interact with my colleagues via Zoom,” she says. Still, she adds: “I feel extraordinarily well cared for and welcomed into this community of scholars.”
Day to day, Smith remembers, the trauma that defined Hartford when she was growing up manifested in her life as boredom. “After I aged out of going outside and playing with the other kids in the neighborhood,” she says, “I found myself extraordinarily bored a lot, and daydreaming about the time when I could escape Hartford.” She was an avid runner (“Jamaicans define themselves, at least in part, by their abilities on the track field”), and was recruited to run track at Columbia, though she dropped the sport after her freshman year. “The first track meet that I ran, I broke the school record,” she says. “This is saying nothing about me; it’s actually saying a lot about how bad the track team was.”
Smith ended up hating the field that she thought she would study, political science. In her spare time, she picked up Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, the seminal 1987 book that linked deindustrialization to the emergence of an impoverished African American underclass in America’s cities (see “The Urban Jobs Crisis,” May-June 2013, page 42). It was a kind of scholarship that Smith hadn’t seen before, connecting big, systemic questions about society with ordinary people’s lives. “I read it and carried it around like a bible,” she recalls. “I cannot tell you how much it transformed me. It felt like it explained everything about my childhood.”
The book was her entry into sociology. She later became an undergraduate research assistant to sociologist Katherine Newman, examining the lives of Harlem fast-food workers, people who work long hours for sub-poverty wages. “I was so taken with her and with her devotion to these topics,” recalls Newman (now University of Massachusetts system chancellor for academic programs). Smith, for her part, was overwhelmed by her first research experience. “I’d never been part of anything like this before,” she says. “I didn’t know what the hell we were doing. The idea of research, for me, didn’t really develop as a coherent thing until much later on.”
But the work captivated her. After graduating from Columbia in 1992, Smith started a sociology doctoral program under Wilson, who was then at the University of Chicago. But it wasn’t until after graduate school that she began the research that prefigured Lone Pursuit and defined her life’s work. Chicago’s sociology department was heavily quantitative, so Smith’s dissertation was based on big data sets on employment and wages. “I was still toying with the idea that I would be a quantitative person,” she remembers. “But the truth of the matter is I wasn’t moved by the dissertation.” She realized, she says, that with data sets, “there was little way to understand what was really playing out on the ground. I really had to talk to people about their experiences and have them take me through the process by which they came to understand things and make decisions.”
As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, Smith changed direction. “I was frustrated by dominant social-capital theories at the time that made sense of blacks’ persistent joblessness at least in part by pointing to their lack of access to social capital,” she explains. This idea posited that at precisely the moment that deindustrialization decimated the labor market, desegregation enabled black middle-class families to leave inner cities, which left poor African Americans without the robust social networks that could provide them jobs and other opportunities.
Her own experiences in Hartford gave her reason to doubt that narrative. “I had relatives who lived in other neighborhoods who were poor. That didn’t mean that they weren’t connected to my family,” she says. “People’s networks were far wider and possibly far more diverse than the research suggested.” One relative, she remembers, “would have known about job opportunities where she worked, and she had a lot of pull. She basically could have gotten anyone in that she wanted to, but she would be like, ‘No, I don’t like this, I don’t like the way this person behaves.’ She would make all sorts of decisions about who could benefit from her influence.”
These observations might sound unsurprising. But Smith was one of the first to theorize their importance to the job search. “Because of my research,” she explains, “there is a general understanding that social-capital mobilization is as important to understand and study as social-capital access, and not just for low-income blacks; it matters for all of us.” The implications for policy were profound: “The diagnosis and the remedy are very tightly linked,” Newman explains. “If you thought…that the reason poor people can’t find jobs is that they don’t have social networks, and then you try to engineer the social network, then it won’t make very much of a difference.” If trust is the issue, she adds, then the right intervention would aim to take the personal risk out of job referrals.
Smith asked, “What is happening in jail that so fundamentally alters one’s trajectory?” Why did holding people on bail before their trials—before they’ve been convicted of any wrongdoing—seem to have life-altering consequences?
In human terms, Smith’s interviews with her sources suggested how their personal relationships were strained by a competitive low-wage labor market, where people had to look out for themselves. The interviews also impressed on her how much individuals’ unprocessed traumas shaped their ability to cope with the present. “I had one man who was a big, sturdy guy,” she remembers. “I asked him to tell me about his family, and he immediately tells me about how when he was a young boy, as soon as he would hear his father coming up the steps into his house, he would just be overwhelmed with fear because his father was so abusive and unpredictable. That was the beginning of a description of a childhood filled with physical and emotional abuse. And that’s the first thing he told me about himself.” He hadn’t had the chance to tell that story before. “I don’t remember anything about his labor-market experiences,” Smith adds, “but I sure as hell remember that. This really big guy, so strong, so powerful in his presence, being overwhelmed as he’s telling me about his little-boy self.
“You realize how many people are walking through this world really hurt and traumatized, but somehow they get up every day, trying to figure things out,” she continues. “Folks can be very resilient, and there’s a privilege that comes with being able to see that.”
The longer individuals are held in jail after being arrested (before trial), the more likely they are to reoffend. Smith was participating in 2014 in a Kennedy School program focused on the U.S. penal system when she learned this: Anne Milgram, an academic and former attorney general of New Jersey, presented a set of disturbing research findings, for example that spending just two to three days in jail makes low-risk defendants 40 percent more likely to commit a new crime before their trials than if they’d been in jail for a day or less.
The revelation about jailing haunted Smith. “I almost couldn’t sleep,” she recalls. “What is happening in jail that so fundamentally alters one’s trajectory?” Why did the widespread practice of holding people on bail before their trials—before they’ve been convicted of any wrongdoing—seem to have life-altering consequences?
It’s a question that connected to the larger, growing conversation about bail reform and the failures of America’s criminal-justice system. The horrors experienced in jail had already been widely documented, like the tragic story of Kalief Browder, who killed himself after being held without a trial for three years (two of them in solitary confinement) on New York’s infamous Rikers Island, on suspicion of stealing a backpack when he was 16. The new research, based on data covering more than 150,000 jailed defendants, suggested that something much more systematic was happening: that merely spending a few nights in jail could trigger a cycle of future criminal-justice involvement. How, Smith asked, was that possible?
In a data-driven world, she laments, qualitative research like hers does not always command the respect quantitative studies do, but the startling statistic about jail confirmed to her that numbers could never tell the full story. She recalls telling her colleagues at the Harvard session, “The only way you can find out what is happening to people—such that moving from one day to two days makes that much of a difference—is to actually sit down and talk to people about their experiences.”
About a year later, she had received a nearly million-dollar grant from the Laura [Elena Munoz ’94] and John Arnold Foundation (now Arnold Ventures) to investigate that question with a team of researchers at Berkeley, where she’d been a professor since 2004. Between 2016 and 2019, they interviewed nearly 300 people who had spent time in jail in San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and Louisville. Unlike prisons, Smith stresses, jails are not meant to be lived in long-term. They’re crowded and lack adequate accommodations for sleeping and eating. They’re also boring, leaving inmates miserable with limited things to do and no access to their support systems. Perversely, those who haven’t been found guilty of anything often endure worse conditions than people serving sentences in prison.
And the longer the period that people spent in jail, the researchers found, the worse the effects of being cut off from their support systems. They lost jobs and fell behind on rent, lacked access to health care and information about their cases, and had their personal property taken away. Inmates reported being shuffled among cells and facilities—and not understanding why. They also witnessed (or experienced) interpersonal violence, both among other inmates and between jail staff and inmates. One San Franciscan, Jorge, who stayed in pretrial detention for six days, said he saw a group of corrections officers beat his cellmate for repeatedly asking the time. “He was taken, held down, beat with a stick, thrown a couple of elbows, and then dragged to the next room,” Jorge told Smith’s team. “It’s very crippling to the human spirit, seeing all that.” A woman who spent three miserable days in jail, unable to get information about her case, believes she was wrongly arrested; she didn’t remember the details, but said that she was detained after a fight broke out at a bar during a sports game. She couldn’t get over that trauma and eventually left San Francisco, where she’d been working in the city government: “I just felt so violated after everything that had happened,” she said. “I really loved being in the city and I really loved my job and everything I was doing, but I couldn’t stay in a place that would allow something like that to happen.”
Smith presented this work for the first time when she was interviewing for her Harvard appointment. “You’re never supposed to present something for the first time when it matters,” she says. But she was ready to move on from the joblessness research that had defined her career. When the Kennedy School made its offer, she was also invited to become faculty director of its Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management. Her work has since become more public-facing than ever; for example, drawing on her research, she wrote in The Boston Globe last summer about the essential role of bail funds in getting people out of jail. “[W]e do much more harm than good by holding individuals pretrial,” she argued. “Pretrial detention has been shown to dramatically increase the likelihood that individuals will reoffend in the short and long term.”
This spring, Smith is teaching her first full Harvard course, “The Criminal Legal System as a Labor Market Institution.” Combining her two main research interests—poverty and labor, and incarceration—the course introduces students to a new way of thinking about the criminal- justice system. Many scholars have already written about how incarceration makes it difficult to find a job, or how prisoners are forced to contribute millions of dollars of free or underpaid labor to the economy. She is interested in exploring further how the criminal-justice system is so vast and so interconnected with the labor market as to fundamentally reshape it.
She first encountered that question in the work of former Harvard sociologist Bruce Western (now at Columbia; see “The Prison Problem,” March-April 2013, page 38), who was studying how the U.S. prison system influences unemployment. He pointed out that incarcerated people aren’t included in unemployment statistics because they aren’t considered part of the labor force. That meant that the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s and ’90s actually decreased official unemployment rates, masking the true extent of joblessness. “When posed in that way, it fundamentally transforms the question,” Smith says. “I just found that so incredibly intriguing, and wanted to think through and better understand how that operated.”
She argues that traditional economic analysis has ignored the importance of incarceration in understanding the overall economy. “The criminal-justice system stands out as an aggressive form of state intervention in the labor market,” she wrote in a recent paper co-authored with Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon. Not only are people in prisons erased from employment statistics, they’re also formally excluded from many employment opportunities: federal and state laws limit or prevent convicted felons from holding public jobs, and also ban them from certain jobs that require professional licenses (to say nothing, of course, of informal discrimination against job applicants with criminal records).
The flip side of this exclusion, Smith argues, is extraction: “Now struggling to find work and to make ends meet,” she writes, “the same individuals are often then pressured into taking any job, or even working for free, under the threat of additional sanctions.” That makes the country’s vast population of former and current felons, about 20 million both inside and outside prison, into a pool of cheap labor, “most often in low-income communities of color, that can be tapped whether inside prison walls or on the streets of neighborhoods and communities.”
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Working on urban poverty for decades has given Smith a unique point of view on the penal system. Though criminal justice wasn’t officially a subject of her research until recently, she says it was always on her mind: “There’s no way that you can study the urban black poor without also thinking about the role that the carceral system plays.” Now, with her timely research program on the impacts of jailing, says Katherine Newman, “I think she’s in a position to be very influential in a very important way. And I can’t think of anybody who I would rather see ascend to that level of authority.”