The People and Ideas of Bellagio/

Reuben Jonathan Miller

Reuben Jonathan Miller is an American writer, sociologist, and criminologist who teaches at the University of Chicago in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice and in the Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity. He is the author of 2021’s Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration. In 2022, Reuben was awarded a genius grant through the MacArthur Fellows Program for his work tracing the long-term consequences of incarceration and prisoner re-entry on families in the United States. He attended a residency at the Bellagio Center in 2021, with the project “The Least of These: Empire, Emancipation and the Moral Worlds of Violence.”

I’m working on a project that was hatched at Bellagio. I’m trying to understand how countries that relied on slavery recovered from the loss of such an important part of their political economy and culture. The U.S. responded to the emancipation of Black people with Black codes, chain gangs,  and debt peonage – the system of Southern sharecropping that kept generations of Black people in crippling debt. But before that, in direct contradiction, the U.S. inaugurated the first welfare institution in its history – the Freedmen’s Bureau – to try to address the needs of newly freed Black people and their families, along with the poor white workers who had been drawn into the slave economy, all of whom had been displaced by the Civil War. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped negotiate labor contracts and inaugurated the first real public schools in the country; it established clinics and provided clothing and food to people in need. Yet, soon after it was launched, it ended.

This was a part of the Compromise of 1877. To settle a disputed election, the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, agreed to pull troops from the South, ending what we’ve come to call the Reconstruction era. In response to hundreds of years of slavery, the U.S. offered just seven years of social welfare policy, and in retrospect called the little help they offered poor Black people and their families a “failed experiment.” I believe this was due to the disdain for Black people and for poor people in general, but the South was still trying to rebuild and Black folks hadn’t yet lost their economic viability: agriculture was still booming, so there was a demand for workers. Simultaneously, Southern legislatures passed Black Codes, which made it illegal for the emancipated to own land, read, travel, or even leave their former plantations. These legal maneuvers basically made it illegal for Black folk to be self-sufficient. That’s when the first form of mass incarceration, called the convict lease system, emerged in the South. In just 25 years, Black people would represent 90% of all Southern convicts, while the population of people under correctional control more than tripled.

That’s the U.S. story. Many historians of the period have told that tale. But we don’t know what happened in the rest of the world with economies that also depended on slavery. We have the regional histories of the European, North, and South American, and African nations most involved in the trade, yet we don’t have a global history that connects us all. This is strange because the slave trade was a global trade and part of a larger global system. I went to Bellagio in 2021 wondering about the political decisions that were made at that point in history, and what those decisions might tell us about the systems of punishment and care that have emerged today. In this way, I’m working through a global history of Black emancipation for what we might consider the first transnational study of what Du Bois called “Black Reconstruction” in his seminal text on the Reconstruction era in the United States. This is because all the economies that were involved in the slave trade had to figure out what to do with, not only newly free Black people, but with what we might call poor ethnic white folks who worked in the slave economy – as sailors, shipbuilders, overseers, barkeeps, and manual laborers of all kinds.

At Bellagio, I was surrounded by a brilliant cohort of fellows who became my friends. Despite our divergent fields or political views, we became close and many of us remain friends. We discussed contentious matters, from wars and the pandemic to the source of inequalities throughout the world, but things never got strained. I was challenged, intellectually, to think about my work through an interdisciplinary lens, but in a very organic way. We were able to help each other through problems. Some of my cohort’s projects prompted new ideas for my own, as I found tangential links between our ideas. Some of my fondest memories are of daily walks with friends.

  • I learned as much through our exchanges as I did through my study, and these interactions made me think more deeply about what I call “the gift of proximity.
    Reuben Jonathan Miller
    American writer, sociologist, and criminologist who teaches at the University of Chicago

It’s something I valued before Bellagio. Still, it showed up in new ways during my residency.

Proximity is important to me because I’m an ethnographer: my primary method is participant observation. I follow people from lockup through to release for many years. For instance, there’s someone in the book [Halfway Home] whom I’ve followed for 13 years. I’d followed him since before graduate school – and I kept notes. That’s the data side of things. In total, I’ve followed about 250 people. This included incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, their families, local politicians, their friends, and their intimate partners. I’d sit at the dinner table with people when they were making decisions about their healthcare. I’d hang out with their kids. I’d immerse myself in their lives. I couldn’t do that with all 250 people, but I interviewed lots of them many times over many years and followed a subset of this group very closely, ethnographically, in Chicago, Detroit, New York, L.A., and many cities and towns in between. I’d be with them on their release and with them when they looked for work or a place to stay, and I was with them when they launched campaigns to change the laws and policies that constrained their lives.

My main interest is in the relationship between punishment and social welfare because the target of both systems is the same: it’s poor people who get locked up, and it’s poor people who are the beneficiaries of welfare. It’s poor Black people who are feared and held in disdain and who are disproportionately channeled into each system. Despite all the pretense to the contrary, society seems to have a great disdain for welfare, because society has great disdain for the poor, as though they deserve their place in the world. The truth is, the welfare state benefits everybody. Everybody needs medical care and everybody needs free public education. Everybody is also arrested – I live in a nation with the largest jail and prison population in the world, where a third of all U.S. adults are estimated to have a criminal record.

My new book discusses this. It’s about the emergence of a supervised society, which is an alternate legal reality that we’ve erected in the age of mass incarceration, where people who have been accused of a crime have to move through various stages of the criminal legal process. But my research focuses on how society’s fundamental relationship with people changes in the wake of a criminal accusation and how the advent of mass incarceration has changed social life itself. Today, there are 44,000 laws, policies, and administrative sanctions that manage the lives of people with records, and only them. That’s around 1,000 restrictions on housing and over 19,000 labor market restrictions, making it nearly impossible to find and maintain a well-paying job or to find a place to live on one’s own. While the authorities are in the middle of trying to figure out whether or not to make a conviction, the accused are in a supervisory limbo. Yet, the alternate legal reality they must learn to navigate extends far beyond their conviction and far beyond their release: shaping what it means to live, love, or labor in the United States. This is what I call the afterlife of mass incarceration, the lingering effects of punishment that alter the contours of American democracy for poor people throughout the United States.

This is a story I know all too well. In the U.S., one in two people has a loved one who’s been incarcerated – this includes me. My brother was locked up in the middle of my research for the book. I decided to include my personal experience. Some of my peers might argue that I’m too close to what I study – that my relationship to the issue at hand might get in the way – but I believe the gift of proximity is an asset, I write about it as a gift. It allows me to see and feel things that other researchers either don’t see or choose not to write about. Some social scientists might say that it’s better to be “objective” – which is to say to be distant – to make the world strange so that you don’t take things for granted. This is how we’re trained. “You’re too close to it,” they might say. Proximity would allow for bias. The project might be “swayed by political winds.” But, while there are things that can be learned from a distance, some things are only revealed to people who manage to get close. There are things the proximate know. For example, I know what it means to watch a loved one eat an awful soybean cheeseburger and demolish it in the prison visiting room. I know what it means to pay $8 for a horrible set of snacks that are treats for the people you care for. And I know how it feels in the pit of my stomach when someone you love is made to stand up, chained, and led away in a single file line down a hallway. It’s from this place of connection and the feeling of closeness, earned through experience, that I met and connected with the families with whom I spent time in moments of real intimacy. My experiences not only helped me build rapport but helped me know what kinds of things to ask – things that had not yet been covered in the literature. And it was from this place of proximity that I wrote the stories I uncovered, rendering, as best I could, what it feels like to be in these kinds of situations. And the feeling is necessary. The feeling is data, just like any other kind of observation. It’s through the feeling of this social situation, with its deep and profound joys and pains, that the reader is able to assess the veracity of my scientific claims. I employ proximity as a method because it gives insight into the depths of the human condition, and it does so in ways that distance simply won’t allow.

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You can find out more about Reuben’s work by visiting his MacArthur Foundation profile, his University of Chicago profile, or by simply following him on Twitter.