Critical Mass Speakers on Current Pandemic: Reuben Jonathan Miller

Critical Mass Speakers on Current Pandemic: Reuben Jonathan Miller

May 19, 2020

IHC Director Susan Derwin asked Reuben Jonathan Miller, Assistant Professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA), a few questions about his work in light of the current pandemic. [This interview was conducted prior to the killing of George Floyd.]

Susan: “This Spring you were supposed to speak at the IHC in our Critical Mass series about how, in our country, formerly incarcerated people, upon their release, continue to be subjected to rules and supervision, and to be burdened with certain responsibilities, that prevent them from fully assuming their rightful membership in society.  How is the pandemic impacting your thinking about the futures of these returning citizens, including those who are being released now, as part of the effort to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus inside jails and prisons?”

Reuben: “I believe we must do the important work of shifting the public conversation on incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, especially those who spend or have spent many years in a cage, from questions of safety and risk to questions of vulnerability. The COVID-19 pandemic makes this clear. American jails and prisons are a hotbed of coronavirus infection, because American jails and prisons have been, for decades, themselves a public health crisis. We know that prisons are incubators for most kinds of illnesses, and we know that prisons make you sick—epidemiologists have shown in studies of self-reported health outcomes conducted in the year before and after prison that incarcerated people contract diseases they did not previously have, and when they enter prison with an illness, that their health often gets worse. There are also mortality studies that show people lose life expectancy for every year they spend incarcerated. This is a vulnerable group—not simply a vector for the projections of our fears.

The pandemic has exposed the health and public health vulnerabilities of this population, but they are vulnerable in other ways, even upon release. I’ve written about how this group is subject to laws and burdens other people simply are not subject to, and the ways that this kind of treatment hastens death of all kinds—social death, psychological and emotional death, physical death and the need to cope with the death and dying of people they care for.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the life and death stakes of mass incarceration. At this moment, some of the men and women I’ve followed over the years have been moved from shelters to motels. Others are bouncing from couch to couch. Others still have been re-arrested, but only for the short term. They are held for a few hours after a parole violation and then released back to their loved ones. There are rumors among the group that men who get sent to jail will contract the virus, but they are re-arrested, still, for small infractions of the law. One man I follow was sent back to jail for six hours for public intoxication. His alcohol tether (this is a thing!) went off. The man is 46 years old and legally able to drink, but he is a ‘repeat violent offender’ in the eyes of the court and is barred from drinking by the parole office due to something called his ‘conditions of release.’ That he was re-arrested, even for just a few hours, is not only a bad move for the health and safety of his loved ones and the larger community, but it raises a number of ethical questions. I’m beginning to think more now about the relationships between morality, presumptions of danger and questions of hygiene.”

Susan: “Are there ways you already anticipate your work as a scholar and teacher will change once we transition out of this period of quarantine?”

Reuben: “I’ve had to switch three ongoing projects from in-person engagement with research participants through observations and interviews to virtual engagement via phone and Zoom meetings. This is a project on the ‘moral worlds’ of people we’ve labeled violent—mostly people who got in trouble for gun charges when they were kids. That trouble followed them into old age—most have been convicted of murder. I’m interested in how they’ve been treated, how they understand themselves and how the world responds to them.”

Susan: “What are you reading, watching and/or listening to right now?”

Reuben: “I’ve just wrapped up revisions for Halfway Home, the book I’ll be presenting on in my rescheduled IHC talk, which comes out in February of 2021. In between writing, I’ve been watching home improvement shows, too much news and horror movies, mostly zombie movies or movies about the depths of human depravity in the wake of crisis, with my 14 year old son. Recently we’ve watched the Train to Busan, Snowpiercer and the first two parts of the Evil Dead Trilogy. I’ve been reading more for enjoyment these days, which has been lovely. I’m in the middle of Sarah Broom’s beautiful memoir The Yellow House, and recently finished Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys, and I’ve been listening to soul and blues, most recently Leon Bridges and Gary Lee Clark Jr.”