“On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” A book by Alice Goffman

The dramatic rise of incarceration rates among African-Americans since the 1970s has become more visible in mainstream culture partly because of television shows like the widely popular HBO series “The Wire,” which ran from 2002 to 2008, the current Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” and books such as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” published in 2010.

Throughout most of the 20th century, incarceration rates in the United States remained consistently low, but after the 1970s and the beginning of the war on drugs, these rates climbed significantly. “Among Black young men,” sociologist Alice Goffman writes in “On the Run,” “one in nine are in prison, compared with less than 2 percent of white young men.” The result of six years of intensive fieldwork in a Philadelphia neighborhood that Goffman pseudonymously calls 6th Street, “On the Run” continues in the vein of other recent studies exploring the phenomenon of mass imprisonment. The book examines the precarious existence of men who are in and out of prison, their constant efforts to evade recapture while back on the street, and the effects of their fugitive behavior on their families and communities.

The central characters of this narrative are Mike and Chuck, men in their 20s who became Goffman’s close friends and even roommates during her research. The son of a mother with a crack problem, Chuck and his two younger brothers were no strangers to the area’s jails and juvenile detention centers. Mike, whose upbringing was more stable, nevertheless turned to selling crack after losing his job in a pharmaceutical warehouse. Mike spent nearly 3½ of the next five years behind bars, and when not incarcerated, he had to make 51 court appearances, living almost constantly under the shadow of warrants for his arrest. This was fairly typical for most of the young men in Chuck and Mike’s world, becoming a significant problem not only for them but also for the people in their lives.

Readers following the recent events in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager was shot to death by a white police officer, will find no shortage of similar examples in “On the Run.” “Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation,” Goffman writes, “I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.” In one case, Goffman witnessed four police officers chasing and strangling to death an unarmed man, who, it was reported later in the papers, supposedly died of heart failure. According to police officers she interviewed later, this type of violence “represents official (if unpublicized) policy, rather than a few cops taking things too far.”

Police brutality was a chilling undercurrent of Goffman’s research, directed not just against men on the run but toward their families as well. In searching for suspects, the police frequently threaten and even brutalize family members into giving up information about their loved ones. Physical force and the destruction of property are often used against suspects’ family members, but police also employ interrogation tactics that involve “threats of arrest, eviction, and loss of child custody.” Constantly present, the police even stake out funerals and emergency rooms in their search for men with outstanding warrants. The pressure to arrest and incarcerate is indicative of the larger failure of the war on drugs, which seems to have resulted only in greater numbers of men in prison, rather than an end to either poverty or the drug trade. Still, Goffman recognizes the difficult position of law enforcement officials who are “essentially the only governmental body charged with addressing the significant social problems of able-bodied young men in the jobless ghetto, and with only the powers of intimidation and arrest to do so.”

Goffman also spent time with “clean people,” the law-abiding citizens in the area who made every effort to distance themselves from the crimes taking place around them — and with those who did not. Some people had family members who were in jail, yet they avoided interactions with them as much as possible to keep from drawing the suspicion of police. Others earned money from parolees through various ruses: impersonating the parolee in phone conversations with parole officers, for example, or providing clean urine that could be used to pass drug tests.

While not the central focus of the book, the difficulties that formerly incarcerated people face in entering the mainstream economy are readily apparent. Once marked by incarceration, many are unemployable, and the documents required to obtain legal identification are often impossible to come by. A thriving trade in fake IDs, car registrations and other documents exists as a result. Being able to receive basic medical care is also a problem for those fearful of re-arrest, and neighborhood residents with tangential connections to the medical profession often fill in for trained specialists. On one occasion, Goffman witnessed a 14-year-old having a broken bone set and sewn up by a woman who worked as a janitor in a hospital. Going to a hospital would have been too risky for the boy, who had fallen and hurt himself while running from the police.

By the end of her study, many of the people Goffman knew had died or were still in prison, although a few, including Mike, had moved away from 6th Street and were attempting to make a clean break with their pasts. Surprisingly, the account is at its most moving in the book’s appendix, where Goffman details how she got involved with this community. Although the trials that Mike, Chuck and their friends face are clearly presented throughout the book, it is not until the ending that their stories become personal. Placing methodological notes at the end of the book is a convention of sociological monographs, but readers may find themselves wishing Goffman had made these intimate connections earlier, to show how deeply she was affected by her friends’ struggles. Nevertheless, “On the Run” makes a welcome addition to the growing literature on the American culture of incarceration and its devastating effects on already impoverished urban communities.

Rachel Newcomb is an associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College and the author of “Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco.”

©2014, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

To see long excerpts from “On the Run” at Google Books, click here.

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