Social Science

Fulsome Prison Blues


Alice Goffman spent six years living in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood among young black men who were dodging the law. The experience cemented her doctorate, formed the basis for a book, and has made her a prominent voice in the discussion of incarceration in America.

Now entering her third year on the UW’s sociology faculty, Alice Goffman is a sudden — and surprised — celebrity. When she was an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, she began a senior thesis project: an ethnographic study of young black men in a neighborhood she called “Sixth Street,” a poor area in Philadelphia where a majority of teenage and twenty-something males were either incarcerated, on probation or parole, or facing an outstanding warrant. That project grew into the basis for her doctoral dissertation and then into a book, On the Run, published by the University of Chicago Press this year.

A close examination of a small group of families and friends, On the Run sheds light on the effects of America’s war on drugs and war on crime. Currently, one of every 107 adult Americans is in jail or prison — some 2.2 million people. Another 4.8 million are on probation or parole. This rate of incarceration has hit African-Americans especially hard, and about 60 percent of black men who don’t finish high school will spend time in prison before they reach their mid-thirties.

Goffman’s book has established her as a leading voice on the issue of police and corrections policy. It’s led to speaking tours and the opportunity to write editorials for the New York Times. It will be published in paperback this coming spring.

Here, Goffman shares her thoughts on crime, justice, and life as an urban ethnographer.

Why On the Run Matters

The urban ethnography I was reading as an undergrad, as a grad student — in those accounts, the police were a non- presence. They were corrupt, and they were racist, and they were not great, but there were only a couple of them, and they had a very laissez-faire attitude toward people of color. That’s a totally different world from what I saw in Philadelphia.

By the 2000s, you get the neighborhood that I was in. Police cameras had been placed on the major streets. I saw the police stop people, make arrests, run through houses, pressure girlfriends and others to provide information, question people in the street, stop and search people, run people’s names for warrants — almost every day, with a few exceptions, in the first couple of years of fieldwork. We need to know what was happening in poor communities of color in the wake of the massive intervention of the criminal justice apparatus into everyday life.

On Celebrity

I’ve been surprised by the level of interest from people outside of sociology, and I think it’s a reflection of the times and this little moment where people are angry about inequality in general.

I was always really clear [with the people of Sixth Street] that the book would not be a commercial success and that only sociologists would read it. It would be completely impenetrable to everybody else — an academic book. Probably no one would even buy the book. I didn’t even think sociologists would read it, because I’ve been talking about the project for so long, I assumed everybody knew about this material already and wouldn’t need to buy the book. I’m kind of in shock at the level of interest. So there’s been this learning curve of trying to figure out how to talk about the book to people outside the field.

I’ve learned that with reporters, there’s no backstage. I’m being incredibly cautious. I’ve now seen a number of articles come out where I’m just like, “Oh, God, that was just something I said, not to be in the article.”

On Writing

[The quality of the narrative] was partly due to Reggie [one of her subjects] telling me that I was making his life boring. He would read sections of the book and say, “My life is really interesting, Alice. How can you make it so boring on the page? You really have a talent for making things boring.” And I’d say, “Oh, it’s an academic book. We use all these terms and big words.” But he was right. He was totally right. I remember doing a lot of editing based on that comment: “Please don’t make my life so boring.”

On Anonymity

It’s so funny, all these concerns you have when you’re an author writing about people who are living on the wrong side of the law. Your first concern is, “Please let no further arrests or days in prison come down on the people that are in this book because I have written it.” That’s your first concern. Could it be used against them in a court of law? So I’ve destroyed the field notes. I’d written over a thousand pages. It’s not like I was going to write another book about this, right?

A secondary concern is that people go on and have lives that are very different from the ones they lead in their twenties. Any one of us, if there was a book about what we did in our twenties, we would be totally embarrassed by the things that we say and do. Mike [one of her subjects] is now working at a warehouse, a totally legal job, and does not want to be associated with this world at all. He remembers his twenties as this fateful and crazy time. But he’s at a very different place in his life now.


On Reactions from the General Public

One question [people ask is], “But these guys are breaking the law — they’re all breaking the law. Don’t they deserve what they get?” We tend to think about justice in a very narrow way. We think about innocence versus guilt. We think about victims versus perpetrators. I think we need to think more broadly about justice. [For example,] justice in access to legal jobs: in a community where young men try twenty, fifty, a hundred times to get a low-level part-time job and get denied — and then who work in the drug trade rather than live off their female relatives, who are also poor — what does guilt mean?

On Racial Disparity

The guys I went to college with — white men, many of them from very upper-middle-class backgrounds — they were doing tons of drugs in their frat parties. And there’s rape on college campuses, as we’re hearing more and more lately. There’s drunk driving. There are fights. But none of those guys were charged with aggravated assault or rape or possession of narcotics or selling narcotics or drunk driving. They didn’t emerge from college with felony convictions. And they’re just a few blocks away from the people I was writing about in Philadelphia. There are people I know at this university who are using drugs. I think it would be very unlikely that they would be arrested.

Black and White

I’m very grateful to be part of the conversation [about racial disparity]. I’m also cognizant that — Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow ] and her work notwithstanding — many scholars of color have been writing about these issues for a long time and have not gotten the same level of recognition that a white woman gets, talking about the same things. So I have an ambivalence about that.

About Wisconsin

Wisconsin is this hallowed place to do sociology. Wisconsin’s the top department in the country. I’m shocked that they hired me. I still don’t feel good enough. Every day I walk through the halls, and I can’t believe that I’m here. It’s just a great place to be a young sociologist. [The department is] extremely nurturing and serious, and the training here for graduate students is very serious. The reason I knew this was a really great place was Mitch Duneier, my adviser [in graduate school at Princeton] — he had been an assistant professor here. And he had always said that this is the best place to be an assistant professor in the discipline. And Devah Pager [PhD’02] was a grad student there, and she also said this was the best place to be. It was really on the strength of their advice that I came.

A Sad Day

There are a couple of people who are not in [the book] because they died. They died too early in the writing, so they never got included as core characters. At a funeral [in Sixth Street], the only pictures you have to put in a program are the pictures you took at the last funeral. You know, you need pictures of a person’s life to put in a funeral program — pictures of the person who died. And where do those pictures come from? They come from pictures of that person from other funerals. The day that I realized that was a sad day.


It’s been exciting to be in this moment of reform. I really feel like, just in the past few years, we’ve really seen big changes in the way people are thinking about incarceration and policing. And we’ve seen modest decreases in incarceration across the country for the past four years — very small, and not in every state, but after forty years of growth, it’s very encouraging.

There’s been some really interesting movement from criminal justice professionals, from the Department of Justice, from states, from police chiefs and corrections officers across the country that are really interested in reform and who think there are too many people in prison — it’s too costly.

I don’t want to be too optimistic, but I am optimistic compared to where we were two years ago, when we thought there was never going to be any political movement here.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by John Allen, senior editor of On Wisconsin.

Published in the Fall 2014 issue


  • Tina Bloom September 11, 2014

    I work for the PA DOC and I APPLAUD this work. GREAT, GREAT job. We do need reform in the criminal justice system. We need to stop privatization of prison systems and various services in prisons. Trading stock and lobbying based on people who are incarcerated is outrageous. Please run more articles on reforming the field of corrections.

  • Mary September 25, 2014

    Thank you, thank you for sharing your thoughts on crime and justice. All of us should be very worried about these issues. Instead of “protect and serve,” our police think they’re swat teams. Most scary to me is that our civil liberties are quickly being eroded by the Obama administration. I’m far from optimistic . . .

  • Margaret September 28, 2014

    This is a terrifically important topic and interview subject to feature in On Wisconsin. It’s heartening to read that Dr. Goffman’s book has “led to speaking tours” so I hope that On Wisconsin will help get the word out, in a future edition, Goffman’s next public talk here in Wisconsin.

  • Karen Odegaard September 29, 2014

    This is a topic we’re exploring as part of the UW-Madison community, too. We’re hosting a webinar about how Santa Cruz County, CA is taking a broad approach to health by working with the criminal justice system to create a safer and healthier community for everyone:

  • John September 29, 2014

    Great article on an extremely important topic. Congratulations to Ms. Goffman for the attention she’s bringing to it. I hope to read the book and hear her speak. Mostly, I hope the sad situation for African Americans begins to change for real.

  • Allison Bell Bern September 30, 2014

    Dr. Goffman seems like a nice personal with positive values, and it’s great that she is cognizant of the fact that her race has allowed her exposure that her colleagues of color have not been able to achieve. But shouldn’t we be uncomfortable that she undertook this work in the first place? For what reason did she feel that she had something to contribute to the conversation, if not out of a sense of “white girl saving black folk”? Why not work instead to highlight the voices from communities like Sixth St. that have already written and spoken out about their own (organic, authentic) experiences? In 2014, White people should be much more interested in privileging those voices than in lauding this sort of endeavor. How long must we wait until people of color are allowed finally to speak for themselves?

  • michelle Curtis September 30, 2014

    This engaging and enlightening book is on my kindle and at 41% read so far I already think it’s a contender for the Go Big Read program. Thank you for highlighting this work. Seeking understanding and working for positive change transcends the color and sex of the author or the people profiled in the book. All contributions should be welcomed.

  • Swaminathan September 30, 2014

    Thank you, thank you for your kindness and compassion. Thank the UW Sociology deparment faculty for hiring such an outstanding individual, truly passionate about helping the needy, explaining the root cause of the problem,and weaknesses in our Law enforcement, Justice and other organizations. The above problem is a COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY and the first step is to EUDUCATE people about the problem. Hope you are able to inspire our youth to get involved and in this process bring Wisconsinites as a united force to move FORWARD to correct the problem, in many ways.

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