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A Conversation with Hide Yamatani

Hide Yamatani is the associate dean for research at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work. He recently began a study that is taking him far from the ivory tower: For the next three years, Yamatani's team will track 300 prisoners...

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You're tracking both white and black ex-inmates. How do you expect the two groups will do after they leave jail?

 

Mainly because African Americans suffer very high levels of discrimination in things like housing and jobs, I think the social services [offered to ex-inmates] will have a tougher time making an impact. Perhaps what will be really helpful to them will be family, friends, neighbors and so forth. That's one of the things we will evaluate. The goal of the study is to help effectively reduce recidivism. It's way too high -- nationally anywhere from 60 to 65 percent will return to prison within three years. For the county jails, the rates are even higher, perhaps as much as 80 percent.

 

Why is it worse in county jails than regular prisons?

It's not clear, but the sentence is usually shorter in county jail. If someone commits a more serious crime, they're in a state prison, and they're in there longer. I think the longer duration plus their exposure to a lot more social services makes recidivism lower. But it's still too high; it should be less than 5 percent. If you look at Japan, for example, it's much lower.

 

There is a story about the difference between prisons here and in Japan. There was an earthquake back in the '60s, and in a prison north of Tokyo the walls collapsed. They found Japanese prisoners lined up in the center of the facility, waiting for instructions. I don't think that would happen here.

 

What happens to Japanese prisoners when they are released?

Usually a Japanese prisoner ends up getting time to introspect. Most come out blaming themselves for committing crimes. Once you reveal your admission to others, they're ready to give you a chance.

 

Why is it so hard here? I think one [reason] is the poverty rate. There's such a range of wealth that you can't help but notice how much you are deprived if you are poor. There is less of a feeling of deprivation in Japan [where the poverty] rate is around 1 percent. The second reason, I think, is that there is little cooperation between employers and the criminal justice system to focus on reintegrating convicts into the community.

 

In Pittsburgh, there are about a dozen employers interviewing prisoners, giving them a second chance. There are many organizations trying to help them out. But we need more.

 

Would you hire an ex-inmate?

I would, if the person is willing to work hard and learn. In fact, we are hiring some for this study. We're following prisoners for years, and most of them don't have homes. Well, who would know how to track a prisoner more than an ex-inmate? I'm not hiring grad students to do this.

 

Are there a lot of academics studying ex-inmates?

It's a really interesting field because there's so little known. But very few people endeavor to do it. It is hard to track individuals for that long. And it took months to get approval from [Pitt's] Internal Review Board. You have to safeguard prisoner's rights and avoid any liability they might face for revealing that, "Yeah, I did drugs last week." The only way we would release that information is if we had a court order. Otherwise, it's confidential.

 

So they could tell you "I just robbed a house" and you couldn't turn them in. Are you comfortable with that?

I am not comfortable with that. But if we promise confidentiality, that stands above anything else. The chances of that are miniscule; people who are in county jail are not murderers. But see how difficult this can be?

 

Have you ever been in jail yourself?

I've been inside the jail because of this project a dozen times so far. It's a very interesting facility. I'm not used to being -- what do you call this? -- frisked. I have never before been frisked, never in my life.

 

How do you think you'd manage if you were in jail for non-research purposes?

I don't think I could make it. I'm weaker than the individuals currently in jail. And I think the idle time would just affect your mind. I'm used to academic freedom.

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