Life, Prison, and the Pursuit of Happiness

By Priyanka KumarAugust 22, 2014

On the Run by Alice Goffman

ALICE GOFFMAN’S On the Run couldn’t be more aptly titled. In the Philadelphia suburb that is the focus of Goffman’s powerful sociological study, young Black men are “on the run” for real, and they coach their preteen siblings how to be on the run. At 21, Goffman was tutoring a high school student, whose cousin introduced her to Mike, 22, on Sixth Street. Goffman began to hang out with Mike (their relationship is sibling-like), and, over time, Mike and his friends agreed to be subjects in her book. A year and a half later, Mike is sentenced to one to three years in prison and, shortly after, Goffman is accepted into a PhD program in Princeton. The two worlds — prison and Princeton — couldn’t be further apart. Goffman’s book shows how men like Mike get entangled in the criminal justice system; once they’re in, their youth is all but consumed in a spiral of police run-ins, court dates, bench warrants, prison, and probation. At any rate, they won’t be orbiting a universe like Goffman’s Princeton anytime soon. She writes:

Between the ages of 22 and 27, Mike spent about three and a half years in jail or prison. Out of the 139 weeks that he was not incarcerated, he spent 87 weeks on probation or parole for five overlapping sentences. He spent 35 weeks with a warrant out for his arrest, and had a total of 10 warrants issued on him. He also had at least 51 court appearances over this five-year period, 47 of which I attended.

It’s clear that Goffman didn’t just research this book; she lived it — for six years. When Goffman begins attending classes at Princeton (while still living in the Sixth Street neighborhood), she experiences a reverse culture shock. She avoids white men at the university who might fit a cop’s profile. “I could not escape the sweat or the pounding in my chest when they approached.” The gang-related shooting of a close (Black) friend triggers a desire for revenge. She identifies with her friends from Sixth Street to the extent that she begins to dread cops as much as they do.

One of the first things that such a man develops is a heightened awareness of police officers — what they look like, how they move, where and when they are likely to appear. […] Sometimes he finds that his body anticipated their arrival with sweat and a quickened heartbeat before his mind consciously registers any sign of their appearance.

Goffman has a gift for bringing to life the troubles and anxieties of ordinary people. Her quick-stroke description of a part-time job at a university cafeteria — and research paper for an undergraduate urban ethnography class — is not a flat summary, but has the freshness of a short story. This job also led her in a roundabout way to her book. The cafeteria manager, Miss Deena, asked Goffman to tutor two of her grandchildren, Aisha and Ray. When Aisha’s 14-year-old cousin returned from a juvenile detention center, he introduced Goffman to Mike.

On their first (and only) “date,” Mike advises Goffman how she could dress better. He asks: why do “white people wear shorts and sandals in the dead of winter?” Tables turn a few months later. When Mike has a court date, Goffman urges him “to at least locate some khakis and a tie.” As a sociologist, Goffman lucks out: she comes from a family of sociologists and linguists; and a combination of personality traits, either studied or innate — humility, matter-of-factness, helpfulness — win Mike’s trust. He adopts her as a sister and guides her through the minefields of his life. After Reggie robs a convenience store, Mike gives her this advice: 

I’ll only tell you this one time, A. Do not be around Reggie. He’s hot right now, he’s on the run. Don’t get caught up in it. […] I don’t want you nowhere around there. Don’t let him get in your car, don’t even talk on the phone. […] They probably tracing the calls […]

Robbery is a crime these young men mostly avoid — it’s a last resort. Some, like Chuck, 18, go to prison for a schoolyard fight trumped up to an aggravated assault charge. The emotional fallout from these arrests is extensive. A month after Chuck’s arrest, his brother Tim, 11, stops speaking. Tim’s father doesn’t stay in touch, and Tim looks up to Chuck “almost like a father.” Chuck calls from prison and tries to get Tim to talk again. Eight months later, when Chuck returns home, Tim “cried and clung to his leg.” I couldn’t help thinking of Tim as Tiny Tim, if only to keep the brothers’ names straight. In a Dickensian scene, “He [Tim] tried to stay awake through the evening festivities but finally fell asleep with his head in Chuck’s lap.”

When men like Mike, Chuck, and Reggie return from prison, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be locked up again — they dread this possibility and arrange their lives to delay the inevitable. They can’t visit an injured friend in a hospital or be present for the birth of their own children. In neighborhood hospitals, the police routinely check a visitor’s name to see if there’s a warrant out for his arrest. Mike doesn’t show up at the hospital for his baby’s birth; he decides, maybe at the last minute, not to risk it.

Even a funeral is not a safe zone. “I asked an officer of the Warrant Unit about funerals, he replied that they were a great place to round up people for arrest.” At funerals, the police have a camera on a tripod. Occasionally, a young man will show up at a friend’s funeral and risk arrest to show his investment in the relationship.

The Sixth Street residents are part of a lively and complex social network. Mothers or girlfriends pack up a man’s belongings after he has gone to prison; they deal with his paperwork and keys and visit him. Friends may contribute cash to meet his current needs. Legal entanglements can provide opportunities for young men or their loved ones to display courage and honor, and court dates are frequent enough in the lives of these men that they become as much a social setting as, say, a block party.

As a full-time resident in the neighborhood, Goffman is able to open doors to experiences that are raw and startling. She is at the center of one such experience. When the police storm into Mike’s house, Goffman is on a couch, watching a video. Within moments, she is pinned face down on the floor and a policeman’s boot is applying pressure on her back. Goffman follows this incident with stories of the mothers or girlfriends of her subjects, how the police threaten them with arrest, eviction from their apartments, separation from their young children, even bodily harm — whatever intimidation they can use — to get a woman to give up the man in her life who’s wanted by the police.

Police pit the woman against a central male figure in her life in order to extract information about his whereabouts. The interrogation techniques border on the surreal: brutal revelations that can rupture relationships, leaving women excommunicated from the community for being a “snitch.” Others are lionized for never giving in. In the “street” Black population, family members of a wanted man face a harrowing trial, hounded by the police so fiercely that you have to pinch yourself to remember that this is happening in the United States and not, say, in the East German Democratic Republic. 

Given that the civil rights movement came of age in the 1960s, it is astonishing that young people in the “street” Black population still inherit lives so lacking in promise. America’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rare commodities for desperately poor young Black men. When Mike calls his mother, Miss Regina, to tell her that a violation (he broke curfew at a halfway house) will send him back to prison for the remainder of his sentence, pending a judge’s decision, Miss Regina paces around the living room, then bursts into a monologue that sounds like a lamentation from a Greek tragedy.

Let me ask you something, Alice. When you go up to the F [local slang for the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF), the county jail], why do you see nothing but Black men in jumpsuits sitting there in the visiting room? When you go to the halfway house, why is it nothing but Black faces staring out the glass? They are taking our children, Alice. I am a law-abiding woman; my uncle was a cop. They can’t do that.

The high levels of incarceration in the Black population — they “make up 13 percent of the US population, but account for 37 percent of the prison population” — is a looming crisis, ripe for implosion. We’ve all heard some aspect of this story before, and Goffman makes the cyclical nature of the crisis evident — young Black men whose fathers were absent for an assortment of reasons are now unable to be present for their own children because they’re in prison, or because their legal entanglements prevent them from getting a state ID, not to mention a driver’s license, which is needed to get a decent job.

While police procedurals are not the root cause of the inability of these young men to cross from “street” to “decent,” they certainly become, and are used as, a significant impediment.

The residents of Sixth Street sometimes use or manipulate the system to even out grievances, control relationships, or evade responsibilities. These infractions seem minor, however, when compared to the dysfunctional system they navigate. When young men return home from prison, they apply for jobs, but don’t get callbacks, not even from fast food joints. Reggie needs at least a state ID to apply for a decent job, but after trying to negotiate the daunting paperwork, and finding out that his mother doesn’t even have a birth certificate for him, he gives up. The need for cash might lead to drug dealing — admittedly, a problem in its own right — which sets them up for a fall the next time they encounter the police. Prison guards take bribes to let certain prisoners have some privileges; a parole guard at a halfway house will let a parolee leave for the night — the bribe ranges between 100 to 300 dollars, depending on whether the parolee yearns to be at home to see his toddlers or spend the night out in town.

After stories of corruption and violence, Goffman gives us an antidote in the chapter “Clean People,” about people who negotiate their lives in the same neighborhoods, but without any direct contact with the criminal justice system. She occasionally mentions a young woman who has found a career as a prison guard or a warrant officer.

In her methodological notes, Goffman explains that she tried to be “a fly on the wall.” In the book, except for her reaction to a friend’s death, she mostly takes this world as it comes to her. She is a loyal friend to the young men she hangs out with. She accompanies them to courts for trial hearings, warrant offices to get their paperwork in order, sometimes for 7.5 hours in one day. I wondered if she was ever asked for help that made her uncomfortable, help that was beyond what she was prepared to give. 

Goffman gives us some historical perspective about US race relations and how and when policing in urban areas intensified, but you wish she would give more. She does show that the police force charged with keeping “ghetto” neighborhoods in order doesn’t have the tools to tackle the complex social problems they find there.

This invaluable book turns statistics into stories that are accessible to general readers and policy makers. The specific stories give ample cultural perspective and get us to see the challenges young Black men face and the systemic forces that keep some men from living “decent” lives, the forces that keep them on the run. It is one thing to read that “60 percent of Black men who didn’t graduate from high school have been to prison by their mid thirties,” it’s quite another to experience the circumstances that lead these young men to prisons and keep them there.

What’s remarkable is that despite being pinned down like Gulliver with countless Lilliputian stakes — absent fathers, exposure to drugs, the need for cash, police run-ins, and the prison system — these young men are able to participate in a resilient social network that ultimately sustains their inner lives. Goffman makes the most of her privilege as an accepted member of this network. Her book is a dramatic record of how race is still a key predictor of whether or not some young Americans will have a chance at a “pursuit of happiness.”


Priyanka Kumar's debut novel, Take Wing and Fly Here, was published in 2013. She wrote, directed, and produced the feature documentary The Song of the Little Road.

LARB Contributor

Priyanka Kumar is the author of the widely acclaimed book Conversations with Birds (2022). Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of BooksOrion, and The Rumpus.


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