Prisoner Re-entry and Work


Project Lead
Sarah Williams

Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia University

Support from
New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY)


Working with Sudhir Venkatesh of Columbia University’s Sociology Department, this project uncovers the employment geography of formerly incarcerated people as they return home. The team worked together to survey roughly twenty recently released people, recording their trajectory in the city as well as their activity every hour of the day, 30 days after their release. Each location and activity was mapped and coded.

Once mapped, spatial analysis enabled a better understanding of the geographic relationship between formerly incarcerated people and their communities. The research team decided to focus on the formerly incarcerated person’s relationship with employment. Do reentering people work in the neighborhood they return to? Do they find work in communities that have similar demographics to their own? Do they look for work in communities with similar characteristics as their own? How far away do formerly incarcerated people travel for work? Do these people perform illegal work, and if they do, is it close to home or far away?

The majority of existing canonical research hypothesizes that illegal activity happens closer to the homes of those performing that activity. However, project maps revealed that those engaged in illegal work, such as selling drugs, tend to navigate through more neighborhoods in the city and perform the activity farther from what they consider their home base. They are much more mobile than their counterparts who have legal jobs or no work at all, and they leave their neighborhoods more often. Research establishes that illegal activity does not isolate formerly incarcerated people in their neighborhood, but rather, in some ways offers them the opportunity to leave. Another finding is that formerly incarcerated people have strong ties between two or more neighborhoods. In other words the formerly incarcerated don’t just think of their neighborhood as where they live, but rather as just one in a series that bonds them to several neighborhoods in the city.