Falling Back: Incarceration and Transitions to Adulthood among Urban Youth

Falling Back: Incarceration and Transitions to Adulthood among Urban Youth

Falling Back: Incarceration and Transitions to Adulthood among Urban Youth

Falling Back: Incarceration and Transitions to Adulthood among Urban Youth


Jamie J. Fader documents the transition to adulthood for a particularly vulnerable population: young inner-city men of color who have, by the age of eighteen, already been imprisoned. How, she asks, do such precariously situated youth become adult men? What are the sources of change in their lives?

Falling Back
is based on over three years of ethnographic research with black and Latino males on the cusp of adulthood and incarcerated at a rural reform school designed to address "criminal thinking errors" among juvenile drug offenders. Fader observed these young men as they transitioned back to their urban Philadelphia neighborhoods, resuming their daily lives and struggling to adopt adult masculine roles. This in-depth ethnographic approach allowed her to portray the complexities of human decision-making as these men strove to "fall back," or avoid reoffending, and become productive adults. Her work makes a unique contribution to sociological understandings of the transitions to adulthood, urban social inequality, prisoner reentry, and desistance from offending.


Above all, we do not have enough studies in which the person doing
the research has achieved close contact with those he studies, so that
he can become aware of the complex and manifold character of the
deviant activity.

—Howard Becker, The Outsiders

WHEN I STARTED A Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania, I had no reason to suspect that I would become an inner- city godmother, drive a getaway car after my companion provoked a high school basketball team to form an angry lynch mob, deliver a group of pallbearers to an eighteen- year- old’s funeral, or take an overnight road trip with several former and active drug dealers. I could never have predicted that my SUV would be used as an ambulance for a young woman who believed she was losing her baby, or that I would be asked to hang out while my companion provided a urine sample for his probation officer. I could not imagine hearing that a young man had been shot to death on the very street corner where I had stood with him only five days earlier.

I did know that, after six years of crunching numbers to evaluate delinquency programs, I wanted to understand the experience of juvenile justice from the perspectives of the young people inside the system. Researchers so rarely ask youth to share their insights, perhaps because we dismiss them as inarticulate or immature or because we worry that they might hesitate to make themselves vulnerable to strangers, particularly white, middle- class ones. Scholars have not always kept such distance from their subjects. In the early twentieth century, sociology students were regularly encouraged to leave the college campus to conduct indepth community studies and collect life histories of gang members and other delinquent youth. Robert E. Park, a former journalist and founder of the Chicago School of Sociology, famously exhorted, “Go and sit in . . .

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