PHILADELPHIA — For a sociologist, the value of field notes can’t be overstated. Yet Alice Goffman felt deep relief at destroying hers — shredding the notebooks, then disposing of the hard drive kept in a safe-deposit box under someone else’s name.
“That was a nice day,” she said, “when the threat of being subpoenaed for my field notes was gone.”
That threat was among the lesser perils of being embedded in a network of young men who lived, on and off, as fugitives for crimes ranging from the petty to drug dealing and shootings.
Goffman, 32, spent six years with the men and their families in a poor, minority Philadelphia neighborhood she calls Sixth Street to protect its identity. She began the work in 2002 as a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate, becoming so immersed she nearly lost herself in the process.
She adopted the men’s survival tactics: the art of fleeing through alleyways, the grit of enduring interrogations. Back at school, though, her heart pounded at the sight of clean-cut, white (in short, coplike) professors.
By 2004, she writes, “The likelihood that I’d soon go to prison seemed about equal to the chance I would make it to graduate school.”
That spring, she was accepted to Princeton. And this month, her book, “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City,” was released by the University of Chicago Press.
It’s an on-the-ground account of the effects of a U.S. prison boom that, paired with stringent policing and surveillance efforts, has incarcerated 1 in 9 young black men.
It documents how the criminal justice system, and efforts to evade it, have woven a new social fabric. Even identities are defined in the neighborhood by police interactions: People are “dirty” (with an open warrant) or “clean”; “hot” (drawing police) or “cool”; “a rider” (one who aids a fugitive) or “a snitch.”