The opening chapter of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish compares two penal scenes: the drawing and quartering of a regicide and a drab scene from a discipline-heavy juvenile facility, 80 years later. These scenes are emblematic of the change Foucault sees in punishment: from centralized to decentralized, from a “festival of punishment” to drab things behind closed doors, and most importantly–from body to soul. I read this stuff for the first time about twenty years ago, and its enchantment has worn off; I’m pretty clear on the fact that the move from corporal punishment to incarceration was overall a good one. But there are some days when the “soul” element of punishment is especially hard to stomach, especially when it consists of selling justice-involved people the lie that the only cause for their miseries lies in their own action.

I was outraged, albeit not surprised, to read this distressing exposé on Mother Jones. The gist of it is that our enthusiasm for early releases has not been matched by an enthusiasm to actually help people get on their feet after they are released. It opens with a typical–and horrendous–story:

After 15 long years behind bars, Terah Lawyer needed to show the parole board she had somewhere lined up to live. She landed a spot in a facility on Treasure Island and was so grateful to be out that at first she didn’t mind being forced to spend dozens of hours a week in treatment classes for a substance abuse problem she didn’t have, and in fact, as a drug and alcohol counselor, was certified to teach about. But quickly, the program’s strict schedule and tough restrictions, like lockdowns on holidays and limited free time, got in the way of adjusting to real life. Before she left prison, she’d worked hard to secure a job with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, but her facility’s rules forced her to delay her start date three months, and she lost the opportunity. Most painfully, the program’s structure made it hard to visit with her parents, who lived a couple hours north in Sacramento.  

Once she was finally able to start working, she’d leave the house at 7 a.m., work a full day, and get back in time for the hour-and-a-half class at night. “I was required to still bring in 21 hours of treatment classes in order for me to get my weekend passes to go home, to go shopping, to go out with family or friends, to do things that are considered freedom,” she explains. “It was really difficult being able to hold down a full-time job, which is thankfully now giving me an income, and also meet the program’s requirements of classes that I didn’t even need in the first place.”

Lawyer’s experience reminded me of participant observations I did at the Peer Reentry Navigation Network (PRNN), a group of former lifers now making a life for themselves on the outside that meets monthly in San Francisco, run jointly by an activist who is formerly incarcerated and by a parole officer. The day I was there, everyone talked about housing. In Yesterday’s Monsters I described the conversation:

After a round of advice and information about housing and smartphone tutorials, Cara, a young woman, steps to the front of the room to facilitate an activity. She distributes blank pages and invites attendees to draw a picture frame on the page. She then asks us to write or draw a picture of what success means to us. We work in silence, occasionally sneaking a peek at our neighbors’ work and smiling at them. Cara then invites the audience to share. “Being able to provide for my family.” “Having a job, a stable place to live.” “Finding someone to love and someone who loves me.” One woman shares, “I want two dogs and a Mercedes.” Cara laughs. The woman jokingly adds, “What? You wanted us to define success. Well, that’s what success means to me.”

Then Cara gives us the “bad news”: If you are not actively working to direct your life toward those goals, then perhaps you don’t really want them. For example, she says, if you want to save enough money for a down payment on a house but you end up buying shoes and flashy outfits, then maybe you are not really that driven to be a homeowner. You must pursue your goals with real ferocity, she says.

For many of the people in the room, homeownership in aggressively gentrified San Francisco is a pipe dream. Since the rise of the tech industry, housing in the city has become prohibitively expensive, both for owners and for renters. Even so-called low-income housing requires a considerable income, as well as jumping through multiple bureaucratic hoops. Joe acknowledges these difficulties but encourages attendees to overcome them. “If you want to apply,” he says, “I will help you. We’ll work on your applications together.” It might take sixty applications, he says, but eventually one will succeed. 

My ambivalence grows. On one hand, I admire the spirit of enterprise, mutual aid, and community strength in the room. I recognize the importance of self-focused success and of belief in free agency. On the other, I’m sure that my fellow attendees have learned all too well in the course of their lives that, despite their best efforts, the reentry deck is heavily stacked against them. I recall Alessandro de Giorgi’s recently released subjects who attributed their immense difficulties and abject poverty to their own failings rather than to the systemic difficulties that stood in their way.

There is something maddening about people being led to be convinced that their own flaws are the only thing standing between them and their dreams, but that very message is what the so-called prison rehabilitation apparatus, and particularly the parole hearing process, tries to sell people on a regular basis. When my colleague Alessandro de Giorgi interviewed formerly incarcerated people who faced acute misery at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (no home; no job; no food), he was struck by how much they attributed their poverty, squalor, and dire need to their own flaws. He explains:

Today, whatever minimal services are available to former prisoners are provided mostly through the non-profit, faith-based, semi-private sector, what Jennifer Wolch (1990, 201) has aptly defined as an emergent shadow state: a “para-state apparatus with collective service responsibilities previously shouldered by the public sector, administered outside traditional democratic politics, but yet controlled in both formal and informal ways by the state.” In this framework, highly individualistic and market-friendly solutions are systematically proposed as the only answers to a broad range of structural obstacles faced by formerly incarcerated people: At every turn in their trajectories through the carceral state, from arrest to reentry, criminalized people are taught that success or failure is entirely dependent upon their own efforts.

But here’s the really depressing bit:

Despite the weight of the structural circumstances they face, the participants to this research appear to have internalized the neoliberal narrative of personal responsibility that is constantly inculcated in prisons, rehabilitation centers, and reentry programs (see also Gowan & Whetstone 2012; Miller 2014; Werth 2012, 2016). They wholeheartedly embrace the dominant rhetoric of free choice, as well as hegemonic definitions of social deservingness and undeservingness. 

In other words, de Giorgi’s subjects themselves believe that the ills that they face when they reenter are their own fault, because they don’t deserve better, and do not seem to see any institutional problem here (when he presented this piece at our Carceral Studies Workgroup, he astutely observed that people do have racial critiques a-la-Michelle Alexander, but not an understanding of class.)

In Yesterday’s Monsters I saw this propaganda apparatus at work: people who see their crimes in a broader social context are chastised for “minimizing.” Here’s an example from the book, in which Patricia Krenwinkel, in the 1980s, tries to frame her crime in the context of the sixties:

It came up about ’65. It was the beginning of the marches. It was the beginning of the civil rights movement. It was the beginning of all the movements of the late sixties, which eventually involved entering the war. . . . I found that I couldn’t seem to find my bearings in this world at that time. . . . I couldn’t seem to find where there was any, on my own—seem to find any reinforcement for doing anything other than kind of letting myself go with the time of what at that time was tune-in and drop-out, as Timothy Leary so put it. I mean, it’s hard to say. There were so many components. I was a child of the sixties. And there definitely is something to be said about the sixties. It was an incredible time in the period of our history. It’s something that I look back on and I see, because there’s thousands of people out there that were not much different than myself.

The prosecutor, Stephen Kay, responds with an astounding lack of empathy and contextual comprehension:

I feel that it’s kind of hard for me to accept Miss Krenwinkel’s statement that she was a child of the sixties, and there were thousands of others like her out there in the sixties. I myself went to law school at Berkeley during the time of Mario Savio and could observe some of these children of the sixties. And they characterized themselves as flower children. Their slogan was “make love, not war.” They weren’t into murdering people.

Pretty much any reasonable criminologist you’ll meet will tell you that crime is a combination of personal and environmental factors (including what gets defined as crime.) How much of each gets poured into the mix varies across crimes; this is why talking about both drug use and violent assaults as “crime” can be confusing. But you’d have to be extremely naive to assume that crime doesn’t have an ontological existence (some abolitionists in the 1970s advanced this view), just as you’d have to be pretty obtuse and cruel to assume that crime is entirely a function of personal pathology. If it were, why are poor people overrepresented in the criminal justice apparatus?

A lot of the highfalutin’ critical criminology from the last few years uses the term “neoliberalism” to mean a hypercapitalist, highly privatized environment in which people are expected to take responsibility for themselves, with no welfarist contribution from the state. Kicking people out of prison to fend for themselves without any veritable programming designed to put them on their feet–and with an astonishing paucity of solid vocational training behind bars in preparation for life outside–is a manifestation of this neoliberal ideology, and what’s more–this mentality is successful and pervasive because it dupes not only the professionals who administer it, but also the people who are subjected to it. 

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