Race, Incarceration, and American Values. By Glenn C. Loury with Pamela Karlan, Tommie Shelby, and Löic Wacquant. MIT Press. 88 pp. $14.95.
A few years ago, Graterford state prison outside Philadelphia hosted a large and unprecedented family fun day for imprisoned men and their families. Afterwards, a seven-year-old sent Superintendent Donald DiGuglielmo a letter thanking him for the “most fun I’ve ever had.” Sounding alternately proud, bemused, and troubled as he recalled this story, DiGuglielmo asked his largely suburban audience at a recent workshop on children and incarceration: what does it say about us as a society that the best day of this child’s life was a day spent behind the walls of a maximum-security prison?
Much recent research on prisoners and their families emphasizes the uniformly devastating economic, social, and political impact that mass incarceration has had on families and communities. Glenn C. Loury and his contributors survey some of the wreckage in Race, Incarceration, and American Values. But as Megan Comfort shows in Doing Time Together, the families and loved ones of people in prison have extremely complex and contradictory feelings about--and relationships with--the penal system, despite its many reprehensible consequences. Their ambivalence complicates the politics of penal reform and efforts to reverse the prison boom.
Loury and his contributors argue that mass incarceration aggravates some of the very social ills it is supposed to ameliorate. An analysis of New York City’s neighborhoods reveals a “perverse effect of incarceration on crime: higher incarceration in a given neighborhood in one year seemed to predict higher crime rates in that same neighborhood one year later,” Loury explains. Men with prison records have significantly lower wages, employment rates, and annual earnings over their lifetimes than similar men who have never served time.
The negative effects of mass incarceration are unevenly spread. Löic Wacquant prefers the term hyper-incarceration because it highlights how poor people, especially African-American men and women in crumbling urban neighborhoods, are the primary victims of the country’s exceptionally harsh penal policies. By the time they are 40 years old, 60 percent of black male high school dropouts have been incarcerated at least once. A black man in California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college. In Florida and Alabama, more than a quarter of all black men are permanently disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction. The black-white incarceration ratio of 8:1 dwarfs other major indicators of social and economic disparity, including unemployment (2:1), infant mortality (2:1), and net worth (1:5). “Mass incarceration has now become a principal vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchy in our society,” concludes Loury.
If the effects are so devastating and wide ranging for African Americans and other minority groups, why has no major political movement emerged to get the United States out of the mass incarceration business? Part of the answer may lie in the complex relationship between the country’s penal system and its welfare system. Police, jails, and prisons “are now the primary contact between adult black American men and the American state,” explains Loury. But the penal system also has become the social agency of first resort for low-income men and women, as Comfort shows in her gripping and provocative ethnographic study of the wives and girlfriends of men serving time in California’s infamous San Quentin prison.
Comfort stridently challenges the prevalent view among researchers and anti-prison activists that detention facilities have a uniformly negative impact on the lives of prisoners and their families. Mental health, substance abuse, and other health-care services are grossly inadequate behind bars—but they may exceed what exists in the community. And even if imprisoned men do not get adequate services on the inside, incarceration provides some women with a welcome respite from troubled men and household stresses like substance abuse, domestic violence, and out-of-control family finances. In short, this is “imprisonment as family therapy.”
For women with scarce resources, prison provides a cherished refuge from “navigating the perils of housing projects, destitute neighborhoods, or the streets.” For couples that are permitted conjugal family visits, the 43 hours spent in one of San Quentin’s bungalows is their fun day, the idealized version of the home they never had.
Paradoxically, incarceration also confers respectability on some imprisoned men. It furnishes a “culturally acceptable and ‘manly excuse’” for their joblessness, their lack of interaction with their children, and their financial drain on the household.
Prison can also deepen a woman’s romantic connection with her imprisoned partner.
Denied conventional ways to express masculinity—money, sex, a job, being a day-to-day father--imprisoned men may adopt “stereotypically feminine qualities—intensive communication, attentiveness to the relationship, expression of emotion.” The wives and girlfriends Comfort interviewed cherish this newfound intimacy, so much so that they “become reliant on, and even grateful for, carceral control.”
At the same time, these women recognize and denounce how penal control distorts their own personal lives. In mournful and moving detail, Comfort describes the extreme degradation that visitors face at San Quentin prison, which sits on the northern shores of San Francisco Bay. In the visitor waiting area, nicknamed “the Tube,” women and their families are herded into a gusty, chilly mini-wind tunnel where wasps periodically swoop down from ceiling nests, children play on filthy floors, and the poor acoustics of the concrete corridors “amplify and echo every outburst, squeal, tantrum, and reprimand.” As one regular visitor told Comfort, the Tube reminds her of a slave-holding tank. “Every time I walk in there and look out the windows at the water, all I can think is a place to hold slaves till the ship comes in,” she explained.
Prison not only dictates how the partners of imprisoned men behave on the inside but also how they run their lives on the outside. These women are quasi prisoners, quasi guards, quasi parole officers, and quasi parolees. They organize their schedules around the weekly visiting hours, the daily prisoner head counts, the collect phone call that may or may not come, and the ebb and flow of their partner’s legal case. They reward their partners for good behavior and emotional intimacy with letters, calls, visits, and elaborately prepared packages of extra food, clothing, and other items, which helps maintain order in the prison.
Upon release, they monitor their boyfriends and husbands to keep them from violating parole. But when hope turns to dismay about their leverage to control their partners on the outside, some women angrily turn on them, “often looking to the criminal justice system to validate their sense of betrayal by punishing the man who has done them wrong.” For example, sometimes they collude with parole officers or orchestrate situations with the police to get their husband or boyfriend picked up on a minor technical parole violation. Because police and parole officers often have carte blanche to search the vehicles and homes of parolees, their partners do not escape the gaze of the intrusive parole system.
The women Comfort befriended “plainly realize that correctional facilities cause their own forms of harm” and are poor substitutes for the social and economic programs they and their partners desire. They also are perspicacious about criminal justice issues like sentencing policies, mass incarceration, and the death penalty. In their eyes, the main purpose of the penal system is to control African Americans and other minorities, restrict their political power, and avoid investing in much-needed social and health services.
They single out larger structural forces, including racism and poverty, to explain why so many poor black men are incarcerated. But they do not always portray their partners as innocent victims of the system. They make fine distinctions between whether a man bears responsibility for his arrest or not. They are inclined to forgive and help a husband or boyfriend sent back to prison for a technical parole violation, while refusing to visit a man who committed a new serious crime while out on parole.
Comfort says relatively little about what happens to these relationships after the man is released. She hints that the prized intimacy forged behind prison bars is extremely brittle and not easily sustained on the outside. Moreover, Comfort focuses on an important—but somewhat exceptional—group of 50 women who maintain regular contact with their incarcerated partners, including about a quarter who first met their future partners while working or volunteering at San Quentin. Presumably women who do not keep up with their incarcerated husbands or boyfriends might have quite different views about the relative benefits of imprisonment and whether prison enhances emotional intimacy.
Other recent research based on survey data suggests that mass imprisonment damages more relationships than it repairs over the long term. Men who have been incarcerated are less likely to get married and stay married, to secure good, steady employment, and to be full citizens of their communities. They also are more likely to commit domestic violence.
But to many of the women Comfort interviewed, criminal justice intervention appears to be the only reliable means of obtaining some momentary relief from troubled men and home lives. No wonder that many of them were not ready to “tear down the walls” alongside anti-prison activists and dismissed collective political action to reform penal policies as futile. Comfort’s portrait of political quiescence is at odds with other recent work documenting growing political resistance among the families of incarcerated men and women, notably Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag on the prison build-up in California.
Marie Gottschalk is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of, among other works, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America.
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