The Gaols of the Subproletariat: An Experimental Verification (Loic Wacquant)

Been reading Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity for some time now – in fact began at the beginning of the year, stopped, and now thanks to my newfound enthusiasm for reading on a tablet, i’ve started again.

Wacquant writes from a social democratic point of view, which can be alienating, but his work still seems interesting to me because he is examining what i feel are some of the fundamental gender and national contradictions underlying mass incarceration in the united states today. The words he uses are different from those i would use, and he necessarily shies away from drawing what i feel are necessary conclusions… but the reality he is examining is important, and i am curious about what he<ll have to say.

The following is an extended citation from the book, a subsection entitled The Gaols of the Subproletariat. What is described is old news to many, i know, but i still found it to be a useful mapping out of the characteristics and oppressions facing millions of people in the united states today. From Punishing the Poor pages 59-73.


It suffices, to discern the extrapenological functions served by the outsized extension of the US carceral apparatus even as crime plummeted for over a decade,60 to sketch in broad strokes the sociological profile of the “clientele” it accommodates at its entry point. Whence it turns out that the half-million detainees who glut the country’s 3,300-odd jails on anyone day-and the fourteen million bodies that pass through their gates in the course of a typical year-are essentially drawn from the most marginalized fractions of the working class, and especially from the subproletarian families of color in the segregated cities ravaged by the conjoint transformation of wage labor and social protection. ((The statistics in this section are taken from a survey, conducted by the federal Department of)ustice from October 1995 to March 1996, of a representative sample of 6,ooo detainees in 431 county jails. Caroline Wolf Harlow, Profile of Inmates 1996 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of justice Statistics, 1998). For comparisons over time, these earlier studies were relied upon: Profile of jail Inmates, 1989 and Profile of jail Inmates: Socio-Demographic Findings from the 1978 Survey of Inmates of Local jails (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991 and 1980, respectively), while various Census Bureau publications were used for comparisons with the national population. Statistical data of this kind have a high coefficient of uncertainty owing to the conditions under which the interviews are conducted, the characteristics of the population questioned, the sensitivity of some of the items asked, and a lack of precision in the coding of responses. However, the orders of magnitude they establish in the respects that interest us here are sufficiently clear that we can tre,p.t them as reliable, especially since other, local investigations suggest that this study tends to underestimate the material insecurity and sociocultural destitution of the carceral population. )) Thus, recovering its historical mission of origin, incarceration serves above all to regulate, if not to perpetuate, poverty and to warehouse the human rejects of the market. In this regard, the gargantuan operation of punishment houses converges with and complements the aggressive rolling out of workfare programs.

Indeed, six in ten occupants of county jails are black or Latino (41 percent and 19 percent, respectively), as against 48 percent in 1978, whereas these two communities put together represent barely one-fifth of the national population. Just under one-half held a full-time job at the time of arrest (49 percent), while 15 percent worked “part-time or occasionally” and the remainder were looking for work (20 percent) or economically inactive (16 percent). This astronomical jobless rate is hardly surprising considering the educational level of this population: one-half had not graduated from high school, even though this requires no examination, and barely 13 percent said that they had pursued vocational, technical, or academic postsecondary education (compared to one-half of this age category in the country as a whole).

As a result of their marginal position on the deskilled labor market, two-thirds of detainees lived in a household with under $1,ooo in income per month (and 45 percent in households with under $6oo), corresponding to less than half the official poverty line for a family of three that year- although two-thirds said that they had received wages. This indicates that the vast majority of the occupants of county jails do come from the ranks of the “working poor,” that fraction of the working class that does not manage to escape poverty although they work, but who are largely ineligible for social protection because they work at poverty-level jobs. ((On the one hand, these jobs generally provide neither medical insurance nor social coverage (which depends on the goodwill of the employer). On the other, having a job, and thus an income, however meager, disqualifies them from public assistance and medical coverage for indigent households (public benefits which, in any case, are now very hard to obtain and provide only for strictly limited periods, as we shall document in the next chapter).)) Thus, despite their penury, barely 14 percent received public aid (payments to single parents, food stamps, food assistance for children) on the eve of their arraignment. If we include the 7 percent receiving disability or retirement benefits and the 3 percent on the unemployment rolls, it turns out that less than one-quarter of jail detainees received some government support. The twofold exclusion from stable wage work and public assistance that affects widening sections of the American proletariat explains the lengthening of careers in the illegal economy, and thus the pronounced aging of the jail population: in 1996 one detainee in three was older than 35, twice as many as in 1978. This aging directly parallels that of persistent offenders and the entrenching of criminal commerce in the inner city, where established street gangs have taken an entrepreneurial turn and included more members in their thirties and forties as opportunities in the regular economy dried up.

The material insecurity of detainees in American jails is matched only by their social denudement: only 40 percent grew up with both parents (as against a national average of 77 percent) and fully 14 percent spent their childhood in an orphanage or group home. Nearly half were raised in households receiving public assistance, and over one-quarter grew up living in public housing-the most reviled sector of the urban housing market due to its extreme dilapidation, dangerousness, and the double class and caste segregation that stamps it.62 Moreover, more than one-third of jail inmates confided to having a parent or guardian who is an alcoholic (30 percent) or drug addict (8 percent). Confirming the fragility of their social ties, a bare 16 percent of them were married, compared to 58 percent for men in their age bracket nationwide.

Besides, incarceration is quite familiar to detainees in the strict sense that more than half of them have or had a close relative in prison (a brother, 30 percent; their father, 16 percent; a sister or mother, 10 percent). The same goes for physical violence and especially gun-related violence. One in nine men and one in three women said that they had suffered physical or sexual abuse during their childhood; three percent of men and one woman in three reported being raped as adults. Everything suggests that these percentages are low estimates, especially for the men, since most inmates have already done time behind bars and homosexual rape is quite common in American houses of detention, where it is estimated that as many as one inmate in four is subject to serious sexual abuse every year. According to a 1994 survey carried out by the head physician at the Cook County Department of Corrections, half of the men admitted to Chicago’s jail had previously been hospitalized as a result of an assault and one in four had been wounded by gunshots at least once. In addition, 6o percent of shooting victims had personally witnessed shootings during their childhood.

A germane study of detainees entering the jails of Washington, D.C., in 1997 found that one in four had suffered serious injuries unrelated to their incarceration. In-depth interviews with a subsample of these men found that 83 percent had been at the scene of a shooting incident; 46 percent had had a family member killed with a gun (in most cases during a robbery, assault, or crossfire); and 40 percent still carried some disability related to a earlier gunshot wound.

Material insecurity, cultural deprivation, social denudement, physical violence-the deplorable health of the denizens of America’s jails is in tune with their degraded class position and condition: more than one-third (37 percent, compared to one-fifth of the general population) report that they suffer from physical, psychic, or emotional problems serious enough to curtail their ability to work. This diagnosis is confirmed by the fact that half of the new entrants into the carceral system had to receive treatment upon admission, aside from the superficial medical examination to which all “fish” are subjected during the procedures initiating them to their detainee status. ((The mass processing of detainees at the Los Angeles County jail is depicted in the two ethnographic vignettes of jail intake (drawn from fieldwork carried out in the summer of 1998) offered in chapters 4 and 5 (pages 146-50 and 186-91).)) (To this percentage one can add the 13 percent of jail inmates injured while behind bars as a result of assaults, riots, and accidents.) And detainees are not only more likely to be in ill health upon being put under lock; they are also at inordinately high risk of becoming ill while there, as America’s jails and prisons have become gigantic incubators for infectious diseases, with prevalence rates of the major afflictions far exceeding those of the general population. It is estimated that 20 to 26 percent of all persons infected with HIV-AIDS in the United States, 29 to 43 percent of those detected with the hepatitis C virus, and 40 percent of all those struck by tuberculosis in 1997 had passed through a correctional facility.

It is moreover well established that American jails have become the shelters of first resort for the mentally ill who were thrown onto the streets by hospitals in the wake of the massive “deinstitutionalization” campaign of the 1960s and 1970s and for those who simply cannot access a grossly defective public health system. It is hardly surprising then that over one-quarter of jail inmates have been treated for mental health problems, while 10 percent have been previously admitted to a psychiatric facility. ((The proportion of inmates identified as suffering from mental afflictions during admission is deliberately lowered in keeping with the lack of resources available to treat them. As one psychiatrist working at the clinic of the Twin Towers, the reception center of the Los Angeles jail system, explained to me: “We have an instrument [a psychological test] that gives us 6 to 10 percent of serious cases, but the percentage diagnosed really depends on how many beds we have. If we had the room and the staff, we could easily up that figure to 15, 20, or 30 percent.”)) This is consistent with clinical studies conducted by medical researchers reporting that 6 to 15 percent of the clientele of city and county jails suffer from severe mental illness (rates for convicts in prison range from 10 to 15 percent), and this rate has increased over the past two decades as a result of the downsizing of the medical sector of the state, more rigid criteria for civil commitments, and increasingly negative attitudes among the public and the police.67 The disproportionate rate of street arrests of mentally ill persons combines in turn with the explosive growth of computerized criminal records (analyzed in chapter s) to fortify the tendency of the authorities to divert their treatment from the public health to the penal wing of the Leviathan.

As they come almost exclusively from the most precarious strata of the urban proletariat, the denizens of American jails are also, by (socio)logical implication, “regulars” of the carceral system: 59 percent have already experienced detention, and 14 percent were previously put on probation, leaving just under one-quarter who are “novices” to the jailhouse. For, as shall be discussed shortly, the carceral institution has grown more autophagous. This is attested by the rising share of inmates who have been repeatedly convicted: fewer than one detainee in four had served three custodial sentences in 1989; seven years later, that figure reached one-third. Finally, it is significant that 8o percent of those sentenced to at least one year of prison time were defended-if one can call it that-by public defenders. Only half of the detainees shorn of the means to hire their own lawyer were able to speak with counsel within two weeks of being locked up.68 In fact, it is routine for public defenders to meet their clients for the first time a few minutes before they hastily appear together before a judge, since state-appointed lawyers are typically in charge of hundreds of cases at a time. Thus in Connecticut members of the public attorney’s office, who officiate in three-quarters of the state’s felony trials, each handle an average of 1,045 cases in the course of a year. As in many other jurisdictions, they have filed suit against the agency that employs them in order to compel the state to disburse the funds needed to meet its constitutional mandate to provide all the accused with minimal means of defense in criminal court.69 Over the past decade, the costs of indigent defense services have ballooned out of control, exacerbating the chronic crisis of legal services for the poor, due not only to the multiplication of punitive statutes such as mandatory minimum sentences and long narcoticsrelated sanctions, but also to “an overall increase in criminal filings and a larger percentage of defendants found to be indigent.” This confirms that the penal state is more aggressively raking the very bottom layers of social and urban space

The profile in urban marginality drawn from this national survey of jail inmates is fully corroborated by a two-year field study conducted study conducted by sociologist—and ex-convict—John Irwin, combining direct observation and in-depth interviews with the “fresh fish” caught in the net of the San Francisco jail. Irwin emphasizes that “the persons who fill the jails in the big cities are largely members of the rabble class, that is, persons who are poorly integrated into society and who are seen as disreputable”: hustlers and hoodlums, derelicts and the mentally ill, drug addicts, illegal immigrants, and “corner boys” (working-class youths who hang out in cliques in public places and consort in taverns in low-income neighborhoods). But, more importantly, their arrest and detention, and even their conviction and sentencing to prison, are explained largely by “offensiveness, as much or more than [by] crime seriousness.” Worse still, the police and carceral management of social insecurity certainly has the effect of controlling members of the “rabble” that soil the city streets in the short run, but over time it also “confirms their status and continually replenishes their ranks.” Aside from the fact that “jail is the primary institution of socialization into rabble existence,” the recent campaign of penal harassment of the poor in public space contributes to aggravating the feeling of insecurity and impunity insofar as it “blurs the distinction between actual crime and what is merely bothersome or offensive.” ((John Irwin, The Jail: Managing the Underclass (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 39-40, 111, 118.)) And it is well suited to diverting public attention from white-collar and corporate crime, whose human damage and economic costs are vastly greater and more insidious than those of street delinquency.

Considering that jail detainees form a more diverse and less deprived population than the convicts of state prison, it is clear that, when we are tracking the carceral stock of the United States, we are indeed dealing overwhelmingly with the most precarious and stigmatized segments of the urban working class, disproportionately nonwhite, and in a regular if fractious relationship with various public aid programs targeted at the poor, from orphanages and housing to health and income support. Whatever offenses they may have committed, their trajectory cannot be mapped out and explained within the compass of a “classless criminology.” ((For a stimulating discussion of the analytic dangers of “declassifying” crime, read John Hagan, “The Poverty of a Classless Criminology,” Criminology 30, no. 1 (February 1992): 1-19.)) And, whatever behavioral foibles threw them into the clutches of criminal justice, they issue from and remain an integral part of the core population that is the traditional focus of public assistance schemes. This suggests that analysts of the welfare state in America cannot continue to ignore the vast and growing sections of the urban (sub)proletariat that are churning through the penal system, and they must imperatively bring the prison into the picture of the determinants and correlates of marginality and inequality in the age of economic deregulation. Integrating the analysis of penal policy and social policy is all the more urgent when the welfare rug is being pulled from under the feet of the urban poor to be replaced by a trampoline toward low-wage work and the illegal economy of the street—which is what the great “welfare reform” of 1996 entailed. It is to an analysis of this “reform” and how it embodies and accelerates the establishment of the new government of social insecurity that we turn in the next chapter.


K. KersplebedebK. KersplebedebK. Kersplebedeb

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