Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"It's Bigger than Christmas": Thoughts on the Significance of the Super Bowl in Prison

[Note: A version of this essay was originally posted at]

Last Sunday, millions of men and women around TVs everywhere watched the Patriots and Falcons compete in Super Bowl LI (51 to non-Romans such as myself). Many of these viewers followed from behind bars in US prisons. Indeed, during my 18 months in "Sunbelt State Penitentiary" (SSP) – the anonymous state prison where I conducted observations and interviews for my dissertation research – I learned just how central the NFL season and the Super Bowl in particular are to prison life. Here, I will share four insights into the power of football in the American prison (a lens through which we might catch a glimpse of other pressing prison concerns, such as diminishing services, economic inequality between the disenfranchised, and the alienation of the inmate population).

1. Somebody Got a Big Payout
Like many a corporate office or friendship circle on the outside, prisons are home to competitive football pools. Behind bars, however, where cheap, durable food items have become the de facto money of choice in response to downturns in institutional food services, inmates cannot easily bet with cash. Instead, at SSP, inmates wagered packets of ramen noodles. Following the exciting comeback of the Patriots, the big winners collected the pot: a sweet stash of delicious and valuable soups.

With their newfound ramen bounty, these pool winners can purchase a variety of goods and services in the underground prison market. For instance, they can buy contraband fruits and veggies (smuggled out of the kitchens), clothes or other necessary wares from other inmates looking to make a quick buck (or quick "bite" in this case), or arts and crafts goods (called "hobbycraft"), such as portraits or birthday cards, which they can mail to friends or family on the outs. Or, they can pay more entrepreneurial inmates for services such as bunk cleaning or laundry for a reasonable ramen fee.

2. Time is About to Slow Down
In prison, the biggest struggle is often that against time. This world of slow monotony can be more than challenging for its captive residents and they will resort to many means to help time slip by faster. One common strategy is to get a job. Many participants in my research discussed their prison sentences in terms of their prison work histories – X through Y months were spent in one work program, Y through Z at another. And getting lost in one’s work is not unique to the outside world. Many inmates seek out the busiest, most physically or mentally engaging work in an effort to lose the hours of the day in the rush of the work week. Whereas many workers in the free world “live for the weekend,” many inmates “live for the week,” dreading the long Saturday and Sunday hours when they must sit in their bunks or shuffle around the yard.

However, football season offers a perfect distraction from the typical drag. It was a common refrain at SSP that “once football season starts, time flies.” The entertainment of watching and rooting for a favorite team is a common enjoyment for the imprisoned and the free. Behind bars, however, it can also represent a lifeline amidst years of incarceration, distance from family and friends, and alienation from the workings of the outside world. In addition to helping speed along the day, the ritual of watching football helps connect inmates to the rest of the world in some small way. These types of connections may be vital to coping with life behind bars. Now that the season has ended, it's back to prison as usual.

3. Not Everyone Gets a Good Seat
In some prisons, shared TVs occupy communal spaces. In such institutions, informal rules may dictate which individuals or groups are allowed prime seating (and when). In other prisons, such as SSP, inmates must instead procure their own entertainment systems. Small TVs like those that people on the outs might find at Walmart for $50 cost hundreds of dollars in the prison commissary store. Such goods are all the more unattainable for the majority of men who make below $0.20 per hour for their labors in prison work programs.

Financial help from family and friends on the outside (often in need of financial assistance themselves) is rare for many inmates, who must instead hustle and save if they hope to deck out their bunk with a television, portable CD player, or other approved entertainment device. For the select inmates who manage to secure competitive higher-paying jobs in inmate work sites (which can pay closer to $1.00, $2.00, or $3.00 per hour at some sites), saving may not be as much of a burden, relatively speaking. The rest, however, must rely on the good graces of their pals or neighbors in their housing units, who might allow them to sit in their bunks to watch the game. While it is possible to purchase a TV directly from another inmate in the black market, this form of exchange is technically prohibited – inmates caught with entertainment items registered in another’s name face having their goods searched and confiscated, disciplinary tickets, Loss of Privileges, or other sanctions.

4. The Super Bowl is the Biggest Holiday of the Year
Despite the issues listed above, this year’s Super Bowl Sunday, as in past years, was the biggest holiday of the year at Sunbelt State Penitentiary. On this day, inmates received a special meal in the chow line (last year it was roast beef sandwiches with actual tomatoes and onions, which was a big deal in an institution where any fresh vegetables are valued “like lobster”). Prisoners are served dinner early on Super Bowl so that they can eat it while they watch the game – a rare allowance of autonomy in a space in which every movement and activity is surveilled and controlled.

It is, in the words of one participant, “bigger than Christmas” and more people turn up for Super Bowl chow than for any other holiday or special occasion. That means that last Sunday, far more inmates than usual ate the state-provided meal and did not turn to the formal or informal markets (via the prison commissary store or the underground ramen economy, respectively) to procure food that was healthier, tastier, and more filling than what the institution offers (in the words of inmate and staff member participants alike).

Monday, the off-season began. As we on the outside returned to routines as usual, the men and women in the nation’s penal institutions still face a range of issues. Economic disadvantage, stratification between inmate groups, unequal access to goods and services, poor quality of food, and other hardships remain facts of everyday life. These and other aspects of the state of US prisons are unlikely to improve under the current presidential administration. Regardless of which team you root for (in athletics or politics), the conditions faced by the millions of Americans behind bars are in need of our attention. 95% of inmates will one day return to their communities. Let’s hope they come back having gained more than just fond memories of the Super Bowl.

(Michael Gibson-Light is a PhD student at the University of Arizona School of Sociology. His dissertation is an ethnographic study of the structure of inmate labor, the practices and strategies of inmate workers, and the formal and informal economic outcomes of work behind bars in a US men's state prison.)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Big Ideas in Punishment and Society: Reboot

A year and a half ago, I had committed myself to writing a series on what I saw as the twelve big ideas in Punishment and Society. I did not followup. Now that things have settled down, and as we furiously finalize our syllabi for next semester/quarter, I thought this would be a good time to revisit the series. My previous post laid out the various caveats and biases I saw in my list, including their skewing to my interests and my training, which will likely lead to a slightly different list than others would create. As I was laying out a schedule for this series and revisiting my list of big ideas, however, I decided to change things up a bit by describing the ideas chronologically. This, then, triggered additional ideas about trends in the various big ideas. This post lays out these trends, while subsequent posts will discuss the ideas in turn.

My evolving list of 10 to 12 big ideas seems to fall into several periods of action, each of which has a theme:

  1. 1940s-1960s: The Birth of Prison Sociology 
  2. 1970s-1980s: Critical Looks at Punishment as Social Control, or the Futility of Reform  
  3. 1990s-2000s: Understanding the New Normal 
  4. 2010s: The Resurgence of General Theories of Penal Change 
These periods are not equally distributed. For example, in Period 1 (1940s-1960s), I basically combine the major concepts from prison sociology---inmate culture, prisonization, pains of imprisonment, and secondary adjustments---into one big idea. By contrast, Periods 2 (1970s-1980s) and 3 (1990s-2000s) have four or five distinct ideas in each. Period 4 (2010s) is difficult to assess because it is ongoing and I have yet to decide how much to discuss this period until we can better assess the long-term impact of these ideas, but it too is on the smaller side. 

I've never really thought about periodizing punishment and society research before, beyond a general cut-off around 1990 with the formalization of the field in the birth of our namesake journal and the publication of Garland's Punishment and Modern Society. I had always described punishment and society with a heavy leaning toward this more recent work: I would first say it's the field that generally treats punishment as a social institution, meaning it does not assume crime shapes punishment but instead describes how punishment and society are mutually constituted (or rather how society affects punishment and vice/versa)---borrowing heavily from my script for explaining law and society. I would then add that its main goal recently (for the last twenty-plus years) has been to understand the causes and consequences of the punitive turn, most notably the emergence of mass incarceration. This was always a little unsatisfying because it left out other studies that were clearly punishment and society, but I could never really articulate a way to link them together except by playing a few degrees of Kevin Bacon. 

When I taught punishment and society classes, I put the punitive turn at the center and set up the class to describe (1) what punishment was like before and what it's like elsewhere, and thus how the new approach is different, (2) what are the major components of the punitive turn, (3) what are its consequences, and (4) what do we think caused it (see this post). This seemed to me to be a pretty good representation of the field. (In an earlier version, I used the evolution of prison sociology to provide a window (problematic as it was) onto changes in doing time over time.) Certainly, I left out some things, but I got to teach these in my law and society class, my prison history class, or my org theory class. 

But thinking through the big ideas---thinking about what concepts or theories really left their mark and that we still see cited such that we can start to create a genealogy of the field (one that starts after Durkheim, Marx, and Weber)---helped me realize this longer periodization. It's also helping me to see  how ideas that might not really seem like they fit (e.g., classic prison sociology) do in fact fit together, but under the broader tent of punishment studies and how that field has evolved over time. In this case, the relationship between punishment and society is more flexibly defined and examined than the way I had conceived it. 

It's also interesting to think about how each of these periods responds to the major concerns of the time. In mid-century, a relatively consensus-heavy focus on society---and eventually membership in and exclusion from society. In the post-1969 period, the disappointment with society, the seemingly inevitable failure of reforms (for so many reasons), and the neo-Marxist approach are powerful. In the 1990s, we came to grips with one of the biggest changes in punishment---mass incarceration---and tried desperately to understand how it happened and what it means. Now that mass incarceration is no longer new and people are turning to new topics (including its future and the mixed attempts at reigning it in), and a new generation of scholars are emerging who were trained after the earlier backlash to general theories, we're starting to see people look beyond explaining the punitive turn and go back to making general statements about punishment---but with a twist, illustrating that they understand the problems with traditional general theories.  

When I turn to the individual posts, I will try to develop these themes more, but the main focus will be on the individual ideas themselves and, secondarily, how they relate to the general thrust of the literature at the time. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Members' Recent Publication Digest - December Edition

As compiled by Miltonette Craig:


Longazel, Jamie, Jake Berman, and Benjamin Fleury-Steiner. (2016). The Pains of Immigrant Imprisonment. Sociology Compass, 10(11), 989-998.

Rubin, Ashley T. (Forthcoming). Professionalizing Prison: Primitive Professionalization and the Administrative Defense of Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829-1879. Law & Social Inquiry, DOI: 10.1111/lsi.12263

Savelsberg, Joachim J. (2016). Representing Mass Violence in Darfur: Global, National and Field Factors. Zeitschrift für Genozidforschung, 14(1-2), 62-79.

Steele, Linda, Leanne Dowse, and Julian Trofimovs. (2016). Who Is Diverted?: Moving Beyond Diagnosed Impairment Towards a Social and Political Analysis of Diversion. Sydney Law Review, 38(2), 179-206.


Lynch, Mona. (2016). Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Savelsberg, Joachim J. (2016). Repräsentationen von Massengewalt: Strafrechtliche, Humanitäre, Diplomatische und Journalistische Perspektiven auf den Darfurkonflikt. (Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur). Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann. (English text published in 2015 by the University of California Press. Open access version:

If you would like your recently published book or article to be included in the next digest,
please send your citation information to Miltonette Craig ( by January 31.