The materials presented in this blog series draw from an ethnographic study on prisoner reentry I have been conducting between March 2011 and March 2014 in a neighborhood of West Oakland, California, which is plagued by chronically high levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, and street crime. Since 2011, with the agreement of a local community health clinic that provides free basic health care and other basic services to marginalized populations in the area, I have been conducting participant observation among several returning prisoners, mostly African American and Latino men between the ages of 25 and 50. In this series of blog entries, I will be presenting ethnographic snapshots of some of these men (and often their partners) as they struggle for survival after prison in a postindustrial ghetto. For more detailed information on this project, please read here. To read the previous entries, please follow these links: Get a Job, Any Job (#1), The Working Poor (#2), Home, Sweet Home (#3).The latest entry, "In the Shadow of the Jailhouse," De Giorgi examines the relationship between the urban impoverished and local jails. This piece triggered thoughts about "sociological ambivalence"---the complicated relationship incarcerated people (and their families and neighbors) have with carceral institutions and policies of the kind discussed by Megan Comfort, Todd Clear, and others when discussing prisons. Prison, for these groups, has both positive and negative effects---mostly negative, but (surprisingly) some positive. However, De Giorgi is examining the role of local jails, which are increasingly taking a larger role in California's penal landscape following Realignment (2011). He's also focusing particularly on the way in which, in our post-welfare society, one of the largest providers of services to the poor are jails.
In the following notes I document how, despite the abysmal levels of neglect and abuse characterizing these institutions—particularly in terms of the physical and mental health of their guests—jails have come to represent one of the few residual forms of “public relief” from the sheer destitution the poor experience in the postindustrial ghetto, often representing their only chance to gain access to food, shelter, and sporadic healthcare. Of course, this is not to suggest that prisons should continue to offer their “services” to the urban poor; however, we should wonder whether the hands-off approach currently advocated by reformers and presidential candidates across the political spectrum represents nothing more than the latest chapter in a long history of public retrenchment from the ghetto and malign neglect toward racialized urban poverty.His post offers one of the more jarring accounts of sociological ambivalence. The post discusses a morning when Alessandro is driving Rico to Marin County to pick up his girlfriend, Naira, from the Marin County Jail. On the way over, Rico tells Alessandro that he expects Naira to look better than she had, to be healthier after her stint in jail because she'll have been fed, have had time to sober up, sleep, and get her head right. On the way back to the East Bay, Naira tells Rico and Alessandro of her time in the jail, especially of the long delay before the people are giving their medications and the many people with serious mental illnesses and the various forms of decompensation they experience. With a healthy dose of irony, the post closes with the group running into a friend of Rico and Naira's; the friend "tells Rico that Naira looks much healthier after her period in jail. As she lights his cigarette, he comments, 'You look good, Naira! You really needed it, uh?'" Despite the terrible the jail conditions, they are still better than some of the conditions Naira faced on the outside.
The other posts are also worth checking out:
Keep them coming, Alessandro, and keep up the great work!