August 5, 2009

On Jail, part I: Warehousing the Rabble

The following is from the beginning of John Irwin's classic study of jail existence, The Jail, published in 1986 and still considered relevant and keenly insightful. The blockquote is a rather long chunk of text – sorry 'bout that – but I believe worthy of your attention.
In a legal sense, the jail is the point of entry into the criminal justice system. It is the place where arrested persons are booked and where they are held for their court appearances if they cannot arrange bail. It is also the city or country detention facility for persons serving misdemeanor sentences, which in most states cannot exceed one year. The prison, on the other hand, is a state or federal institution that holds persons serving felony sentences, which generally run to more than one year.

The public impression is that the jail holds a collection of dangerous criminals. But familiarity and close inspection reveal that the jail holds only a very few persons who fit the popular conception of a criminal – a predator who seriously threatens the lives and property of ordinary citizens. In fact, the great majority of the persons arrested and held in jail belong to a different social category. Some students of the jail have politely referred to them as the poor: "American jails operate primarily as catchall asylums for poor people." Some have added other correlates of poverty: "With few exceptions, the prisoners are poor, under-educated, unemployed, and they belong to minority groups." Some use more imaginative and sociologically suggestive labels, such as "social refuse" or "social junk." Political radicals sometimes use "lumpen proletariat" and argue over whether its members are capable of participating in the class struggle. Some citizens refer to persons in this category as "street people," implying an excessive and improper public presence. others apply such labels as "riffraff," "social trash," or "dregs," which suggest lack of social worth and moral depravity. And many police officers, deputies, and other persons who are familiar with the jail population use more crudely derogatory labels, such as "assholes" and dirt balls."

In my own research, I found that beyond poverty and its correlates – under- education, unemployment, and minority status – jail prisoners share two essential characteristics; detachment and disrepute. They are detached because they are not well integrated into conventional society, they are not members of conventional social organizations, they have few ties to conventional social networks, and they are carriers of unconventional values and beliefs. They are disreputable because they are perceived as irksome, offensive, threatening, capable of arousal, even protorevolutionary. In this book I shall refer to them as the rabble, meaning the "disorganized" and "disorderly," the "lowest class of people."

I found that it is these two features – detachment and disrepute – that lead the police to watch and arrest the rabble so frequently, regardless of whether or not they are engaged in crime, or at least in serious crime. (Most of the rabble commit petty crimes, such as drinking on the street, and are usually vulnerable to arrest.)

These findings suggest that the basic purpose of the jail differs radically from the purpose ascribed to it by government officials and academicians. It is this: the jail was invented, and continues to be operated, in order to manage society's rabble. Society's impulse to manage the rabble has many sources, but the subjectively perceived "offensiveness" of the rabble is at least as important as any real threat it poses to society.
From my experience – a year in Homeless World Sacramento and forty days in Sacramento county jails – I believe Irwin is right, except that the radical fringe has withered and there are no longer protorevolutionaries in our midst.

I do believe, whether it is overt or blithering, a lot of effort is made in Sacramento to hide or impair the homeless in jails and in VOA's terrible Winter Shelter (an extra-legal jail) that violates people's freedom and keeps good people from re-entering polite society. It is a tragedy; something straight out of Chuck Dickens and Vic Hugo. [Oliver Twist and Les Miserables]

It is all especially sad because leaders in our homeless-help organizations are participants [albeit unwitting, I hope] in keeping the underclass corralled and under thumb and eerily tranquilized.


Mumon said...

What would you like the underclass to do?

Tom Armstrong said...

Work. Love. Have fun. & Be happy.

Tom Armstrong said...

I think we must always honor work and that matters should be properly incentivized.

We cannot be giving the unemployed homeless a better deal than those who provide for themselves working a full-time minimum-wage job.

We should be helping the homeless who want to work, instead of what often happens where homeless-aid organizations devour homeless people's time. AND we must require work from those who are able. AND we must give restricted-vouchers instead of cash [or enact a workable payee system] for those who are addicts on disability.

The road to a better life circumstance must be made wide and possible. NOT by making homelessness comfortable, but by making homelessness escapable.

Mumon said...


Thanks. I agree with your points, of course, and I also think though we also need as a society not to pit one class against another.

Unfortunately, some people with big megaphones won't stop doing that, and I think there's got be real structural change that does redistribute wealth from the top 1% down to the rest of us.

Maybe Obama will be able to come through on it, though I'm not terribly optimistic.

Ryan Garou said...

We cannot be giving the unemployed homeless a better deal than those who provide for themselves working a full-time minimum-wage job .... AND we must require work from those who are able.

* facepalm *

I know you mean well, but you are playing right into their hands.

This "any wage labor is honorable" mythos is a fundamental part of what drives this execrable social engine.

If that "full time minimum wage job" involves working for a company, or even in a "social service", that perpetuates social wrong, then why does the person working it "deserve a better deal" than the unemployed person who - at the very least - is not actively contributing to the mechanics of oppression?

Again, I'm sure this isn't quite what you meant, but this "everyone should be Working and all Wage Work is Honorable" line is exactly what the Bad Guys want us to willingly internalize. Doing it for the wrong reasons is tactically just as bad as doing it to move in step with their agenda.

Ryan Garou said...

* last sentence should have read something more like "doing it for ostensibly honorable reasons"

Tom Armstrong said...


I am not meaning to imply that all wage labor is necessarily honorable. I am saying that our society [or any society] must honor working above not working. Society must 'incentivize' working, otherwise there is a deteriorization of the social fabric.

It is a separate matter that society should regulate businesses and see to it that they function in a proper manner, treat their employees properly, and task their employees with appropriate/legal labor. And that the federal/state minimum wage be set at something livable.

Mumon said...

I am saying that our society [or any society] must honor working above not working.

Frankly, I think it's slightly more nuanced than that: older people should be honored whether they can work or not.

On the other hand, beyond a certain amount (say, enough to go through college & get started in a dwelling & perhaps start a family securely) a trust fund is an abomination.

Tom Armstrong said...

Et tu, Mumon?

I guess by "honor" I'm just, merely meaning that government money benefit rules shouldn't be written such that if you have two people [say Dobie and Maynard] who are alike in all other ways yet one [Dobie] works and the other [Maynard] doesn't, that Maynard shouldn't reap free benefits for having no income that amount to more than what Dobie gets working fulltime at minimum wage.

If Maynard's free benefits are more that what Dobie can do working, then either the minimum wage is too low, or we should examine how comfortable we're making Maynard.

I don't think this is generally a problem. In California, three-months' General Assistance is now $200/mo., and food stamps for one person are ~$172/mo. for someone in my situation.

I am not meaning to suggest that society should hate geezers who hang around at the park pitching horseshoes.

[btw, Where'e MY trust fund!!?]

Kyle said...

Honestly, I think it is an outrage that we have homelessness in the US today. This country has the means and talent to eradicate homelessness, hunger and poor health care.

Also, putting drug addicts in jail is the dumbest thing the system can do. Did you know that here in Virginia, you get 3x's more jail time for growing 5 plants or more of marijuana than someone gets for felony assault or voluntary manslaughter? Our prison system is a disgrace, and the fact we lock up such a large portion of our population is a direct result of this countries unwillingness to take care of the issues in the first paragraph.

Tom Armstrong said...

Kyle, Thanks for your comment.

I think the politicos need to devise more-sane policies with respect to jail and homelessness.

There is talent to be deployed and money to be saved!

I'm reminded by your comment of something I read this morning in a blogpost: "Nothing will happen until we see people as gifts to be engaged rather than problems to be fixed."

Currently, a great many homeless in Sacramento receive social-security disability benefits [for dubious disabilities, btw] that they spend to maintain their substance addictions. It is insane and largely unknown to the public.

THAT money could be spent taking care of the truly mentally ill homeless people who wander around lost. Like the many who are schizophrenic.

I know that your Senator Webb is courageously trying to get legislation to reform the prison system that targets low-level drug users and parole violators rather than those that perpetrate major crimes.

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

Yeah I'm glad that you mentioned the mental illness aspect.

So many mentally ill are just warehoused in prisons because it's easier for our society to just throw them in a hole and forget about them.

And the fact that you can be thrown in jail for a non-violent drug offense is---well, offensive!!

Tom Armstrong said...

Indeed, handsome-and-wonderful James! Our society, under the guise of 'freedom' perhaps, tries to keep from spending money on legit social policy to shovel more gold to the filthy rich.