Reentry to Nothing #4: In the Shadow of the Jailhouse

by Alessandro De Giorgi*

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. Other episodes in this series:
#1 – Get a Job, Any Job 
#2 – The Working Poor
#3 – Home, Sweet Home

  • • •

The jail’s policies and informal custodial practices, and much of the interaction between jailers and the jailed, contain a thinly disguised element of intentional meanness. This is so because most persons who determine jail policy or manage the jail, as well as the general public, believe that jail prisoners are disreputables who deserve to be treated with malign neglect.
—J. Irwin, The Jail (1985/2013, p. 45)

It’s just like … when things not going right for me out here and I’m having hard times … I’ll be saying to myself, “It’s time to go back to jail.” Sometimes I felt like I’d rather be in jail than out here, because out here I can really hurt somebody that’s an innocent person, but if I harm somebody in there, it’s like a piece of shit…. We’re nothin’ in there, so they ain’t going to trip if I hurt somebody in there.

Contemporary debates on the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States are mostly driven by cost-benefits considerations, a circumstance that largely explains the current bipartisan support for timid reductions in the prison population (see Aviram 2015). In California, the prospected readjustment of the penal state has taken the ambivalent form of a “realignment” of penal powers, whereby large numbers of nonviolent prisoners formerly housed in state prisons are now being channeled into the local jail system. In fact, since the introduction of California’s Public Safety Realignment Act (AB109) in 2011, over one-third of the decline in the 40,000 prisoners registered in the state’s correctional population has been offset by a simultaneous increase in jail populations (PPIC 2015)—a process more aptly defined as transcarceration than as decarceration (see Lowman, Menzies & Palys 1987).

Conspicuously absent from the current “smart on crime” rhetoric is any serious consideration of the growing role that penal institutions—and jails in particular—have come to play in the lives of the urban poor, their families, and their segregated communities in the wake of two decades of welfare retrenchment, rising unemployment, and savage cuts to public services (Dolan & Carr 2015). Similarly, no serious reference is made to the urgent need for massive investments in social services—not drug courts, community corrections, or other “net-widening” measures, but actual social programs like housing subsidies, health care, food assistance, and a basic income—for the urban poor currently being warehoused in penal institutions who will eventually join the burgeoning army of returning ex-prisoners. Given the current trend toward the decentralization of the power to punish, the role of county jails in the governing of social marginality will only become more prominent in the future, a prospect that should raise public concern, given the abysmal conditions under which people often serve time in jails, where rehabilitative programs are virtually nonexistent, educational opportunities are a mirage, and medical services are even worse than those provided in state prisons—and deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata. Under these circumstances, and in the absence of any political project to tackle chronic urban poverty and soaring levels of social inequality, the current rearticulation of the penal state will likely result in further overcrowding and decay of local jails, increasingly turned into modern-day poorhouses, and in the dumping of hundreds of thousands of unemployed and unemployable individuals into the dilapidated neighborhoods they came from.

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.

• • •

Naira sitting in her living room a few weeks after coming back from jail.

Naira sitting in her living room a few weeks after her release.

November 24, 2013
It’s 7 a.m. on a foggy Sunday. I have an appointment with Rico at his apartment in East Oakland to drive him to San Raphael to pick up his girlfriend Naira, who is due to be released from Marin County Jail. She was arrested a few weeks ago after trying to cash a $500 check that someone else had forged, in exchange for a $50 cut. This happened after the financial assistance she receives from the Indian tribe she belongs to was cut several times, going down from $900 to $650. Naira believes the tribe is investing millions of dollars in the construction of a gigantic new casino and resort in Sonoma County. This makes it difficult for Naira and Rico, who only works a few hours a week at the community clinic in West Oakland, to pay for their rent—$850 for a single bedroom apartment in a dilapidated area of East Oakland—and other living expenses.

Rico, his hair freshly combed and dressed up for the occasion, is waiting for me outside the apartment. He is talking with a tattoo-covered Latino man in his early 50s, whom he introduces as an old friend. They both get in the car and I drop the man off a few blocks later. Rico tells me that Manuel had been one of his customers back in the day, when Rico sold drugs to support his own heroin addiction. The night before, he brought him some Kentucky Fried Chicken because he didn’t have anything to eat.

Rico is excited. During our half-hour drive to San Raphael, we listen to loud salsa music from his phone as we overlook the breathtaking views of sunrise over the Bay Area. He anticipates that Naira will look much better than before she went to jail, because at least inside “She been eatin’ decent food, sleepin’ more, and not be using drugs” for a few weeks.

Alex: So have you been visiting her?
Rico: I haven’t even talked to her on the phone.
Alex: Really?
Rico: Cuz she can’t call me collect, and I don’t have no money. Plus, that’s a little space for us to, you know … think. Yeah, especially her…. In a sense it’s good [that she’s gone to jail], so she can get her mind back on track.

We arrive at the Marin County Jail. The building looks like a fallout shelter, with just-released people emerging like ants from a nest. I wait in the car while Rico and Naira embrace and kiss in front of the jail’s entrance. Surrounding them are other couples and families who are reconnecting, much like new arrivals at an airport. In the car, Naira takes the backseat, while Rico sits next to me.

Naira: I just came out! I had to wait. I delayed everybody cuz they didn’t have my check ready.
Rico: They cashed it for you?
Naira: No, they gave me a check. They don’t give you cash when you come out over here.
Alex: So how much did they give you?
Naira: Whatever I had on my books.
Alex: Oh, okay so they just gave you back your own money. I thought they gave you some sort of gate money…. You know, like when they release you from San Quentin and you get $200 at the gate?
Naira: Yeah, if that was the case I’d come to jail every week!

On our trip back to Oakland, Naira shares what she saw in jail:

Alex: So, how was the food?
Naira: It was good. It was real good! We get soup on Tuesday and Thursday, and we had soda and popcorn on Saturdays. It was real good. Plus, they gave me bus tickets.
Rico: These ain’t good over here.
Naira: Oh, they don’t work over here? Let’s see. I know you can get a transfer that works. I think that works.
Alex: What’s the value?
Naira: Two dollars…. They give you enough to get home.
Rico: How ‘bout yard time? Small yard in there?
Naira: Yeah, small yard. Mess around. A lot of crazies in there though, man.
Alex: Crazies?
Naira: Yeah, a lot of young girls there, oh wow, I was like, this one was punching herself around. You’ve got all these personalities coming out, it’s crazy. This one sister just laughed to herself, the other one [was] carrying a conversation by herself, the other one the other day was banging her head against the wall … it made her bleed. My cousin had to go tell the deputy, they had to put her in the cell with the camera…. This one lady, they wouldn’t give her her meds and she just went off. She wiped her shit all over the cell and windows…. it was gross. Had it, you know, all over her face.
Rico: Did they give you yours [medications] quick?
Naira: No, I just barely got mine, like last week. Took them a week just to come see me.
Rico: You gotta call and get your prescription, tell ’em to send it.
Naira: They don’t even care about meds; they don’t unless you go off, then they put you in a padded cell and then they realize, “Oh, maybe she does need her meds.” They’re all young girls—I mean, they’re young—that are crazy.
Alex: So would you say it happens with younger people more often?
Naira: Yeah, more younger ones than these older ones…. Like, about 20 to 21, 18 or 19.
Rico: How many to a pod?
Naira: Two to a cell. One of the girls, she’s a chef too. Yeah, I helped her while she was coming down off alcohol pretty bad. She’s a diabetic, too, and they wouldn’t give her her medicine.
Rico: That’s crazy, diabetics need their stuff!
Naira: Takes ‘em a while to get medication in there. I even brought all my paperwork to show what medication I was taking and verify and it still took them two weeks to give it to me.
Alex: Seriously?
Naira: Yeah, like the doctor came and see me and says, “How do you feel?” I said, “It feels like my brain is loose, like you turn yourself around and kinda like dizzy. That’s how I feel.” She said, “Oh…” Then she kept judging me, “Oh, I see some interesting tattoos on you, are you gang affiliated?” I said, “No.” And she thought, “Yeah right, yeah, whatever…” She’s like, “Do you know Daniel?” What does that have to do with my medication!? “Do you drink or smoke?” “Yeah.” “You do drugs?” I said, “Maybe once in a while.” “Yeah right,” she says, and it’s like she just kept criticizing me. I’m like, “Am I gonna get my meds or what?”
Rico: If I was diabetic and they didn’t give me mine I would file a lawsuit. Lawsuit for real.
Naira: The girl was like passing out. I had to find her sugar and kept giving her sugar, make sugar-water…. She’s just like, “Oh, thank you.” I was like, “They don’t give a fuck in there.” She barely could talk; she was like barely holding herself up.
Rico: It’s not like Santa Rita, where they’ll give you your meds quick. In there, they interview you when you first go in and you see a doctor and everything.
Naira: They do up in here too! And I even gave them my paperwork. “Well, we got to verify this.” They verified it and gave me my inhaler, but they didn’t get my other medication. She goes, “Well you was taking these meds?” I said, “No, I still am.” She said, “Well…” She looked at the third paper and said, “Oh yeah, I see they did verify it.” Didn’t bother to turn the page, that’s why. They have a bunch of women in there right now just going off, yelling and screaming all night.
Alex: Is it very noisy at night?
Naira: Yeah. In Santa Rita, they held the crazy people in another place; they’re not in the housing unit. Right here they’re right in the middle, with all the windows and they get so crazy…. They be taking they clothes off and standing there naked in the windows, yelling and you can’t even talk on the phone cuz they say, “What you looking at, you bitch?” “I’m just talking, talking.” They don’t house them separately; they’re like right in front where we have our pod time, it’s like you can’t help but see them because they’re like … all the way around you. You see ‘em banging their heads. One girl was bleeding. And then they take them to the padded cell and they’re all rough with them, you know, they get all rough with them. And they’re doing something really bad. The deputies in there… They all know what happened with the medications, but it ain’t none of their business.

When we get back to East Oakland it’s past 8:30 a.m., and the sun is now high in the sky. As we drive through International Boulevard, I see on the sidewalks the assorted population that crowds the streets on a Sunday morning: scores of homeless people pushing carts, drug addicts and alcoholics passing out on benches, street-food trucks selling burritos and tamales, families dressed up for church walking amidst street prostitutes, and groups of youngsters in oversized white t-shirts standing in front of liquor stores. We stop at the McDonald’s restaurant on 98th Avenue, where Rico and Naira get two coffees, an orange juice, and four pastries, for a total of $8.50. While we’re waiting in line, we see Rico’s friend Manuel standing outside. After we’ve picked our orders, we exit the restaurant and Naira and Rico greet their friend.

Manuel hands a heavy plastic bag to Rico, who tells me it’s a free turkey his friend just got from a local church. Next Thursday is going to be Thanksgiving, and Rico insists that I take the turkey home as a thank you for the ride today. I decline politely. Then we share some cigarettes outside McDonald’s with Manuel, who 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?”

Aviram, Hadar. 2015. Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era and the Transformation of American Punishment. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Dolan, Karen and Jodi L. Carr. 2015. The Poor Get Prison: A Comprehensive Look at the Criminalization of Poverty. Washington, DC: Institute for Policy Studies. At
Irwin, John. 1985/2013. The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Lowman, John, Robert J. Menzies, and Ted S. Palys (eds.). 1987. Transcarceration: Essays in the Sociology of Social Control. Aldershot, UK: Gower.
PPIC. 2015. Realignment, Incarceration and Crime Trends in California. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California. At

• • •

Alessandro De Giorgi is Associate Professor at the Department of Justice Studies, San José State University, and a member of the Social Justice Editorial Board. He thanks his research assistants Carla Schultz, Eric Griffin, Hilary Jackl, Maria Martinez, Samantha Sinwald, Sarah Matthews, and Sarah Rae-Kerr for their invaluable contribution. For a more detailed description of the project, see here.

Alessandro De Giorgi, “Reentry to Nothing #4 —‘In the Shadow of the Jailhouse’” Social Justice blog, 9/4/2015. © Social Justice 2015.

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