Renée M. Byrd
In the absence of a critique of the logics at the heart of the prison industrial complex, seemingly progressive trends such as prisoner reentry initiatives will simply bolster racialized state violence. This essay grapples with questions of representation and power, and details how the disposability of imprisoned people is reproduced and renaturalized through carceral practices. Academic accounts continue to be complicit in this process, without a complex theorizing of subjectivity, representation, and state violence. This essay uses interviews with formerly imprisoned people in the Twin Cities to disrupt the way that formerly imprisoned people’s narratives are “mined as rich sources” in pathologizing and voyeuristic ways. Prisoner reentry programs appear progressive on the surface; however, they expand the prison industrial complex through perplexing logics that make it harder for women to navigate toward freedom. I use the notion of perplexity as a rubric for understanding penal logics and subjectivities as they emerged in my interviews with people recently released from Minnesota’s only women’s prison and analyze how they reproduce the vulnerability of people leaving prison. The gender-responsive façade of this unique prison and the surveillance orientation of reentry programs naturalized imprisonment as a solution to social problems in deeply problematic ways.
Keywords: Prisoner reentry, representation, people in women’s prisons, reformist reforms, perplexity
[This article is part of the first issue of Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics]
During the last ten years, a critique of mass imprisonment has become significantly more mainstream in the United States. In 2015 we witnessed the U.S. president visiting a federal prison, new legislation to reduce drug sentences, and more widespread media coverage of the racial disparities of the criminal punishment system. For many in the mainstream media and in academia, these developments signal a profound shift in our longstanding punitive orientation toward crime. The shifting discourses surrounding crime and punishment in the contemporary moment, however, signal both opportunity and danger. It is vital to move beyond reformist reforms and unpack the constitutive imaginings that rendered mass imprisonment a legible project from the outset. Seemingly progressive trends such as sentencing reforms and prisoner reentry initiatives will simply bolster racialized state violence in the absence of a critique of the root causes of mass imprisonment. Grappling with questions of representation and power, this essay details how the disposability of imprisoned people is reproduced and renaturalized through carceral practices. Specifically looking to the interplay between a women’s prisons and people’s narratives upon release, I show how these programs appear progressive on the surface while expanding the prison industrial complex through perplexing logics that make it harder for people to navigate toward freedom. Using the notion of perplexity as a rubric for understanding penal logics and subjectivities as they emerged in my interviews with people recently released from Minnesota’s only women’s prison, I analyze how carceral logics reproduce the vulnerability of people leaving prison. The gender-responsive façade of this unique prison and the surveillance orientation of reentry programs naturalized imprisonment as a solution to social problems in deeply problematic ways.
“What Is Narrated Is No Longer What Happened”
In 2011 and 2012, I interviewed twenty women who had been imprisoned at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee (MCF-Shakopee) and released within the previous six months. I originally met women through a legal clinic that focused on reentry and from there used a snowball sample. Formerly imprisoned people heard of the study from legal clinic staff, staff from other reentry programs, formerly imprisoned people, and probation/parole officers. Interviews were semistructured, lasting between one and two hours. After some initial questions to establish rapport, I largely allowed participants to direct the dialogue and tell their stories of incarceration and reentry with their own framing.
Any account of this research is necessarily a representation of formerly imprisoned women. It is also a representation of the punishment system within which they are often caught. The interview is a co-constituted site, an act of representation, where researcher and participant make meaning and represent themselves to the other. As David Valentine writes in Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category, “everything can be narrated, but what is narrated is no longer what happened.” The interview, itself—as well as the transcript of what was said—are never simply accurate portrayals. In the act of representation, “what happened” is narrated, remembered, forgotten, interpreted, and transformed. The act of representation is an act steeped in power relations. In a way, prisoner reentry itself was produced as a discursive formation within the interview encounters making up this study. Together, participants and I collectively gained a picture of the “reentry experience” as we negotiated power, subjectivity, and representation. The participant is an agent of representation, constructing a narrative that is a meaningful version of their individual realities. The power dynamics of who I was, how we were brought together (whether by another formerly imprisoned person or a parole officer), shaped what we said and how we negotiated making ourselves intelligible to one another. In writing up this research, I reinterpret, rework, and rerepresent prisoner reentry as it emerged in the interview encounter.
My aim is to be attentive to power within the representation that will necessarily emerge from these narratives, and to see what the interview encounter tells us about the punishment system. Formerly imprisoned people have the right to what Avery Gordon calls “complex personhood.” Gordon reminds us, “even those living in the most dire circumstances possess a complex and oftentimes contradictory humanity and subjectivity that is never covered by viewing them as victims, or as superhuman agents.” In this essay, I aim to honor the complex personhood of the folks who shared their stories with me, even as I unpack the dehumanization of state violence and logics of disposability in their lives.
“Mined as Rich Sources”
Over the course of two years, I interviewed people recently released from prison in an effort to develop an analysis of prisoner reentry with an eye toward the workings of race and gender. Along the way, I began to wonder whether another study of people in women’s prisons was desirable or useful. We have to ask, what work do these stories do in the world? How has academic knowledge representing prisoners been central to the development of mass imprisonment and the naturalization of carceral logics? The punishment system has been exceedingly skilled at making use of knowledge of prisoners in order to more effectively govern marginalized populations. Despite the liberatory intentions of many researchers, more often than not, academic knowledge is co-opted by the state to reproduce the palatability of state violence.
The following is an excerpt from my writing as I initially began to process my interview data:
Housing instability was a major concern for the women that I interviewed. Many articulated that losing stable housing began a domino effect where their lives unraveled. Rita, a thirty-year-old Native American woman, argued that her imprisonment began with losing her public housing. She was evicted after allegations of marijuana use in her apartment. As Rita explained, “everything began to unravel from there.” Rita became involved with child protective services after she lost her housing. She and the children moved around constantly, making it difficult to comply with CPS. Eventually, her children were removed from her home. She was allowed visitation, but the court moved forward on terminating her parental rights. Her tribe worked to prevent termination and was successful. However, after this her children remained in foster care and the state no longer allowed visitation. Rita attempted suicide and began using drugs more heavily. After years of substance abuse and prostitution, Rita was imprisoned in Shakopee on drug charges. She articulated that what began as occasional use of marijuana had a domino effect that led to her imprisonment. The loss of her children was devastating. Discussing her recovery, Rita stated, “I work hard for my kids. I just want to be ready if I ever get to see my kids again.” Housing instability made accessing social services and staying sober difficult for Rita. Moving constantly between the homes of friends and living in cars, she frequently lost important paperwork and struggled to keep track of the many components needed to access social services. Additionally, Rita articulated difficulty remaining sober given her housing situation. At the time of our interview she had been sober for 18 months. However, she stated that she felt unable to control her environment because of her unstable housing, “if I need somewhere to stay, I have to take what I can get. But I don’t like it. I don’t want to be around pot or ice or booze. I do my best to stay to myself, leave it alone. But, it gets stressful being on the street. Sometimes I think using will make it all go away.”
The narrative account of Rita’s life articulated above is one way of telling her story. It conforms to a common formula of incarceration and reentry as told in scholarly and journalistic work on women in prison. Researchers, policy makers, advocates, and imprisoned folks themselves often dutifully reiterate the focus on drug use, prostitution, housing instability, and trauma. The question is not whether it is accurate per se. We must also ask about the ideological work done by narratives of this sort. The question we may need to ask is not whether these narratives are the truth of imprisoned people but what are the truth effects of this particular way of framing the issue of mass imprisonment? What does this story do in the world?
The use of personal narratives by liberal feminist criminologists has tended to contribute to representing people in women’s prisons in individualizing ways. There is an intense amount of focus oriented toward people in women’s prisons. Even as there are occasional attempts within the literature to represent people in women’s prisons as resisting or complex, one is still often left with a voyeuristic and pathologizing examination. We must move beyond an individual level account of prisoner reentry. Research on ‘women in prison’ has often disproportionately focused on their histories of trauma and abuse. Their experiences are
mined as rich sources for understanding this aberrant behavior, and childhood abuse, domestic violence, or familial dysfunction [is] presented as the root cause. Presenting women’s experiences of abuse as the cause of incarceration individualizes and personalizes their treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. It obscures the broader social disorder signified by mass incarceration, and it sidesteps the question of why the state responds to abused women with punishment. . . . While the spotlight is turned on the personal failings of poor women and women of color, the political and economic interests that drive prison expansion remain in the shadows.
A focus on lost paperwork, difficulties remaining sober, and histories of abuse and prostitution often confines our analysis to the individual psychology of imprisoned people as opposed to the discourses, logics, and violences that render some things possible and other potentialities effectively foreclosed. This approach fails to question the conditions of mass imprisonment’s emergence.
How can we move beyond pathologizing representations of people in women’s prisons? We must shift our attention from the inner lives of prisoners themselves back onto the punishment system and the emerging discourses and strategies of governance within prisoner reentry policy and programming. At the same time, formerly imprisoned people must be centered in prison abolitionist movement-building and abolitionist reentry work. Is it possible to bring these two potentially contradictory aims into productive tension? With this essay, I hope to keep formerly imprisoned women’s voices centered, while disrupting the often pathologizing gaze in the scholarship on people in women’s prisons. Scholars, policymakers, and activists as well as formerly imprisoned women themselves must begin to read penal narratives differently.
Priti Ramamurthy uses the concept of “subjects in perplexity” to elaborate a transnational feminist perspective on Indian women’s consumption within a global economy:
Perplexity is a conceptual platform to think about the experiential contradictions of globalization as a series of processes that often overwhelm subjects. As an analytic with multiple subtexts, perplexity is a way of marking the tension between overlapping, opposing, and asymmetric forces or fields of power. Perplexity indexes the puzzlement of people as they experience the joys and aches of the global everyday, often simultaneously. Individually experienced feelings of confusion, of loss, and of desire are not separate.
This notion of subjects-in-perplexity offers a useful rubric for thinking about the complex subjectivities and penal logics narrated in the interview encounters for this study. The perplexity of formerly imprisoned people disrupts the notion of experience as a direct window onto reality or Truth. As Wendy Brown writes,
dispensing with the unified subject does not mean ceasing to be able to speak about our experiences as women, only that our words cannot be legitimately deployed or construed as larger or longer than the moments of the lives they speak from; they cannot be anointed as “authentic” or “true” since the experience they announce is linguistically contained, socially constructed, discursively meditated and never just individually “had.”
This allows us to highlight the social construction of contemporary penal subjectivities and to disrupt the way that analyses of former prisoners’ lives stay on an individual scale. Additionally, it opens up a lens through which to view the seemingly contradictory rationalities circulating within penal policies in Minnesota.
For Tiffany, a 43-year-old African American woman, the clearest way that she could see to disentangle herself from the punishment system was to go to prison. By “executing her sentence,” Tiffany went to prison for a year instead of doing fifteen years on probation. She stated, “I took my freedom from myself by turning myself in. I couldn’t see doing fifteen years probation. I turned myself over because it was the best way for me to get away from this system. But, giving up your freedom [pauses] sometimes it’s your choice, sometimes it’s not.” This passage from Tiffany’s interview highlights the complex and contradictory ways that formerly imprisoned people negotiate rationalities of choice and individual responsibility. Many participants framed their narratives in terms of choice and accountability.
Kyala, a 32-year-old African American woman stated, “I chose to hurt people, smoke pot, party before ‘cause I was messed up, I was hurtin.’ Now, I keep my calendar on track. I am more responsible. I want my life to be better for my daughter. She really missed me when I was gone and I know I gotta get off paper [get off parole] and stay off, so I stay home and take care of my business so I can never go back to prison.” The women interviewed for this research often framed their narratives in terms of choices they had made. How might we read these ways of framing their lives? To a degree this demonstrates a kind of internalization of neoliberal rationalities of individual responsibility, but I came to see this as necessary in order to maintain dignity and humanity while attempting to extricate oneself from the punishment system. Neoliberal discourses of individual responsibility often offered the only vocabulary for making one’s humanity and dignity intelligible within these systems. Additionally, these narratives were crucial to marking oneself as deserving of a second chance and of help with immediate survival needs. Given that participants were often referred to the study by service providers, their decision to articulate their lives in those terms when talking with me makes sense. By marking their former selves as “unfree” and themselves as subjects in the process of becoming free, participants simultaneously marked themselves as deserving and motivated to succeed, as well as more than their status as felons allows. As Jasmine stated, “I understand that we are felons and we have made bad choices. But, sometimes it’s just our felony makes us look suspicious all the time and they don’t look at you like a human being. You’re just a felon. It’s a lot of pressure. You need to understand that even though we’ve made mistakes that [pauses] you know [pauses], we are changing. Understand that we are starting over.”
Formerly imprisoned people are not simply duped by neoliberal discourses within the punishment system. Additionally, they are not unified and coherent subjects of resistance to penal power. The narratives of formerly imprisoned people produced within these research encounters reveal the perplexing nature of subject formation within late modern regimes of punishment. Formerly imprisoned folks simultaneously framed themselves as responsible, choice-making subjects and as vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of a lack of options that resulted from their status as felons. Their narratives are “entangled and weaved between what’s immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward.”
To be perplexed is to be full of uncertainty, puzzled, or full of difficulty. Perplexity, as a noun, refers to the state of being perplexed, but also to being entangled. This certainly seems a fitting description of the narratives of women being released from prison. I do not use this term to portray participants as incapable of understanding their situations. They had nuanced theories about how they became caught, as it were, in the punishment system. But the meaning of perplexity as entangled allows us to see both the ways that formerly imprisoned folks represented themselves as ensnared by various systems and also how they attempted to make sense of the contradictory and bewildering logics of the system. These perplexing logics demanded that people take on contradictory framings of themselves in turn. Perplexity helps describe the way that seemingly contradictory discourses operate simultaneously within the punishment system. Formerly imprisoned women are expected to simultaneously be rational, entrepreneurial subjects and deserving victims in need of intervention. The convergence of these two expectations is mirrored at a broader level in the reentry discourses that circulate in Minnesota. In Minnesota, neoliberal and more welfarist rationalities come together. That convergence can also be seen in the way that formerly imprisoned women narrated their lives. Negotiating the dual expectation to be rational, entrepreneurial subjects and deserving (properly gendered) victims requires a delicate and complex maneuvering.
The way that Tiffany had to go to prison to “get free” is perplexing and it was clear in talking to her that she was perplexed by the fact that “choosing prison” was the most effective way to disentangle herself from the punishment system. Tiffany stated, “When I got out and went to my parole officer, I thought well ‘maybe it would be easier for me to stay in prison.’ But then that’s more confinement.” Tiffany’s perplexity asks prison activist scholars to take a more complex approach to subjectivity.
The “empowering prison” model of MCF-Shakopee was perplexing for me as a prison abolitionist researcher. Prisons are contradictory and perplexing institutions. MCF-Shakopee is particularly perplexing because of its unique empowerment focus as compared with the majority of U.S. prisons. Increasingly, as mainstream criminologists lament the obvious failure of the mass imprisonment binge, the palatability of imprisonment is shored up by bringing the rehabilitative ideal back in and framing the prison as a potential site of liberation. In working through this research, I found myself entangled, caught, perplexed by the ways in which relations of power are reinscribed through the research process. How do we interrupt the ease with which penal logics contain and constrain the potential of activist scholarship? In “Material Consumers, Fabricating Subjects,” Ramamurthy encourages “the scholar-critic to recognize herself also as a subject-in-perplexity,” entangled in the very material and discursive structures as her research participants. This means that activist scholars must disrupt the unified, modernist subject both in how imprisoned people are represented as well as in the ways that we, as authors, come into the writing ourselves. Through this redefinition, of ourselves as also “subjects in perplexity,” we might ally ourselves with other subjects-in-perplexity to “open up the possibility for democratic conversations about what it is we desire for each other and ourselves”
I found that participants simultaneously framed themselves as responsible, choice-making subjects, and as vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of a lack of options resulting from their gendered status as felons. Subjectivities are not fixed or singular. Formerly imprisoned women “exceed always their singular interpellation” within discourses of punishment. Their subjectivities exceed the bounds of penal discourses, neoliberal rationalities, and representations of prisoners as always resisting in particular, convenient ways. Former prisoners take up and add on to penal discourses in contradictory ways in order to navigate bureaucracies and maintain their personhood. Sometimes the most potent method of resistance is to insist on one’s humanity within the vocabularies within which that humanity can be intelligible.
Another significant finding of this study is that the barriers attached to felony status often (re)produce the very vulnerability expected in accounts of imprisoned women’s lives. The barriers facing returning prisoners often produce or at least increase their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse by others in the community. In the academic literature on women in prison, these vulnerabilities are often located within the individual, as opposed to the system as a whole.
Difficulty in finding work is one facet of this increased vulnerability. Nadine, a 29-year-old African American woman, discussed experiencing sexual harassment and abuse while working in telemarketing. Nadine related that the abuse was a continuation of a longer history of trauma. Her father, who had introduced her to crack cocaine, attempted to abuse her while high. Nadine related the story about her father as one where she had some agency, saying, “I was a fighter. I fought him off. It was still traumatic though.” In relating this to the harassment and abuse she faced in the workplace, Nadine’s narrative shows a much greater feeling of powerlessness. Nadine stated that she “had to stay.” Despite wanting to leave the telemarketing job, she stayed because of the conditions of her parole: “I couldn’t change jobs. I didn’t think I was gonna get a new job quick enough if I left. They said I had to keep a job if I was gonna stay outside [of prison].”
Tracy, a Native American woman in her 30s, related a similar situation. Tracy’s boss refused to pay her unless she had sex with him. In her interview, Tracy said that she had doubts about whether her boss really had the power to stop her payroll check from being dispersed. However, the centrality of employment to demonstrating successful reintegration and the difficulty finding work with a criminal background made formerly imprisoned people more likely to remain in situations where their safety was threatened.
Employment discrimination is one of the most cited barriers facing formerly imprisoned people. In almost every state, private employers can legally deny jobs to people on the basis of a criminal conviction. Additionally, most states allow employers to discriminate on the basis of a past arrest even if a person was never convicted. In recent years, a “ban the box” movement has gained more attention. Referring to the box on applications that asks whether one has been arrested and/or convicted of a crime, prison activist Susan Burton says, “It’s not only [on] job [applications]. . . . It’s on housing. It’s on a school application. It’s on welfare applications. It’s everywhere you turn.” Former prisoners are often denied professional licenses, even if their conviction is unrelated to their professional obligations. Globalization and the accompanying process of deindustrialization in the United States have eliminated many of the jobs that former prisoners would be most likely to obtain, such as manufacturing jobs. Former prisoners are much less likely to be hired for retail positions, which represent a large number of low-skilled jobs, because they require continual contact with the public and often access to cash registers, et cetera.
Participants suggested that employers viewed them as easy targets. As Nadine articulated, “he thought he could treat me any way he wanted because I am a felon. He [her supervisor] used to say ‘where else you gonna work? This is a good deal.’” Racialized and gendered relations of ruling produce the view of former prisoners as disposable. The ascription of criminality onto the bodies of people of color has been central to racial formation throughout U.S. history. Prisons are race-making institutions and white supremacy is central to how mass imprisonment and the supposed disposability of prisoners are rendered palatable. As Angela Davis writes, “Ideologies of sexuality—and particularly the intersection of race and sexuality—have had a profound effect on the representations of and treatment received by women of color within and outside of prison.” There is nothing natural about the idea that formerly imprisoned people are disposable. The barriers attached to felony status enable this idea and (re)produce the exploitation and abuse faced by formerly imprisoned women. What I want to suggest is that the women’s vulnerability here is produced and reproduced, in part, by discriminatory policies that exclude them from full citizenship, but also importantly by the representation of them as vulnerable. The idea that the women are disposable structures their exclusion from employment, housing, and social services. But it also reproduces more vulnerability whether from a predatory employer or someone else in the community. When Nadine’s boss says “where else you gonna work,” he is reiterating a broader idea that she is disposable as a formerly imprisoned woman of color and using it to further her disposability. The pathologizing representations of people in women’s prisons produces the very vulnerability we expect based on the representation.
In addition to being more vulnerable to employers, the vulnerability of participants was increased because of the barriers they faced in obtaining housing. Participants articulated living with family and friends, despite abuse, drugs and other problems, because they felt that they had nowhere else to go. Housing discrimination is a particularly devastating barrier for formerly imprisoned people. One of the first questions a released prisoner must face is where she will stay. Housing within the private housing market can be difficult for someone with a felony conviction. Background checks are a routine part of the rental application process. Unless a former prisoner has substantial financial resources, so as to reassure a private landlord, it can be difficult to find housing. Additionally, public housing can present many barriers. Federal law bars many people with felony convictions from eligibility for public housing, section 8 voucher lists, and project-based section 8, particularly former prisoners with drug convictions, histories of violence, or who are registered sex offenders. While in recent years, reentry reformers at the federal level have sought to “educate” former prisoners about their eligibility for subsidized housing, the degree to which former prisoners are screened out of housing programs is underestimated and rarely acknowledged. People with felony convictions who are technically eligible for public housing are still often screened out of project-based section 8 sites that are run by private housing developers and HUD-funded programs that want to “keep their numbers up” by choosing only the most likely to be successful. The families of former prisoners are often reluctant to allow a returning prisoner to stay with them for fear that they will be evicted and lose their HUD-funded housing.
Sandra, a Native American woman who was imprisoned for four years in MCF-Shakopee, reported experiencing constant housing instability. She stated,
While I was there [in the sober living house], the owner foreclosed on the house. That was another shock. I was like “Wow I’m homeless again.” I ended up back at the shelter. I was worried and I was scared. I didn’t want to sleep outside. [With] the shelter, you have to call every night to get a bed. The doors open at 6 pm, but you never know whether you’ll get a bed. That was scary. There was a time when I had to sleep in like a stairwell. That was embarrassing. You wake up feeling dirty and have to wonder “where am I going to wash up, where am I going to clean.” You sleep with one eye open when you’re sleeping in stairwells or under stairs. It’s a struggle when you don’t have housing.
This housing instability resulted in increased vulnerability on a number of fronts. At the time of our interview, Sandra was primarily staying with a cousin. She reported, “I’m living with a cousin. That’s not working out well. I gave her three months’ rent. My phone bill is $50 a month. So, I’m left with about $30 a month. Something’s gotta change. Something’s gotta give.” She went on to say, “Its scary. I have no one to turn to, nowhere to go. My mom, my sister. There’s no one left. I wish she was here, my mom, I could use somewhere to sleep. It’s really hard being homeless. Everyone else is dead or in prison, so I’m out here alone.” Sandra described her cousin’s house as a problematic environment because it triggered her posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and was a challenge in maintaining her sobriety:
I’m always doing what I can to keep myself safe. I’m always looking ahead, looking around. There was a lot of abuse in my childhood. My mother. She was an alcoholic. There was a lot of verbal abuse, psychological abuse. There were attempts on me [attempts at sexual abuse] by uncles and strangers. Because mom was an alcoholic, there were parties, people around. It’s kind of like the house I’m livin’ in now. People everywhere. You got strange men coming in here. I’m not happy with the environment that I’m in.
Sandra was clear about not wanting to remain in her current living situation. She reported constant drugs and alcohol in the house, which made sobriety difficult. Additionally, the number of people, particularly strangers, triggered her PTSD. However, without somewhere else to go, she decided to stay. In order to maintain her sobriety and her housing, Sandra stayed to herself, “I just stay in my room. That’s how I stay sober.”
Our analysis of housing insecurity must be moved out of an individualizing frame and situated within the context of post-WWII shifts in housing. During the Second World War, transient populations became increasingly less common. Home ownership emerged as an important emphasis for middle-class families and “prosperity’s discontents” became largely confined to “Skid Rows,” living in SROs, single room occupancy dwellings. During the 1960s and 1970s, urban redevelopment schemes and the idea of “revitalizing” neighborhoods facilitated the demolition of skid row districts and the SROs began to decrease in number. The elimination “of this form of housing had both immediate and long-term effects—immediate in the displacement of residents and long-term in the erosion of a form of private housing on which future populations in need of low-cost shelter could no longer depend.” Individual experiences of housing insecurity must be understood within this wider context of political, social, and economic shifts. Deindustrialization, the withdrawal of the social safety net, and neoliberal political rationalities produce homelessness and housing insecurity.
Sandra also reported being more vulnerable to sexual assault because of her housing instability. She decided to store her most important possessions (her social security card, birth certificate, and a new pair of shoes) with a friend because he had the most stable housing of anyone she knew. On occasion, she went to his house when her cousin’s home became unbearable or when she was staying in a shelter. Regarding this friend, she said,
You know you do get tired when you’re out there. They kick you out of the shelter at seven in the morning and you know, where are you going to go at that time in the morning? Maybe I can sneak a blanket out and go lay in the park. But you’ve got to find the right park. It’s rough. Men think that if you’re in their house, they are entitled to touch you. I haven’t come across a respectful man yet. And its really hard you know. I try not to exchange sex for, you know, a room or whatever. That’s not me. I’m just not interested in men, period. He was trying to fondle me. He knows I have nowhere to stay.
Sandra felt that she had no options for housing. She repeatedly applied for public housing and was denied because of her criminal background. She described her life as constantly “bouncing around” between the shelter, her cousin’s house, and this male friend’s house. However, she remained hopeful that she would turn things around, stating, “I’m strong. I’m very strong. I haven’t allowed this stuff to break me.” She attempted to keep her days filled with AA meetings, outpatient drug treatment, therapy, and other appointments in order to avoid being imprisoned again or experiencing abuse and exploitation. While participants described their lives as difficult prior to imprisonment, the barriers attached to felony status exacerbated and increased their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation.
In order to understand Sandra’s story, an analysis of settler colonialism in Minnesota is necessary. For Native communities, housing insecurity, addiction, and violence are part of the everyday life of being a colonized people. As one participant in the American Indian Policy Center’s Searching for Justice: American Indian Perspectives on Disparities in Minnesota Criminal Justice System study asserts,
Why do Indians go to jail? And that’s basically from, that stems from almost three hundred years ago, from the culture. Think, what happened to our forefathers was a really bad thing, and through the generations have been traumas and traumas and traumas that have been carried over and carried over. And then multiplied by the shockwaves that came after that, which hit us bad in the boarding school days. I was from a boarding school myself—we’re just now getting hit by that, let alone learning how to float through it, and get past it and deal with it—you know, how are we going to deal with this? What happened to our forefathers and what carried over all the way from them—about 275 years ago to now, and what’s happened to us, that’s the multiple factor and how are we gonna deal with that?
Sandra’s stories must be understood within this wider, collective context of colonial rule and the violence of wave after wave of U.S. policies through removal and termination to relocation. Additionally, the political and economic formation of settler colonialism is constituted by gender and sexual relations of ruling. Sexual violence is not only a central feature of colonialism. Colonialism is “itself structured by the logic of sexual violence.” The sexual violence as well as the violence of housing instability faced by Sandra is part of a larger genocidal project. The supposed disposability of Sandra is connected to the theft of Native lands and natural resources.
How might we open up space for complex personhood even as we detail the ways that state violence operates through these logics of disposability? State violence and its concomitant logics attempt to foreclose prisoner’s humanity and justify their premature death. An analysis of representation in this context is vital because it is central to the production of that disposability.
Worse than Prison
Field note (November 2010)—My first visit to MCF-Shakopee was like nothing I could have anticipated. Yesterday, I received a call from the lawyer, Nancy, who took me to speak to the transitions class today. The transitions class is a course for women within three months of their release date. She told me that I could talk about housing services in the Twin Cities. I was prepared. I had collected applications for public housing, information on transitional housing programs, and emergency shelters. What I was unclear about was what to wear.
When Nancy called me, I asked, “what can I wear?” She paused, silent on the phone. “What do you mean? Wear whatever you want.” I persisted, “What can I not wear?” I thought maybe changing the phrasing would make my question clearer. She persisted, “Wear whatever you want.” Looking back she must have thought I was pretty strange. Well, today I learned why. This morning, I drove to MCF-Shakopee, fully prepared to be turned away for wearing blue or an underwire bra, as one would be in a California prison. But, that’s not what happened. I met Nancy in the parking lot and we entered the prison. It looked more like a middle school than any prison I had ever seen. When we entered the front door, I was instructed to put my purse in a locker and was given a visitor ID. Then I was led through a metal detector that the airport puts to shame. As we walked through another set of doors, I looked around confused. When were we going to go through security? My guide turned to me, “You just did.”
We walked out into a courtyard, where women walked about in a large circle. There was no fence to keep them from escaping. Later a guard would turn to me and say, “we’ve only had a couple walk off the grounds in the last few decades, but they always come back.”
Participants in this study continually expressed that their reentry programs and facilities felt more like prison than did the actual prison, MCF-Shakopee. Shakopee is, as one Department of Corrections official told me, focused on “empowerment.” During my fieldwork, this official told me, “At Shakopee, we are really all about empowering the women and giving them services.”
Again and again in interviews, formerly imprisoned women articulated perplexity and confusion over their feelings upon release. Gwen, a 33-year-old African American woman, stated, “I thought when I got out, I would feel free. But, they [reentry program staff] are worse than the guards. It feels like I won’t ever get out. But I try to keep a positive attitude. They can say I’m lying even if I’m not, or nit-pick on the rules.” Gwen felt like there were more programs and services within the prison than in her reentry program. Additionally, she articulated feeling like the prison staff had been more committed to her transformation than reentry program staff. Of the reentry program staff Gwen said, “They will be sleeping at the job when they should have been working. . . . The other lady caseworker, she lost my paperwork. I have to keep her on top of my paperwork. They don’t care.”
Betsy, a 46-year-old Native American woman, articulated this view of the reentry program, where she was living: “When I got there [transitional living house], it seemed a little bit too much like prison to me. It really feels like prison. We can’t come out of our rooms. So, it is too much like prison.” A number of participants characterized reentry facilities as “worse than prison.” Shanice, a 38-year-old African American woman, described her time in a residential reentry facility:
It was the worst place in the world. They treated us like crap. They promised they had groups [support and other life-skills groups] for us. I got out and they told me first that I could not hug my mom. I was like “are you serious?” I hadn’t seen my mom in years. It was just a rule. You can’t hug. Even in prison they let us hug. They had promised they had groups for us. I had really wanted a program with groups. So, I started doing the groups myself. I started group facilitating because if we weren’t in group, we had to be in our rooms. And I thought, “this is worse than prison.”
This participant eventually decided to leave this particular reentry facility and return to prison to finish her sentence. Shanice recalled, “I said ‘I tell you what, I want to go back to prison.’ I said ‘prison treated me way better than you’ and I chose to go back to prison than to be there. So, I went back to prison. They treated us like we was garbage.” Shanice chose to serve the remainder of her sentence in prison, instead of remaining in this reentry program.
Tiana, a 43-year-old African American woman, said of a reentry facility in which she had lived,
They just made you feel like trash. I felt like that’s not what I’m here for . . . for you to humiliate me, or belittle me. I’m here to get myself better. I want to get the help I need. I already had negative feelings about myself. I didn’t need another person making me feel bad. Getting out, I was already stayin’ away from negative people that I used to deal with. I didn’t need negative people running that place [the reentry facility]. I needed support. I didn’t need them to keep kicking me. But they kept kicking me, you know? And I kept saying, “I’m going to end up using if I stay here.”
Participants articulated feeling disrespected within many reentry facilities. They characterized reentry program staff as not genuine in their desire to help former prisoners. Participants continually expressed frustration with sitting in their rooms or being idle in reentry programs, which was different than their time in prison. Tiffany stated, “To lose your freedom, to be locked up in Shakopee. I was scared. But when I got there, it didn’t look like a prison. At least there you can go to the library. Here, you just sit there. I don’t praise prison. But, I did more positive things there. I learned how to work on a computer.”
Of the six reentry facilities discussed with participants, the programming and policies of all facilities were overwhelmingly characterized by a focus on control and monitoring rather than rehabilitation. This reveals some interesting questions. What does it mean if reentry facilities felt more like prison than the actual prison? What sort of work is this assertion by the participants doing? The women interviewed for this research consistently articulated a desire to “get free,” but where that vision could be realized was complicated by the way that the prison was shaped around a notion of empowerment, while reentry services were more focused on control, surveillance, and monitoring. There is something here about confronting the way that they are treated as disposable. Prison time was most often articulated as an event, which if they simply endured it, they would eventually get out. It was a fixed part of life that one simply had to choose to get through. It was being marked as a prisoner on the outside that produced perplexity.
The framing of MCF-Shakopee as an “empowering prison” produced the articulation of contradictory feelings and a sense of bewilderment within women’s narratives. The dissonance between Shakopee’s institutional framework as an “empowering prison” and disciplinary reentry programs produced confusion about where freedom could be obtained. The idea of an “empowering prison” is particularly insidious. It naturalizes prison as the proper place where women can get help because that support either does not exist or does not feel genuine on the outside. The development of surveillance-focused reentry programs, coupled with the prison’s gender-responsive empowerment façade, shores up the palatability of state violence, masking the way that families and communities are torn apart. This highlights one instance of a larger shift in penal logics, whereby the prison is rebranded as a space of potential rehabilitation and empowerment.
Conclusion: “You Really Can’t Just Keep Surfacing Us”
In this essay, I have attempted to do justice to the conversations I had with formerly imprisoned women during my fieldwork; to negotiate the perplexity of representation, power, and subjectivity in the research encounter, while still saying something about the context of prisoner reentry as it is constituted in the Midwest. MCF-Shakopee is a unique penal institution in its seemingly benign focus on empowerment. It has no fence and nothing resembling the security of more punitive prisons. However, this is precisely why such an institution is vital to abolitionist intellectual and political work. This kind of reformist prison renaturalizes incarceration as a solution to social problems and fails to genuinely transform the logics of disposability at the heart of the prison industrial complex. Participants in this research still missed the funerals of loved ones, the milestones in their children’s upbringing, and genuine opportunities for giving their gifts to the world. Surveillance-focused reentry programs provide a counter to this empowering prison model and this produces a dynamic where we are only left with the criminal punishment system’s current imagination.
As a researcher and a prison activist most familiar with California’s state prisons, Shakopee left me perplexed. I came to understand this perplexity as insidious and useful in shoring up the palatability of the prison. In a time where prison reform is going mainstream, abolitionist intellectuals must be cautious of the ways in which we are encouraged to accept seemingly empowering models such as this. We have to ask whether these are reforms that genuinely transform the logics that made mass imprisonment a legible project from the outset. The concept of subjects-in-perplexity, along with Avery Gordon’s notion of complex personhood, point abolitionist intellectuals toward a more nuanced view of penal politics. This research points toward a politics of abolition where imprisoned and formerly imprisoned people are centered in the conversation, without requiring them to perform as unified, Cartesian subjects always resisting penal power in the ways that fit our analysis easily. Perhaps by sitting with the messiness of imprisoned people’s and our own perplexity, we will develop the capacity for experimentation and ambiguity necessary for building a world without prisons.
The participants in this research allowed me to come into their lives and shared intimate aspects of their experience with me. It is possible that “doing justice” is foreclosed in a context where formerly imprisoned people are expected to be both victims and superhuman agents; rational subjects and the other in contradictory ways. Power is inherently exercised in the production of knowledge. Still, the voices of formerly imprisoned people must come to the center of critical work on prisoner reentry. As one participant, Tiana, stated, “The thing about women in prison is that there’s things that go much deeper. You really can’t just keep surfacing us and wondering why we keep committing crimes and stuff. You gotta do some deep sea diving.”
About the Author
Dr. Renée M. Byrd is an activist scholar, educator and community organizer, committed to building countercarceral knowledges in pursuit of a world without prisons. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Humboldt State University. Outside of academia, Renée has worked as a legal advocate for women prisoners with Justice Now in Oakland, a family advocate for youth in the Juvenile Justice System and on broader campaign work aimed at building genuine human security. Her current book project, titled Punishment’s Twin: Carceral Logics, Abolitionist Critique and the Limits of Reform, brings an abolitionist critique of reform to a wide audience. Byrd shows how carceral logics and discourses are re-naturalizing the prison as a supposedly necessary feature of social life and shoring up the palatability of the prison in a moment when the prison’s relationship to white supremacy is finally being called into question. Her writing can also be found in the journal Social Justice and on her blog Persistent Connections (www.persistentconnections.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised Edition. New York, New York: The New Press, 2012.
Brown, Wendy. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995. http://library.wur.nl/WebQuery/clc/1857236.
Byrd, Renée. “‘Punishment’s Twin’: Theorizing Prisoner Reentry for a Politics of Abolition.” Social Justice 43, no. 1 (2016): 1–22.
Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.
Federal Interagency Reentry Council. Reentry Myth Buster: On Public Housing. New York: National Reentry Resource Center, 2011. http://www.nationalreentryresourcecenter.org/reentry-council/activities.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
Gordon, Avery. Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People. St. Paul, MN: Paradigm, 2004.
Gorz, André. Strategy for Labor. Boston: Beacon, 1967.
Hopper, Kim. “Homelessness Old and New: The Matter of Definition.” Housing Policy Debate 2, no. 3 (1991): 755–813.
Johnson, Gene. “‘Ban The Box’ Movement Gains Steam.” Wave Newspapers, August 15, 2006. www.news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=99ce5ed2c12c489351589891334e720f.
Morgensen, Scott L. “Theorising Gender, Sexuality and Settler Colonialism: An Introduction.” Settler Colonial Studies 2, no. 2 (2012): 2–22.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. London: Routledge, 1994.
Petersilia, Joan. “Beyond the Prison Bubble.” Federal Probation 75, no. 1 (2011): 26–31.
Poupart, John, John Redhorse, Melanie Peterson-Hickey, and Mary Martin. Searching for Justice: American Indian Perspectives on Disparities in Minnesota Criminal Justice System. St. Paul, MN: American Indian Policy Center, 2005. http://www.crimeandjustice.org/researchReports/American%20Indian%20Perspectives%20on%20Disparities%20in%20the%20Minnesota%20Criminal%20Justice%20System.pdf.
Ramamurthy, Priti. “Material Consumers, Fabricating Subjects: Perplexity, Global Connectivity Discourses, and Transnational Feminist Research.” Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 4 (2003): 524–50.
Smith, Andrea. “Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 18, no. 2 (2003): 70–85.
Smith, Dorothy E. The Everyday World As Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.
Sudbury, Julia, “From Women Prisoners to People in Women’s Prisons: Challenging the Gender Binary in Antiprison Work.” In Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, Scholars, and Artists, edited by Jodie Michelle Lawston and Ashley E. Lucas, 169–83. Albany: SUNY Press, 2011.
———, ed. Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison-Industrial Complex. London: Routledge, 2005.
Travis, Jeremy, Amy L. Solomon, and Michelle Waul. “From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2001. www.urban.org.
Valentine, David. Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2007.
Wacquant, Loic. “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US.” New Left Review 13 (January–February 2002): 41–60.
Willse, Craig. “Neo-Liberal Biopolitics and the Invention of Chronic Homelessness.” Economy and Society 39, no. 2 (2010): 155–84.
Wright, James D., and Beth A. Rubin. “Is Homelessness a Housing Problem?” Housing Policy Debate 2, no. 3 (1991): 937–56.
 Joan Petersilia, “Beyond the prison bubble.” Federal Probation 75, no.1: 26–31.
. André Gorz defines the difference between reformist and nonreformist reform in this way: “A reformist reform is one which subordinates its objectives to the criteria of rationality and practicability of a given system and policy. Reformism rejects those objectives and demands—however deep the need for them—which are incompatible with the preservation of the system. On the other hand, a not necessarily reformist reform is one which is conceived not in terms of what is possible within the framework of a given system of administration, but in view of what should be made possible in terms of human needs and demands. . . .A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be.” André Gorz, Stategy for Labor (Boston: Beacon, 1967), 7–8.
. Renée M. Byrd, “‘Punishment’s Twin’: Theorizing Prisoner Reentry for a Politics of Abolition,” Social Justice 43, no. 1 (2016): 1–22.
. David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2007), 210.
. “Complex personhood means that all people, albeit in specific forms, are beset by contradiction, remember and forget, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others. Complex personhood means that people suffer graciously and selfishly too, get stuck in what symptomizes their troubles and also transform themselves. Complex personhood means that even those society names ‘other’ are never that. Complex personhood means that even those who haunt the dominant society are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their problems, about their society and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what’s immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward.” Avery Gordon, Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People (St. Paul, MN: Paradigm, 2004), 100.
. Julia Sudbury, “From Women Prisoners to People in Women’s Prisons: Challenging the Gender Binary in Antiprison Work.” In Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, Scholars, And Artists (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011), 169–83.
. Julia Sudbury, ed., Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison-Industrial Complex (London: Routledge, 2005).
. Ibid., xv–xvi.
. Priti Ramamurthy, “Material Consumers, Fabricating Subjects: Perplexity, Global Connectivity Discourses, and Transnational Feminist Research,” Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 4 (2003): 525.
. Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 40–41.
. Freedom does particular kinds of work in this context. “Getting free” was framed as disentangling oneself from the system, getting off parole, getting one’s children back and staying out of prison. The “unfree subjects” upon which this notion of freedom was predicated was often themselves or the women they had been.
. Gordon, Keeping Good Time. 100-101
. Byrd, “Punishment’s Twin.”
. Ramamurthy, “Material Consumers, Fabricating Subjects,” 543.
. Ibid., 543.
. Sudbury, Global Lockdown.
. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, revised edition (New York, New York: The New Press, 2012).
. Gene Johnson, “‘Ban The Box’ Movement Gains Steam,” Wave Newspapers, August 15, 2006.
. Dorothy E. Smith, The Everyday World As Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989).
. Mass imprisonment in the Unite States cannot be explained without reference to racial formation and gendered rationalities. Mass imprisonment is a racial project, “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines.” Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (London: Routledge, 1994), 56. Michael Omi and Howard Winant theorize the concept of racial projects to think through the smaller building blocks of the more general process of racial formation, which they define as “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed”; ibid., 55. Despite the prominence of color-blind ideology, race remains a salient category of analysis.
. Loic Wacquant, “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US,” New Left Review 13 (January–February 2002): 41–60.
. Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 79.
. Jeremy Travis, Amy L. Solomon, and Michelle Waul, “From Prison to Home: The Dimensions and Consequences of Prisoner Reentry,” Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2001.
. Federal Interagency Reentry Council, Reentry Myth Buster: On Public Housing (New York: National Reentry Resource Center, 2011). http://www.nationalreentryresourcecenter.org/reentry-council/activities.
. This claim is based on my experience as a housing advocate in a HUD-funded program, as well as my interviews with former prisoners. Additionally, in my fieldwork, Department of Corrections officials also recognized and articulated this problem of “creaming the crop.”
. Travis, Solomon, and Waul, “From Prison to Home.”
. Kim Hopper, “Homelessness Old and New: The Matter of Definition,” Housing Policy Debate 2, no. 3 (1991): 755–813; Craig Willse, “Neo-Liberal Biopolitics and the Invention of Chronic Homelessness,” Economy and Society 39, no. 2 (2010): 155–84.
. James D. Wright and Beth A. Rubin, “Is Homelessness a Housing Problem?” Housing Policy Debate 2, no. 3 (1991): 937–56.
. Willse, “Leo-Liberal Biopolitics,” 161–62.
. Minnesota is home to seven Ojibwe and four Dakota reservations. As a result of relocation policies and the poverty on reservaitons, Minneapolis has a large Native American population. John Poupart et al., Searching for Justice: American Indian Perspectives on Disparities in Minnesota Criminal Justice System (St. Paul, MN: American Indian Policy Center, 2005). In some neighborhoods in the Twin Cities (for example, the Phillips area, where the Little Earth housing project is located), over fifty percent of the population is Native American or American Indian.
. It is also important to note Minnesota’s long and vibrant history of Native American activism. The American Indian Movement (AIM) began in Minnesota in the summer of 1968. Calls for revolution by AIM leaders drew the attention and violence of the FBI and CIA. The suppression of the movement, including the criminalization and imprisonment of important leaders, is still very much a part of the everyday life of the Native American community in the Twin Cities.
. Poupart et al., Searching for Justice. 30
. Scott L. Morgensen, “Theorising Gender, Sexuality and Settler Colonialism: An Introduction,” Settler Colonial Studies 2, no. 2 (2012): 2–22.
. Andrea Smith, “Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 18, no. 2 (2003): 70–85.
. Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 28.