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Prison and Social Death

Prison and Social Death

Joshua M. Price
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 212
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  • Book Info
    Prison and Social Death
    Book Description:

    The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. To be sentenced to prison is to face systematic violence, humiliation, and, perhaps worst of all, separation from family and community. It is, to borrow Orlando Patterson's term for the utter isolation of slavery, to suffer "social death." InPrison and Social Death, Joshua Price exposes the unexamined cost that prisoners pay while incarcerated and after release, drawing upon hundreds of often harrowing interviews conducted with people in prison, parolees, and their families.

    Price argues that the prison separates prisoners from desperately needed communities of support from parents, spouses, and children. Moreover, this isolation of people in prison renders them highly vulnerable to other forms of violence, including sexual violence. Price stresses that the violence they face goes beyond physical abuse by prison guards and it involves institutionalized forms of mistreatment, ranging from abysmally poor health care to routine practices that are arguably abusive, such as pat-downs, cavity searches, and the shackling of pregnant women. And social death does not end with prison. The condition is permanent, following people after they are released from prison. Finding housing, employment, receiving social welfare benefits, and regaining voting rights are all hindered by various legal and other hurdles. The mechanisms of social death, Price shows, are also informal and cultural. Ex-prisoners face numerous forms of distrust and are permanently stigmatized by other citizens around them.

    A compelling blend of solidarity, civil rights activism, and social research,Prison and Social Deathoffers a unique look at the American prison and the excessive and unnecessary damage it inflicts on prisoners and parolees.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6559-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Part I Elements of Social Death

    • Chapter 1 Crossing the Abyss: The Study of Social Death
      (pp. 3-21)

      To be sentenced to prison is to be sentenced to social death. Social death is a permanent condition. While many people integrate themselves back into the society after imprisonment, they often testify that they permanently bear a social mark, a stigma.

      The term “social death” comes from Orlando Patterson’s analysis of slavery. In analyzing the social status of the slave, Patterson argued that slaves were rendered noncitizens, social nonentities (Patterson 1982).¹ They were condemned to social death. Social death comprised three aspects: the slave was subject to systematic violence, to generalized humiliating treatment, and to “natal alienation.” Natal alienation meant...

    • Chapter 2 Natal Alienation
      (pp. 22-39)

      Incarceration upends women’s reproductive decision making. This woman describes her helplessness and vulnerability as the jail restricted her reproductive choices and denied her proper medical attention. Her account places separation and reproductive justice at the center of the discussion of incarceration.

      But true reproductive justice goes far beyond abortion on demand. Women of color activists have argued that thoroughgoing reproductive justice requires that women and girls have the economic and political resources to make decisions for themselves about not just reproduction but also their sexuality and whether and under what conditions they wish to parent (Ross 2008; Shen 2006). They...

    • Chapter 3 Humiliation
      (pp. 40-58)

      Court records from her subsequent lawsuit against the jail confirm that Janie repeatedly tried to obtain her medication from nurses and doctor during the eight months she was held at our county jail. They continually rebuffed her. They refused to give her an official diagnosis of HIV positive, which would have obligated them to treat her. She testified at trial that a nurse told her, “It’s not our fault you have AIDS. There’s nothing we can do about it.” She filed several grievances. In its ruling, a federal court held that, “There is no evidence that any of Plaintiff’s claims,...

  5. Part II Method and a History of Social Death

    • Chapter 4 Dissemblance and Creativity: Toward a Methodology for Studying State Violence
      (pp. 61-74)

      I received this letter from one of my university students. I must confess that it took me by surprise. Though Diane was a student active in our jail project, I had her down as a bit naïve—not wise to the workings of prisons, jails, and the police. In my class on prisons, I found her comments tended toward the cloying, the sentimental; she often proclaimed the redemptive power of acceptance and love for all.

      As it turns out, I was wrong in my assessment of her. She had a cagey, insider’s eye that makes her wary of being lied...

    • Chapter 5 Racism, Prison, and the Legacies of Slavery
      (pp. 75-90)

      This could be seen as so much male posturing, or the banter of people in an extreme situation. I prefer to see the exchange as marking the limits of a certain rationality. One young man marks Daniel as nothing, as a dead subject (see also Ferreira da Silva 2007). Daniel rejoins with a counternarrative that marks the centrality of captive labor and racial subordination in the Americas.

      Daniel’s response seems to be borne out historically, logically, and statistically. People of color are incarcerated at a much great rate than whites (see introduction; also Carson and Sabol 2012, 8). Michelle Alexander...

    • Chapter 6 The Birth of the Penitentiary
      (pp. 91-104)

      To enter solitary confinement in the contemporary prison is to enter into a remnant of early nineteenth-century practices of incarceration. Absolute solitude, as French visitors Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont characterized it in the 1830s, was the United States’ first great contribution to the history of the modern penitentiary. Conditions have changed since the beginning of the nineteenth century, of course. The condemned in the first cells were shrouded in silence, whereas today, as Todd commented, the noise is infernal: it is not uncommon for enraged or even unhinged people confined in special housing to “stand at their...

  6. Part III Abolition Democracy

    • Chapter 7 “Doesn’t Everyone Know Someone in Prison or on Parole?”
      (pp. 107-114)

      “Doesn’t everyone know someone in prison or on parole?” We are at a community meeting in the NAACP offices in Binghamton, New York. It’s 2006. Four of us had organized these meetings, sensing rising community outrage over the conduct of the local parole officers. We have been meeting for months.

      People speak up around the room, angrily protesting that the parole officers are overstepping boundaries. They share stories of parole officers following and stopping them arbitrarily. One says her parole officer tries to trip her up intentionally, misleads her, and bullies her. Many feel driven to desperation or despair. They...

    • Chapter 8 Spirit Murder: Reentry, Dispossession, and Enduring Stigma
      (pp. 115-128)

      Formerly incarcerated people are banned beings. They live as the resident excluded, second-class citizens in a society that denies it has a hierarchy in citizenship (also see Agamben 1998, 18; Espiritu 2003). The condition is permanent, or nearly permanent. In the worst cases, the sum of a person’s life, her trustworthiness, her worth as a human being, and, alas, her future prospects are reducible to the criminal act for which she was originally convicted. “You are what you have done,” says one man. Time is oddly collapsed; the original criminal conviction still defines the person, years, even decades afterward. “I...

    • Chapter 9 States of Grace: Social Life against Social Death
      (pp. 129-141)

      In a short essay entitled “The Prisoner’s Perspective,” Larry White urges other incarcerated people not to reduce themselves to their condition. “You are living your life,” he reminds them. “A prisoner’s perspec­tive begins with the realization that the situation that you find yourself in is not merely one concerning a prison sentence. That you are not just serving time, but more importantly that you are living your life and your sentence is merely an aspect of that life” (White 2009). White emphasizes consciousness, recognition, and expression. “Once you realize that serving time is all about living your life, rather than...

    • Chapter 10 Conclusion: Failure and Abolition Democracy
      (pp. 142-164)

      As I look back at my journal, from where I’ve taken the preceding text, I see a contrast between Larry’s commitment to a better future and the failure I now feel all our best efforts amounted to. The narrative arc of this book, in other words, ends in disappointment. We didn’t make any lasting changes at the Broome County Jail. In 2007, the sheriff imposed new admin­istrative restrictions on NAACP visits, effectively ending our access to people at the jail (see chapter 1). Though I continued to go up to the jail to visit with people in the general visiting...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 165-168)
  8. References
    (pp. 169-186)
  9. Index
    (pp. 187-194)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 195-198)