On an average day in an average year, around 1,700 people are released from federal penitentiaries and state prisons, back into the poor and segregated neighborhoods from which they were forcefully removed months, years, or decades earlier.
They join what amounts to a mid-sized city, with a population that grew by 626,000 just in 2016, that does not appear on any map of the United States. The residents of this “virtual city” are scattered across the country, but they share some important characteristics.
Many are Black or Latino/a, and the vast majority are poor, unemployed, modestly educated, insecurely housed, politically disenfranchised, affected by some physical or mental illness, and exposed to heavy surveillance by a range of law enforcement agencies.
All have criminal records—a state-sanctioned stigma that normalizes their status as second-class citizens and de facto legitimizes their discrimination by employers, welfare officers, lenders, landlords, and neighbors, among others.
This is the ongoing reality of prisoner reentry in the U.S., a social emergency largely ignored by mainstream society and its media.
In an attempt to document the multiple forms of social suffering endured by these returning citizens, I conducted ethnographic research into one population group of that “city” between 2011 and 2014: a group of formerly incarcerated men who had been recently released from prison and were facing the challenge of reintegrating into a racially segregated neighborhood in West Oakland, CA.
The entry point into the field was provided by a community clinic situated in the heart of West Oakland, which provided free basic healthcare services to poor residents of the area. In addition, the non-profit organization that ran the clinic offered some volunteer and employment opportunities as staff members to a small number of recently released prisoners.
During the years of fieldwork, I developed close relationships with 15-20 people. All of them were either African-American or Latino men, mostly in their 40s, with long histories of confinement in juvenile facilities, jails, prisons, and federal penitentiaries. Their most frequent convictions were for drug-related crimes.
For three years I shadowed these men while they looked for jobs, applied for social services, hunted for affordable housing, battled their addictions, became homeless, slept in their cars, tried to obtain a driver’s license, lost their jobs, were rearrested, and released again.
During those months I gave them rides to the welfare office, waited in line with them at the DMV, picked them (and sometimes their partners) up from jail, sat next to them while they were panhandling in the parking lots of local supermarkets, gave them money when they were penniless and bought them groceries when their fridges were empty.
Many of the individuals released from incarceration are not fortunate enough to be picked up at the prison gates by some friend or relative. So when they are discharged—often in the middle of the night—at the closest bus station, with a bag of clothes and a few dollars of “gate money” as their only possessions, they’re on their own.
Back on the street, sheltered in some halfway house when not homeless, they must struggle to survive, either in the secondary labor market as low-wage, part-time, disposable workers, or more often in the underground economy as chronically unemployed hustlers, recyclers, and panhandlers.
A large number of them face this lonely struggle for daily subsistence at the same time as they cope with severe psychological traumas, long-term addictions, and of course the looming threat of reincarceration if they violate any condition of their parole.
The initial goal of my research was to study prisoner reentry. I expected to return from my fieldwork documenting an extensive network of (post) carceral control, ongoing surveillance, aggressive policing, unrealistic parole and probation conditions, and that these intrusive penal technologies would emerge as the main obstacles to the successful reintegration of former prisoners.
Such a network has been well-described in recent criminological literature, notably by Alice Goffman in “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City,” and by Victor Rios in “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.” These books, and others, document the struggles faced by hyper-criminalized populations as they attempt to disentangle themselves from the tenacious grip of the state’s penal powers.
Instead, during my three years in the field I ended up documenting widespread public neglect, institutional indifference, and programmatic abandonment of these marginalized populations by both the social and penal arms of the state.
Darryl, one of the men I interviewed during my research, offered a powerful assessment of the widespread economic abandonment people face when coming out of prison:
One thing that we face as being African-Americans and living in an inner-city neighborhood is coming back to this neighborhood being rehabilitated, changing our life and doing stuff different, and at the same time have to deal with the same type of economic issues that we dealt with before we left […]. We have no opportunity where we lay our heads. […]. So this is one of the challenges that we face: we come back to nothing. We left from nothing and we’re back to it.
Darryl’s case was not isolated.
Besides lacking access to any employment opportunities, most people were unable to receive any form of welfare assistance—either because none was available or because they were “ineligible” as a consequence of the many welfare bans attached to their convictions. A lifetime ban on food stamps eligibility for felony drug offenders was introduced as part of the 1996 welfare reform.
Since 2015 the ban on food stamps and some other benefits has been lifted in California. Nonetheless, many people with criminal records don’t apply, often because they are simply unaware of their entitlement to these limited benefits, and in some cases because they have pending issues with the criminal justice system (such as unpaid child support) that make them wary of providing identification to any public official.
As for subsidized housing, at the time of the study the Housing Authority of the County of Alameda was not accepting applications for Section 8. The only way to get into the wait list for public housing was through a lottery system that has been closed since 2015. In any case, applicants can still be discretionally screened out due to prior criminal convictions, particularly if drug related.
Of course, besides housing, the most urgent need people face upon release is access to cash for the basic necessities of life; but the only cash allowance available to single men is General Assistance: a county-level emergency program that offers a maximum of 336 dollars per month, for a maximum of 3 months per year.
However, it would be misleading to even consider this as welfare assistance, since GA is considered a loan, and its prospective recipients must sign a reimbursement agreement as a condition of eligibility.
This is not to suggest, of course, that the incapacitating and disempowering effects of mass incarceration were absent from the experiences of the people I followed, but rather that those effects were magnified by the state’s retraction from (as much as presence in) the lives of returning prisoners.
Indeed, I observed the emergence in the postindustrial ghetto of a low-intensity model of urban containment of surplus populations largely devolved to what Jennifer Wolch has defined as the “shadow state”: a barely coordinated network of actors including nonprofit agencies, faith-based organizations, rehabilitation centers, transitional housing programs, etc.
These private or semi-private entities are charged with the low-cost management not only of former prisoners, but also of the variously disenfranchised populations inhabiting the urban margins—mentally ill individuals, homeless people, drug addicts, chronically unemployed men and women, etc.
They operate under a neoliberal model of social governance, in which market-friendly solutions are systematically devised as the only response to a broad range of structural issues faced by former prisoners and other marginalized populations. Thus, so called reentry services usually offer plenty of resume-preparation sessions, job interview workshops, anger management classes, computer literacy courses, rehab and group counseling programs—but much less in terms of affordable housing, free health care, accessible education, or a basic income.
This model of service provision is perfectly consistent with the neoliberal ideology of free choice, individual responsibility, and personal change that is inculcated into criminalized populations at every step of their journey through the US carceral state, from arrest to release.
In other words, whether they sleep in a bed or in a car, have a job or push a cart, have access to medications or go untreated, their reentry process is considered successful as long as they don’t commit any crimes.
A good case in point here is Ray, a 49-year-old African American who was released from prison in 2010, after serving 11 years for a violent crime.
While on parole, Ray kept struggling with alcohol dependence and used crystal meth and other drugs on a regular basis. Since he was homeless, for almost one year he slept with his girlfriend in a car that was parked in the rear of the fast food restaurant where Ray worked during the day.
Throughout my time in the field, Ray’s addictions were essentially ignored by his parole officer as long as Ray maintained a crime-free lifestyle. As for his homeless status, the officer reassured Ray that living in the car was OK, as long as he notified the parole officer whenever he decided to move the car to some other location (something Ray had to do frequently in order to avoid parking tickets).
It should therefore not be surprising that—despite the dreadful conditions of neglect and abuse endemic to the US prison system—penal institutions now represent one of the few remaining sources of public relief to the poor in the postindustrial ghetto. After all, even as living conditions in prisons keep spiraling down due to chronic overcrowding, ongoing state violence, and punitive deprivations, prisoners must nonetheless be granted access to food, shelter, and sporadic health care.
Formerly incarcerated people are aware of this, and it was not uncommon for me to hear the people I followed say that their material standards of living had deteriorated since their return to “freedom.”
In light of this, the recent mainstream campaigns for penal reform, some of which are inspired by budget concerns rather than by any public reckoning with the social suffering imposed upon criminalized populations, signal the intention of the nation’s power elites to defund even prisons, since these have become the residual providers of (carceral) welfare services to America’s racialized poor.
As long as living conditions at the bottom of the US racial and class hierarchy will be characterized by widespread economic destitution, institutional abandonment, and public neglect, “prisoner reentry” will be little more than a self-absolutory figure of speech, and formerly incarcerated people will keep coming back to nothing.
Alessandro De Giorgi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Justice Studies, San Jose State University. He is the author of “Rethinking the Political Economy of Punishment: Perspectives on Post-Fordism and Penal Politics” (Ashgate, 2006). An overview of the findings from this research can be found in the article “Back to Nothing: Prisoner Reentry and Neoliberal Neglect” published in Social Justice 44(1): 83–120. For some ethnographic snapshots from the field, see the blog series “Reentry to Nothing: Urban Survival After Mass Incarceration,” published online in the Social Justice blog. He welcomes comments from readers.