Friday, March 16, 2018

Alexandra Cox's "Trapped in a Vice"

Alexandra Cox is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex in Colchester, England.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People, and reported the following:
The 1990s were an important moment in the punishment and welfare landscape in the United States: crime rates were high, punishment harsh, and cuts to welfare provision were severe. This has had long lasting effects on the lives of impoverished individuals born and coming of age in that era. In my research on youth incarceration, I interviewed the teenagers who born during the 1990s and the prison guards who came of age during that time. And I learned that the punitive philosophies of the 1990s have been transformed into an approach to punishment today that is ostensibly more therapeutic on its face, but repressive under the surface.

The 99th page of my book highlights the philosophies of the juvenile prisons of the 1990s, and introduces the story of David Brooks (a pseudonym), who began working in a juvenile facility in the 1990s. As a Black man from an impoverished urban city in New York, he had successfully obtained a college sports scholarship, and his job at the juvenile facility after college became a road to the middle class. The approach to juvenile imprisonment then was harsh: the system’s commissioner added concertina wire to the facility perimeters, introduced boot camp-style facilities, and a behavioral change regime rooted in personal accountability. Brooks was trained into this ethos, and ultimately developed his own approach to punishment, built on the principle of tough love.

Twenty years later, Brooks found himself working in a facility that was trying to undo the approach of the 1990s. Yet he had been trained to emphasize individual responsibility in punishment, and to use instrumental methods of control. Staff like Brooks carve out strong relationships with young people; yet, even though these relationships are sometimes positive, the approach to punishment that emerges in this context of reforms is often confused and contradictory. My book reveals the contradictions that emerge when systems engage in ‘non-reformist reforms,’ or reforms which make changes within the framework of a given system, rather than imagining what is possible outside of it. I argue that the framework of individual responsibility, which assumes that criminalized teenagers change because they have been induced to change, is deeply limited and stultifying for them. Yet ideas and philosophies also become sedimented in systems and through the people that operate within them, and facilities also become stultifying for staff members, in ways that make systems of punishment stick.
Learn more about Trapped in a Vice at the Rutgers University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue