Saturday, September 13, 2014

Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk's "Can’t Catch a Break"

Susan Starr Sered is Professor of Sociology and Senior Researcher at the Center for Women's Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University in Boston. She is the author of Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity.

Maureen Norton-Hawk is Professor of Sociology and Codirector of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy Research at Suffolk University in Boston. She has published widely in the field of women and prostitution.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Can't Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, and reported the following:
Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility documents five years of fieldwork with forty-seven women who had been incarcerated in Massachusetts. Like for most criminalized women throughout the country, prison was one station on an institutional circuit made up of juvenile treatment and correctional programs, battered women’s and homeless shelters, rehabilitation and mental health facilities, and hospitals and clinics of various sorts. The women we came to know tended to be locked up for violating the conditions of parole or probation, possession of small amounts of controlled substances, sex work, shoplifting or public intoxication. None of the women see themselves as “criminals.” Rather, they see themselves as unfortunates who suffered sexual and other abuses, turned to drugs to “self-medicate,” and were drawn into lives of escalating misery.

Page 99 is located smack in the middle chapter of the book: “’It’s All in My Head’: Suffering, PTSD, and the Triumph of the Therapeutic.” That chapter introduces readers to Gloria (not her real name), an African American woman in her early fifties. Gloria came of age during the years in which economic recession, decline in the manufacturing sector, job flight from urban neighborhoods, sky-rocketing rental prices, the rapid introduction of low-cost crack-cocaine, and “tough on crime” policies set the stage for a generation of young African Americans who found it increasingly difficult to work towards lives of stable employment and housing.

Abused and homeless throughout most of her adult life, Gloria typically attributes her suffering to a repertoire of personal flaws including “my PTSD,” “paranoia,” “crazy thoughts,” “bad memory”, “making bad choices in men,” and her foolish failure to stop using crack. These are not ideas that she came up with on her own. Rather, like most of the women, Gloria echoes the messages she has been taught in countless twelve step, correctional, psychotherapeutic and rehabilitative programs. That message goes something like this: Your problems lie within you, blaming the outside world for your misery is “denial,” all you can change is your own perspective, and you need to lose the “victim mentality”.

On page 99 we wrote: “In an odd sleight of hand, psychotherapeutic diagnoses both take away certain aspects of individual experience and individualize the collective suffering of racism, sexism, and poverty. … The focus is now the diagnostic category rather than the unique individual or the social reality.”

Over the past year or so the wheel finally seems to be turning away from ideologies and policies of mass incarceration in the United States. Unfortunately, however, the discourse and the funding that are emerging seem to substitute “disease” for “criminal” and “treatment” for “punishment.” While “treatment” certainly sounds more benevolent than punishment, both serve to obscure the structural conditions of economic, gender and racial inequality that create(d) what has essentially become a new American caste of the poor, ill and hopeless. (See “Incarceration by Any Other Name?: A Return to the Cuckoo’s Nest.”)
Learn more about Can't Catch a Break at the University of California Press website, and read more about the women in Can't Catch a Break and Susan Sered's research on her blog.

--Marshal Zeringue