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"Punishment's twin": theorizing prisoner reentry for a politics of abolition.

Each year, approximately 700,000 people are released from prison. Prisoner reentry has emerged as an object of knowledge and intervention in profound new ways over the last decade. The immediate survival needs of people released from prison are vital issues for building the prison abolitionist movement. However, an uncritical acceptance of the seemingly benign notions of prisoner reentry circulating in mainstream criminology and corrections warrants caution. Prisoner reentry initiatives can be read as the latest installment in a long history of reformist reforms, which have expanded the punishment system and strengthened the legitimacy of the contemporary prison. The author argues that prisoner reentry must be grounded in a politics of abolition if it is to undermine the conditions of mass imprisonment's emergence.

Keywords: prisoner reentry, prison abolition


IN "NOT LIGHT BUT FIRE: GENDER, VIOLENCE AND STRATEGIES FOR PRISON Abolition," Cassandra Shaylor writes: "Though we can trace a pattern in prison history of the pendulum swinging from a professed focus on punishment to a commitment to so-called reform every 30 years or so, reform still always risks becoming punishment's twin" (Shaylor 2007, 7-8). Following Foucault, Shaylor suggests that reform is in a mutually constitutive relationship with punishment. This article takes up the notion of reform as "punishment's twin" and pursues this idea in the context of an analysis of prisoner reentry. Prisoner reentry represents the latest installment in a long history of reforms that have tended to bolster the penal system. The immediate survival needs of people released from prison are vital issues for building a prison abolitionist movement. However, an uncritical acceptance of the seemingly benign notions of prisoner reentry circulating in mainstream corrections and criminology warrants caution. The vocabulary used to discuss prisoner reentry mimics critique in order to render the punishment system more expansive, flexible, legitimate, and seemingly cost-effective. Prisoner reentry must be grounded in a politics of abolition if it is to undermine the conditions that make possible mass imprisonment.

From Afterthought to "Reentry Mania"

Each year, approximately 700,000 people are released from prison (Carson and Sabol 2012). As the number of people imprisoned in the United States has expanded, the lives of an increasing number of returning prisoners have become a site for governmental intervention in unprecedented ways. In the spring of 1999, then-Attorney General Janet Reno asked a group of corrections officials what the state was doing to manage the increasing number of prisoners exiting state and federal prisons. According to Jeremy Travis, a key founder of the reentry movement, they were speechless (Travis 2005). Despite the rapid escalation in the use of imprisonment, little attention had been paid to the consequences of the prison-building boom. After this meeting Janet Reno asked criminal justice officials to begin investigating strategies for managing the increasing number of prisoners being released from correctional institutions across the country. Jeremy Travis, then director of the National Institute of Justice, and others began what they have termed "a reentry movement" (Travis 2007). Prisoner reentry has become an appealing trend within penological discourse and practice, particularly as a critique of mass incarceration has gained wider appeal.

Since 1999, major reentry initiatives have been established on the national level, including the passing of the Second Chance Act, which has enjoyed bipartisan support. In his 2004 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush characterized the United States as "the land of second chance" and stated that "when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life" (Bush 2004). Every state has developed a reentry task force, and reentry services units are popping up in state Departments of Corrections and county- and city-level governments (Travis 2007). Glenn Martin, of the Fortune Society, has termed the emerging policy fervor over released prisoners "reentry mania" (Mauer and Epstein 2012, 48-49).

What is startling is the fact that policy makers have only recently become concerned with reentry. For the first decades of the prison-building boom in the United States, reentry remained little more than an afterthought. A "lock them up and throw away the key" discourse obscured the fact that 95% of prisoners would eventually be released (Hughes and Wilson 2002; Lawrence 2004).The realization of this fact, as well as the increasing unsustainability of corrections budgets, has resulted in an "extraordinary policy ferment" (Travis 2007, 85). Over the last decade prisoner reentry has emerged as an object of knowledge and intervention in profound new ways.

Prisoner Reentry as Discourse

Research on reentry within mainstream criminology and corrections has tended to be "theoretically shallow" (Hallett 2012, 216) and to focus on experimental design and program evaluation. Hallett (2012) has argued that critical criminologists must pay attention to the macro-level shifts with which reentry is imbricated. This article suggests an approach to prisoner reentry as a discursive formation (1)--an object of discourse, power/knowledge, and policy intervention. A discursive methodology allows us to unpack the ideological underpinnings of prisoner reentry. Discourse

constructs the topic. It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about or reasoned about. It also influences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others. (Hall 2001, 72)

Foucault usefully shifted our attention from language to an expansive conception of discourse as a system of representation that brings together both language and practice. (2) Stuart Hall neatly summarizes the meaning Foucault gives to discourse as "a group of statements which provide a language for talking about--a way of representing the knowledge about--a particular topic at a particular historical moment" (Hall 2001, 72). The concept of discourse highlights how all social practices entail meaning and thus have a discursive aspect. We must interrogate how discourse renders some ways of talking, acting, and viewing the world legible while foreclosing other potentialities. By investigating prisoner reentry as a discursive formation, I attempt to make strange the common-sense logic about punishment with which it is imbricated and to make visible reentry's deployment and effects.

Power and knowledge are inherently bound up with one another. (3) One must then refuse the binary between practices and rationalities: "The difference between the envisioned aims of a program and its actual effects does not refer to the purity of the program and the impurity of reality, but to different realities and heterogeneous strategies.... Thus, rationalities are part of a reality that is characterized by the permanent 'failure' of programs" (Foucault 1980, 195-96). An examination of the co-constitutive relationship between power and knowledge is central to the approach I bring to prisoner reentry. Rather than simply asking what the process of prisoner reentry is, or how people exit prisons and reintegrate into society, this article encourages scholars of punishment to ask: How and to what effect is prisoner reentry deployed, and what does it do? Prisoner reentry is not a stable object with a concrete existence. It is a socially constructed site of intervention, which is produced by and simultaneously produces the punishment system. Reentry is productive of penal categories, and, as Stoler argues following Hacking, "the power of categories rests in their capacity to impose the realities they ostensibly only describe" (Stoler 2002, 8; see Hacking 1995).

Prisoner reentry can also be viewed as a process of subject formation. Embedded within reentry discourses are arguments about who prisoners are, what criminality means, and why mass imprisonment is a seemingly fitting solution to the fallout of neoliberal globalization and the racialized and colonial processes on which it is built. These discourses inscribe particular meanings on bodies and practices, and in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore's eloquent definition of racism, they are productive of "group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death" (Gilmore 2007, 28).

In order to remedy the theoretically shallow nature of reentry research to date, scholars of punishment can turn a critical eye on criminal justice expertise and its role in naturalizing the status quo. Experts are central to the operation of power. Criminological and penological knowledge production is bound up with the power to punish and the "practices deployed by the state to discipline individuals and govern populations" (De Giorgi 2014, 26). In their license to define, describe, and classify things and people, experts also act upon those same things and people. Thus, we must begin the task of unpacking the ideological work of prisoner reentry by analyzing how it is constituted in so-called expert knowledge. Transcripts of press conferences, reentry case management manuals, and policy reports provide the main texts from which I critique the discursive constitution of prisoner reentry. I analyze the language used within these texts to unpack the discursive framing of prisoner reentry and to develop a critique of its reformist tendencies. I draw inspiration from Jean Carabine's approach to a Foucauldian genealogical analysis (4) of policy documents to investigate the way that reentry is framed by different claims-makers in differing contexts. The common themes and patterns emerging from this analysis provide the constitutive elements of this article's main argument about prisoner reentry: that mainstream articulations of prisoner reentry mimic a critique of mass imprisonment while serving to shore up the legitimacy of the contemporary prison.

Mass Imprisonment's Emergence

Without an understanding of the conditions that make mass imprisonment possible, we cannot hope to understand the politics of prisoner reentry or assess its potential pitfalls and opportunities. The emergence of mass imprisonment has taken place within an important geopolitical context. The neoliberal emphasis on small government has had the effect of pulling the social safety net from under the poor, while corporations were given tax cuts under the auspices of stimulating economic growth (Sudbury 2000). Despite the prevalence of the rhetoric of small government when it comes to social provision, budgets for policing and prisons have risen dramatically (Goldberg and Evans 2009; Parenti 1999; Wacquant 2010).The economic restructuring of late modernity has rendered some populations disposable, as the global North has undergone a process of deindustrialization. The emergence of mass imprisonment is imbricated with the neoliberal transformation of the state, the globalization of capital, and the production of new forms of racial and gender signification (Sudbury 2004). A neoliberal political rationality in which all actions are reduced to a calculus of actuarial risk, market logics of efficiency, and values of profitability has come to dominate the social realm (Brown 2003).The state has undergone profound transformations--less a weakening or withering away than a remodeling and renovation, as social safety nets have been withdrawn and militarized carcerality has been extended. The massive expansion of the US prison system occupies a central place in the management of the social and economic insecurities rooted in these processes. Mass imprisonment is less the result of an increase in crime than a shift toward the racialized penalization of poverty (Beckett and Sasson 2003; Davis 1998; Simon 1997; Wacquant 2009a, 2009b).

Mainstream prisoner reentry discourse calls for reform without fully questioning these conditions. This leaves intact the racialized, gendered, and classist logics that undergird mass imprisonment (Nixon et al. 2008).The matrix of domination that structures mass imprisonment goes almost entirely unnamed (Collins 2008, 221-38). Reentry discourse often lists the barriers facing formerly imprisoned people, but it glosses over a robust analysis of the structural nature of those barriers, from unemployment and addiction to housing insecurity. It is imperative to analyze not only what is said under the rubric of prisoner reentry, but also "what is not said" (Cameron 2001, 128).

Mass imprisonment and the dispossession faced by returning prisoners in the United States cannot be explained without reference to interlocking systems of oppression. 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" (Omi and Winant 1994, 56).

Criminality has been central to the production of race throughout US history (Davis 2003). In 1883,Frederick Douglass argued that white supremacy tends to "impute crime to color" (Douglass 2000, 674). Lombroso's nineteenth-century criminal types exemplify the emergent classificatory systems that are central to the very idea of race (Lombroso 2006). Lombroso argued that one was born a criminal, and that criminal types shared certain physical and psychological abnormalities. Although he focused primarily on Europeans, Lombroso argued that these shared abnormalities could also be found in animals and "primitive peoples," thus linking criminality, animality, and the racialized other. The wedding of race and crime has been central to the (re)production of inequality in the United States.

In the post-civil rights era, the race/criminality nexus has emerged once again to institute a new hegemonic configuration. Mass imprisonment functions "nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship" (Alexander 2012, 13). The prison is productive of new forms of racial signification and subordination, even as it relies on institutions, conditions, and practices that were developed in earlier eras.The racialized logics underpinning mass imprisonment are imbricated with gendered, class-based, and heteronormative relations of domination (Bosworth and Flavin 2006; Critical Resistance and Incite! Women of Color Against Violence 2003; Davis and Shaylor 2001; Sudbury 2005). In order to genuinely transform the conditions of mass imprisonment's emergence, we must think our way out of the sedimented histories that link bodies of color and poor and gender-non-conforming bodies to criminality. A genuinely transformative reentry movement would name and seek to upend the way marginalized groups and crime have been sutured together historically.

Reentry's Deployment and Effects

Within reentry discourse, we witness a kind of double move. On the one hand, this discourse proposes aggregate-level solutions for managing offenders as a population; on the other, it posits the individual as the exclusive terrain of intervention.

The notions of personal responsibility circulating within reentry discourse posit transformation as a process through which the state intervenes within the soul (5) of the offender as opposed to a collective process of political struggle. Many reentry proposals stress teaching prisoners and former prisoners responsibility skills and facilitating inner transformation. Interestingly, some reentry reformers have defined gender and culture in an individualistic manner as "criminogenic needs" (risk factors linked to recidivism) rather than as structural features of the social realm. In the Center for Effective Public Policy's initial coaching packet A Framework for Offender Reentry, gender and culture are placed in a list (and thus in a relationship of equivalence) with "antisocial personality patterns," level of motivation, and functioning level (Kempker, Gibel, and Giguere 2010, 18-19).These criminogenic needs form the basis for the evidence-based practice of assessment. With a focus on continually assessing and measuring risk levels for effective offender management, reentry reformers rarely move beyond an individual-level analysis. This approach "rests on the proposition that at least in large measure crime is a problem of individual pathology ... that crime rates can be reduced by the treatment and cure of individual criminals" (American Friends Service Committee 1971, 40). Inequality is translated into an individualized deficiency within the soul of the offender. Race and gender analyses are effectively depoliticized and become techniques for effectively governing prisoners upon release. The system is conceived as a guide and manager, ensuring public safety while former prisoners learn to be productive citizens.

Additionally, reentry has often been deployed using a medicalized language, which is another discursive strategy for locating the individual level as the proper domain of intervention. The concept of "dosage" is continually stressed in much of the Center for Effective Public Policy's literature on prisoner reentry (Carey and Carter 2010; Kempker, Gibel, and Giguere 2010). One section reads: "Another feature of effective case plans is that they meet dosage, intensity and treatment duration requirements in order to maximize the treatment affect" (Carey and Carter 2010, 23). "Proper dosage" refers to the ideal number of programming hours required for successful reentry. Properly managed and regimented time becomes key to offender success. Teresa May-Williams, deputy director of the Dallas County Community Supervision & Corrections Department, emphasizes that returning prisoners "are coming out of a really regimented, structured environment," and reentry serves to create a similarly regimented (read: prison-like) environment in the community. Douglas B. Marlowe, chief of Science, Law, and Policy at the National Association of Drug Court Professions, advises: "With reentry offenders, you don't want to water down your intervention; you build up your intervention.... In other words, 40 to 70 percent of their time, they're getting their reintegration, treatment-oriented job training services" (Wolf 2011, 3).The use of medicalized language signals that the proper site of intervention is within the offender, not in social, political, and economic conditions. According to this logic, teaching individuals to manage their time properly, practice goal setting, and other methods of responsible self-governance will "turn our broken prison system around." (6) As Nixon and colleagues write, "From the start, reentry's focus on the individual was not so much meant to evaluate the specific needs and capacities of individuals but rather to reconstitute the individual in reentry as one in need of therapeutic management and control"(Nixon et al. 2008, 30).The solution is simultaneously posited as a transformation within the individual and as the use of governance techniques to manage aggregates or whole populations such as risk assessment tools and measures.

In order to genuinely transform the conditions of mass imprisonment's emergence, it is necessary to ground reentry work in a politics of abolition that is attentive to the inherent violence of the state and the imbrication of the prison with neoliberal globalization, heteronormativity, gendered relations of ruling, and longer histories of enslavement and colonialism. Reentry services such as housing services, employment services, and mental health help are not inherently opposed to abolitionist goals. However, the logics that often underpin their deployment fail to question mass imprisonment's conditions of emergence in ways that scholar-activists must be wary of reproducing. In the absence of an abolitionist critique, reentry reform will simply have the effect of rendering the prison palatable by mimicking the language of critique to portray control and management as empowerment.

The Trope of Cost-Effectiveness

An analysis of the discursive terrain of prisoner reentry reveals the emergence of a neoliberal (7) narrative. Press conferences, case management manuals, policy reports, and other documents often begin with a general statement about how the US prison population has spiraled out of control. Within these texts, the narrative then quickly dovetails into a neoliberal discourse about cost-effectiveness. The Pew Center's "State of Recidivism" report states: "Despite the massive increase in corrections spending, in many states there has been little improvement in the performance of corrections systems" (Pew Center on the States 2011, 2). Corrections officials have begun to openly recognize that imprisonment does not produce safety and that it is not fiscally responsible in the current economic landscape. A clear example of this is Georgia's House Bill 1176, passed in 2012, in which the extension of carceral controls in the community, from electronic monitoring to the development of reentry courts, is couched in terms of out-of-control prison spending. The bill "reforms the system, while cutting spending and maintaining public safety" (Nolan 2012). Over and over again in these discourses, prisoner reentry is framed as a cost-effective mechanism for maintaining social control.

Phrases like "saving taxpayer dollars," "cost-effectiveness," and "cutting spending" are ubiquitous in the texts analyzed for this research. Senator Patrick Leahy provided a common example of this language in a July 2011 press conference: "We can help prevent crime, we can reduce costs, we can improve public safety, we can save taxpayer dollars" (Leahy and Portman 2011). Earl Ray Tomblin, governor of West Virginia and former president of the Council of State Governments, has characterized prisoner reentry as "a financially sustainable plan to reduce prison overcrowding and rehabilitate individuals released into the community--maximizing correction dollars and improving public safety" (CSG Justice Center 2014). This narrative takes for granted the goals of imprisonment, which are not crime prevention or social inclusion but containment. Mainstream criminologists and corrections officials have tended to frame prisoner reentry in terms of cost-effectiveness and recidivism reduction. This has profound implications for the transformative potential of this reform agenda.

In the United States, the costs of imprisonment have grown from $9 billion to more than $60 billion annually within the last 20 years (Hughes 2006). Reentry is increasingly seen as a solution to the unsustainability of corrections budgets. As one reentry manual states:

[The] growing burden on federal and state budgets has resulted in increased interest in the complex challenges of successful offender reentry, encouraging many jurisdictions to reexamine their current policies and practices in the light of escalating costs, limited resources, and particularly, emerging research on methods to reduce recidivism. (Kempker, Gibel, and Giguere 2010)

The unsustainability of corrections budgets could be used to shift resources toward education, health care, and other areas that result in human flourishing; by contrast, reentry is deployed in such a way that the violence and containment aspects of the punishment system are simply reworked rather than transformed.

In his report "But They All Come Back: Rethinking Prisoner Reentry," Jeremy Travis writes: "Accepting released offenders into the community without a period of supervised release is morally unsatisfying; they have not yet earned their place at our table" (Travis 2000, 2). The idea that "they have not yet earned their place at our table" is indicative of the work that prisoner reentry is currently doing in managing populations. It is also indicative of the exclusionary logic that constitutes the carceral state more generally, and it raises the question of prisoners' relationship to "our table" prior to the offense that supposedly justifies their social abandonment. Centrally, this idea of unsupervised release as morally problematic opens a space for increasing the surveillance capacities of the penal system. This framing of reentry forecloses the possibility of asking more radical questions about the uses of locking people away in the first place.

Turning to the Punishment System

A key feature of reentry discourse is the central role of the punishment system. Reentry reforms look to the criminal justice system as a solution to social problems that the system itself sustains and perpetuates. Advocates of reentry continue to naively believe that prisons can be made into suitable spaces for personal transformation. This belief fails to recognize the inherent violence of imprisonment (Chandler 2003). In much of his work, Travis has articulated a vision whereby prison time becomes a kind of initiatory experience, families are included in the process, and society ritually recognizes the hard work of prisoners in paying restitution to victims:

When released John would be brought back to court, perhaps the same courtroom where he was sentenced. A public recognition ceremony would be held, before an audience of family and other members of the support team, and the judge would announce that John has completed a milestone in repaying his debt to society. (Travis 2000, 9)

Whatever warm feelings this vision of a public recognition ceremony may evoke, ultimately this reform vision repackages and renders palatable state violence. Imprisonment has enormous impacts on families and communities, and although maintaining family ties is often a worthy goal, we need to ask serious questions about the wisdom of positing family inclusion as the most radical strategy imaginable. These reforms may simply leave families more entrenched in the punishment system, without challenging the violence inherent in tearing people away from their communities. Reentry reforms will do little beyond revitalizing the penal system's legitimacy in the absence of a critique of the naturalizing logic that renders mass imprisonment "an inevitable fact of life, like birth and death" (Davis 2003, 14). Anti-prison activists and scholars of punishment should be wary of looking to the punishment system to transform the material conditions of former prisoners' lives in a context in which the criminal justice system is itself a major conduit for state violence and social and economic insecurity. A genuinely transformative vision of prisoner reentry must imagine life without the prison.

Reformist Reforms

The contemporary prison and movements for reform are deeply imbricated with one another (Davis 2003; Shaylor 2007; Shaylor and Chandler 2011). Prisoner reentry represents the latest installment in a long history of reform movements that have bolstered the prison system rather than questioning or transforming the logics underpinning it. In order to see the work that reentry does today, we must understand the historic centrality of reform movements to the prison and to the emergence of mass imprisonment. Foucault articulates the historic centrality of reform in Discipline and Punish'.

One should also recall that the movement for reforming the prisons, for controlling their functioning is not a recent phenomenon. It does not even seem to have originated in a recognition of failure. Prison "reform" is virtually contemporary with the prison itself: it constitutes, as it were, its programme. (Foucault 1995, 234)

Foucault locates reform squarely within the heart of the prison itself. The modern penitentiary is itself the product of reform. After the American Revolution, reformers sought to end the ghastly spectacles of capital and corporal punishment inherited from England (Davis 2003). The penitentiary was thought to be a more humane method of punishment. Immediately after the emergence of the prison, reformers began to voice concern about conditions of confinement. Advocates voiced concern about the abuses facing women imprisoned in co-ed institutions, which led to the establishment of separate women's prisons (Davis 2003). Although reform can often be genuinely aimed toward alleviating the suffering of prisoners, "program, policy, and legislative reform often better serve those who design and administer and regulate these reforms than they do those for whom the reform policy and programming were supposedly intended" (Clough and Fine 2007, 267). Reform movements often discursively position themselves in opposition to the prison; however, history has shown that reform is internal to punishment and is central to the reproduction of the penal system.

Contemporary reform efforts have also often led to the building of bigger, "better" prisons, as opposed to a more fundamental transformation of the underlying dynamics of state violence (Braz 2006; Shaylor and Chandler 2011). The history of penal reform

reveals that mere reform fails to address the inequalities, oppression, and state violence upon which the institution of the prison is built, leaving the violent foundation intact and rendering ineffective attempts to relieve the suffering of oppressed people confined within it. (Shaylor and Chandler 2011)

The complaints of reformers about prison conditions are used to legitimate the building of more prisons. Criticisms about abuses within prisons, the distance between prisons and the location of prisoners' families, and the appalling violence of prison health care have all been used to expand the prison system (Chandler 2003; Shaylor and Chandler 2011). Chandler and Shaylor show how penal authorities co-opt prison activism:

California anti-prison activists have argued that prisons are ill equipped to deal with the needs of seriously and terminally ill prisoners and therefore they should be released to their families or to hospices in their communities. However ... the rhetoric deployed by anti-prison activists ... is being used by the California Department of Corrections itself. The CDC is now arguing for the creation of hospices within prisons and corrections-controlled skilled nursing facilities in the community that could house prisoners in locked wings. (Shaylor and Chandler 2011)

Prison abolitionist intellectuals have incorporated this critique of reform into their strategies for combatting the emergence of mass imprisonment. Shaylor and Chandler (2011) argue that prison activists can more carefully craft strategies to help alleviate prisoners suffering in the present through non-reformist reforms that diminish the power of the system and build a world without prisons (Shaylor and Chandler 2011). Gorz defines the difference between reformist and non-reformist reform as follows:

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. (Gorz 1967, 7-8)

The moment when an oppressive system begins to articulate its own failure and need for reform is precisely the moment that critical intellectuals must remain keen to how the logics of domination are reproduced and repackaged. Reentry initiatives cannot hope to solve violence or any of the other social problems that prisons are supposed to address if the problem is continually framed at the individual level. Reentry expands the prison beyond prison walls and resuscitates its legitimacy by appearing to bring rehabilitation back in. At present, much of the work reentry accomplishes can be characterized as reformist reform. It is time to see if prisoner reentry can be moved toward "what should be," toward improving the conditions of people's lives without bolstering the very systems that have produced social and economic insecurities.

Expanding the System

Reentry represents a new set of practices and programs for "imprisoning beyond the prison" (Nixon et al. 2008, 23). Reentry reforms extend carceral controls into the community, increasing surveillance and control while cutting costs. In a movement reminiscent of Foucault's concept of the carceral, the prison appears to be travelling beyond prison walls.

Prisoner reentry represents a further step in the expansion of the prison industrial complex. (8) The revolving door "of post-prison supervision--parole and probation--together ensure that the PRI [prisoner reentry industry] has the power to maintain an ever-growing population whose lives are subject to intense control" (Thompkins, Curtis, and Wendel 2010, 428). This surveillance is central to the criminalization of communities. In an evaluation of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court, Hamilton found that participants in the reentry court had nearly double the rate of revocations for technical violations compared to the comparison group (Hamilton 2011, 396). Although reentry programs sometimes have positive effects on new arrests, they carry an added risk of "supervision effects," or increased parole revocations on technical violations. This leaves former prisoners cycling through penal processes.

The fervor over prisoner reentry feeds into the non-profit industrial complex (Incite! Women of Color Against Violence 2009, 21-22). Jeremy Travis has characterized reentry as an "opportunity to produce a commodity--safety--that is highly valued" (Travis 2000, 6-7). He writes:

Set against the low expectation of probation and parole agencies being able to deliver this commodity, such a view of community corrections becomes imbued with the enthusiasm usually seen in high-risk business ventures and too rarely seen in criminal justice reform efforts. (Ibid.)

Former prisoners, thus, become objects in the social service industry and in the burgeoning research industry within criminology. Without a more critical posture toward mass imprisonment, reentry will simply exacerbate the surveillance aspects of penal control by wrapping them in a cost-effective veneer. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the costliness of mass imprisonment is the primary threat to its legitimacy among policy makers (Petersilia 2011). Whereas prison activists have created a vibrant movement for challenging the prison industrial complex, the reentry reform movement attempts to foreclose a vision of radical socialjustice that questions the matrix of oppression underlying mass imprisonment.

The Ideological Work of Prisoner Reentry

Reentry discourse mimics many of the critiques prison abolitionists have articulated for years. Mainstream penologists are beginning to argue that mass imprisonment has been a failure, and one with devastating consequences. Statements proclaiming the end of the mass incarceration era abound. For example, in "Beyond the Prison Bubble," Joan Petersilia writes: "It is very likely that we are seeing the beginning of the end of America's long commitment to what some critics call 'mass incarceration'.... What we are seeing today is a growing recognition that our approach to dealing with convicted criminals is simply too costly" (Petersilia 2011, 27). At first glance, statements of this sort appear benign and long overdue. However, it is my contention that the new discourse on the costs and diminishing returns of mass imprisonment represents an attempt by the punishment system to coopt abolitionist critique. This cooption serves to render the penal system more palatable, cost-effective, and flexible.

Additionally, mainstream policy researchers celebrated the 2010-2012 decrease in the prison population as if it represented a sea change. In 2010 the prison population decreased by approximately 3,000 prisoners; this was the first decrease since 1972 (Petersilia 2011). In 2012, the prison population dropped by another 28,571 people (Carson and Golinelli 2013). One New York Times article framed this decrease as "signaling a shift away from an almost four-decade policy of mass imprisonment" (Goode 2013). However, over half of the 2012 decrease was the result of California's Supreme Court mandated reduction, which has been complemented by increasing county jail admissions. This hardly represents a shift in terms of strategies of penal containment and of the logic that naturalizes mass imprisonment as a solution to social problems. As one could have anticipated, the prison population increased again in 2013 (Carson 2014).

Reentry reformers mimic critique in the way they frame barriers to reentry. It is common in mainstream corrections and reentry manuals, reports, and toolkits to detail the list of extensive barriers faced by formerly imprisoned people. Mainstream criminologists highlight the legal and de facto sanctions and barriers that result from a felony record, from education and employment to housing and health care. However, these barriers are rarely analyzed as a function of broader systems of inequality. Barriers to reentering society are framed as emanating from the inner life and lack of self-governance of the returning prisoner.

Although reentry is often discursively positioned as opposing mass imprisonment, arguments that fundamentally question punishment are foreclosed. The Reentry Coaching Packets of the Center for Effective Public Policy clearly state that "punishment and sanction-driven approaches like incarceration do not reduce recidivism when used in isolation (Kempker, Gibel, and Giguere 2010, 19; emphasis added). Reentry reformers simultaneously articulate the ineffectiveness of imprisonment and posit it as a necessary feature of the social landscape. For example, in a press conference about the Second Chance Act, Senator Leahy stressed:

I can't emphasize enough, I mean I put people in prison and they deserve to be there. But I also knew they are going to come out someday. And I wanted them to come out in such a way that I wouldn't be seeing them again as a prosecutor. Every single police officer will tell you the exact same thing. And if you have them come out as basic illiterates, if you have them come out without drug programs, if you have them come out without the things to bring them out, they are going to be a danger to society, to themselves and they are going to be back in there. And we the taxpayers will pay for it. This is a way to make that improved. (Leahy and Portman 2011)

The wisdom of combining punishment and rehabilitation is never questioned. Ultimately, reentry reforms posit that we can have imprisonment and rehabilitation in the service of a cost-efficient punishment system. Although this way of framing claims is effective in winning supporters within the criminal justice system, it will fail to fundamentally alter mass imprisonment's conditions of emergence, if these conditions remain unarticulated. This framing shows how reentry "adds on" to current penal practices as opposed to transforming the system.

Prisoner reentry is deployed to the effect that the punishment system is rendered more legitimate. One of the primary ways that the legitimacy of the system is shored up is through bringing rehabilitation back into these discourses. In 1999, Jeremy Travis and Janet Reno held a press conference to introduce the idea of prisoner reentry, calling reentry a way to "rebrand prisoner rehabilitation"(Nixon et al. 2008,40n27) Reentry has been framed as more than assisting prisoners once they leave prisons. It rebrands multiple stages of the criminal justice system, from the sentencing process to prison programming. The Re-Entry Policy Council and other prominent advocates have framed reentry as a process that starts at the time of sentencing. In this way, reentry is conceived of as a movement that seeks to redistribute resources and authority throughout the entire system, from police and judges to parole agencies. One of the founding documents of the reentry movement is the Re-Entry Policy Council of the Council of State Government's 700-page report "Charting the Safe and Successful Return of Prisoners to the Community." This document outlines recommendations for the development of new intake procedures and programming within prisons in addition to programming upon release. Whereas reentry initiatives tend to focus on the individual level in terms of assessing the challenges of the reentry process, particularly by promoting individual responsibility and self-sufficiency, reentry has also been aimed at increasing the flexibility of the punishment system as a whole. Many reentry reforms have advocated a transformation of institutional and organizational barriers: "Too often, discussions of the purposes of sentencing and corrections are constrained by organizational boundaries and legal constructs" (Travis 2000, 1-2). For example, Jeremy Travis argues that judges should serve as "reentry managers" (Travis 2000, 8). These recommendations advocate a return to rehabilitation. However, we see again that the basic premise of locking people in cages remains unquestioned.

While reentry aims to bring rehabilitation back, it is prisons that are being "rebranded" in the process. Shoring up the palatability of the prison is arguably the greatest effect of the reentry movement. We can see this when we look at the amount of funding being devoted to reentry. Some federal prisoner reentry initiatives, when divided amongst the target population, amount to as little as $13.84 per prisoner (Nixon et al. 2008, 41). Prisoner reentry is profitable for other reasons, however. Reentry reshapes the prison as an institution of genuine transformation.

As mainstream penologists lamented the failures of mass imprisonment, the punishment system often reincorporated the ideal of rehabilitation into institutional narratives. California returned "rehabilitation" to its mission statement in 2005 and is embarking on a number of reentry initiatives. Prisoner reentry brings the rehabilitative ideal back in, while still couching it in terms of recidivism reduction and cost savings. The extreme costs of mass imprisonment make it necessary to manage offenders differently, and in the absence of an abolitionist vision, reentry programs will simply facilitate change in the configuration of penal management.


The capacity to find and make a space for freedom in the space of death is to carry on regardless, patiently, urgently, as if there's not a moment to waste. (Gordon 2011, 16)

The rationalities that underpin and naturalize mass imprisonment, as well as the function of reform in bolstering the system, require an abolitionist stance on the part of critical intellectuals (Davis 2003; Shaylor 2007). We should be wary of the seemingly benign notions of prisoner reentry circulating in corrections and mainstream criminology. Reentry is remaking the carceral landscape and expanding the punishment system, even as it is deployed in such a way as to mimic a critique of mass imprisonment. Although statements about the end of the mass incarceration era abound in prisoner reentry discourse, it would be a mistake to uncritically accept this pronouncement. The dominant reentry discourses attempt to foreclose abolitionist visions. In fact, reentry is deployed to the effect that the prison system is rendered more flexible, cost-effective, and legitimate.

Despite all this, reentry also represents an opportunity. An abolitionist reentry praxis would not rely on the state to transform social and economic insecurity. Instead, it would take up and develop community accountability methods. Formerly imprisoned people would be brought to the center of abolitionist movement building. Individual-level service work would be held in tension with broader campaign work and popular education to combat the prison industrial complex. (9) This would allow us to ground abolitionist visions in the concrete everyday struggles of those most affected by mass imprisonment. At the same time, an abolitionist imaginary might help us to construct a genuinely transformative reentry praxis, so that we can build a new world, "patiently, urgently, as if there's not a moment to waste."


(1.) "Statements or propositions (enonces) are the basic units of discourse, and their totality comprises discursive formations that are the conditions of possibility of thought and hence of action. Specific discursive formations, or epistemes, create positions for subjects to occupy and in which they may be authorized to speak" (Power 2011, 38).

(2.) Following this conception of discourse as language and practice, I view the way that reentry is framed in language as central to what it does materially in the world. This work suggests a move in the scholarship on punishment beyond a strict dichotomy between language and practice.

(3.) "There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations" (Foucault 1995, 27).

(4.) Jean Carabine outlines a variety of stages for taking up Foucault's genealogical method in critical discourse analysis. In this research, I moved through those stages while analyzing an archive of prisoner reentry documents. The stages are: 1) Immerse one's self in the data; 2) Identify themes, categories, and objects of discourse; 3) Look for evidence of an inter-relationship between discourses; 4) Identify the discursive strategies and techniques employed; 5) Look for absences and silences; 6) Look for resistances and counter-discourses; 7) Identify the effects of the discourse (Wetherell, Taylor, and Yates 2001, 281).

(5.) My use of "soul" here references Foucault's use of the term in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Foucault 1995) to chart the move toward intervening in the motives, instincts, passions, and self-regulation of the offender.

(6.) Statement made by Assembly Member Reggie Jones-Sawyer: "To turn our broken prison system around and reduce outrageous recidivism rates, we need much better re-entry services for those we are releasing back into society" (Bass 2014).

(7.) Neoliberalism is a political rationality that extends market values throughout the social (see Brown 2005; Lamer 2003; Lemke 2001).

(8.) "Recent calls for making parole and probation more strict--more punitive and empowered with greater means of surveillance--only further ensure that a captive population remains simply that, regardless of the rhetoric that surrounds these institutions. The PRI [prisoner reentry industry] can, with a straight face, say that they are doing more for former prisoners and public safety now than at any time in the past. Yet the one thing they are not doing is exactly what they claim to do--helping people move out of the prison system" (Thompkins, Curtis, and Wendel 2010, 428-29).

(9.) There are already people doing prisoner reentry work that embodies an abolitionist framework. The Los Angeles-based organization A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project focuses on housing, legal advocacy, leadership development, and community organizing. A New Way of Life was founded by Susan Burton, herself a formerly imprisoned woman in California. A New Way of Life works to situate the meeting of these basic needs within a broader context. In partnership with Critical Resistance-Los Angeles, the organization offers the LEAD (Leadership, Education, Action, and Dialogue) program, which engages formerly incarcerated women in monthly workshops that explore the symbiotic set of relationships that constitute the prison industrial complex. Each session "helps participants make connections between the social, economic, and political underpinnings of the criminal justice system and their own imprisonment, helping participants situate their own experience within a broader context" ( A New Way of Life provides other opportunities that go beyond an individualizing approach. For example, the organization offers a four-month intensive training institute, Women Organizing for Justice, which engages formerly imprisoned people in learning about the role of community organizing and social movements in bettering the world. The institute seeks to help former prisoners to "develop their confidence as public speakers and advocates" through skill-building workshops and opportunities to participate in community organizing; participants are "equipped with a critical analysis of the justice system and a belief in themselves as important participants in the struggle for social justice" [ The Women Organizing for Justice Institute is an embodiment of abolitionist reentry praxis in the way that it moves beyond an individualized approach. It connects formerly imprisoned people to abolitionist movement building and recognizes the centrality of their leadership to abolitionist visions.


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Renee M. Byrd, Renee Byrd ( is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Humboldt State University. She is a prison scholar-activist and filmmaker, whose research centers on the intersection of race and gender inequalities, mass imprisonment, and neoliberal political rationalities. She worked with the Books Not Bars project of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights on the film System Failure: Violence, Abuse and Neglect in the California Youth Authority (currently distributed by WitnessNYC). Byrd received her PhD in 2013 from the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. In addition to research on prisoner reentry, Byrd is currently working on a film about community accountability strategies
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Author:Byrd, Renee M.
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Date:Sep 16, 2016
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