Michael Lawrence Walker
Jail is punishment. Prison is like working for the government. You'll be taken care of...Jail is like working at McDonald's. You could be fired. The pay sucks. The whole thing sucks.
My New Book, Indefinite
Indefinite is a one of a kind ethnography of a county jail system because, well, I was in jail when I conducted the study.
Prior to jail time, I was in graduate school trying to balance academic and family responsibilities with what seemed like an endless series of court appearances. Eventually, my personal woes spoiled my academic life and I was expelled from the graduate program after only a year. Around the same time, I gave up fighting my cases. I surrendered myself for a 180-day sentence in a Southern California county jail system.
A first-generation college graduate, I began that sentence with a year of graduate training and without a doubt that I'd ruined my entire future. But, I had two things going for me: (1) I had a natural habit of and interest in people-watching; (2) I had a professor, from my then, former graduate program who encouraged me to "pay attention."
That's what I did. I turned jail time into an ethnography of life in jail, recording field notes while battling the demons that make jail time what it is.
In the end, I survived the uncertainty, the batched living quarters, the self-directed hate, periods of hard-timing-it, the fights, the cold, the hunger, and the galaxy of doubts that eat at your soul in jail. The product is my book: Indefinite: Doing Time in Jail.
Indefinite is mainly a study of the consequences of jail conditions, but it is also a study of the human condition. For, every experience to be had in jail can be found elsewhere in society--even if in less extreme forms.
So, I invite you to read Indefinite, a deeply personal and sociological account of an American jail system with all its degradative peculiarities and broader sociological familiarities.
My guiding question:
Where else and in what ways?
If certain behaviors, emotions, and/or processes are present in one place, we are sure to find them elsewhere, too. I've translated this principle into several research threads.
Jail & Emotion
I am always struck by the argument that people in jail or prison (especially men) are constrained from emotional expression unless we are talking about anger or aggression.
Jail time taught me that emotional expressions are shaped by where we are. People don't usually cry openly in coffeehouses, but a church is just fine. Aggression in a library would seem strange, but we expect some aggression at a mixed martial arts event.
Even in a single office building, emotional expression is place-dependent. Extremes of frustration are more appropriately expressed in an employee lounge or restroom than on the shop floor, for example.
Similarly, in jail, men cried, laughed, expressed frustration and anger, and generally claimed access to the full spectrum of emotions we normally deny them in most research.
What is needed is an expansion of the sociology of "place." We need greater attention to how place shapes emotional expression. One of my current lines of research is to examine the emplacement of emotional expression--to try to work out what contributes to some emotions being appropriately expressed and others appropriately repressed.
You may be shocked to learn that at any given time, nearly 70% of the people in jail have not yet been found guilty of their charges. In theory, they are innocent until proven guilty--though they are punished as though guilt was conferred upon arrest. In most cases, they remain in jail because they cannot afford bail--that is, they are too poor to afford freedom. For many of them, jail time extends indefinitely into a blur of in-custody court appearances. Many of the men I met in jail had been there for three or more consecutive years while awaiting trial.
They could not know when jail time would end; they could not know whether in the very next moment they would be transferred to a different housing unit or jail without explanation; they couldn't know whether the visits or commissary deliveries would canceled. In fact, despite the routinization of penal time, life in jail means facing incalculable uncertainties. I learned this in my own flesh.
One of the more profound outcomes of concentrated uncertainties was a shift toward all things present. The future was too uncertain. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a taste of extremes of uncertainty, as we all learn to adjust to the inability to plan our lives the way we once had, so long ago, in 2019.
Temporal shifts away from future plans to present living, however, are just one problem of uncertainty. I am currently researching other consequences.
As we move through the day, we move in and out of particular role identities. Perhaps you are "Mommy" or "Daddy" during the mornings, a student or accountant during the day, and someone's lover during the evening. These identities are roughly compartmentalized by periods. There's a time for each role, and those periods keep up the emotional and behavioral guardrails for us. We tell ourselves, "This is not the time for that"--with "that" being some set of appropriate feelings and behaviors associated with a given identity.
Jail time taught me just how difficult life can be without those time-structured guardrails. One consequence is the feeling of being bombarded by emotions, thoughts, and inclinations from every direction. I learned that time gives structure to social roles and the emotions that accompany them. I also learned that without that structure, it was difficult to focus attention on any one task.
I am currently chasing down this idea, even as it splinters into related issues.
Jail & Mental Health
Suicide is the leading cause of death in American jails, and it has been for decades. We know that people need not be there for long before experiencing an acute degradation of their mental health. (See my introduction in Indefinite for more on this.)
Part of the problem is that some percentage of people enter American jails with recently diagnosed mood disorders, but we should be clear: Jail is not a place where one goes and improves one's mental health. The ostensible purpose and practical functions of jail make mental health treatment an oxymoron at best.
Indeed, jail conditions create mood disorders. The paint choices, routinization, uncertainty, batched living, threat of violence, maltreatment of penal residents (prisoners) by staff members, abandonment, and other factors erode one's ability to endure jail time with unblemished dignity and emotional reserve.
Interestingly, these problems are not restricted to penal residents. Though different in degree, custodial staff also find need to create what I call endurance strategies to manage the day-to-day demands of working in jail.
Though in its nascent stages, my current project does not center the penal resident or the custodial staff member as much as it does the jail environment itself. I am examining how jail conditions impact the mental wellbeing of staff and penal residents.
Department of Sociology
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