Reentry, Resistance, and Hybridization in the Long Shadow of the Devolving Penal State: An Ethnographic Study of a Community-Based Reentry Organization



Mackey, Benjamin J

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As mass incarceration and supervision decline slowly and sporadically in the U.S. (Kang-Brown et al., 2018; Maruschak & Minton, 2020), scholars note that subtler forms of “invisible punishment” continue to affect individuals with a history of legal system involvement (Travis, 2002). This form of penality excludes individuals with criminal records from full societal participation and includes them in systems of penal rehabilitation and supervision (Cohen, 1985; Miller & Stuart, 2017). Increasingly, however, the state recedes from direct involvement in rehabilitation and supervision, instead devolving responsibility for these functions to non-governmental organizations in the community (Miller, 2014). In so doing, the state may be able to govern at a distance by influencing the operations of these organizations (Garland, 2001; Rose & Miller, 1992). The present study examines how staffers at a community-based reentry organization serving formerly incarcerated clients are both subject and resistant to state influence. Leveraged via grant contracts, state influence directs staffers to provide services focused on altering clients’ internal dispositions and prohibits them from engaging in advocacy activities intended to affect governmental operations. However, because they locate the problems afflicting their clients largely in exclusionary penal structures—rather than solely in their clients’ internal dispositions—staffers’ selectively resist state influence. Through this agonistic process of resistance (Goodman et al., 2017), rehabilitative penality as practiced at the organization hybridizes, commingling the organizational goals and routines of penal state authorities with those of advocacy-oriented reentry staffers. The final, hybridized form of this rehabilitative penality requires the client to not only effect dispositional changes, but to be an active agent advocating against the exclusionary penal structures afflicting them.



Reentry, Penality, Governing at a distance, Sociology of punishment, Carceral devolution