Stick Together and Come Back Home: Racial Sorting and the Spillover of Carceral Identity

Stick Together and Come Back Home: Racial Sorting and the Spillover of Carceral Identity

by Patrick Lopez-Aguado

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In Stick Together and Come Back Home, Patrick Lopez-Aguado examines how what happens inside a prison affects what happens outside of it. Following the experiences of seventy youth and adults as they navigate juvenile justice and penal facilities before finally going back home, he outlines how institutional authorities structure a “carceral social order” that racially and geographically divides criminalized populations into gang-associated affiliations. These affiliations come to shape one’s exposure to both violence and criminal labeling, and as they spill over the institutional walls they establish how these unfold in high-incarceration neighborhoods as well, revealing the insidious set of consequences that mass incarceration holds for poor communities of color.

Editorial Reviews


An in-depth, detailed example of the ways in which the criminal justice system replicates the racist inclinations of the larger society.

Social Forces

"Stick Together and Come Back Home is a compassionate look at criminalized youth and adults. . . . This book is likely to be of interest to students and scholars of juvenile justice, incarceration, race, and gangs. It should also be of interest to policymakers and practitioners . . . who may be individually well-intentioned but embedded in larger and destructive systems."

American Journal of Sociology

"Stick Together and Come Back Home is a valuable contribution to the field for its examination of the interplay between state and street violence on both cultural and structural levels. ... In shifting the focus from gang conflict itself to a deconstruction of how institutions systematically organize youth around gang conflict, Lopez-Aguado illuminates how law enforcement simultaneously structures and deploys intergroup violence as evidence of the need for criminal justice targeting."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520288591
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/19/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


Constructing and Institutionalizing the Carceral Social Order

"Aw you suck sir. Next!"

Aaron just decimated my Batman. When we play boxing I can usually hold my own, but when they want to play this fighting game with Mortal Kombat characters battling comic book superheroes I usually just mash the controller buttons and hope for the best. Aaron actually knows the special moves and combinations though, so I don't last long. I pass the Xbox controller to the next person in the rotation, then look over my shoulder to see what else is happening. Jordan is at his usual spot managing the play-list for the afternoon, arm resting on the stereo speaker ready to pick the next song. Adrian and Mike play ping pong while Eddie and Julian are playing dominoes on the table next to us. All things considered it is a pretty good place for them to forget for an hour that they are locked up. The boys here today certainly seem to be enjoying that opportunity. All of them except one.

A boy I haven't seen before sits by himself on one of the benches that line the wall with his head in his hands. Every few minutes someone else from the pod comes up to him and says a few words before going back to what he was doing. But still he stays on the bench. After a while I come over and sit next to him to introduce myself and to see what is troubling him. He introduces himself as Javier and explains that this morning he was sentenced to six months in the Fresno County Juvenile Detention Facility (JDF). He just transferred into this pod a few hours ago. He was brought in two weeks ago on a probation violation for a minor drug charge, and since then had been held in JDF's detention wing while waiting for his court date. This was his first time in juvenile hall, so he thought he would receive a much shorter sentence or maybe even be released. Instead, because he was unable to demonstrate that he would receive treatment on his own, he found out that he was being sent to JDF's substance abuse program for a mandatory six-month term. He tells me that his mom took the news pretty hard, and while he talks to me he still seems to be in shock himself.

He speaks slowly, struggling to push his words out onto the floor while he stares down and shakes his head. "I really want to change my life. Maybe some of the programs in here can help me a little, but I dunno." He pauses and looks up, staring into space while he tries to find how to describe what he is feeling. "I feel like when I get out of here I might be like a whole 'nother person. Like worse, causing more problems. Cuz normally I don't cause many problems, I'm a pretty calm person. But after being in here, I feel like I'm gonna be more, just, gang life." He looks to me to see if I understand, perhaps unsure how else to explain it.

"Why do you think that?" I ask him.

"Because everyone I associate with in here are all gang members. When you're locked up, gangs become like your family, cuz they understand what you're going through cuz they're there with you."

Javier feared his incarceration would strengthen the role gangs played in his life, in large part because the peers that youth come to depend on for basic contact when locked up likely include gang affiliates. Even in the few minutes we talk, other boys from the pod come by and try to help him feel better, telling him "I know how you feel man, this is my first time being locked up too!" But Javier's fear is also shaped by the social dynamics at work in the pod. Most of his time at JDF will be spent in a divided housing pod, or more accurately on one side of it depending on which gang members in the pod staff think Javier is most likely to side with. Even though he doesn't bang, it will be easy for others to assume that he does based on which side he is celled on and who they see him talking to. Now every day when his pod leaves the unit for class he will have to line up with the others, interlocking his fingers in front of him and leaving his back exposed to anyone behind him — a prime opportunity for anyone who might have a problem with him to "snake" or sucker-punch him in the back of the head. Other youth here have reported this occurring at least a few times a week. It would help Javier to have others in the pod who will back him up in these instances, or better yet to surround him so as to diminish the likelihood of such a brazen assault. Javier's perception that everyone he interacts with here is gang involved is not quite accurate, but it is understandable because it is informed by the potential for everyone in the pod to be drawn into gang conflicts in this way — in large part due to how his pod is institutionally divided and managed.

It is tempting to frame Javier's dilemma — as he does — in terms of how youth become involved with gangs while incarcerated. But focusing on gang conflict would miss how institutionally organizing young people around gang conflict — in Javier's case dividing everyone in the pod by presumed affiliations — has a lasting impact on those who need to adjust to being categorized in this way. In this chapter I examine the origins of the criminalized affiliations that come to bridge prison and community. Within Fresno's communities of color, understanding the neighborhood's relationship with carceral institutions has to begin with looking at what happens when residents are incarcerated in these facilities. In both state prison and local juvenile justice facilities, incorporating residents into punitive institutions relies on classifying them as gang affiliates. Staff members categorize and separate the individuals in their charge by potential affiliations into racialized, gang-associated groups, then police the boundaries between these groups as part of the everyday management of the facility. The identities and conflicts that are constructed in this process comprise a carceral social order that directs day-to-day life in the institution, and that establishes it's residents' and workers' common sense understandings of identity and criminality.


Within punitive facilities, the carceral social order operates as a dominant lens for understanding the incarcerated, but this framework is largely structured by the process of categorizing those in the institution by their potential gang ties. Race, home community, and peer networks are used to sort people into criminalized groups and situate them into separate segregated spaces under the presumption that they represent threats to each other. In doing so, the institution establishes a social context in which these collective identities not only define inmates' everyday experiences in the facility, but also label them as associates of criminal gangs. In examining both penal and juvenile justice institutions, we can identify parallel processes that construct this same social order — one based in beliefs about racial incompatibility and gang rivalry — in both settings. In the Wasco State Prison (WSP) and in Fresno's juvenile justice facilities, we can see how this social order is created at two ends of the criminal justice system, and how the consistent experiences across these institutions in turn produce consistent identities across generations.

Wasco State Prison Reception Center, Wasco, California

Throughout the week dozens of men recently released from state prison — many of them residing in nearby halfway houses — congregate at a reentry center in downtown Fresno to attend workshops and counseling sessions, or to use the center's computers to look for jobs or write résumés. Most of these men grew up within a few miles of this center and lived in Fresno until they were finally sent to prison. In their stories, going to prison usually starts with a 100-mile bus trip south from the Fresno County Jail to the Reception Center at WSP, a trip that is repeated by the approximately 1,500 male residents the county sends to prison each year (CDCR 2014). Reception centers like Wasco serve as points of entry into the prison system for both newly convicted felons and parolees returning on violations. Here, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials hold incoming prisoners for 120 days while they "process, classify, and evaluate new inmates physically and mentally, and determine their security level, program requirements and appropriate institutional placement." In this screening, men will receive a housing assignment that will dictate which of the state's thirty-four prisons they will serve their sentence in, where they will be celled in that facility, and whom they will be housed with.

Wasco is the largest reception center in the state, receiving inmate transfers from jails throughout Southern and Central California. WSP is designed to process 2,334 inmates at a time through its reception center, but as of the time of this research Wasco was housing some 5,500 inmates in reception on any given day. As groups of men are bused in from the surrounding county jails, they are funneled into the facility, stripped, searched, identified, fingerprinted, and photographed. Here David, a twenty-eight-year-old Latino parolee, describes what it is like to step off the bus and pass through this process at Wasco:

Yeah, so going in there, You talk to the front desk, they'll ask you your name, your CDC number. You walk off, you go through a metal detector, take off all your clothes, from the county [jail]. So you're butt-naked, barefooted. They got you searched, know what I mean, check your hair, your ears, turn around, spread your buttcheeks, squat and cough, pick up your nuts, flush under the nuts, your mouth. Then they give you your pants, and oranges [prison jumpsuit], and a pair of shoes, like the slip-on shoes. ... You get uh, five sets of shirts, white shirts, two oranges, top and bottom, five pairs of socks, five pairs of boxers. You don't get no shower shoes, you have to wait 'til you buy 'em. Understand what I mean? You get a bar of soap a week, a roll of toilet paper a week. ... And [then you] go ahead, get your lunch and go. It's kinda like a herding thing, they herd you, know what I mean, 'til they can get you situated into a room.

We can understand this process by following one such group of arrivals. When a busload of men from Fresno arrives at Wasco, one by one their personal information is recorded or updated, they are searched for contraband, and some basic supplies are distributed to them before they are finally assigned to a cell or dorm bunk. But being "situated into a room" is based in many factors, and is determined by how an inmate is categorized across a number of fields. In this process, the large crowd of men who come in together from the county are divided and subdivided down until they are all individually reorganized into the prison's classificatory system. Low-custody-level inmates in Wasco are sent to C yard where they stay in less restrictive, open dormitories before being sent to minimum security facilities. Inmates who may be vulnerable to assault in general population, either due to their offense or because of conflicts from a previous prison term, are isolated in B5, the protective custody unit on B yard. Similarly, anybody with a history of violence is likely sent to the administrative segregation (or "ad seg") unit on D yard. Any prisoners coming in with an admitted or documented Norteño affiliation is immediately sent to D3 since they may be vulnerable on other yards. Everybody else is placed in one of the "mainline" buildings on B or D yard.

Even after these groups of men have been assigned to a building they are divided down still, this time paired with cellmates depending on how they are racially classified. During this sorting process incoming prisoners are categorized as Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, or "Others" (Asians and Pacific Islanders), and housed with other men in the same racial group. Latino inmates, the largest racial group in the prison, are also divided by where in the state they were committed from; Latinos from Southern California are sorted simply as "Southern Hispanics," but most of our group from Fresno will be kept together as "Bulldogs." The result is that prisoners find themselves slotted into an environment that is defined by race- and place-based divides, as Francisco, a thirty-five-year-old Latino parolee describes:

Going into prison, they already had like a modified program. Like uh, if you're a certain group, you can't be around this [other] group. So like when you go in to R&R, they have big [signs] like "Fresno," "San Bernardino County," "LA County," you know from the counties where you're from right? And they have doors already open for people in Fresno, they just rush us in, close it, and that's how they did it. They just uh, it was already, it was already a modified, there was segregated kind of like in a way ... it was like it was split. Um, they modified Bulldogs, Blacks, um Others, on top, and then on the bottom it'll be Whites and Southsiders. All bottom tier. So it was already there.

In Francisco's words we can see that after incoming prisoners are divided across the different buildings at WSP depending on their individual status or needs, inmates are still separated even within the same building. Important to note here is which racial groups are housed apart from each other on different tiers — Whites are housed away from Blacks, and "Southsiders" are kept on a separate tier than "Bulldogs."

From an institutional perspective, this segregation is implemented because of the potential for gang violence between these racial groups. CDCR has always justified racially sorting inmates as necessary to prevent racial violence, and more specifically to separate rival race-based prison gangs. However, the number of validated prison gang members is actually quite small, and these inmates are already removed from general population and isolated in SHU units. But despite this, all incoming inmates are still segregated in this manner anyway. Racial sorting then operates as a process of identifying and separating pools of inmates who may become extensions of gang rivalries. For example, Blacks and Whites are separated out of fear that conflict between the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerilla Family may lead White and Black inmates to fight each other. Similarly, Latinos are split as Northerners or Southerners due to the belief that they may support the prison gangs that draw members from these respective regions of the state.

Framing racial groups as extensions of prison gang conflicts makes segregated spaces seem necessary because it marks individual prisoners as assumed gang associates. Within this system one's presumed gang ties are determined by race, but also by one's home community. In Francisco's excerpt he illustrates that inmates are first tagged by the county they come in from, and for Latino prisoners this is consequential. The counties that Latino inmates come from affect the housing assignments that they receive because each county is classified as a Northern or Southern county; Kern and San Luis Obispo Counties on south are considered Southern counties, whereas most Latinos north of this (with the exception of Fresno) will be counted as Northern Hispanics. The Norteño (Spanish for "Northerner") and Sureño ("Southerner") identity categories that stem from this schism are commonly interpreted as gang affiliations by correctional staff and law enforcement, although not necessarily by prisoners. Here Martín explains how Latino prisoners are labeled as gang affiliated in the sorting process based on where they are from:

Well basically see, when a person don't bang it's either because they're in church, or they're just trying to do their time. See, nobody really puts 'em on any[thing], [or] categorizes them. But when you get booked in, in the reception or so forth, when you get to prison, they gonna tell you "you from Fresno, you from LA, or where you from? What hood you from?" Say "I don't bang." But then what they always do anyways, police themselves categorizes you as being from Fresno. So either way, whether you're out there gangbanging, whether you go in the prison being a gangbanger or not, the police are gonna categorize you anyways. Know what I mean? Every time, wherever you're from. Whether you're from Bakersfield, LA, Sacramento, whatever. They're still gonna categorize you as Northern or Southern, regardless.


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