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University of California Press
The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society / Edition 1

The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society / Edition 1

by John Irwin, Jonathan SimonJohn Irwin
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Combining extensive interviews with his own experience as an inmate, John Irwin constructs a powerful and graphic description of the big-city jail. Unlike prisons, which incarcerate convicted felons, jails primarily confine arrested persons not yet charged or convicted of any serious crime. Irwin argues that rather than controlling the disreputable, jail disorients and degrades these people, indoctrinating new recruits to the rabble class. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In a forceful conclusion, Irwin addresses the issue of jail reform and the matter of social control demanded by society. Reissued more than twenty years after its initial publication with a new foreword by Jonathon Simon, The Jail remains an extraordinary account of the role jails play in America’s crisis of mass incarceration.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520277342
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/14/2013
Edition description: First Edition, With a New Foreword by Jonathan Simon
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 807,958
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

John Irwin (1929 - 2010) was known internationally as an expert in the American prison system. He earned his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California Berkeley and taught as a professor at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Felon (UC Press), Scenes, Prisons in Turmoil, It's About Time: America's Imprisonment Binge (with James Austin), Lifers: Seeking Redemption in Prison and The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the New Dangerous Class.

Read an Excerpt

The Jail

Managing the Underclass in american society
By John Irwin

University of California Press

Copyright © 1985 John Irwin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-05563-2

Chapter One

Managing Rabble

In a legal sense, the jail is the point of entry into the criminal justice system. It is the place where arrested persons are booked and where they are held for their court appearances if they cannot arrange bail. It is also the city or county detention facility for persons serving misdemeanor sentences, which in most states cannot exceed one year. The prison, on the other hand, is a state or federal institution that holds persons serving felony sentences, which generally run to more than one year.

The public impression is that the jail holds a collection of dangerous criminals. But familiarity and close inspection reveal that the jail holds only a very few persons who fit the popular conception of a criminal-a predator who seriously threatens the lives and property of ordinary citizens. In fact, the great majority of the persons arrested and held in jail belong to a different social category. Some students of the jail have politely referred to them as the poor: "American jails operate primarily as catchall asylums for poor people." Some have added other correlates of poverty: "With few exceptions, the prisoners are poor, undereducated, unemployed, and they belong to minority groups." Some use more imaginative and sociologically suggestive labels, such as "social refuse" or "social junk." Political radicals sometimes use "lumpen proletariat" and argue over whether its members are capable of participating in the class struggle. Some citizens refer to persons in this category as "street people," implying an excessive and improper public presence. Others apply such labels as "riffraff," "social trash," or "dregs," which suggest lack of social worth and moral depravity. And many police officers, deputies, and other persons who are familiar with the jail population use more crudely derogatory labels, such as "assholes" and "dirt balls."

In my own research, I found that beyond poverty and its correlates-undereducation, unemployment, and minority status-jail prisoners share two essential characteristics: detachment and disrepute. They are detached because they are not well integrated into conventional society, they are not members of conventional social organizations, they have few ties to conventional social networks, and they are carriers of unconventional values and beliefs. They are disreputable because they are perceived as irksome, offensive, threatening, capable of arousal, even protorevolutionary. In this book I shall refer to them as the rabble, meaning the "disorganized" and "disorderly," the "lowest class of people."

I found that it is these two features-detachment and disrepute-that lead the police to watch and arrest the rabble so frequently, regardless of whether or not they are engaged in crime, or at least in serious crime. (Most of the rabble commit petty crimes, such as drinking on the street, and are usually vulnerable to arrest.)

These findings suggest that the basic purpose of the jail differs radically from the purpose ascribed to it by government officials and academicians. It is this: the jail was invented, and continues to be operated, in order to manage society's rabble. Society's impulse to manage the rabble has many sources, but the subjectively perceived "offensiveness" of the rabble is at least as important as any real threat it poses to society.

The contemporary jail is a subsidiary to the welfare organizations that are intended to "regulate the poor." Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have pointed out that when masses of occupationally dislocated people pose a threat, society applies social control devices, such as relief programs:

When large numbers of people are suddenly barred from their traditional occupations, the entire structure of social control is weakened and may even collapse. There is no harvest or paycheck to enforce work and the sentiments that uphold work; without work, people cannot conform to familial and communal roles; and if the dislocation is widespread, the legitimacy of the social order itself may come to be questioned. The result is usually civil disorder-crime, mass protests, riots-a disorder that may even threaten to overturn existing social and economic arrangements. It is then that relief programs are initiated or expanded.

However, from among the poor there will also emerge a rabble who are perceived as a more serious and constant threat to the social order, a group in need of the more direct forms of social control delivered by the criminal justice system. Usually the more violent and rapacious rabble are arrested, convicted, and sent to prison; the merely offensive are held in jail. The jail was devised as, and continues to be, the special social device for controlling offensive rabble. To demonstrate this proposition, I will review briefly the history of the jail in England and its later development in America.

Historical Development of the English Jail

All ancient cities used some method of detaining persons in order to impose punishment. According to Hans Mattick: "Unscalable pits, dungeons, suspended cages, and sturdy trees to which prisoners were chained pending trial are some of the predecessors of the jail." As early as the ninth century in England, Alfred the Great's laws mentioned imprisonment: "If he, however, pledge what is right for him to fulfill, and belie that, let him give with lowly mindedness his weapon and his goods to his friends to hold, and be forty nights in prison in a king's town, and suffer there as the Bishop assigns him; and let his kinsmen feed him if he himself have no meat." Probably the persons sentenced were held in castles or monastery buildings. And in his history of imprisonment in England, Ralph Pugh notes: "There is no doubt that the Normans found a number of prisons in the England that they invaded, particularly upon royal manors in the south, and, in effect, they added to their number. This they did by building many castles in which both king and barons shut up their powerful adversaries and during the Anarchy very many of the common people also."

The jail, however, was a new institution in medieval England. It was a special structure, erected and administered by the local authority, the sheriff, for the sole purpose of holding persons to be delivered to the royal courts for judgment. Sheriffs began establishing jails in the early eleventh century or slightly before. By 1166, Henry II, the powerful Norman king, "enjoined all sheriffs to ensure that in all counties where no gaols existed gaols should now be built."

The need for this new institution arose from a great increase in the number of detached persons. At this time, England, along with all of Europe, was moving out of feudalism with its isolated, mostly autonomous fiefdoms. By the late eleventh century Muslim control of the Mediterranean had ended, and trade once again began to connect European populations and to result in the cultivation of urban centers. New towns appeared, and towns grew into cities. European kings began reestablishing and extending their hegemonies. After having remained stable for centuries, the population in most parts of Europe was increasing. At the same time, the feudal system was unraveling. More and more persons were cut loose from the land and from the two basic social organizations of the agricultural society, the family and the tribe. Henri Pirenne, in tracing the development of the merchant class, describes this well. Speaking of the increase in population, he writes:

It had as a result the detaching from the land [of] an increasingly important number of individuals and committing them to the roving and hazardous existence which, in every agricultural civilization, is the lot of those who no longer find themselves with their roots in the soil. It multiplied the crowd of vagabonds drifting about all through society, living from day to day by alms from the monasteries, hiring themselves out at harvest-time, enlisting in the armies in time of war and holding back from neither rapine nor pillage when occasion presented.

Some of the newly uprooted found more or less legitimate means to survive within the changing social order. As feudalism gave way to mercantilism, some new jobs appeared. The ongoing wars, and especially the Crusades, occupied (and killed) many; mendicant religious orders absorbed some; and the recurring plagues eliminated many thousands. Nevertheless, a large portion of the displaced became part of the rabble. Outlaws who lived by robbing, plundering, poaching, and smuggling abounded in the forests and countryside. (The legend of Robin Hood comes from these times.) Disreputable persons filled the towns and the cities. As Urban Tigner Holmes reports:

The ribauz, or good-for-nothings, were always on the edge of a crowd. They begged and plundered at the slightest provocation. They hung around outside the door of the banquet hall when a large feast was held. The king of England had three hundred bailiffs whose duty it was-though not all at one time-to keep these people back as food was moved from the kitchens to the hall, and to see that guests were not disturbed. Frequently in twelfth-century romances a beautiful damsel is threatened with the awful fate of being turned over to the ribauz. Nothing more horrible can be imagined. These people accompanied armies on their expeditions, helping in menial tasks and plundering what was left by the knights and other fighting men.

The growth of the rabble had two important influences on the social-control efforts of English rulers. In the first place, it presented them with new social problems to which they responded with increasingly punitive measures, which reached their peak at the end of the eighteenth century with the notorious Grand Assizes and the excessive use of the death penalty. In the second place, it made necessary a drastic increase in the use of imprisonment for detention before trial. Historically, before the number of detached persons grew troublesome, it was considered unnecessary to hold a person before judgment had been passed. With few exceptions, persons were trusted because they were firmly connected to the church, guild, tribe, community, or town; only the occasional unattached person charged with an offense might need some special provision. For example, Alfred the Great, the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king who stabilized England after the Danish invasions, attempted to ensure the appearance of displaced suspects by attaching them to local citizens:

If such a stranger, merchant, or wayfaring man, came to be suspected of any crime and could not be found, he whose guest he had last been was summoned to account for him. If he had not entertained the stranger for more than two nights, he might clear himself by oath; but if the stranger had lodged with him three nights, he was bound to produce him, or answer, and pay "weregild," or "wite," for him, as for one of his own family.

However, by the end of the eleventh century the number of detached people milling about the countryside and in the towns had given rise to the use of bail or detention in the newly erected jails. Pugh points out that in the beginning bail was more common than detention: "Attachment followed by release on bail was the method that was first adopted by those officers [sheriffs] in securing the arraignment of offenders and it never fell out of use or even grew uncommon. It seems reasonably clear, however, that, as time went on, actual confinement progressively supplemented attachment and bail as the surer means of attaining the needful aim." What occurred "as time went on" was that the number of displaced people charged with crimes continued to increase. This was because not only the numbers of the rabble but also the likelihood of their being charged with a crime greatly increased over the next centuries. The English rulers passed more and more laws designed to control the rabble, to stop their incursions on private property, and, when shortages of labor existed, to assign them to low-paid productive work. The vagrancy laws passed between 1349 and 1743 were intended for these purposes.

The increasing threat attributed to the rabble may be seen in a later statute that prescribes death for "ruffians" who a second time "shall wander, loiter, or idle use themselves and play vagabond." In the sixteenth century, England introduced the less blatantly cruel and punitive workhouses, called bridewells, to manage and reform the poor. By the middle of the eighteenth century, in many counties the "county gaol [was] also a bridewell"; and many of the prisoners sentenced to houses of correction, to be engaged in hard labor in order to reform them, were actually idle and were treated the same as the felons and debtors held in the jails. By the nineteenth century, the bridewells, as well as the poorhouses, had been completely amalgamated with the jails.

English colonists brought the tradition of the jail with them to America, but in their first half-century in the New World they did not rely on it very heavily. The early settlers were mostly respectable people-middle class and religious-and the few rabble among them were manageable by expulsion, which was feasible in North America with its vast areas between towns and cities and its open frontier. The few nonrabble offenders were released on bail until adjudication and then fined, publicly shamed, whipped, banished, or, in a few cases, executed. Incarceration was not used. During the eighteenth century, however, members of other social classes, including thousands of transported disreputables, many of them convicts, poured in. Many towns and all cities constructed jails. Still, the threat of the rabble was not as great as it was in England, and so these early jails were small and much more humanely managed than England's. They were patterned after rooming houses, and the prisoners suffered no restrictions other than the confinement.

At the end of the eighteenth century the problem of managing the growing urban rabble increased, and several eastern cities-notably Philadelphia, New York, and Boston-constructed larger jails, such as Newgate in New York and the Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia. The disreputability and the increased number of prisoners are suggested in the following description of the Walnut Street jail shortly after the Revolutionary War:

It is represented as a scene of promiscuous and unrestricted intercourse, and universal riot and debauchery. There was no separation of color, age or sex, by day or by night; the prisoners lying promiscuously on the floor, most of them without anything like bed or bedding.


Excerpted from The Jail by John Irwin Copyright © 1985 by John Irwin. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables




1 Managing Rabble

2 Who Is Arrested?

3 Disintegration

4 Disorientation

5 Degradation

6 Preparation

7 Rabble, Crime, and the Jail





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