The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society

The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society

The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society

The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society

Synopsis

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. 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.

Excerpt

Social scientists, like the general public, have shown a great interest in the prison but have almost completely ignored the jail. Since John Howard’s historic report on English jails, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777), there have been perhaps a dozen other reports (most of which are listed in the bibliography), whereas there are hundreds of studies on the prison. The opposite focus is more appropriate for several reasons. First, many more people pass through the jail. The estimates range from 3 to 7 million a year in the United States, and this is at least thirty times the number handled by all state and federal prisons. Second, when persons are arrested, the most critical decisions about their future freedom are made while they are either in jail or attached to it by a bail bond. These decisions, like the decision to arrest, are often highly discretionary and raise disturbing questions about the whole criminal justice system. Third, the experiences prisoners endure while passing through the jail often drastically influence their lives. Finally, the jail, not the prison, imposes the cruelest form of punishment in the United States.

Although recognizing the jail was more important, I too concentrated on the prison for many years. In the mid-1970s I made one attempt to begin a study of the the jail after Richard Hongisto, a personal friend, was elected sheriff of San Francisco and agreed to give me full access to the three jails he administered—no small matter, because social scientists have had more difficulty approaching the jail than the prison. However, the prison issue continued to absorb me, and I did . . .

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