Can’t Catch a Break

9780520282780_SeredOur new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs and the Limits of Personal Responsibility is now available through University of California Press, Amazon and other bookstores.

The book presents the work Maureen Norton-Hawk and I have been doing for the past six years following the experiences of a group of women post-incarceration in Massachusetts. Through interviews and ethnographic fieldwork we accompanied the women as they navigated a variety of programs, services and life events.Most of the book is made up of the women’s stories and how their stories evolved over time.

Each chapter focuses on a particular woman as she moves among  home, the streets, rehabilitation programs, correctional institutions, hospitals, clinics and shelters; among happy, sad, abusive and deeply caring relationships with friends, family and romantic partners; and among churches, Twelve Step groups, therapists and therapeutic treatment of various sorts.

We remain in touch with some of the women. You can read about their recent experiences here.

Here is an excerpt from the Introduction:

“The majority of the forty-seven of the women we first met in 2008 began their lives in working class families. Most were sexually abused as children. Nearly all witnessed their mothers’ being beat on or yelled at by husbands or boyfriends. Several women became addicts through prescribed pain or anxiety medication in the wake of an illness, injury or a botched medical procedure. In their twenties most scraped by in the unstable occupational sectors of the working poor: food service and nursing homes, and raised their young children with sporadic financial contributions of male partners and public assistance. Poor health eventually made it impossible for nearly all of the women to hold down jobs, leading to homelessness and vulnerability to violence and exploitation. Several remember pleasant childhoods with strong and positive family relations, but found their lives spiraling downward as adults when in a period of a few years their parents died and they could not afford to keep up the rent or mortgage payments. Almost all of the project participants have used drugs, in their words, “to numb myself” – particularly in the context of engaging in sex work in order to feed themselves and their children.

“All of the project women have been incarcerated, typically for a few months at a time and typically for prostitution, shoplifting (often of small cosmetic items), possession of small amounts of drugs, accessory in a crime committed by a boyfriend or husband, in several cases public drunkenness, and – most frequently – violation of the terms of probation or parole associated with a minor charge. (Only one of the forty-seven women in the project was incarcerated for a crime against another person.) Incarceration leads to loss of custody of, and often loss of contact with, their children. Coming out of prison with no money, no home, their children gone, and a criminal record that makes them unemployable, the women became dependent upon men, public services and the underground economy.”

“Over the past five years we have seen the same women sober and high, homeless and housed, employed and unemployed, in a supportive relationship and abused by a boyfriend, enthusiastically attending church and stigmatized by church members, involved on a daily basis with their children and out of the children’s lives, sick and healthy, happy and despondent. Sometimes they tell us how well things are going: perhaps they finally got housing, a kind boyfriend, sobriety, charges dropped, health care, surgery, better medication, food stamps, visits with children, a part-time job, a wonderful new caseworker, or reconciliation with estranged family members. We have learned over the years that how well things are going one month or one year is unlikely to predict how things will go later down the line. An individual sometimes will look and sound and act like a poster child for the category “working poor” as it was used during the Clinton administration: A worthy, productive, hardworking soul who with a bit of help will climb the rungs of America’s economic ladder. The same woman a year earlier or a year later will look and sound and act strung out, down and out, “shit out of luck” – the unworthy, unproductive “welfare queen” or “crack whore” who cares more about dope than about jobs or her children. That these transitions are so commonplace suggests to us that the line between scraping by and not scraping by has become exceedingly fragile in contemporary America.”

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1:

When Francesca came bursting onto the scene at the drop-in center for poor and homeless women she brought a quick spark of energy into the circle of worn-out faces and worn-down bodies slumped in armchairs, nodding off while watching the Jerry Springer show and waiting for the shelters to re-open at 4:00. Outspoken, energetic and full of plans, she declared how terrible it is that Boston’s “Mayor Menino stands by while so many people have to live on the street.” With a few tosses of her long, shiny hair, Francesca announced her dream of opening and running a facility that “welcomes everyone.” Five minutes later she swept out the door into the August heat with a promise to “buy Pepsi for everybody,” and Ginger resumed her desultory search through a pile of donated toiletries, Elizabeth carried on weeping into a handful of tissues and Vanessa went back to scratching her arm and poking around in the trash in hopes of finding a cigarette stub long enough to take outside and light up.

A week later Francesca returned to the women’s center. Flashing her brand-new bright turquoise acrylic nail extensions, she pulled a sequined mini-dress and a pair of 1960s style “go-go” boots out of a bag. With the recession of 2007 shutting down employment opportunities for undereducated and unskilled workers, she had taken one of the few jobs she could get — waitressing and dancing at a local strip club. Thrilled with the clothes and even more thrilled with the admiration from the male patrons, she was nevertheless firm that she would not have sex with the customers — she wouldn’t even let them kiss her on the cheek. But by late fall her situation became tense. At the club, she said, “the owners expect the girls to have sex for money.” As time went on, she began going out on “dates” and drinking more heavily as a way to put up with the pressures of the men at the club. “It is starting to get out of control.”

Just a few months later Francesca injured a ligament in her leg. Unable to go on dancing, she was fired on the spot. Initiating what would become our routine over the next five years, Francesca called us. We picked her up a block away from the club and drove her to the apartment of an old boyfriend who was willing to let her stay with him at night but would not give her a key or allow her to stay in the apartment by herself during the day. Now a regular at the women’s drop-in center, she maintained her outward tough “I don’t take crap from anyone” style but began to confide to us that she felt afraid and vulnerable. “All I do is walk around all day – I have no place to go.” Her arthritis had become increasingly painful (the joints in her fingers looked miserably swollen) and “I have a pain in my throat that my doctor thinks might be throat cancer. My father died of cancer.” Often on the verge of tears, she even considered suicide. “I just can’t catch a break anywhere.”

Here is the Table of Contents:

1. “Joey Spit on Me”: How Gender Inequality and Sexual Violence Make Women Sick
2. “Nowhere to Go”: Poverty, Homelessness, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility
3. “The Little Rock of the North”: Race, Gender, Class, and the Consequences of Mass Incarceration
4. Suffer the Women: Pain and Perfection in a Medicalized World
5. “It’s All in My Head”: Suffering, PTSD, and the Triumph of the Therapeutic
6. Higher Powers: The Unholy Alliance of Religion, Self-Help Ideology, and the State
7. “Suffer the Children”: Fostering the Caste of the Ill and Afflicted
8. Gender, Drugs, and Jail: “A System Designed for Us to Fail”
Conclusion: The Real Questions and a Blueprint for Moving Forward

Here is a review from Publisher’s Weekly:

In this passionate, deeply researched study, Suffolk University sociologists Sered and Norton-Hawk argue that prisons have “become the way that America deals with human suffering,” especially the suffering of women, who are being incarcerated at ever higher numbers. The authors, who closely studied 47 formerly incarcerated women in the Boston area for 5 years, examine both how women land in prison and how fragile their lives are after release. They discuss the inarguable connections between being abused and getting arrested. Reaganomics and welfare reform, Sered and Norton-Hawk argue, have had disastrous consequences for these women, both before and after incarceration. In particular, lack of stable housing makes women who have been imprisoned more dependent on men. In the study’s most original chapter, the authors argue that the therapeutic and mental health services available to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, rather than directing attention to how society has stacked the deck against marginal women and suggesting political solutions, teach that people’s problems are the result of their own unhealed trauma. This compelling and important book deserves to be widely read.

Here is a short article about the gorgeous painting on the cover of the book:

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Color Drenched Acts of Resistance

by Caitlin O’Hara

Can’t Catch a Break, published this month, is a brilliant book that teases out the nuanced relationship between gender, drugs, and jail in many women’s lives.

We asked coauthor Susan Starr Sered the story behind the cover image, which features an abstract image of bold colored stripes, dripping paint, and few hints as to how to contextualize what we’re seeing.

In an email, Susan describes her search in vain for appropriate images dealing with women and prison. The results depicted literal prison imagery that didn’t capture the range of experiences of the women her book profiles, or “disgustingly voyeuristic male-fantasy pornography.”

And then she came upon “this gorgeous image.” The piece is part of an installation by artist Markus Linnenbrink, at the JVA/Prison in Düsseldorf, in a 132 ft long underground tunnel that connects its security check to the visitors’ area. The artist explains that the JVA prison is considered “a model institution and has been designed to deal with security and humanity as best as possible, thus the desire for a unique approach [to its visitor entrance].” You can find more images and information about the project at this Colossal profile.

“It’s hard for me to describe why this image struck me so forcefully,” Sered writes. “Perhaps the vertical lines look like bars made out of women’s make-up and nail polish. The color dripping down from the horizontal stripes looks as if it’s weeping. The ambitious horizontal stripes decaying down into drips on the wall evoke, for me, the mess that’s come of the good intentions behind trying to cut down on crime, drug use and so on. And finally, people in prison spend so much time with nothing to do but stare at blank walls, so I love imagining those walls as color drenched acts of resistance.”

And with that, Sered cuts to the heart with precision, as she does so often throughout the book. Beyond interpretations of line, color, drip, and context, what captivates is the image’s undefinable power: inviting yet defiant; strong despite, and owing to, its imperfections. Just like the women this book profiles.

And follow this link to the “Page 99 test” discussion of Can’t Catch a Break. “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

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