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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Prisonization and the Problems of Reentry

Liam Martin


At the halfway house where I lived as an ethnographer, Ty Kelley often slept on a couch in the TV room. It seemed a strange place to rest: a large archway made him visible from the dining area and kitchen, and other residents often grumbled at the public sight of his sleeping body. In an interview, I asked Ty why he did not sleep in his bedroom:

“Because of the space,” he said.

“When I’m in there it feels like I’m still crammed up in a cell. I’m trying to get that memory, or that feeling off me. Trying to shake it off me.”

Formally free and living outside the walls, Ty Kelley’s prison history lingered in his sleep routines and sense of space. Others at the halfway house shared the feeling - I watched a number of former prisoners mistakenly call their bedroom a “cell” in casual conversation. Some reacted to the cell-bedroom parallel by seeking the comfort of the familiar, withdrawing and spending long periods alone with the door closed. The men called this practice “isolating.”

In interviews, former prisoners talked me through the many habits they had formed in prison and carried outside. Roy Jones would wait patiently in front of doors, expecting them to be opened. Jack Tarrant often ate standing with one foot on a chair, reproducing his readiness among a crowd in the prison chow hall. Henry Rivero sometimes put a spoon in his pocket after eating, so often had he carried the one spoon he had inside from cell to meal time and back. Eddie Winfield washed socks and underwear in the shower and sought out Ramen noodle soups at the Supermarket – the same kind he had in jail. Guy Jordan found himself taking staunch body postures without reason, rising from the park bench where we talked to demonstrate, planting his feet at shoulder width and folding arms tightly across his chest. “I would find myself doing the same mannerisms I had in jail,” he said. “I’m on the street physically, but mentally, I’m still doing what I would be doing in there.”

These post-release rituals are a reminder that people are changed in deep and lasting ways by 24-hour-a-day, year-in-and-year-out prison environments. In a recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography – “Free but Still Walking the Yard”: Prisonization and the Problems of Reentry - I argue these embodied aftereffects are central to the experience of reentry. Prison release involves a sudden shift in social location, in which taken-for-granted elements of the social world change in an instant: from norms of personal space to the kinds of food consumed. Rigid routines are replaced by radical openness. In these transitions, people carry prisonized dispositions into institutional arenas where norms and expectations are very different.

In studying the problems of reentry, we often focus on the way that criminal records create lasting stigma and structural exclusion. I argue that in the days and weeks after release, the more immediate challenge is simply getting used to the patterns of daily life beyond prison walls. A number of participants described the experience as a “culture shock” - that is, entry to a world where social rules are suddenly unfamiliar and hard to judge. The shock could be crippling for those leaving long stretches.

Matt Carmine referenced the movie Shawshank Redemption to explain what it was like. He pointed to a scene that shows an elderly convict named Brooks leaving prison and moving through the new settings of life: walking the street, feeding the birds, packing bags at a supermarket checkout. Brooks appears overwhelmed and confused, and in a voiceover, describes wanting to rob the supermarket and return to prison. The sequence ends with his suicide. The camera then pans out to show him hanging from a beam in his bedroom, then fades to Andy and Ellis, two convict friends standing in the prison yard. The voiceover is revealed as the words of Brook’s suicide note. Andy finishes the letter aloud, and Ellis responds solemnly: “he should have died in here.”

This famous scene makes visible the destructive impact of prisonization - yet is ultimately much too fatalistic. The former prisoners I lived alongside at the halfway house were not defeated or resigned. To the contrary, they were as a group full of optimism, survivors well versed at innovating to make use of what is available and near at hand, no matter the circumstances. The prison hangover was one of many problems they struggled to overcome.

Consider again the vignette in the opening: Ty Kelley actively attempted to breakdown lingering feelings of enclosure by sleeping outside his bedroom. Walking the neighborhood was another way he worked to expand the range of space in which he felt comfortable. It was rare to see him at the halfway house after 7.30am, and he typically remained outside until the compulsory house dinner each weeknight evening. For Ty, walking the neighbourhood was a way to get more relaxed in the radical openness of life outside prison: “I’m used to my radius being - this whole street would be how big the prison would be.” He said. “So just picture, you’ve got all that extra radius. That’s a lot of radius. That’s all I’m adjusting to now, I’m adjusting to life now. So that’s why I be out and about.”  

When participants described lingering prison habits in interviews - eating standing up, for example, or showering in sandals - they typically looked back on the past to name idiosyncrasies that stand out because in hindsight they seem strange. These habits were often described in the past tense (ie. “I used to…”) and presented as signs of a tumultuous period following release. For just as people learn and adapt to their confinement – and are prisonized in the process - they continue to learn and adapt on the outside. At the halfway house, I watched people arrive from prison visibly overwhelmed but quickly grow more comfortable as time passed. 

The many hurdles people face leaving prison are confronted as part of sudden, anxiety-inducing shifts in social location. In the period after release, getting used to the basic routines of interaction in new environments can be a major obstacle. Former prisoners do not respond to these problems passively, but continue to learn and modify their practice as they navigate the demands of the world outside. In the midst of a stream of challenges posed by rocky reentry transitions – finding a place to live, getting a job, rebuilding family relationships - they are asked to fundamentally re-evaluate their embodiment and way of being in the world.

This post is based on the article Free but Still Walking the Yard: Prisonization and the Problems of Reentry, which can be read here: 

logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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