Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars

Kaya Naomi Williams

Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars. Carolyn Sufrin, Oakland: University of California Press, 2017, 326 pp.

Carolyn Sufrin’s Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars begins with “Evelyn,” the pseudonymous woman whose experiences with prenatal healthcare in San Francisco’s municipal jail anchor the ethnography and lend it life. “Everyone says I got arrested,” Evelyn says, “but I got rescued.” The question of how being forcibly taken from her free life, shackled, and held captive could feel to Evelyn like rescue haunts the pages that follow and shapes the analytical frame. In a certain sense, the answer to the question is well known. Sufrin acknowledges but does not focus on decades of black criminalization and dispossession in San Francisco, and the erosion of access to housing, education, health care, and more—the story of all American cities. Jailcare treats these conditions as context but focuses attention on the everyday intersubjective experiences of giving and receiving care in the punitive space of the jail.

The book is based on 10 months of ethnographic research in the women’s pods of San Francisco County Jail as well as on the author’s more than six years of experience working as a doctor in the jail’s Ob/Gyn clinic. Jailcare argues that the local jail has come to operate as America’s “new safety net,” and that despite this troubling reality, “there can be tender, affective dimensions to care, and that these dimensions arise from the very forms of violence that characterize incarceration” (p. 24). The book is richly ethnographic and powerfully unsettling, and the material is a must-read for anyone seeking to better understand the many perils and paradoxes of the local jail.

Jail is not prison, and Sufrin’s ethnography suggests that it is jail, not prison, to which we must attend if we are to understand the forces driving mass incarceration. Unlike prisons, jails are intended primarily to hold people awaiting trial. The majority of people incarcerated in local jails are incarcerated not as punishment for a crime but as a technique of population management—what John Irwin, in his 1985 ethnography of San Francisco County Jail, described as “managing rabble.” More than 30 years later, Irwin’s The Jail remains one of the only scholarly works to focus on this peculiar and powerful institution. Sufrin’s Jailcare is a welcome addition to a troublingly small body of scholarship on the subject.

Jailcare helps center discussion of jail more firmly in the realm of public health, attributing the jail’s emergence as the new safety net in part to the 1976 Supreme Court Case Estelle v Gamble, which established that serious medical neglect in jails and prisons violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The women whose lives inform Jailcare experience arrest and incarceration as regular rhythms in their lives. They are released from disciplinary institutions to uncaring streets where poverty, gender, mental illness, and addiction leave them vulnerable to various forms of predatory violence, and where they rarely have access to medical care, in part because hospitals are highly policed. To go to the hospital often means risking re-arrest. When re-arrest inevitably comes, many of Sufrin’s interlocutors voice gratitude for the relative security of jail, evoking what Sufrin terms jailcare: “a kind of care born of ambiguity—that is, the recognition that jail can in some ways be more nurturing and healthy than life on the streets” (p. 144).

If this claim troubles the reader, it is meant to. Here Sufrin joins a growing conversation in and beyond anthropology about the possibilities for care in contexts of domination. The pages of Jailcare are filled with moments of tenderness: pregnant women given extra ice, hot water for ramen, or an extra meal tray “for the baby”; deputies and nursing staff listening sympathetically as women mourn children lost to miscarriage or state custody. These moments sit alongside less tender moments of care: a woman left bleeding on a plastic chair for hours, not knowing if a medical transport was on the way; deputies preventing a volunteer from coming to the aid of a woman having a seizure. Moments of mirth are preceded by the cautious question: “Can we laugh?” Sufrin employs these ethnographic scenes to argue that care in the jail is complex and that it arises from everyday ethical negotiations “between punitive discipline and compassionate caregiving” (p. 84).

The characterization of care as necessarily compassionate, however, is at grammatical odds with the definition of care the book uses. Sufrin takes her definition of care from Lisa Stevenson, who writes of care as “the way someone comes to matter, and the corresponding ethics of attending to the one who matters” (2014, 3). Stevenson shows how, particularly within ongoing contexts of enslavement and colonialism, a person can come to matter in ways that are deeply violent and violating —and that the corresponding ethics of attention are often highly contested. Jailcare, however, poses violence and care as grammatically opposed, leaving the reader with the impression that healthcare provided in the jail is a sort of “contingent good” (p. 34): an ambiguous moment of care amid violence, rather than a deeply violent social form.

This inattention to the workings of violence within practices of care is just one aspect of an overall grammatical structure in the book that carefully avoids engaging racialized violence. Much like the violence of the jail, race in the text appears as the taken-for-granted and relatively static context shaping the conditions of the ethnographic scene. The blackness of almost all of the women in the jail and the author’s own whiteness are described as factual and inescapable, while the deputies and nursing staff are described as diverse but not engaged further. The language used in the analysis is laced with racially violent grammars. The author acknowledges that jail and prison are distinct, for example, yet speaks of women returning to jail as “recidivism.” This term connotes a relapse into criminal activity but return to jail would be more accurately described as “re-arrest.” Sufrin uses terms such as “inmate” and “correctional institution” liberally, despite acknowledging the deep histories of dehumanization these terms contain. Her linguistic choices are framed in terms of least-cumbersome terminology and grammatical ease, which is an unsatisfactory justification given the harm such language does to her interlocutors. Dehumanizing language is everywhere in jails, but such language would be better treated as ethnographic data, not employed uncritically in the analysis.

If Jailcare’s greatest weakness is its uncritical approach to its own racialized grammars, its greatest strength is the richness of the ethnographic record. Sufrin quotes nurses, deputies, clinic doctors, and patients generously and at length, and the chorus of voices offer insights into the violence of jailcare that exceed the analytical frame. One can begin to see in the stories of deputies “Allston” and “Sinclair,” for example, the ways in which someone comes to matter differently to a deputy who grew up in the same community than to a nurse who did not. And though the book’s opening words are certainly provocative, I was left wondering what would change if the ethnography was anchored not by Evelyn’s line about rescue but by something Kima says much later in the book: “I’m going to have a baby and they’re not going to take it. I will end up having a baby that they can’t take.”

 

References Cited

Irwin, J. 1985. The Jail. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stevenson, L. 2014. Life beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley:  University of California Press.

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