Negotiating Quotidian Violence and Uncertain Futures
Narratives from Black and Latina Girls
Juvenile incarceration reveals a logic of gendered antiblackness; it is a product and precursor of social dynamics of cumulative and transgenerational exclusion. While chapter 2 showed the impact of such dynamics on Black and Latino boys—and the ways in which their performance of racialized gender reveals embattled, related, yet differentiated relationships to the social world—this chapter focuses on the gendered and racialized experiences of Black and Latina girls. Specifically, it analyzes the young women’s representations of their own experiences as indications of divergent and shared fates as they occur in social geographies (including state institutions) of hypersurveillance and dispossession. In a landscape characterized by social death—ubiquitous violence, imposed dishonor, and genealogical and social isolation—how do young women make sense of their condition? How do they explain their incarceration, what do they make of the institution of confinement, and what do they expect when thrown back in the “free”? Furthermore, what are the points of experiential contrast and contact between Black and Latina young women? When and if there is oblique identification between them, what are the terms, what is the process, and what are the meanings of such forms of (re)cognition? I ask again the question i raised about Black and Latino young men: Is the asymptote analogy useful when reflecting on these forms of oblique identification between Black and Latina young women? It is also important to keep in mind that young women’s quotidian of incarceration in Austin is, until proven otherwise, indicative of structuring antiblackness and its corresponding social dynamics. Structural and dynamic aspects of antiblackness far exceed the time and place of the Austin juvenile prison. Indeed, they will serve as points of reference with relation to which, in Part II, related events will be investigated in Brazil.
I come from the ghetto. I come
From how do I put it . . .
Money. I was
Never a child. I was
Never dumb. I was
Always in trouble,
I stayed in school:
Education is important.
I come from LBJ.
Making the wrong decision:
Mama on the run,
Daddy in jail.
I had no choice.
Gone for 6 months to a
Place that I hate
So I stole just to
Be happy &
Keep lil’ bro home safe.
But if I could do it again
I would change nothing at all,
b/c through my downfalls
I overcome it all
It’s messed up I know,
But if I keep my head and
Just stay strong,
Independent and strong.
Ima always take care of mine
Despite hard times.
“Despite Hard Times” points to a young Black woman’s experience of a transgenerational cycle of dispossession. Written during our 2009 workshop in an all-girls detention unit, the poem locates the ghetto as the point of origin and the stage on which her life unfolds. An acute awareness of surrounding challenges, and a confidence in her own resilience, organizes her narrative.
There emerges in DF’s words a complicated relationship with, on the one hand, the official tropes of redemption, and on the other, the critical identification of social death, which together configure the juvenile prison as an embattled zone. A belief in education seems in line with the ways the detention facility provided venues through which young women kept up with their studies and pursued specialized activities such as sewing, drawing, and painting. Rehabilitation, as voiced by staff, was closely connected to educating oneself—to finishing school and pursuing gainful employment and even college. The Save Our Youth workshop, furthermore, incited reading, writing, and public speaking, which we presented as a tool of literacy, critique, and professional development. DF accepted educational activities as a means of personal redemption and assimilation back into the free.
Yet DF’s refusal to repent for stealing to provide for herself (make her “happy”) and her younger brother suggests a set of convictions that clash with the very objectives of the carceral institution where she was detained. DF rooted her decision to practice illegal activities in a pragmatic assessment of her surroundings and needs. Even though she was aware of how her actions posed a moral dilemma, she not only justified her decisions by emphasizing the desired ends, but also reinforced that, if presented with the same circumstances, she would not hesitate to follow the same course of action. Her calculation was rooted in a careful assessment of her condition, involved an evaluation of her options and possible outcomes, and was therefore rational. Without her parents—her father incarcerated and her mother missing, presumably trying to avoid being incarcerated, too—there was no one else on whom to rely; there were no available material and social resources. Immersed in a pragmatic dilemma of survival that extended beyond her own generation—that in fact left her isolated, without support from her elders—DF and her younger brother’s needs were pressing, and constituted the justification for her decision. Means did not matter as much as the urgent ends.
DF’s account of her decision to steal is common to the Black and Latin@ incarcerated youths, male and female. WR, a Latino young man, for example, wrote in a similar vein:
I’m trying to get out
And do good by going to school.
Leaning science, math, and stuff like that.
But I don’t think it’s gonna help me fast.
I like breaking into people’s houses and cars.
But at the same time I wanna stop.
Yet there are social conditions that young Black women like DF encounter that are specific to their gender and race. DF experienced the ghetto as a predatory social wasteland, one where, together with material deprivation and social isolation, physical and sexual abuse was common. Networks of support were either absent or not effective in providing a modicum of emotional and physical well-being, let alone deterring violence. Unlike what transpired in most of the Latin@ youths’ accounts, DF’s testimony shows she could not rely on family members for any kind of assistance. Quite the contrary: even as a child, she saw herself as the sole and therefore necessary provider, the one who had to manufacture support and sustenance by any means necessary. This struggle for basic survival clashed with normative moral standards and, more directly, with the state and its institutions of repression. The ghetto was defined by and thus revealed the ubiquitous presence of the criminal justice system. Not only were her parents caught by (or running away from) agents of the state, but DF had been incarcerated in a juvenile facility prior to her confinement in 2009. And even though Latin@ young people also mentioned family members, lovers, and friends incarcerated or on the run, there was, in young Latin@s’ accounts, an enduring reference to family and kin networks as reliable sources of material and affective support. The social spaces Latin@ kids referenced were indeed predatory, but they were also geographies of reassuring social relationships. As VV, and young Latina woman, wrote:
I come from the South of Austin, Texas
Living on South First Street,
Having family that cares for me.
Having struggles in my life.
Having the light turned off
From time to time.
. . .
People that don’t care about me.
Sometimes I’ve let people
Take that power.
But now I realize
I have the power in my hands
And I want to get my education.
. . .
Having my nephew in my life
Having my Mom, Dad, and brother
Always there for me . . .
Compared to incarcerated young Latinas, Black young women experienced a more pronounced sense of social disintegration. Among the more than fifty Black girls we interacted with over the years of the writing sessions, all of them had, at best, one parent that was present in their lives—usually their mother. And even then, the relationship with their mothers was fraught, uncertain, and often interrupted by institutionalization. Díaz-Cotto documents similar patterns among incarcerated adult Chicanas in California. Yet, in the juvenile prison in Austin, Black young women reported tensions between them and their families that seemed particularly fraught, that seemed to involve a greater sense of social anomie, and that seemed to grapple with the state’s ominous presence as an incontrovertible fact:
Never liked your boyfriend.
But you did,
So I was there.
Supported you through everything
Even if it wasn’t fair.
I even kept the lights on,
Illegal and all.
I kept you food on the table
Even if it’s my downfall
Your kids are my kids:
That’s what I was taught.
Even though it f***’d up my head,
I still won’t say you’re my downfall.
I love my mommy forever
I’ma always be there
Even with gray hair &
DF is the young woman who expressed her pragmatic decision to engage in illegal activity to sustain herself and her brother. In the verses above, a love letter to her mother, DF shows her frustration with her mother’s romantic choices, but reinforces her determination to stand by her mother no matter what happens. DF is perfectly willing to do what is necessary to provide electricity, food, and child care for her and her mother, even it if means that she will end up punished and arrested—“even if it’s my downfall.”
Committed to maintaining the affective bond with her mother, DF was nevertheless aware of troubling aspects of their connection. As she mentioned her mother’s partner, and expressed her dislike of him, DF suggested that her mother’s intimate relationships were often marked by abuse. As with most of the young women in the facility, DF was a witness and a victim of physical and sexual abuse.
On sexual abuse, DJ, a young Black woman originally from the Northeast, wrote the following:
. . .
Running the streets is all I knew.
Lights were cut off
When my Mama couldn’t afford the money.
I started to run the streets even harder than before.
I started to sell my body at 15
And I knew I wanted more.
Hustling with my brother
Was my way of getting money
I’ve seen my sister molested when I was five,
What to do
So I just let it slide by . . .
I used drugs to take away the pain.
I thought I was going insane.
I am a strong Black woman
With a whole lot of struggle . . .
The streets appear in young Black women’s writings as places of relative autonomy (socializing and work, including sex work), some joy, and many dangers (including abuse by men, some women, and the police). In the young women’s written meditations, the streets’ appeal is proportional to how intensely they experience their vulnerability. The greater their economic and social needs, the greater the demand to hustle, to extract from the streets a means of survival. In DJ’s account, the streets were the spaces where, via sex work, she attempted to make a living in an environment where other options of economic sustenance seemed dim or absent. The streets were spaces of necessary improvisation where, with her brother, she tries to conjure up the next move, the source of temporary material relief.
DJ’s description of her sister’s sexual molestation is an example of a widespread process. Like DJ, most Latina young women imprisoned had been the object of and/or witness to sexual abuse, often by men. Here again, the pattern was similar to that described by analyses of Latina incarceration in other parts of the United States. LF, a young Latina, fifteen years old, wrote:
I come from the south of Mexico
I grew up with both parents.
I have wasted half my life
Running in the streets
and snorting cocaine.
I’ve gone in
I’ve been in abusive relationships
from time to time.
One of the few White young women detained in the juvenile prison had been raped by a close relative, and found in writing a way of expressing her rage. The Black and Latina young women in the group empathized. Some of them attentively listened to the young White woman’s anguish, and admired her determination to reveal it all to the judge; sometimes, they made playful comments about the way the young White woman talked and performed her poems. In their playfulness, the Black and Latina young women tried to bring the young White woman into the fold while they asserted the young White woman’s unique, unknown, strange even, social origins. But there remained a palpable difficulty in the communication between the young White woman and her incarceration peers—a difficulty similar to what existed between Latinas and Blacks. It was as if her pain was recognizable yet somehow different, part of a world far away from ghettos and barrios, a world that young Blacks and Latinas could imagine, but of which they had no experience and therefore no way of grasping. The Blacks’ and Latinas’ facial expressions of utter surprise when their first heard the young White woman talk about her rape revealed this social distance. Initially, the young White woman attempted to appear open to the other young women in the unit: she engaged with their writings, made suggestions for revisions, and respectfully quoted some of her colleagues’ phrases in her own poetry. Yet the distance between the young White woman and her colleagues remained, a distance that even the common experience of rape by a family member, and of gendered violence more generally, was not able to bridge. As one of the young Black women said, “I didn’t know white folks went through this, too.”
• • •
The young women’s experiences of rape and abuse echo national trends in violence against women. According to the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, seven hundred thousand U.S. women are sexually assaulted every year, “the highest rate of sexual assault of any industrialized nation in the world.” Although widespread as an aspect of gendered violence against women, sexual assault is nevertheless racialized in specific ways. Incidence of rape against Black women is higher than for any other racial group. Beth Richie explains these disparities by noting social norms that consistently, and paradigmatically, degrade Black women. In a process that reflects shared assumptions about cisheteronormativity, race, Black women, and especially (but not exclusively) those immersed in vulnerable economic and social environments such as the ones experienced by the incarcerated girls, are preferential objects of aggression. Because Black women are the less valued members of a social structure that is fundamentally antiblack and cisheteropatriarchal, aggression against them carries a lesser penalty—evidence that the social price of inflicting injury is proportional to the distance the aggrieved body is from being Black, female, and queer. As zones of dispossession and social disintegration, Black ghettos such as the ones from which the young women at the juvenile facility are removed, intensify social practices of degradation. “According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics,” notes Richie, “Black women have a greater chance of being physically assaulted in their lifetime by people in their neighborhood who are not their intimate partners.”
The young White woman’s experience of rape, while an aggression common to women in general, is thus not as demographically frequent or as intense as patterns of rape that Latinas, and even more extremely, the Black young women experience as a social group: “Not only is the incidence of rape higher, but a review of the qualitative research on Black women’s experiences of rape suggests Black women are assaulted in more brutal and degrading ways than other women.” Converging with our discussion of the world’s structure of positionalities in the Introduction, the young Black women’s surprise at the young White woman’s ordeal can be read as a demographically and symbolically accurate recognition of the higher value White bodies attain in the lifeworld, a recognition that renders nonblack, and especially White, female suffering incongruous, unexpected, scandalous. The young Black women’s impressions were rooted in their own experiences of systematic brutality, which in turn suggest a structure of positionality whose logic is gendered antiblackness.
Gendered and racialized dynamics of violence and sexual abuse are correlated to and indeed intensified by incarceration. Especially for women who come from predominantly impoverished and working-class backgrounds, patriarchal violence, mediated and defined by an antiblack logic, is a significant nexus between the “free” and the “inside.” As we will see below, it is well-known that incarcerated women report much higher rates of violence and abuse against them prior to being incarcerated than the rates of violence and abuse recorded for the overall population. Women who end up incarcerated are already part of the social group most brutalized. The same is true for use of illegal drugs. Disproportionate use of illegal drugs and experience of violence, then, are strongly correlated to women’s incarceration. Both of these conditions emerge quite compellingly in the young women’s poetry. Unable to access or wary of formal mechanisms of grievance redressal, women who are already vulnerable to physical and sexual violence—which includes violence perpetrated by same-sex partners—and are the primary object of controlling images, often find themselves criminalized for the ways they react against their own victimization. Rather than understood as victims of violence by their surrounding communities, agents of the state, and indeed the broader public, Black women, and to a lesser degree, disadvantaged Latina women, are often considered lawbreakers in need of restraint and control. From a hegemonic, gendered antiblack perspective, their presence in spaces of confinement confirms this perverse logic of criminalization.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on three nationally representative sample surveys conducted with prisoners between 1995 and 1997, when prisoners were interviewed in hour-long sessions, reveal patterns of gendered abuse prior to imprisonment. While 57.2 percent of imprisoned females reported experiencing some form of abuse prior to admission to state prisons, 39 percent of females in state prisons reported sexual abuse prior to incarceration, and 46.5 percent reported physical abuse before their imprisonment. For males, these numbers stood at 16.1, 5.8, and 13.4, respectively. Among inmates in state prisons, one in twenty men and one in four women reported sexual abuse before turning the age of eighteen.
Although these data are not broken down by race, racial dimensions of abuse emerge when we reflect on the report’s findings and link them to our previous discussions on the gendered aspects of antiblack violence: “Prisoners reported higher levels of abuse if they grew up in foster care rather than with parents, if their parents were heavy users of alcohol or drugs, or if a family member had been in jail or prison.” As we saw in chapter 2, the foster care system disproportionately removes Black children from their homes and guardians; Black juveniles and adults are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated; and even though Blacks do not use alcohol or drugs in greater proportion than any other racial group, the effects of drugs and alcohol on Black people are intensified because, as seen previously, already placed in spaces of social vulnerability and state hypersurveillance, Blacks have less access to health care, and are treated in measurably discriminatory and criminalizing ways by medical and law enforcement workers. Preferential targets of violence and sexual abuse, Black young and adult women are thus positioned in interlocking systems of social debasement that constantly replay scripts of gendered antiblack institutional and everyday forms of abjection.
Patterns of gendered violence prior to incarceration are constitutive of the transgenerational cycle of dispossession and hypersurveillance defining the experiences of those residing in Black and Brown impoverished areas. It is unsurprising that violence and sexual violence are widespread in institutions of confinement, either as threats or actual occurrences. What is perhaps not as graspable is how such violence is indeed a continuum, a ubiquitous presence that links seemingly disparate coordinates of space and time. A logic of extraction and return animates this continuum: bodies are constantly extracted from and eventually returned to the ever-deteriorating ghettos and barrios—gentrification of course being part of the process by which Black and Brown zones are further challenged and redrawn. Punishment and welfare institutions, such as child protection bureaucracies, pull bodies from homes, streets, and schools; those same institutions eventually eject the bodies back into Black and Brown geographies. The process continues when the same bodies, and/or their daughters and sons, now perhaps trapped in the most exploitative and vulnerable labor settings of the formal and informal economies, are reabsorbed in jails and prisons, which will then throw them back into the “free” with added social stigma.
Given the many ways in which the cycle sustains itself—that is, given the many social deficits that characterize ghettos and barrios and their mechanisms of support—it is thus unremarkable that recidivism rates are consistently high for Black and, to a lesser but significant degree, Latin@ juveniles and adults. Specifically for Black women and girls, as Richie suggests, their involvement in crime is often a response to and/or a consequence of gender entrapment—a set of social conditions in which women are abused, degraded, and incarcerated. In Richie’s study, “gender entrapment described the most extreme negative consequences when gender inequality, economic marginalization, violence against women, biased criminal practices, and racism intersect. The African American battered women whose lives served as the empirical basis for the development of this theoretical model represent not only the loss of comfort, productive potential, and opportunity for self-determination, but indeed the loss of life that result from the combination of gender violence, social inequality, and crime.” Gender entrapment is not restricted to a discrete time frame in which individuals are abused and find themselves committing crimes and therefore incarcerated. Rather, gender entrapment is an uninterrupted process, manifested across generations. Part of a distended time frame, gender entrapment can be grasped in the girls’ account of their relatives and lovers’ incarceration, and in the fact that often the young women in the juvenile facility had kids of their own or were pregnant. Gender entrapment refers paradigmatically to Black women’s experiences; in related but not identical patterns, it is common to incarcerated Latinas’ trajectories. As it continuously affects multiple generations and geographies of vulnerability, gender entrapment reveals its dimensions in time and space.
• • •
Alongside physical and sexual violence, the experiences of pregnancy and motherhood in confinement crossed racial lines. LH, a Latina young woman, in a poem addressed to her child’s father, expressed the following:
. . .
Let me tell you
The past is the past:
And we have a NEW BEGINNING
Now I’m looking forward
Feeling my baby kick.
My heart skips a beat.
My baby boy makes me think
Time’s almost here.
Getting ready for a new beginning!
Is like a Butterfly
Can’t wait to see you
Open your eyes
Will be the day.
LH was trying to be optimistic about the new phase in her life. She was looking forward to her boy’s birth and to reconnecting with the baby’s father. LH was confident about parenting, and frequently mentioned the support her parents and extended family were going to provide. Because LH had helped raise her parents’ younger children, and remembered fondly the assistance she and her parents received from her grandmothers and other family members—almost always women—she expected a similar mobilization from her closest relatives once her child was born.
Yet for other young women pregnant or with a child (including perhaps LH), the experience of incarceration added a few layers of personal uncertainty and institutional requirements. Some of the women were trained in mothering skills while attending our writing sessions. On one of those occasions, CK, a young Black woman, carried a life-size newborn doll as part of her parenting training. She had a child whose guardianship she hoped to regain once released. The reconnection, however, hinged on a series of evaluations done at the prison, including her successful completion of a parenting training program. CK had to follow instruction on how to hold the baby, feed it, help it burp, change its diapers, place it in the stroller, and put it to sleep, among other tasks. One particular day, she was holding the doll while paying close attention to the workshop discussion. The staff in charge, a middle-aged White woman who tried to show support and was at times even affectionate with the girls, sat close to CK. At one point CK dropped the doll. Rather than show disappointment or anger, the staff seemed amused and said, “This is why we’re having you do this.” Under her breath, CK replied, “It’s just a stupid doll,” which the staff chose to ignore.
The scene was bizarre on several counts. The doll was pink, contrasting with CK’s brown complexion. CK seemed trapped between taking her assignment seriously and not being too self-conscious about it, which of course made her even more awkward. She made it a point to show the staff in charge that she was following protocol when gently rocking the “baby,” putting it on her lap and turning it on its belly so that it could burp, and when gently putting it back in the stroller. The other girls’ indifference rendered the scene all the more curious. The girls’ unconcern suggested they had become accustomed to these training rituals of motherhood in captivity—as indeed they seemed to have somehow tuned out much of the prison’s everyday routines. Just as it had become conditioned practice to put one’s hands behind the back and form a diamond shape when walking around the detention facility, it had become mundane to witness girls under different types of distress, training, and supervision. Some girls were treated for acute depression and withdrawal; others were treated for overtly aggressive behavior; others were trained to take care of babies. Yet most disturbing in the motherhood training was how an important life phase—one that is at the very heart of sociability and cultural performance and transmission—had been assimilated into and obviously shaped by the institution of containment. Pregnancy and child care were as much a part of the routine experience in confinement as was keeping up with school curriculum.
Of course, the most disturbing part of human reproduction in captivity is not its novelty, but its contemporary reach, and the implications of that reach, particularly as it can take away the young women’s agency and render obsolete local forms of social knowledge related to pregnancy and child nurturing. As pregnancy, child birth, and child care become normalized in confinement, so does the expectation that one’s life trajectory—and that of future generations—will be also coded, directed, and restricted by such institutions of control. By normalization i mean both the apparent routinization of the heteronormative life cycle as it intersects with captivity, and the institutionalized understandings and practices that become associated with human reproduction. Like CK, many other young women will be trained in child rearing according to the institution’s understanding; like LH, young women will experience pregnancy in institutionalized confinement; and like CK’s son, future generation of young people connected to geographies of dispossession will grow up with an intimate knowledge of and immersion in the rituals and expectations of imprisonment—for this new generation, as it is already the case for the young people in confinement, carceral protocols will play increasing roles in their socialization. In contrast to LH’s relative optimism, however, CK’s more apparent nihilism hinted at a process of social disintegration that made evident not only her quickly collapsing networks of support, but just as suggestive of the carceral logic’s reach, the ubiquity of institutionalized protocols over birth control, pregnancy, and early socialization. It should be noted that while such protocols reveal a structuring antiblack logic, they are also unmistakably patriarchal and cisheteronormative. No young men were trained in or received instructions about birth control, sexual health, and child care (much less any queer person). While we may be tempted to approximate these carceral processes to forms of neoliberal governmentality and its corresponding biopolitics, the fact that they happen as a manifestation of social death perhaps also qualify them as indices of necropolitics.
JV, a young Black woman and mother of a son, in her writing hinted at how one’s networks of socialization intersected with the networks of confinement. It bears reminding ourselves that she wrote about her incarcerated brother while she was also incarcerated. Her narrative, therefore, illustrated both the synchronic and the diachronic reach of incarceration. The synchronic reach of incarceration implicated people of the same generation—in this case, JV’s brother, family members, friends, and acquaintances of the same age cohort. The diachronic reach implicated people of successive generations—older people and, like JV’s son, younger people:
. . .
It’s a struggle
Seeing my Big Brotha
In the pen
For committing a lot of sin.
He told me in his cage
Of going crazy.
He told me he ain’t going to be in population
For a long time
And f*** the nation
While he’s sinking.
One may argue that, rather than imposing unreasonable standards and questionably interfering with autonomy in reproduction, the facility’s training actually provided useful skills, without which many young mothers would be unable to take care of their children. The same could be said about medical care, psychological treatment, and educational programs, which would be unavailable for the kids were it not for the juvenile prison’s services and resources. For example, it is well-known that, for many impoverished Black and Latin@ people struggling with drug dependency, one’s imprisonment represents the only possibility for consistent treatment. Such was the case of a person with whom we occasionally collaborated, a young lesbian Latina, impoverished and struggling with drug and alcohol dependence. She had intentionally pursued imprisonment as a strategy to address her health challenges (and gain refuge from people who abused her). And in CK’s case, perhaps some of the techniques she learned in the facility were in fact useful to her and her child.
The problem with the increasing role that carceral institutions play in the lives of the Black and Brown is simple: it happens in times of accumulative dispossession and social disintegration, much of it intensified by precisely such institutions of confinement. It is only when social networks crumble, unemployment is pervasive, homelessness looms, and health care and other social services are unavailable that institutions of punishment become viable alternatives for shelter, food, instruction, and heath care. Such a dystopian scenario, well exemplified in the youth detention facility, is the social terrain on which CK, her child, and indeed CK and her child’s entire generations find themselves.
Unremitting yet cyclical, these experiences of incarceration extrapolate discrete units of time, space, and social distance: they constitute persistent, intergenerational, and far-reaching events. To grasp the expanded time horizon that incarceration depends on and further dilates, consider that, within a given family, the experience of being behind bars is common to individuals belonging to one’s own generation as well as other generations. With a mixture of pride and sorrow, young people mentioned that they had friends, lovers, brothers, sisters, and cousins who were incarcerated. They also spoke of incarcerated parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents.
It is not just time that is distended through the carceral logic. Such logic also extends its reach over racialized spaces—geographic spaces (ghettos and barrios) as well as symbolic and imaginative spaces (as the presence of confinement in the mural illustrates). As the antiblack time–space expansive carceral logic intensifies its control over Black and nonblack bodies, it operates a corresponding dispossession of time and space on those on whom it encroaches. Although not exclusive to the confined youth—those out in the “free,” as we have seen, are also dispossessed of their autonomy in spaces of habitation, leisure, and education—dispossession among the confined is nevertheless intensified. The confined youth, as with any prisoner, will say she has no control over her time, that being in the prison, despite its rehabilitation orientation, is a waste of time, that her time does not belong to her, that she’s just doing time.
Without irony the staff often told the young people that, while locked up, they had time to think about their lives, time to gain new skills, time to plan for when they were released, time to dream. Staff frequently uttered the words “education,” “transformation,” and “hope” by way of encouragement. Some of the youth tried to embrace these suggestions and make the most out of what were presented as unique opportunities: so-called life-management skills (including mothering) as well as school curriculum content. The opportunity to look forward to something, anything, was often eagerly embraced, at least temporarily. Able to glimpse an attractive, yet-to-be realized time, the youth willing to go along with the detention facility’s rehabilitative project thus gained time, their own productive time. As dividends paid to their conformity, the kids manufactured for themselves a sense of unbounded futurity, if only during the few moments the facility’s good intentions and its promises of accomplishment seemed credible.
Still, the youths sensed the contradictions of a bureaucracy that on the one hand imprisoned them, and on the other offered what seemed like limitless possibilities. Added to the loneliness and isolation felt in the prison, young men and women often expressed, through writing, the institutional ambiguities as well as their own internal conflicts. Indeed, the institutional ambiguities were often experienced as internal conflicts.
For example, DJ captured in writing moments of frustration as well as the uncertainties the youths experienced in the facility:
. . .
It’s kind of weird: I’m afraid to go to bed.
I’m tired of being tired, I’m fed up
And I wish it was over ’cause
I’m tired of going through what
I’m going through
I’m supposed to do. People are here
To help me, not hurt me,
So I’m tired and confused.
I’m sick of being
This person that is trapped inside
That I don’t know how to get out.
“Being trapped inside” suggests an internal conflict arising from competing orientations. On the one hand, DJ accepted that the staff members at the facility were there to help her. On the other hand, however, she detected a contradiction between her refusal to repent for her illegal actions and the emphasis on lawfulness and respectability permeating the prison. The “person trapped inside” may be the respectable and lawful person she and the staff want her to be; or she may be the pragmatic, loyal hustler who will do anything necessary to provide for her immediate family. Either way, she was not able to perform the person that remained repressed, and this made her tired and confused. DJ’s despair emerged as she was in possession of neither her body nor her mind, neither her time nor her space; she wavered between the models of behavior that, in her assessment, and of course in the institution’s orientations, competed against each other.
All the youth’s activities—exercising, studying, eating, sleeping—were controlled for them, in spite of them. The undertakings were carefully matched to specific times and spaces within the facility. Timetables, timesheets, activity graphs pasted on large boards, diaries, flyers, and other reminders of structured activities were ubiquitous in every unit. Time dispossession—doing time, paying back in time—was compounded by the lack of control over the immediate spatial surroundings. One had to be in very specific places at very specific times: classes, meals, exercise, medication, visits, and showers were all meticulously charted; one was not free to come and go. (The frequent disputes between the young people and staff over bathroom visits were the rare arena of negotiation, one in which the youths often pushed staff members to their limit, and for that, as we saw in the previous chapter, were often severely reprimanded.) Time and space dispossession, then, compounded and complemented each other, and formed the basis of the imprisonment experience.
When focusing more closely on this peculiar time and space dispossession, we are able to grasp a dystopia—one in which, rather than movement, autonomy, and becoming, as the prison staff emphasized, the youths were forced into a cycle of almost unavoidable, permanent, life-negating state of confinement. In vital moments of reflection, what became evident to the youths were not only the ever-controlling narratives and protocols of their confinement, but also their hardly unavoidable future confinement. Young men and women went back and forth between affirming that they didn’t want to ever return to the juvenile prison and recognizing the high likelihood of a repeated incarceration. They described their lives in the “free” as intimately connected to the “inside”: lives where the respectable and unlawful did not neatly separate, where the desire to do good by the rules did not match practical imperatives of enjoyment and very basic, material necessities. It was not accidental that many of the young women mentioned how they had to hustle and steal to simply pay the electricity bills: the social world into which they were due to go back was the same that had compelled them to imprisonment in the first place. Indeed, many of the young women recognized that their current incarceration produced added stigma, and would probably make their experience in the “free,” such as resuming school and looking for employment, even harder to negotiate.
An irony did not escape the youths’ attention: in such a state of dispossession, they were reduced to bearers of time, the currency with which they had to pay their social and juridical debt, and the currency with which they paid for transgressions while locked up. Time, whose management was taken away from the young men and women as they were forced to abdicate control of their body movement in the closely monitored space, was the substance of which they found themselves having an abundance. The surplus was disturbing. For young people, the prospect of spending months, maybe even a few years, in confinement was daunting: this time represented a considerable fraction of their life as young adults, just when they were coming into age and experiencing relative degrees of autonomy. It was a disturbing, anxiety-producing abundance of time: it meant that, following a transgression, one could be forced to produce more time, give more time, and thus spend more time in confinement. Many of the young women were perfectly aware they were constantly at risk of being penalized with more time: “They get you for little stuff,” CP, a young Black woman remarked:
where you can’t wear your own clothes.
When you count through the doors,
you got to have your hands in diamond shape.
If you see things in my perspective
You’ll see it is a joke.
They get you for the little stuff
and they teach you thangs you already know . . .
Tiredness and confusion should therefore not be surprising—what should be the cause of scandal is that anyone, let alone children, be subjected to such anguished, repeated, everyday rituals. To be penalized with added incarceration time, rather than standing out as an exceptional event, was the norm. Kids in confinement were constantly being measured against strict forms of control, and many of them were found transgressing the rules. Each transgression increased their debt, translating into more time in confinement. Many of the children internalized the panoptical surveillance to which they were subjected, which added layers of preoccupation to their already embattled and anxious experience.
• • •
This cycle of time and space dispossession imposes a logic of social death on the youths. Following Orlando Patterson’s formulation, we could speak of the young incarcerated subjects as genealogical isolates insofar as their physical sequestration means a severance from social resources—networks of sociability, material support, affect, knowledge. Yet, the carceral apparatus does more than sever genealogies. It also reconfigures and scrambles these genealogies. It reaches forward in genealogical time (exemplified by the incarcerated young women and men who have or are about to have children) as much as it reaches back (illustrated by the older relatives and friends who were and are currently locked up). The past, present, and future become connected by dispossession, hypersurveillance, and confinement. Severed by incarceration, the genealogies are nevertheless forcefully sutured together as social and biological lines that converge on and irradiate from spaces of immobilization. The carceral machine thus creates genealogical Frankensteins, revealing in these connective powers the machine’s gendered antiblack mastery over space and time.
What makes the carceral machinery deceiving is that while it brings about and builds from the social and spiritual death of successive generations, it provides a sense of continuity across communities separated by time and space. By mentioning, being aware of, remembering, and communicating with relatives and friends behind bars, the youths bring these people, spiritually at least, closer to themselves. The carceral system that now mediates and indeed produces a sense of genealogical belonging is a vital part of logic that animates the circuit of dispossession that has so thoroughly uprooted the young people from their social geographies and divested them of the most basic control over time and space. And although the sense of transgenerational communion depends on and is therefore about social death—uprootedness, isolation, debasement, overwhelming violence, and added dishonor—it provides virtual comfort, melancholic as it may be. Being with the socially dead, while supposedly alive, is a source of reassurance; this morbid familiarity with the socially dead, and with spaces where social death is produced and enacted, captures well a central aspect of juvenile incarceration. Death is a central aspect, the basic experience, the ultimate goal, of the carceral scheme.
• • •
The writing sessions at the girls’ unit had been meaningful and troubling. There had been intense yet good-humored and productive conversations, and some of the girls had fully embraced the writing process. Yet there had been tension among the girls themselves and between the girls and the staff members. During the meeting on Saturday, February 25, 2012, for example, one of the most vocal young women, BL, was forced into solitary confinement. The incident started when the staff member who was overseeing our session asked BL to not stare at another young Black woman, to which BL responded that she was not. A quick argument ensued, at the end of which BL was ordered to go to the solitary cell. BL did not resist, yet she was visibly upset and hid her tears as she made her way out.
BL participated in the sessions consistently, even though at first she did not seem enthusiastic. Midway through the program, however, she had favorite bass lines that she asked me to play while she added beats with her hands and vocals. BL began composing verses meant to be read with musical accompaniment, and some of her colleagues quickly picked up on and emulated her stylistic innovations, especially how BL interspersed her words with percussive sounds she sang and produced with her cheeks, hands, arms, legs, and feet.
On Saturday, March 3, 2012, BL was reading a poem she had just written. Another young Black woman, emboldened by the discussions we recently had about non-Western art, flatly said that BL’s poem sounded “too European.” BL, who was one of the most charismatic and imposing presences in the unit, became visibly irritated, got up, and went to her room. I was surprised the staff member in charge let her go. Maybe because BL had recently been in solitary and was still visibly shaken, the staff member in charge—a White woman in her early thirties, someone i hadn’t noticed before—chose not to intervene. BL said she was going to get her things and take a shower. The staff member said, “Okay, but do this quickly.” It was a strange scene. BL, not the staff member, seemed in charge. The staff member appeared hesitant, perhaps even scared, yet, as her rigid body language indicated, determined to show the kids she was the authority.
Meanwhile, BB was becoming increasingly agitated. She was openly bisexual, quick-witted, and one of the few young Black women who wore her hair a short natural. Like BL, BB had a child, a boy, about whom she spoke often. She consistently participated in the writing sessions. She radiated an energy quite different from most kids. Up to that day, she had conveyed a sense of maturity and optimism: she encouraged the girls who seemed sad or depressed; she spoke openly about relationships and love affairs, queer and straight; and she shared with anyone who wanted to hear that she couldn’t wait to get back to her baby and to the community, saying “I’ve got some partying to catch up with.” BB had been consistently upbeat—until that day.
Because i was listening to one of the young women’s poems and accompanying it on the bass, i missed the beginning of the exchange between BB and the staff member. But i heard well when BB told the staff, “Don’t treat me like I’m your slave!” “Don’t go there,” replied the staff, becoming visibly upset. At that point it became apparent the staff member was intervening in what she thought was a problem between BB and BL. BL had decided against taking a shower and had come back to the table. BB and BL were exchanging unfriendly glances. Like she had done the previous Saturday, the staff asked BL to not look—i assumed she meant to not look at BB. BL responded, “I’m not looking! I just want to know who’s got an opinion.”
The situation quickly escalated. BB became furious and proceeded to threaten BL, telling her that she would “beat the shit” out of her. Even though BL seemed lethargic, she suddenly became alert and moved toward BB, bent on not showing any trace of fear. BL was much taller and stronger than BB was, although BB seemed older. Very agitated, the staff member in charge got up from her chair and told BL and BB that if they didn’t go to their rooms immediately she was going to call a code red (when additional security staff are mobilized and they take over the unit). BB and BL ignored the staff member; they began shouting at each other, gesticulating, becoming more and more agitated. The other girls around the table stopped their activities. We the facilitators also stopped, unsure of what was going to happen. Into her radio, while trying to immobilize BB on the floor, the staff member in charge declared a code red. A second staff member, who until then had been in a separate room with three girls, quickly appeared on the scene and successfully immobilized and then energetically forced BL to her room. Less than a minute later, several staff members, three men and two women, arrived at the unit.
As BB was shouting, her body pressed against the floor, the male staff member who had just come in quickly controlled and handcuffed her. Still struggling against her restraint, BB shouted to BL, “By my son, I’ll get you, nigger. I’m going to kill you!” BL, who until then had been shouting back but remained in the room in which staff member had placed her, attempted to force the door and charge toward BB. Two staff members immediately pushed her back into the room and held the door shut. Through a small glass window in the door BL was seen gesticulating and directing more verbal insults at BB. Not to be outdone by her opponent, BL promised to kill BB in the free, stressing that BB “wouldn’t last a motherfucking day outside before you’re hit dead.”
Once the young women were physically controlled—even though they continued to shout and hit the doors that isolated them from the unit’s common area—a senior staff member who appeared after the code red alarm had been sounded, a Black woman in her fifties, realized that the three facilitators had witnessed the entire incident. It then became evident to us that we were supposed to have been removed from the unit as soon as the fight broke out. Slightly embarrassed, she told us we had to leave immediately. We proceeded to pack our things and make our way to the door. An older Latino staff member led us out. We asked him if there was any chance of resuming the session later. He said that day’s session was over, adding that “things like this happen all the time, no big deal, the girls will be okay.”
The confrontation between two Black girls was revealing of the facility’s climate, exposing what lurks just beneath the surface of everyday routine. Despite uninterrupted surveillance—and perhaps precisely because of it—some of the young women were constantly at the threshold of acting out their accumulated frustrations. As much as BB seemed upbeat and optimistic until this incident, she did not hesitate to respond to a provocation from BL, who was visibly shaken by her solitary stint, and possibly sedated. Even though the confrontation was sad because of the physical and verbal violence, the mutual hatred, and the utter helplessness both girls displayed, in retrospect it was not surprising. DJ’s awareness of being “trapped inside” emerged vividly in the fight. Creative, inquisitive, musical, energetic (when not medicated), critical, and supportive of other Black girls, BB and BL were deeply troubled by their confinement. They missed their children; they couldn’t wait to resume their lives in the “free” (though perfectly aware of the challenges that awaited them); they resented the constant oversight; they felt diminished by the protocols (they often made remarks about how ugly and humiliating their jumpsuits were); and often they felt threatened by the same young women toward whom they showed support. That particular unit had an equal number of Latina and Black young women, but there seemed to be minimal interaction between them.
Especially troubling in the incident between BB and BL was the hatred they were able to express for each other. In the sudden burst of energy they summoned, in the quickness with which they were willing to do physical harm and be harmed, and in the intensity of their words and gestures, a palpable death wish drove both young women during that confrontation. Unrestrained, it seemed, they would have done anything to carry out their mutual threats. Yet, as focused as they were on their personal dispute, it was revealing that only a few minutes earlier, in that same writing session, BB had confronted the staff member by announcing that she was being treated as a slave. What did BB mean? The staff member was White, had unquestionable power, and controlled BB’s every move; BB was Black, imprisoned, had been separated from her child, had suffered countless acts of violence (physical and symbolic), felt humiliated, and had no control over her time, space, and social networks. BB did not articulate the many facets of her dispossession and powerlessness, but the evocation of slavery was a direct, suggestive verbal attack meant to criticize both the staff and the prison. Perhaps empowered by some of the essays by Assata Shakur and other revolutionary thinkers we read, BB resisted her confinement in one of the few ways she could: by pushing the staff out of their comfort zones, and calling attention to the gendered antiblack racial makeup of the facility. In doing so, BB rejected the tropes of redemption that thoroughly permeated the narratives and practices to which she was subjected. As important, she called attention to an antiblack, gendered racial dynamic that unmistakably equated, on the one hand, sovereign power with the woman staff member’s whiteness, and on the other, utter powerlessness with the young woman’s blackness.
In this gendered racial dynamic, BB’s Latina peers did not play a prominent role, although they were subjected to the same protocols of dispossession and surveillance. The Latina absence from BB’s field of awareness may be an effect of the social distance between Black and Latina young women; or, relatedly, it may be the consequence of BB’s realization that, despite occupying similar predicaments, Blacks and Latinas inhabit distinct social worlds. BB and BL’s rage spoke literally of death—they were ready to kill each other, and in the process perhaps get killed. However, BB and BL’s rage also spoke of their social death—by refusing the ostensibly compassionate and reformist principles governing their imprisonment, BB and BL made it apparent that, ultimately, social reintegration according to normative codes was not for them. Their rage perhaps derived from the realization that despite their best efforts, they would not be able to escape the zones of social death. BB and BL’s rebellion against each other was also a rebellion against their own conditions. It spoke loudly of internalized gendered antiblackness.
As much as the young women’s rebellion was directed against their environment, it was additionally the product of internal contradictions. What took place during our workshops, as well as what was written, provide insight into the competing sentiments of self-assertion and self-loathing. SM, a Black young woman, wrote the following, titled “LSI (Low Self-Image),” about a colleague. It was a statement with strong autobiographical tones:
And has LSI.
That explains why.
She has a beautiful heart
And a beautiful face.
It hurts my heart that she’s in disgrace . . .
I pray at night
That her faith will grow.
It’s a shame to me that she has no hope.
A window into the solidarity that often formed between the young women, the poem conveys hope that the person to whom it is intended becomes more positive and attains faith (in a god, or in a future?). The writing is also a declaration of homoerotic attraction, which was verbalized timidly during one of our sessions. BB’s outspoken bisexuality must have worked as an incentive, yet such queer expressions were still surprising given the blatantly cisheteronormative patriarchal protocols of the facility and indeed the social worlds from which the young women came. SM’s main point about low self-image (or low self-esteem) helps underscore some of the factors relevant in the confrontation between BB and BL. From the beginning of the writing workshop, it was apparent that the young Black women wanted to find and articulate a language that rendered their gendered Blackness positive, meaningful, and generative. Their common experiences of physical and sexual abuse often emerged in the stories they shared and in their emotional challenges. The constant surveillance and confinement only added to their challenges, even though, as DJ pointed out in her writing, the staff frequently reminded the girls that they, the staff, were there to help them. SM, like BB, at least as far as their comportment was concerned, were exceptions to the generalized self-deprecating and morose disposition. Still, even though they were often upbeat and apparently comfortable in their skin, they also had their drawbacks. SM had recurring bouts of depression, and BB was easily angered, as the fight with BL showed. What comes next adds to our attempt to understand challenges Black girls experienced—challenges that were specific to the ways their gender and sexuality intersected with and modulated their racial structural positionality.
KT was a light-skinned, long-haired, young Black woman, fifteen years old. Although not as frequently upbeat as SM and BB, we the facilitators noticed moments of levity when, while reading some of her writing, she was able to laugh at her own ideas and invited others to do so as well. At other times, however, KT was aloof and did not respond promptly to staff requests. Repeatedly, she had been penalized with extra imprisonment time because of several infractions. But KT’s release date was nearing, which was probably the main reason why she seemed unusually happy. Even though she did socialize more closely with her Black peers, unlike them she also interacted often with the Latinas, who seemed to appreciate her presence as much as the Black girls did. KT’s rapport with the Latina girls made her an exception.
During a writing session not long before BB and BL’s confrontation, KT joined the group after taking a shower. (The shower, not part of the usual protocol, was allowed due to a family visit she was about to have.) Before sitting down at the large table, she removed the towel that covered her head and used it to dry her hair. At that point SM mentioned how “beautiful” KT’s hair looked and asked about her background, adding that KT looked Brazilian. KT was pleased with the attention and smiled. She said she was “mixed,” adding “That is where my color and my hair come from.” By then all the girls had turned their gaze to KT. The Latinas smiled at KT’s newfound vivacity, while the Black young women also looked on attentively. The Black girls’ expressions, however, were of a markedly different quality than the ones the Latinas showed—the Black girls were intensely transfixed by KT’s hair and her movements.
Even though i had noticed it before, in that instant a fact became quite evident: other than KT and BB, the other five Black girls in that unit had their hair chemically straightened. I will refrain from engaging in a discussion about self-esteem and Black hairstyle, much less propose a correlation between straightened hair and the internal contradictions with which the Black girls seemed to be struggling. Rather, as i speculate about the significance of the scene, i want to explore the proposition that what seemed revealing in the attention KT was getting from the Black girls was precisely its intensity. What did it suggest? Why did it happen? SM’s verses about low self-esteem offer a clue, but they don’t explain the hypnotizing effect of KT’s hair.
In this regard, the following poem, written by VV, a Latina young woman, is suggestive. She is imagining the day when she’s able to rejoin her family and her close friends:
All I Need
Me, my little nephew
And my brother
Feeling the breeze.
. . .
Seeing the leaves fall down,
Watching my mom and dad going
Back and forth
On the rocking chair,
Laughing at my brother’s jokes.
. . .
Seeing my boyfriend,
Wearing black and white
With his gold chain,
Smiling with his white teeth . . .
Like other Latina young women, VV is able to imagine both her nuclear and expanded family. Her parents, as well as her siblings and their children, populate her social universe. What is interesting about VV’s imagination concerning her boyfriend is that, among the positive characteristics she associates with his presence, his light skin features prominently.
The valuing of light skin is not an isolated fact. KT commanded intense attention not only because of her hair but also because of her racial “mixedness.” KT’s magnetism was as much about her own body as it was about a silent yet powerful gendered racial code which operated in that space. Shared by both Black and Latina girls, albeit in specific ways by each group, the code assigned different values to facial features, skin tone, hair texture, and eye color according to their distance from blackness. As a “mixed-race” person, KT commanded greater attention from Black young women because she embodied a modality of gendered blackness that was a significant step removed from their own blackness. Black yet light skinned and long haired, KT represented what the Black girls seemed to assume was greater desirability and acceptance. To inhabit KT’s body meant to experience a more forgiving social world, a world the Black girls desperately wanted yet ultimately knew was beyond their reach.
For the Latina girls, KT was more legible and acceptable than were the other Black young women, perhaps due to the same reasons KT commanded such fascination from the Black girls: her relative distance from blackness. The Latina girls may not have been as mesmerized by KT as the Black girls because, as much as KT’s skin was lighter than the other Black girls, most Latina girls were still lighter than KT, their hair straighter, their nonblackness more apparent. And even when the Latina girls were darker than KT—as some of them were in other units we worked with—from the Latinas’ perspective KT was still Black. A more acceptable type of Black perhaps, but nevertheless Black, and therefore, irrespective of KT’s skin and hair, someone who commanded a lower symbolic and social value—someone who inhabited a positionality that at times was positively legible to Latinas, but who ultimately was of a different social location and collective trajectory.
There seemed to be two modalities according to which the antiblack gendered racial code operated. On the one hand, Black girls’ valuing of “mixedness” was an apparent devaluing of “unmixed” blackness. By devaluing “unmixed” Blackness, Black girls participated in a collective symbol-making ritual according to which their own bodies were being devalued. KT’s mixedness, and therefore her relative aesthetic and social acceptance, was premised on KT not being simply Black, not “unmixed.” KT’s markers were beyond reach; KT was what they could never be. On the other hand, the Latina girls’ relative acceptance of KT, while also enabled by KT’s mixedness, was based on a concession: Latinas felt more at ease with KT because KT’s mixedness set her apart from the other Black girls, and, as important, closer to the Latinas. KT’s relative acceptance was a compromise on the part of Latinas because KT’s mixedness, while enabling KT’s relative distance from blackness, did not completely remove KT from blackness. To relatively accept KT, then, was to simultaneously make a concession to blackness and affirm antiblackness. Even though KT seemed somewhat embraced, KT still carried what Latinas did not want; KT was still what they devalued and avoided.
Despite the distinct modalities according to which the gendered racial logic operated for Black and Latina young women, both modalities drew from a common set of principles. As much as mixedness was valued or tolerated, it spoke to the problem of blackness. Mixedness was valued or tolerated because it somehow diluted, and therefore diminished, blackness. Mixedness was relatively embraced as much as antiblackness was unmistakably confirmed. In that context, as suggested in the Introduction, racial negotiations were not so much about an acceptance and desire of whiteness, but rather a repudiation of blackness.
• • •
In closing this chapter, i want to provide a sense of the gendered antiblack social climate that, subtly but effectively, permeated the detention facility at the individual, collective, and institutional levels. Despite the large percentage of Black staff, and despite the numerical majority of Latin@ kids in confinement, there were recurring manifestations of antiblack dispositions that suggested powerful mechanics that consistently affected how young people made sense of their subjection, how they related to one another, and how they were treated differently by the institutional apparatus. At the individual level, we have seen how Black young people, especially young women who experienced low self-esteem and anxiety, were affected by experiences of emotional, sexual, and physical abuse; the vulnerability and collapse of their sociability networks; and the scarcity of narratives that provided alternative, generative, and valued forms of gendered blackness.
At the interpersonal level, antiblackness operated on several fronts. In each unit, there were obvious divisions along racial lines according to which Latin@ and Black kids hardly interacted at the same level of closeness and solidarity as they did among themselves. At the same time, there were tensions between Black kids—tensions that, at their limit, erupted in the fight between BB and BL—which revealed a profound death wish directed, precisely, at one another. Based on the years working at the facility, i did not witness or hear about any such fight between Latin@ youths, or between Black and non-Black kids; yet i am unable to say fights such as this one were exclusive to Black kids. What i would like to submit, however, is that the deep rage revealed in the confrontation between BB and BL can only emerge out of spaces—internal spaces and social spaces—of unique, transgenerational dispossession and desperation. The autoethnographic accounts provided in the young people’s written words reveal that, while there are many similarities between Blacks’ and Latin@s’ experiences, there are also fundamental differences. One of the key differences is that the zones Black kids come from and inhabit are areas whose social desolation and fragmentation are without analog in the Latin@ kids’ writings and, we can assume, their experience.
At the institutional level, we saw in earlier chapters that Black kids are increasingly discriminated against the deeper they move into the criminal justice system. Was there evidence that, on a daily basis, Black kids were treated differently than the other nonblack kids in the units? Apparently not. Aside from the one example i provided above of a staff member who pronounced a Black young man beyond rehabilitation, White, Latino and Black staff members seemed consistent in applying their mandate of control, punishment, and care to all kids. BB’s outburst, charging the staff member with treating her like a slave, was rather surprising. Even though that particular staff member seemed more anxious and therefore more in need of asserting her authority than did other staff, she had not demonstrated any type of differentiated treatment based on the young women’s race.
BB’s accusation, however, can be interpreted less as a personal indictment, and more as an institutional critique and an undaunted evaluation of her personal path. Even though BB was subjected to the same rules as were the Latinas, she intimated that the same procedures had different effects on her. Her point of departure and her point of return were markedly different than what the Latina girls described: BB was not returning to a family or a social network that, at least in her mind, would provide affective and material support. On her pessimistic days, BB also pointed out that she was uncertain about reuniting with her son, and perhaps correctly calculated that her imprisonment was not going to help make a case for his legal custody. BB’s sense of being a slave was a recognition of being socially vulnerable and expendable, of being part of a social world that offered little in the way of redemption. She did look forward to making up the lost time by partying hard; but she also admitted, like other young people in the facility, that there was a high likelihood she would be imprisoned again. In this admission lay a scarier and yet just as likely scenario: that of being incarcerated as an adult, as were many of her friends, lovers, and relatives, including her mother. BB’s sense of being a slave was strongly connected to her sense of utter loneliness, which resulted from, and was ever intensified by, her realization of how her network of sociability was already deteriorated and vulnerable. Her loneliness was the result of social network disintegration brought about by poverty, institutional neglect, and imprisonment. Add to this scenario the violence and degradation BB and her peers experienced prior to, during, and probably after their confinement, and a forceful configuration of social death emerges. Being a slave is to experience social death as a given of social life. The juvenile prison, as part of the circuit of dispossession and surveillance, was thus an obvious enforcer of slavery, making BB’s claim quite accurate. Antiblackness defined the prison’s logic as it defined the Black kids’ social environments and personal horizons.
• • •
There were, however rare, moments of genuine communion and recognition between Black and Latin@ kids. The familiarity with the panoptical machinery of hypersurveillance and punishment superimposing itself on spaces of social vulnerability; the experiences of gendered violence at the hands of predatory men and women in their neighborhoods; and the sharing of a youth vernacular that included music, clothing, vocabulary, and desires of intimacy and consumption: these common experiences rendered possible bridges of understanding. Yet a cautious distance between Black and Latin@ young people seemed to be the default social protocol. These two seemingly competing orientations, however, gain an explanation when we consider that, for Black kids, the redemptive projects of the juvenile facility and of the workshops were less attainable and seemed less believable: given the widespread intensity and permanence of the social destitution marking their transgenerational experiences, the prospect of reintegrating with society as productive, lawful, and respected members seemed quite dim.
For Latin@ kids, on the other hand, there was enough shared evidence that their social geographies, resources, and transgenerational survival were also at risk. Latin@ young people were the undisputed numerical majority in the juvenile prison. Although their webs of sociability seemed to be less affected by the technologies of dispossession and surveillance than were the Black lifeworlds (of social death), a sense of hopelessness and of expandability was evident among Latin@ boys and girls. There was a reluctant realization that their institutionalization placed them in a powerful machine that would, in all probability—like it had done for generations before—suck them back into spaces of confinement. Latin@ boys and girls, like Black kids, were having their own children while incarcerated; their non-incarcerated parents and their younger siblings, due to their actual or affective proximity, were experiencing the rituals, effects, and self-policing internalization resulting from incarceration. Latin@ young men and women, therefore, experienced forms of social death that defined Black experiences. Understandably, they resisted the realization of social death and attached themselves to evidence of its opposite (family, nonblackness, success). Yet Latin@s were faced with social realities quite similar to those realities Black kids were more willing to accept as defining their field of possibilities.
Given these ambiguous but significant Latin@ encounters with social death, it may be appropriate to add to our initial allegory of the asymptote in the graph in Figure 6. In it, rather than never quite “touching” the line that defines the social life of Black social death, the Latin@ curve, albeit describing a distinct trajectory, defined by singular parameters, and informed by a unique logic, intersects with the Black asymptote. Each intersection would be a moment of mutual recognition; a moment when the effects of social death would, perhaps reluctantly, produce reciprocal insight between otherwise uniquely structurally positioned social groups. Each moment of recognition would generate instances of oblique identification according to which, even if unwillingly and/or unknowingly, Latin@ kids became aware of, and/or indeed experienced, the utter state of social worthlessness defining the Black condition. This common experience, however, does not imply being subjected to comparable logics. While antiblackness is indeed ubiquitous and affects Blacks and nonblacks, it generates distinct life and death trajectories for differently racialized social groups; such distinct trajectories derive from distinct underlying principles. In this case, as much as Latin@s share experiences of social death with Blacks, it is precisely the fact that such experiential intersections between Latin@s and Blacks are intermittent that render Latin@s nonblacks.
The recognition of structural gendered antiblackness that emerges forcefully in BB’s skepticism about her reintegration into society, shared in varying degrees of intensity by other incarcerated Black young women, will reappear in the next chapters, which take us to Brazil. In analyzing the persistent problem of the Black presence in the empire-state often dubbed the home of racial democracy, Part II provides evidence of a transnational continuum, suggesting that antiblackness determines life and death chances, and structures the field of racialized and gender positionalities, in distinct formations of empire-state in the Americas. If this is true, then the scenes in the Austin juvenile prison allow for the drawing of continuities and relations with contemporary scenes of fundamental social vulnerability that determine Black collective experience in the diaspora.