Notes for a Review of America’s Jails by Derek Jeffreys
(This is not going to be a very good blog post but it will be very long).
Why do people consider Derek Jeffreys’ book America’s Jails “groundbreaking” and “rich and thoughtful”? Why is it considered to be “a powerful condemnation of America’s jail system”? (This ebullient praise comes from two quotations on the back cover by reviewers who I assume either share the same fanatical politics as the author; or didn’t bother to read the book).
I find it disgusting, and I think this is the best thing you can say about it: this book should have never been published. In a disjointed fumble of personal anecdotes, aggressively irresponsible rhetoric, and hollow philosophical analysis, Jeffreys has written a book that centers the redemption and goodness of the cops and prison guards who harm as opposed to their victims. It’s a book that doesn’t even try to hide its white nationalism.
The fact that it’s so terrible in all possible ways – quality, politics, ethics – can’t explain why it was published by New York University Press as non-fiction polemical “alternative criminology” book alongside such luminaries such as Michelle Brown (The Culture of Punishment, 2009) and Judah Schept (Progressive Punishment, 2015). For this reason, it’s worth examining the sophisticated and concerning methods employed by this book in some detail in order to de-mystify—that is, to lay bare, the underlying ideological terrain.
Coping to Some Personal Bias
I wanted so much to like America’s Jails – nay, love it unabashedly. I chose to review this book, based on the descriptive blurbs from the author and publisher; I didn’t privately contain my excitement when I finally received my free copy from the publisher. The topic is close to my heart.
Inevitably America’s Jails sent me on a trip down memory lane. As it happens, I have passed through courtrooms, jails, and forensic state hospitals on my way to who I am today. I have known—personally and intimately—women (and some men) who live their entire lives with one foot to either side of the law. And, in my mind’s eye, I can envision voiceless and despairing people—perpetrators and victims alike—who would hope that a book claiming to “center their inherent dignity” to “shift public perception and understanding of jail inmates” by “highlighting the experiences of inmates themselves” would, well, actually do that. The result did not just disappoint me, it triggered my moral aggression.
Notes on America’s Jails1
My review of this book will be published soon on a website that’s not mine and have decided to post my many, many notes of this book so as to cover my ass lest anyone choose to accuse me – a lowly independent scholar – of being unfair or unrigorous in my critique of this book and the author who wrote it. I am very scared of being wrong here therefore I am dumping a lot of stuff here – in way too much detail – for the purpose of being respectful, comprehensive, and precise.
These notes are divided into sections and do not follow a continuous narrative. I’ve tried to organize everything as logical as possible – in an order that is, more or less, global to local.
- Not-So-Good Intentions
- Conceptual Framework
- Close Reading: Perspective and Representation
- Reparative Reading
This book raises key issues related to authorial intention (political motivation, personal involvement, questionable morals) and the narrative reliability (lack of expertise, unmet promises, false premises, inaccurate representation of fact and fiction).
In this section, I will begin with an attack on the author’s ethics by suggesting his repugnant political and religious motives have produced a book that best belongs in the genre of “fake news,” as defined by Jeremy Geltzer to mean “the publication of knowingly false, deliberately misleading or purposefully manipulated content intended to influence the recipient of the information” (2018, p. 298). The basis for my claims are anchored in a detailed examination and close reading of book – paying attention to methods, style, form, evidence.
About the Author
Jeffreys’ education and professional background is highly relevant to his writing in this book.2 According to his personal website, Jeffreys currently holds the title of Professor of Humanistic Studies and Religion at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He has a PhD in “Religious Ethics” from the University of Chicago Divinity School. However, more interesting is Jeffreys’ undergraduate degree, earned from the University of Chicago in 1987, in a then brand new major called “Fundamentals: Issues and Texts.” Co-founded by Allan Bloom, Leon Kass, and James Redfield, this self-directed program (which is dubbed “fundies” by those in its inner circle) was designed to allow students to research fundamental questions about human existence (e.g. “what is freedom?”) or phenomena such as “what is the purpose of jail?” (which happens to be the eponymous second chapter of Jeffreys book) that held personal interest for them and then spend the next four years seeking answers through a handful of readings of a handful of classic texts of various genres (literary, religious, historical, and philosophical) that were informed by similar question. Outsider of the academy, Jeffreys spent time in the US Army. He has also spent a decade volunteering in prisons and jails throughout Wisconsin, both in the prison chapel and also teaching prisoners “about religious and philosophical topics like evil, anger, and love” (p. 4).
The back cover tells us that it “aims to shift public perception and understanding of the jail inmates to center their inherent dignity and help eliminate the stigma attached to their incarceration.” I take this to mean that it’s intended for a wider (and whiter) audience of policy makers and the public alike, particularly in a political environment favoring privatization.
America’s Jails is a form of faux reform that, on the surface, looks promising, but upon closer reading, reveals the author’s deep unwillingness to challenge the existing system. Throughout the book, Jeffreys masquerades as a progressive scholar making a progressive argument by deploying the very same talking points of faux progressive politicians who advocate for criminal justice reform but also seek to fund new jail projects.
In a context where “criminal justice reform” has solidified into a bipartisan issue; becoming trendy enough to be officially endorsed by our very own white nationalist and rapist in a sagging spray tanned pig skin president, there is a new wave of “faux reform” or faux progressive writing creeping into the conversation that, on the surface, seems to be promoting social justice measures but is actually nothing more than old wine in new old bottles. Jeffreys narrow focus on reforming jails does nothing to address the racialized violence of policing nor the structural racism, poverty, and economic violence that produce mass incarceration. Furthermore, Jeffreys’ focus on the structural internal conditions of jail – filth, ugly buildings, broken toilets, lack of beds – combined with concerns about overcrowding provide a perfect foundational argument for advocating for more jails, not fewer. Importantly, this is antithetical to Jeffreys claim that jails are morally unjust but a tragic fact of life (a belief that should be questioned and, ideally, resisted at all costs). But even if the author is acting in good faith: that he does believe jails are morally unjust but a tragic fact of life in order to protect society from the most dangerous and evil criminals; for Jeffreys these are probably serial killers but his focus in distinctly on rapists, child molesters, and domestic abusers. But this is a position that the majority of society, liberal and conservative alike hold – and therefore his argument, at best, suffers from a lack of imagination and resigned hopelessness, what on earth are we to make of an argument that mirrors the very same talking points of many conservative proponents of “bipartisan criminal justice reform” who seek to fund new jail projects by focusing on the conditions of jail, emphasizing the need for improved conditions for those living inside.
The clearest evidence that this book is a fake thing pretending to be real is to look at the policies that Jeffreys proposes. So, what exactly, is Jeffreys seeking to reform? In Chapter 5: “What Can We Do? Responding to a Crisis,” Jeffreys introduces what he considers essential responses that warrant immediate implementation to our “broken system,” including attention to:
- Pretrial risk assessment
- Money bond reform
- Use of force policies
- Improved mental health intake procedures
In other words, his focus in this book is on jails which makes sense given the title. Yet, for a book called America’s Jails, Jeffreys betrays a remarkable lack of understanding about them. In fact, the book’s promising title and aims as laid out on its back cover and within the introduction are completely nullified by the authors’ motives and intentional misrepresentation of jails in a way that mystifies their connection to a larger system of mass incarceration. In other words, Jeffreys conflates mass incarceration and jails routinely – at the same time, he makes technically true and important distinctions between jails and prisons which operate differently – especially in regards to money bond and mental illness (although, this is less the case when one considers how that prisons are also handling their own mental health crisis). What Jeffreys gets wrong about jails is crucial – failing to ignore their connection to a larger system of mass incarceration – which includes state and federal prisons and immigration detention facilities; all of which are inextricably tied to traditional policing.
On some level, Jeffreys knows the distinction between jails and prisons doesn’t matter since he routinely uses the term “prison reform” in the context of his argument about jails. But his proposed short-term solutions apply exclusively to US jails, which exclusively target pre-trial practices and the money bond system, oversight and procedural tweaks including improved intake procedures for mentally ill inmates and strongly worded guidelines about staff violence from the Department of Justice that “prohibit the use of force as a means of retaliation, control of movement, or punishment” support the “timely reporting of inmate abuse.”
Most appallingly, Jeffreys insists that systematic abuse and violence against prisoners in jails must be fixed through “greater jail monitoring, more federal oversight of jails, investigative journalism, and legal challenges from organizations like the ACLU” (p. 13). At the time this book was published, the DOJ was being run by Jeff Sessions, an ardent supporter of harsh sentencing policies, expanded incarceration, racial profiling, and unbridled police power. Jeffreys doesn’t mention any of this or bring up the politics of the current administration or the fact that the Department of Justice for whom he advocates to oversee his short-term solutions. This is all intentional. Jeffreys wants the reader to think he is above petty fighting among “political pundits” on both sides of the aisle. But his anti-politics are actually much worse than that: fanatical, orthodoxical, right-wing, evangelical, and scary as hell.
That Jeffreys frames his short-term solutions as being valuable for their ability to illicit broad political support (p. 11) is a big red flag that doesn’t bode well for any social justice approach, particularly now when we are contending with a rapist in the highest office and another on the supreme court; both of whom rose to power on a wave of right-wing populism defined by a toxic blend of White nationalism and racialized rage. Still, Jeffreys insists that there are deep divides among the political left and right when it comes to this topic. This is a bold faced lie. We can be generous and assume he is (a) delusional and uninformed, which may work since he does admit early in the book that he does not follow these debates closely, which begs the question of why he is writing a book about subjects matter that he is only tenuously familiar with and also telling the reader that he holds all the answers. Similar to Trump, a lot of what makes this book hard to read and also difficult to address is how contradiction and inconsistent it is.
The type of bipartisan reform being pursued by Jeffreys is inextricably tied to the 1990s “welfare reform,” which say “both sides” of the political spectrum coming together in an effort to overhaul a complex system. Of particular relevance, this period say the implementation of faith-based initiatives that resulted in many government-operated welfare programs being replaced by conservative Christian organizations. These initiatives also had criminal justice components, as noted by Kay Whitlock. For example, in 1997, the global prison ministry, Prison Fellowship – which has since become one of the largest programs of its kind – became involved with an evangelical residential pre-release program. Since then, there has been a rise and institutionalization of faith-based ministries in US jails and prisons. Moreover, states began allocating money to these private groups for Christian-centered faith-based programs in jails and prisons. According to Whitlock, these new streams of funding have “justified deregulation on the basis of religious freedom.” Thus, attendant with the agenda of “faith-based” corrections is a lessening of government responsibility for social welfare and an attribution of immorality as the ultimate causes of poverty and crime.
I am not an expert on this matter, but a quick cursory google search of “faith-based prison reform” brings up a page from the Charles Koch Institute for a session that includes CEOs and Executive Directors of the Justice Fellowship and Faith and Freedom Coalition. Just skimming, the phrase “human dignity” jumps out and feels, gut level, very parallel to this book.
I have a theory regarding Jeffreys’ personal involvement… I for one would like to know the nature of his volunteer work in jails and prisons for ten years. I originally assumed it was through his university, but I have a feeling it is with a for-profit faith based ministry. Disclosures of that nature are critical in a book about ethics. If I am right…
America’s Jails belongs to a class of books that carefully straddles the line between two different meanings. The result is essentially two different books: one that claims to center the humanity and dignity of prisoners and one that illuminates their pathological criminality through the emotion of disgust.
- Double Concepts: Dignity and Disgust
- The Objects of Disgust
- Conceptual Incoherence
- More Disgusting Stuff
- Final Comments
Double Concepts: Dignity and Disgust
Just as this book is not really about the lived experience of prisoners, it’s also not really about dignity – at least not as it contributes to the stigmatization and dehumanization of its prisoner victims.
Long Story Short: America’s Jails renews a controversial philosophical debate concerning the function of disgust an indicator of a deep moral response by using jail – and, by extension, the prisoners inside – as philosophical tools to re-center the humanity of the author as well as the humanity of prison guards and cops who enact political violence against the vulnerable.
In this book, Jeffreys proposes an ontological shift, a new orientation toward old values that mirrors American and Puritanical tradition by linking an ideal concept of “human dignity” to the power of the “affective sphere” to insist that “negative affective responses” such as disgust (and its kin: contempt and fear) are highly cognitive emotions that play a central role in our societal impulse to stigmatize and dehumanize current and former prisoners. That is, prisoners are dehumanized – stripped of their personhood status and rendered objects or things because of (a) the ugly aesthetics and horrific sanitary conditions of jails; as well as their “spoiled identity” (á la Goffman) via their status as “criminals.”
Jeffreys insists that the disgust of jails – the degrading living conditions – and the contaminated status of prisoners “naturally” breeds contempt for them by prison staff and the rest of society. Contempt is defined as the experience of feeling “superiority over the disgusting object” (p. 108). In a complete lack of political ethics, Jeffreys argues that reflexive disgust leads to the systemic physical and psychological violence directed at prisoners by cops and guards. Basically, prison personnel abuse, neglect, and murder prisoners because they are disgusted by them and this disgust is completely natural.
It’s a disgusting argument.
But it’s not only disgusting because Jeffreys provides no sustained analysis of the operations of dignity and disgust that would help to convince the reader that these concepts would be ethically directed at protecting the dignity of prisoners than weaponized by those in power to maintain a culture of abuse and degradation against unpopular people who make them uncomfortable; it’s disgusting because of the remarkable ease it so perfectly crystallizes every revolting thing about this book that belongs in a moral landfill twenty thousands leagues under the sea.
The ease between disgust provoking contempt and anger toward the most vulnerable is not only a discursive mark of being dangerous, but also a very dangerous position in which to be. A loss of dignity transforms prisoners from people who possess an inherent goodness with unique capacity for growth and “transcendence” into objects or things that are susceptible to coercion and control and violence. The message is clear in context: the conditions of jail deny human dignity; foul odors, filth, loud sounds, exposed, malfunctioning toilets, overcrowding, lack of facilities, shortage of bed, ugly buildings, rodents, sick prisoners, bodily fluids, bad smells, loud noises. Within the jail, prisoners are non-people, monsters who must be defended against. Therefore, any violence from these non-people must be mitigated and defended against through the use of force given their dangerous status and is therefore justified in the name of public safety. I’m not sure that makes sense but the point I am trying to make is that Jeffreys has set-up a conceptual framework that essentially “traps” prisoners into a state of perpetual thingification. The key to doing this, I think, is by refusing to blame or hold accountable the cops, guards, and staff who assault and neglect prisoners on a daily basis. The only way Jeffreys can do this is by making an argument that their violence is somehow “natural” or beyond their control.
What is Dignity?
Dignity is a thorny concept. Jeffreys defines an ideal of dignity as the “value of a person” (p 79). What is a value? “Values are what attract us and gain our attention” (p. 79). So, dignity has something to do with values, which are whatever the what that attracts us to another person is.
At the same time, Jeffreys invokes the same term, but time as a verb, to show us how to value someone else’s dignity. In particular:
- “[w}e ought to be attention to the inner lives of those we confine and consider how our practices devalue their individual identity” (p. 96).
- “[w]e should refrain from treating them merely as things or commodities” (p. 97).
Then, to value someone’s dignity involves recognition of their “inner life” – their individual identity – which is presumably accomplished partly by not “thingifying” or commodifying them. And yet, Jeffreys clearly hasn’t done the reading since within the prison industrial complex, prisoners are commodities just like computers and corn are commodities.
As we read on, we learn that we possess dignity “because of our reason and autonomy…and our transcendence in relation to values” (p. 82).
I am not clear on what “transcendence” means and Jeffreys doesn’t provide a clear definition. It seems super religious-y. In my mind, I have been thinking about it as a vague destination that comes from “growth” – whatever that might be. However, we learn that inherent human dignity is tied to rationality and our capacity for self-determination.
Which…is interesting given that incarceration, by definition, removes individuals from the autonomy of their private lives and places them at the mercy of the state for the purposes of punishment. Incarcerated people, therefore, are completely reliant on the state to meet their basic needs. In the absence of the fulfillment of those needs, illness, pain, or even death can result. Jeffreys doesn’t address any of this.
Moving on, Jeffreys draws inspiration from Erving Goffman’s notion of stigma as a “spoiled identity.” Jeffreys tells us that “[s]tigma involves a failure to recognize a person’s individual identity” (p. 102). Furthermore, we are told that we can know perfectly well that a person has dignity and still stigmatize them. How so? Because the ugly aesthetic and degrading conditions of jails fuel “negative affective responses” like disgust, contempt, and fear “blind” people including prison guards and staff to a prisoner’s inherent value as a person.
In a complete lack of political ethics, Jeffreys invokes an ableist concept of “value blindness,” which he defines “an incapacity to recognize the centrality of a value” (p. 100), to argue that “disgust and contempt lead some staff to abuse inmates” (p. 100).
This wasn’t the book I wanted to read. I certainly wasn’t expecting a “captors don’t abuse vulnerable bodies, philosophical concepts do” argument. To be clear, I think this is a ludicrous load of ideology.
The Objects of Disgust
No other part of this book makes me sigh and give up faster than the conceptual “bit” — which, to be completely clear, is saying something. I confess, to begin, that I cannot get a firm grip on how all of this works, or what the hell is going on philosophically. So, I am least confident – and least motivated – to untangle this mess. But, that said: I am confidently sure this is all garbage.
The primary emotion featured in text is disgust.
What is Disgust?
Jeffreys defines disgust as “a reaction to something we think is contaminated and inappropriately located,” arguing that disgusting objects “often culturally-specific, and include putrified objects, insects, bodily secretions, dirty bodies, kinds of foods, and forms of sexual activity” (p. 100). Here, he seems to conflate conditions characteristic of the contemporary world with conditions common to all human societies.
According to Jeffreys there is also a moral component to disgust that relates to the topic at hand since “we find vices and crimes disgusting” (p. 105).
Jeffreys provides the example of child molesters and how “many” people find them and their crimes disgusting. In addition, Jeffreys notes how in the past, many have also found certain groups disgusting, writing:
“This deeply problematic kind of disgust often persists despite arguments demonstrating its irrationality. For example, disgust at Jews in some societies has often endured despite its unethical and irrational character” (p. 105).
Jeffreys’ approach to “ugly” emotions and their “objects” is inextricably tied by to the early 18th century “realist phenomenology” of Very Catholic philosopher Aurel Kolani. According to Kolani – and, by extension, Jeffreys – “negative affective responses” are the means by which the human mind apprehends certain qualities about the world, most importantly, those qualities that pertain to the (dis)value of objects. The primary emotion discussed by in America’s Jails is disgust. Emotions also have intentionality since they “reach out” towards their objects. In this case, intentional does not refer to purpose or deliberate intent but rather to the fact that mental phenomena such as disgust, contempt, and fear are “about something”; they are directed towards some object or another. (So, if I am disgusted by spiders or prisoners or gay people, my fear is directed towards spiders, prisoners, and gay people, and they are its intentional object. Of course, all of this raises the question of whether people might set out to disgust themselves. Or whether any of this is universal.
Jeffreys is also a former student of Leon Kass, who is perhaps the most prominent advocate of appealing to disgust as the basis of his influential bioethical arguments against human cloning and stem cell research. However, other proponents of this approach have made similar appears to disgust in, for instance, discussions about the identification and definition of obscenity and employed similar lines of reasoning to argue against abortion, pornography, homosexuality. What most of these arguments seem to appeal to – either tacitly or otherwise – is a particular view of the nature of disgust itself as a morally attuned emotion into the “naturalness” (or, more importantly, “unnaturalness”) of certain activities and social practices.
Of course, the validity of Jeffreys appeals cannot be judged from the motives or affiliations of its champions. Judged solely on the merits of his arguments, how well does Jeffreys clarify the concept of disgust and make a case for it?
Not very well.
The Case for Responsible Disgust
Jeffreys acknowledges Martha Nussbaum’s (2004) criticism of the centrality of disgust and morality in matters where the stakes are high; given disgust’s spectacular appropriation by the political right throughout history, as a means of reinforcing the boundaries between self and “contaminating” Others that has fueled and perpetuated racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. Nevertheless, he firmly frames himself in opposition of Nussbaum (and encourages the reader to do the same – with no actual argument besides his opinion and what seems like an incomplete and/or mischaracterization of Nussbaum’s argument). In opposition to Nussbaum, who argues convincingly that disgust is inherent irrational and, thus, unlike the emotions of fear, compassion, and anger, disgust cannot be responsibly mobilized. Jeffreys disagrees with this argument – because his entire conceptual framework would otherwise fall apart. How? He simply tells the reader that the horrifying political times that Nussbaum refers to are a thing of the past. If you are a Nazi, you will agree with this argument. If you have been living under a rock and have no moral compass, you might agree. What makes it difficult to agree or disagree with Jeffreys is that he has strategically muddled up his entire argument on this topic at the level of syntax and with confusion over the concepts and under defined concepts such as “self-transcendence” that it’s difficult to really come to a strong opinion on his argument after only one reading. I found these chapters to be the most painful in the book – and that’s saying something.
Now that I have read this book more times than is healthy (which is more than once), I can lay out Jeffreys position and rhetorical moves a bit better. In answering the criticism of Nussbaum that disgust is a powerful weapon in the wrong hands, Jeffreys completely agrees but thinks that the risks of widespread violence and dehumanization against groups of marginalized and unpopular groups are well worth the potential individual benefits that disgust might bring “in prompting us to recall that we are bodily beings capable of self-transcendence” (p. 106). For example, Jeffreys writes, “when we recoil in disgust at learning of undocumented immigrants crowded in a jail cell without functioning toilets, disgust reminds us that such conditions are unfit for human beings” (p. 106).
First, I would like to know who “we” is supposed to be. I am not Jeffreys ideal audience. But even if we pretend that Jeffreys has made a convincing argument, that we are universally disgusted by non-functioning toilets and overcrowding in detention facilities, then why are these facilities not burdened to the ground? Well, that’s because Jeffreys doesn’t want you, the reader, to be grossed out by the idea that we are committing crimes against humanity. Instead, he wants you to be grossed out enough to demand that we build newer, bigger detection facilities, so every prisoner will be ensured a working toilet while they are stripped of their family and rights and, often times, their lives.
Let me move away from Jeffreys’ pseudo-humanism, Make America’s Jails Great Again moral monstrosity of a politic to demonstrate the his paltry intellectual offerings when it comes to the skill of deductive reasoning. For Jeffreys to even make an argument for responsible disgust as a window to self-transcendence – or whatever – means having to accept that responsible disgust can only be disgust with the effects of power, not weakness, among the marginalized. Given that Jeffreys stands aware and in agreement with Nussbaum’s critique of the political use of disgust becoming weaponized by political right for shameful and violent purposes. So, unless Jeffreys is just posturing here and actually tolerates racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism (and the like), he must insist on a concept of responsible disgust that is useful only for those with the least political power – such as prisoners and other groups who are unpopular and stigmatized by society (note: these are not cops or anyone in power today).
Not only is this unlikely given what can be deduced from the disturbing ideology of this text, it also doesn’t make much sense given that disgust does seem to play an important evolutionary role in alerting us to contamination and such. On all of this, Jeffreys has no satisfying answer.
Importantly, this moral condemnation of disgust does not yet prove, of course, that it is a major problem in the phenomenon of mass incarceration, let alone the central problem, or that it is a bigger problem than any other emotion like anger or fear. It shows, rather, that “disgust” is a moral category and therefore difficult to objectify in sociological research.
The author’s treatment of the central concepts in his argument suffers from a lack of rigor, logic, precision, and clarity. These are only a few examples.
Insufficient Operational Definition
Jeffreys offers no sustained analysis of the operations of disgust and stigma that would help to convince the reader that these concepts would be ethically directed at protecting the dignity of jail inmates, rather than weaponized by those in power to maintain a culture of abuse and degradation against unpopular people or those who make the dominant majority uncomfortable.
Taking Inherent Dignity to it’s Logical Conclusion
Jeffreys employs a concept of inherent dignity that, as a philosophical ideal, is extended to all individual human beings, at all times, under all circumstances. This means that we, as people, are not merely things or objects or commodities. By possessing inherent human dignity, every person has a unique capacity for reason, autonomy, growth, and “self transcendence” in our inner lives. We all have a capacity for “goodness.”
For Jeffreys, jails are dehumanizing because they are deeply degrading places, turning prisoners from people into things. “Jails,” he writes, “are dehumanizing and degrading places where prisoners experience repeated assaults on their dignity. They often live in filthy and overcrowded conditions, are subjected to demeaning whole-body searches, and suffer violence and sexual assaults from inmates and jail staff…in captivity many inmates experience terrible despair, a sense of devaluation that leads them to engage in self-destructive behavior” (p. 7).
We also read that dehumanization results from stigmatization of current and former prisoners because their criminal status produces a “spoiled identity” that encourages other people to devalue their humanity and personhood. But we also read that there is nothing you can do as a person, including dehumanizing another person or 10,000 or even killing one (or 10,000) that can strip you of your dignity, especially if you seek redemption or self-transcendence through Christianity. This expansiveness is designed to render Jeffreys’ argument potentially unfalsifiable. Of course, his theory is a dud and we can see in practice whose dignity he chooses to center which is another indicator of the author’s deeply pernicious right-wing, evangelical, pseudo-progressive agenda. One more thing about logical fallacies and errors since there are going to be a lot of them upcoming. The burden of proof is squarely on Jeffreys to explain himself and make his argument jive in terms that are intellectual rigorous (Ha!) or at the very least, not based on lies, mythology, or wish-fulfillment. Disproving fallacies and errors is not a thing that anyone can do or has to do.
Lack of Clarity
Drawing inspiration from the work of Aurel Kolnai, Jeffreys holds that the provocation of revulsion also suggests its moral significance in the realm of human dignity: promoting “a different kind of encounter with others” (p. 85). Cool. What the hell does that mean?
“Vague appeals to social agreement cannot substitute for good ontological investigation” (p. 86). I am not sure what this means.
More Disgusting Stuff
Here’s some more repulsive content in this book.
Bizarre Sexual Obsession
Jeffreys combines overtly “disgusting” images of corporeal decay and sexual victimization. There is a bizarre fixation on sexual violence, child rape, and molestation in this book which animated by a notable Biblical homophobia, transphobia, sexism. Ironically, Jeffreys has nothing to say about the criminal pedophilia and disgust of the Catholic Church.
Does “disgust” apply to homosexuality? Jeffreys has a section on this, saying yes but answering no. “Debates about the morality of homosexuality, for example, often involve disgust responses. Despite our changing norms and attitudes (a positive development in my view) about homosexuality, some young men still respond disgust at the idea of men having sex with each other” (p. 107). In his view, homosexual sex acts often illicit a reflexive disgust that is God-given and natural. Jeffreys doesn’t tell us what he thinks about trans people.
“[W]e can identify general ways we denigrate dignity. A practice denigrates it when it treats a person merely as a thing, failing to recognize the shared and individual sources of dignity. This was Kant’s central insight, and it remains important even if we disagree with him on philosophical issues. Slavery and rape are paradigms of using others merely as objects for labor or sexual domination. They are not problematic just because they use people for personal benefit; such exchanges occur often in everyday life. Instead, they treat the person merely as a thing without recognizing his personhood. For example, when I got to the supermarket, the checkout clerk and I use each other. He provides me with a product, and my payment provides him with a job” (p. 92).
Fucking, eh. There is so much wrong here that it requires a list:
- Jeffreys decision to juxtapose “the paradigms” of slavery and rape speaks billions of volumes in a book that doesn’t even attempt to hide its white nationalism. That these practices are reprehensible not because they are literally slavery and rape but that objectifying in the same way that grocery shopping is when Jeffreys “uses” (rapes, enslaves) his checkout clerk and vice versa, who we can only assume is a Black man since Jeffreys has so kindly “provided him with a job” by purchasing a gallon of milk. What the fucking fuck? How else is this supposed to be read?
- It’s not clear if anyone who is not a white supremacist read this book, but certainly no one copy edited it. Consider the first and second sentences. The first is about the “general ways” that “we” – the reader – “denigrate dignity.” The next tells us that “[a] practice denigrates it when it treats a person merely as a thing.”
- It’s not clear why or how its relevant that this was presumably Kant’s central insight and deserves to be taken seriously “even if we disagree.” I assume because Kant is Kant. I don’t know anything about Kant other than he a Dead White Philosopher. It’s interesting that Jeffreys doesn’t even feature him in this book and still commands the reader to take his views seriously, while summarily dismissing the work of Angela Davis and other prominent Black women academics who he clearly has not read, but still references in his bibliography. Has Jeffreys read Kant? Who knows. My uninformed opinion is that Kant is probably garbage but also being misrepresented here.
I wish this example was an anomaly. It’s not. I also assure you that none of this is taken out of context. The book is a fucking mess.
Valuing Only Peaceful Racist Order
In Chapter 3, Jeffreys emphasizes a second understanding of dignity as a status granted to those who “show a gravitas in the face of injustice or suffering” (p. 73). This status is conferred specifically upon Black protests during the Civil Rights movement, in particular, he points out a 1963 protest in Jackson, Mississippi, where a mob of white supremacists surrounded a black student protestors at a lunch counter and assaulting them with physical violence. “Rather than respond violently, the protestors sat silently at the lunch counter. The Jackson protestors exhibited a dignity that we can all recognize as a remarkable response to adversity and injustice” (p. 73).
What does peaceful mean? Whose peace? What is the definition of violence? In anticipation that Jeffreys might come back with a reference to the civil disobedience of Dr. King, as a reminder, peaceful means and dialogue got him murdered.
“When my disgust toward others becomes habitual, I no longer perceive value in all humanity. Affectively, I carve out an exception for members of a group (for example, jail inmates). Because they are disgusting, they no longer inhabit my circle of positive valuation. They are outliers, exceptions to a circle of care that can otherwise be quite broad. For example, I sometime meet people who consider themselves good liberals or progressives who respect human rights in many contexts. Yet when I mention inmates I have taught who have committed violent sexual assaults, our conversations come to a halt. They are visibly revolted, and evince no benevolence at all toward sex offenders of any kind. They see them as contaminated beings whom we need to quarantine and incapacitate” (p. 108).
- His assessment of disgust depends on the use of criteria, which is related to moral values and social standards of normality. Jeffreys does not deal systematically with the question of what these criteria might entail. It is clear that what is “disgust” for some looks like “anger” or “pleasure” to others.
- It is by no means clear how being grossed out, even viscerally and strongly, by an act or situation plausibly leads to reforming – much less abolishing – that act or conditions of that situation. In fact, this argument feels constructed specifically as a way to gesture towards something progressive and moral with the intention of using it as a smoke screen for doing nothing.
- The capricious nature of emotions, that they can be highly erratic and based on arbitrary factors or ones that favor personal bias, would seem to be enough of a drawback to resist them as a foundational approach to moral decision making. How can we even determine what disgust is or whether it is felt consistently among everyone or the average person? What is the distinction between anger and disgust? To me, the feelings I have toward mass incarceration tend to incite emotions that (I think) feel more aligned and with anger than disgust. In particular, anger directed at the damage and harm caused by imprisonment. This feels much more productive than disgust. Anger has more liberatory possibility and hope, compared to disgust which feels flattened and stagnant.
- If people can be capable, they can be accountable.
Close Reading: Perspective and Representation
Method and Style
Unlocking the method and style of America’s Jails holds the key to understanding its double-nature and the type of reading it is asking of the reader.
Superficially speaking, that is to say the features on the surface of the book – as well as those contained within the introductory and concluding chapters – provide the most direct expression of the author’s aims and strategies. In America’s Jails, the relevant surface features are genre indicators, descriptive copy, epigraphs, and content from the introduction and conclusion.
Genre Confusion and Narrative Inconsistency
Most notably, the book – published by New York University Press – bears the subscriptions “criminology” and “alternative criminology” on its cover – two labels that lead to a vague notion that the text’s nature may not be all that it seems. As a category, “criminology” designates a genre where much consideration is given to the veracity of an account. Alternative Criminology is a special category that designates the publisher’s created book series. Currently edited by Jeff Ferrell, a sociologist at Texas Christian University and visiting criminologist at the University of Kent, the series:
is founded on an eclectic, cutting-edge sensibility that seeks to broaden mainstream criminological thinking” and “addresses and encourages the ongoing development of new criminological perspectives that challenge conventional understandings of crime, justice, and social control.
While such a buzzword-laden rebranding could, cynically or with some ire, be observed as a good way to sell more books, I think it’s fair to say that “alternative criminology” also reflects an earnest attempt to categorize the work of community of scholars sharing certain assumptions concerning society, crime, and punishment.
But calling America’s Jails an “alternative criminology” text is problematic because it’s untrue.
While the Jeffreys may have pitched his book as an “alternative” to mainstream criminological and social scientific approaches to crime and punishment, the book fails to offer anything that might be considered as provocative or new. Jeffreys’ does not “challenge conventional understandings of crime, justice, and social control.” On the contrary, he reifies and reinforces them. Ironically, that this book was published by a non-profit university press where social justice branding is nearly universal demonstrates the “cutting-edge sensibility” of Jeffreys’ project.
America’s Jails is old wine in new bottles; a fake thing pretending to be real. A non-alternative alternative that perpetuates a culture of punishment. We know this because the author’s views and perspective on crime, justice, and social control are exactly the same as the State, and since the State doesn’t identify as “alternative” or “radical,” then Jeffreys isn’t alternative or radical either. It’s really as simple as that.
But more complicated, is this book’s official genre category of . “criminology” given that Jeffreys has made it more than clear vehemently that his project is in-no-way-shape-or-form methodologically criminological or sociological. Throughout the book, Jeffreys presents his project as a much-needed critique of criminology and sociology that he accuses of having too often ignored history, neglected the lived experiences of prisoners, and confused rhetoric for reality. In his conclusion, Jeffreys’ stance becomes even more direct when he writes:
“[A]s established fields, criminology and sociology fail in their attempts to “overcome the evils” that plague the criminal justice system by treating crime as a technical matter, rather than a moral one” (p. 165).
The debate becomes game, set, match in the first several pages of the introduction, where Jeffreys, not known for his clarity or directness, tells the reader – twice – that he is NOT a criminologist (nor does he appear to play one on TV):
- “I am neither a sociologist nor a criminologist, and will therefore offer no original social-scientific research in this book. I am a professor religion and philosophy who believes it’s important to engage with social-scientific and historical approaches to punishment” (p. 3).
- “Because I am not a criminologist, I don’t follow all the debates about reform and abolition, but I have learned a great deal from them” (p. 11). (This is a remarkable statement given that: (a) it doesn’t make any sense; and (b) Jeffreys devotes 30-40% of the book to the “reform vs. abolition” debate).
So, what can we make of a book that claims – all at once – to be criminology, alternative criminology, and not-at-all criminology?
According to Jeffreys, America’s Jails is philosophical and anchored in the “early phenomenological tradition” of Husserl and other Dead European White Men. I don’t know much about phemenology, but Jeffreys is talking about pre-Heidegger phenomenology. In the final pages, he reiterates his method, writing:
“In this book, I have added the philosophically sophisticated perspective of phenomenology to contemporary discussions of the jail” (p. 175).
To me, this raises alarm bells and indicates there’s definitely something disturbing and elusive brewing in this book. Calling an 18th century phenomenology indebted to 1920s psychoanalysis a “radical” and “edgy” seems more than a little problematic? After all, it is 2019. Granted, I don’t speak with expertise on phenomenology, but something doesn’t sound right.
For one thing, I did not read this book as phenomenology; I think it is more a religiousy autobiographical novel (a confessional memoir?), and I do not mean that as an indictment of phenomenology, to which I would not apply that label in general.
I am more than confident that this book’s best genre clue rests in the epigraphs preceding the introduction and conclusion chapters. Epigraphs are often short quotations that serve to link a text to other well-known, published works. In Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts, Joseph Harris describes epigraphs as commenting on the text that follows by setting tone and suggesting a perspective. “When done well,” he argues, “an epigraph can serve as a kind of poetic précis of a text, summing up its main scope – even if its full meaning does not always become clear until the piece has been read through and epigraph considered a second time” (2006, pp. 30–31).
In America’s Jails, these symbolic passages come from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel, House of the Dead. In this story, the reader experiences prison life from the perspective of Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov who been sentenced to a decade in prison for murdering his wife in an act of domestic violence (a sentence that was remarkably mitigated due to his confession of the crime). As a newcomer and a “gentleman,” life in prison is terrible for Goryanchikov, who writes of the squalid living conditions, the packed crowds of “living dead.” He experiences repulsion at his circumstances. However, gradually over time his views on prison life – namely, prisoners – change as he takes note of their humanity, and eventually he undergoes a spiritual transformation that culminates in his release from prison.
The introductory epigraph represents a symbolic passage at a key moment in the book where the narrator experiences a spiritual re-awakening that enables him to finally “see the light.” Across four dense sentences, Goryanchikov experinces an epiphany about prison life and human nature, “discovering” that “real life” is just too messy, cluttered, and multifarious to allow for the classification and abstracting of prisoners, of people. He finally realizes that what a person calls their own life – that is, their “inner life” – is too stubbornly entrenched to bend to outside pressures and control:
“But I have been trying to classify all prisoners and that is hardly possible. Real life is infinite in its varieties in comparison with even the cleverest abstract generalization and it does not admit of sweeping distinctions. The tendency of real life is always toward greater and greater differentiation. We, too, had a life of our own sort and it was not a mere official existence but an inner life of its own.”
The final epigraph is a bit more mysterious, but seems to be suggesting to me Jeffreys’ emphasis on public safety for accepting prisons as a tragic fact of life. Here, the rhetoric of danger is prominent as Dostoevsky writes about a “criminal” made more dangerous by their imprisonment.
“Of course, prisons and penal servitude do not reform the criminal; they only punish him and protect society from further attacks on its security. In the criminal, prison and the severest hard labor only develop hatred, lust for forbidden pleasures and a fearful levity.”
By all accounts, House of the Dead is the canonical parallel of America’s Jails – in the sense that Jeffreys has obviously used this book as his template for constructing his book. The similarities are too striking to be coincidental when you consider that House of the Dead is: (a) famous for its uncertainties regarding genre, subtly lingering between fiction, philosophical musings, documentary, and memoir; (b) characterized a distinctly detached, “objective” hero-narrator who stands back, focusing more on categorizing the personalities and events of the other prisoners, but who, from time to time, allows his introspective voice to come through; and (c) presented more as a personal diary or a series of vignettes experienced by the author, pulled together by a common “theme”; (d) a book with deep religious undertones. These are only a few of the similarties.
Jeffreys has essentially used the ficitional account of Russian prison life in House of the Dead as a blueprint for his entire book. A non-fiction “criminology” book. The use of this book as a template raises major questions about the veracity of this account, as well as the author’s trustworthiness and credibility. America’s Jails also belongs to a class of books that straddles the border between fact and fiction. As I see it, America’s Jails is a wannabe Dostoeviskian portrayal of the contemporary jail system from the not-so-Dostoeviskian perspective of outsider. It’s a shallow and egergiously unethical attempt to mirror its tone, themes, structure, and, most importantly, it’s ambiguous genre – presenting itself as a nonfiction scholarly anti-prison polemic while modeling the exact same delusive fictional shell for the presentation of Jeffreys own observations and true-to-life memories of the US jail system.
House of the Dead is a work of prison literature – straddling uneasily the borders between fictional novel and autobiographical memoir. The book presents an authentic account of prison life in Russia, narrated from the perspective of a fictiona prisoner-person. The authenticity of the account comes from Dostoevsky’s personal experience and authority to speak on matters related to incarceration. As a political prisoner in a Siberian work camp, Dostoevsky’s perspective allows him to write about an insider on the inside from the perspective of an insider.
America’s Jails is also advertised as a book written about insiders on the insider from the perspective of insiders. The descriptions on the back cover were the reason I chose to read this book. I expected this book to tell the story of jail from the perspective of prisoners. Consider the two paragraphs of descriptive copy, each seems to be indicating that this book will be a prisoner-victim-centered discourse:
- “In America’s Jails, Derek Jeffreys draws on sociology, philosophy, history, and his personal experience as a volunteer in jails and prisons to reach a full understanding of the jail experience from the inmates perspective, focusing on the stigma that surrounds incarceration.”
- “Highlighting the experiences of inmates themselves, America’s Jails aims to shift public perception and understanding of jail inmates to center their inherent dignity and help eliminate the stigma attached to their incarceration.”
This is all a lie. America’s Jails only claims to be an insider on the inside account of the essential of jail experience from the perspective of insiders. In reality, this book is written from the perspective of an outsider on the insider (in the most superficial way) presenting an understanding of the day-to-day reality of jail experience of insiders from his perspective. Whether this is false advertising or self-sabotage, the result makes for an exasperating read.
This is one lie of many, but it’s a significant one. The absence of prisoner voices in this book illustrates one of the biggest problems found in modern stories of mass incarceration as the issue is not only what is being said but who is speaking as well. Given the history of privileged white outsiders claiming the “truth” or marginalized lives better than marginalized people themselves—and the exercises of power which such claims have enabled—the author’s choice to center himself is absolutely reprehensible.
In America’s Jails, Jeffreys shapes an experience of jail that begins with himself and is much more in service of the experience than it is to external facts and context. With this perspective, the jail is constantly mystified and mythologized. It is against this backdrop that I argue that America’s Jails ritualizes a violent order, rather than disturb or disrupt it. This book is a pro-prison discourse because it others prisoners by presenting them in sharp contrast to “exceptional” heroes – the author as well as police and prison staff.
Visual criminologist Michelle Brown (2009) uses the notion of “penal spectator” to describe the individual and institutional means of looking at other’s people’s pain from a distance and perpetuating ideologies and indexing logics of punishment in the process. As such, penal spectatorship allows the spectator to witness and consume the pain of others, without direct participation in the visceral realities of crime, victimization, and punishment. Brown refers to the penal spectator as someone who “looks in on punishment and yet is also the author.” This means that the author is in control of the punishment they are looking at. As such, they can create their own reality.
For Jeffreys, (what is taken to be) “reality” relies solely upon an ersatz interior account of the conditions of jails and the prisoners within them from viewpoint of the author. Bizarrely, prisoners’ experiences, their views, feelings, fears, and yearnings are omitted. Their knowledge, subjugated and marginalized, would have provided an alternative truth to the authors’ dissembling definition of penal reality. None are quoted, and in the cases where they are described, they usually serve either to repeat his conclusions back to him or to serve as a negative object.
Jeffreys uses a form of penal spectatorship that is rooted in the first-person, subjective exploration of jail and self. Despite its promise to focus center the lived experience of prisoners, this book focuses on the author’s self-transformation – and not prisoners. The reader experiences the day-to-day reality inside US jails from the perspective of Jeffreys who purports to be modeling the experiences of prisoners. Jail, as experienced from the author’s pathos-filled perspective, involves voyeuristic suffering, egregious appropriation of prisoners’ voices, and silent apathy toward the real violence directed at the vulnerable. This method relies solely on the author’s personal experience and his self-transformation. The result is the rhetorical erasure of the victims.3
This form of prison spectatorship is also referred to as prison voyeurism which “attempts to understand and/or experience corrections without intimately engaging in the subject matter” and is often “characterized in terms of economic, physical, mental, emotional, and psychological investment in an experience” (Ross 2015, p. 400). Basically, prison voyeurism as an approach reflects both a failure to meaningfully engage with the subject material and a possible means by which an author can gesture towards a meaningful, substantive exploration of incarceration while actually using prison in a shallow way that enables the author to center themselves.
Prison voyeurism reproduces myths and misconceptions about mass incarceration that frustrate society’s abilities to reform. This is because, as an approach, prison voyeurism is defined by the following:
- Author’s outside on inside perspective
- Reader shares the author’s perspective
- Perpetuates voyeuristic perspective
In America’s Jails, Jeffreys employs this notion of penal voyeurism through the form of a jail tour, where the author, a white male professor of religion and philosophy, privileges his own emotional experiences to “describe some of the conditions that inmate experience” (p. 16). This is a method that constantly mystifies and mythologizes jail. The substance of the author’s experience in this book, as it were, comes primarily from two private tours of Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, in 2013 and 2014, as an “authorized visitor” (p. 15) of Sheriff Tom Dart. From this point of view – the warden’s special guest – Jeffreys shapes an experience of jail that begins with himself and is much more in service of the experience than it is to external facts, providing readers “with a snapshot” (p. 24) of what he witnessed. Jeffreys’ privileged status and mobility enabled him to “stumble,” by chance, in and out of events4, which he reports in meticulous detail for the reader as representative of jail, as it really is. While this research approach might be intriguing to some, prison tours as a method are morally and intellectually useless: at best they are non-informative, usually a charade. At worse they co-opt or enable the visitor into a dehumanizing spectacle.
The prison tour, even as it brings visitors into contact with the original architecture and machinery of the penitentiary, acts carefully to distance us as outsiders in its privileging of cultural associations and stereotypical images of criminals over a more thoughtful structure, which links history with the unprecedented contemporary dimensions and sociology of imprisonment. (Brown 2009, p. 113).
Jeffreys method of prison spectatorship/prison voyeurism reinforces stereotypes pernicious stereotypes about prisoners and prison staff, and therefore, happens our ability to move beyond punitive mentalities. As a spectator to a sensational, and seductive, spectacle of disgust, Jeffreys invites his readers to celebrate the easeful and ever dangerous commingling of the prison and self. Jeffreys uses prisoners as philosophical “tools” meant to re-center the humanity of himself and other heroes – police and prison personnel. In this book, prisoners aren’t people; they are tropes, caricatures, and anecdotes to spice up a privileged “intellectual” discourse. If person’s life is only valuable insofar as those in power can be separated from their bodies to highlight someone else’s experience while the same incarcerated people remain degraded, then this “value” is actually violence.
Despite claiming to center the dignity of the incarcerated, it only takes Jeffreys six pages into the introduction to shoot himself in the foot and betray his proffered cause. This book is framed against against mythical mainstream representations of jail that he claims reinforce a greater societal tendency to demonize police and prison guards by frequently portraying “sadistic wardens and malevolent correctional officers” in the popular media, which appeal to a fearful public seeking “a villain they claim blame.” He writes:
“Undoubtedly, the U.S. penal system contains no shortage of abusive personnel: corrupt judges, power-hungry sheriffs, pandering prosecutors, and violent and abusive corrections officers. However, I resist the temptation to demonize those working in corrections. Corrections officers have a very difficult job, and on a daily basis deal with troubled and violent people. I have met many corrections personnel who struggle to make positive changes in a broken criminal justice system. In this book, I feature people who accomplish remarkable things in horrible circumstances.”
Now, there are several things to say about this, but let’s start with claim itself: Jeffreys’ point is so sharp that it becomes narrow, and there’s a begged question that holds together everything as follows: What popular television shows and movies has he been watching of late?
Not only is this a non sequitur, with the typical tortured use of “many” to avoid empirically anchoring an anecdote, it’s also morally repugnant nonsense. Mainstream media depictions of cops is exactly the opposite of what Jeffreys is claiming here. They are most often portrayed as fair and just in every situation, that every criminal deserves what they get.
It would be nice for Jeffreys to provide an example of what he is referring to but, as will become clear throughout this long post, Jeffreys speaks in abstracts and categories – never individual examples or citations. It is safe to say that the reason he does not give us any more information about these hypothetical demonizing tv shows about jails is because they do not exist. But if they do, I’d would love to know what they are. I’ll wait…
In the meantime, the truth is that the media routinely present police and prison officials as heroes. Noble, risk-taking, selfless, altruistic, who sacrifice themselves for the good of the community and are constantly put in harms way by evil or crazy criminals. As for the widespread demonization of cops by the US public? A Gallup poll in late 2017 found that 56 percent of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of cops as high or very high, an approval rating comparable to high school teachers and dentists – hardly your typical villains. Only 12 percent of respondents had low or very low opinions of police honesty. And this is not a reflection, for the most part, of people’s actual interactions with police. It’s the reflection of how television dramas and local news specifically portray cops.
This book provides a useful study of how the carceral architecture of white supremacy is expanding right now via bipartisan criminal justice reform.
What Jeffreys is parroting here is a form of “blue racism” propagandist garbage invented by police departments that seek to turn around criticisms of racism against the police by claiming that it’s actually the police who are victims of racism: it treats “blue” as a race, arguing that a police badge and uniform colors is how typical Americans see a person, with negative results. Its objectively false, white nationalist garbage. And I’m certain that’s the premise upon which this book sits. America’s Jails meets all the criteria for being “copaganda” – a term generally used to describe puff pieces, typically fed to the local news by the police himself, that’s designed to burnish the perception and reputation of the police. There will be A LOT more evidence for this claim shortly.
In any case, returning to the above passage, it just so happens that everything you need to know about what makes Jeffreys such a compelling and reasonable sounding intellectual is right there. The elements that define this passage have evolved by now into a unique and inimitable style, one well-suited to an “post-racial” era seeking a parsimonious, condensed, and comfortable, and even, feel-good account of societal carcerality. In this way, this book almost immediately identifies itself as a hit among a wider (and whiter) audience who want to learn something about a topic in a way that does not demand rigor or any emotional downsides and is entertaining, and even fun, to “understand.”
From my perspective, the most fundamental problem with the book stems from the author’s overwhelming and questioned sympathy and defense of police and prison guards who, beyond Jeffreys’ personal opinions, have not remotely earned or even ethically warranted such praise or benefit of the doubt. This a pedestal that we are better off leaving empty. Jeffreys doesn’t just praise them, though. He romanticizes them to a degree that sets off alarm bells regarding his personal involvement with his prison and police sources (whose opinions on prison violence and jail life are presented uncritically as truth even though its objectively established that cops lie all the time) and political motivations for writing this book. Again, if this book were merely another popular right-wing, evangelical text on “prison reform,” it wouldn’t be worth getting worked up about. But this book presents itself as a respectable scholarly text by an author who has apparently done a good enough job of hiding its lack of rigor and lack of morals that I find it worthwhile to analyze just how much this book fails to be what it claims to be.
Of course, because you can only spin the truth so far, Jeffreys is unable to dismiss the existence of bad cops too. After all, he understands that violence against prisoners is morally inexcusable and that it is overwhelmingly committed by cops. But he also wants the reader to believe that these are rogue cops, not all of them, and by creating a caesura between the abusive state – “corrupt judges, power-hungry sheriffs, pandering prosecutors, and violent and abusive correctional officers” (p. 6) – and “hardworking and dedicated” prison staff, he can make his argument seem reasonable and convincing even when it’s objectively false. By abstracting the thousands of people who are killed by police or die in jail each year, reducing statistics to “systematic violence and neglect,” Jeffreys can plug in a straw man that assumes “both sides” share equal culpability and power which has never been true. This tactic may come dressed in a veneer of concern and moral parity but it’s nothing more than a performative way to pathologize criminality and victim-blame. This is all at odds with the unkept promises of this book. Demanding that abusers and oppressors be coddled, without contrition or change, isn’t morality. It is also oppression.
Such an approach epitomizes a phenomenon described by Teju Cole as “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” which, he writes, “is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Through each brush with danger and encounter with the oppressed, Jeffreys earns his otherwise cushy and free lifestyle.
It bears mention that the people who Jeffreys almost chooses to help are young mothers. In one interaction that is remarkable, for both its deviation from his usual stories and for its incredulity, Jeffreys paints himself as a hero who has his hands tied. When I first read it, I couldn’t even contain my incredulity, writing in the margins: “This NEVER happened. Fake News.” Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that Jeffreys fabricated all of the accounts in this book. On the other hand, I’m not not saying that the following account isn’t 1000% completely fabulist fanfic. Both sides, you see. Since the passage is long, I will only quote the most relevant parts. However, the context for this scene is also noteworthy in ways that I will hopefully elucidate later with other examples. In this word-image, Jeffreys is narrating his tour of Cook County Jail’s new Residential Treatment Unit (RTU), specifically a dormitory for prisoners with mental illness. He begins his description by observing a room full of video visitation screens that have been implemented to replace face-to-face visits, a measure that he cannot seem to comprehend despite the fact that this is by now an established trend throughout the US jail system for a while now. In this scene, Jeffreys is just about to approach a jail guard for more information on this switch-a-roo, when he is suddenly interrupted. Jeffreys writes:
“I was approached by several women begging me and my guide to return them to a part of the facility where they could see their children. I, of course, could say nothing, but my guide told these women that there was nothing that could be done. They had been determined to have mental illness, and must remain in the new unit. One woman angrily denied that she was mentally ill, and became so upset that we had to retreat from her. Although I understood the need to save money, I couldn’t fathom how the jail could help people recover from mental illness by denying them close contact with family” (p. 32).
Of note, the passage ends with a rare citation in the form of a footnote, which, when followed brings the reader to the following entry:
“Human Rights Watch (2015). This report provides numerous examples of staff violence against inmates with mental illness in jails and prisons” (p. 186).
The massive report that Jeffreys is referring is based on a yearlong study of neglect by prison staff against prisoners with mental illness in the nation’s 5,100. “Callous and Cruel: Use of Force Against Inmates with Disabilities in U.S. Jails and Prisons. It’s a very harrowing and important report that was produced to account for the horrific neglect and violence that prison staff have inflicted upon prisoners suffering from mental illness, including assaulting them with chemical sprays, shocking them with powerful stun guns, and strapping them for days in restraining chairs and beds. The report contains This numerous accounts of staff who have broken prisoners’ jaws, noses, ribs; left them with lacerations requiring stitches, second-degree burns, and damaged organs. In some cases, this force has led to their death as was the case with Jerome Laudman, an intellectually disabled prisoner who suffered from schizophrenia, who, while being transferred to a supermax facility was severely beaten by prison guards (despite reports that he was neither combative nor threatening), who sprayed him with chemical agents. Upon his arrival at the new prison, he was stripped naked and put in a cold, bare concrete cell, where he was left for days until a guard noticed that he didn’t look so good and decided to transfer him to a hospital where he was diagnosed with hypothermia and later died of a heart attack.
For Jeffreys to make a statement, not only a claim, but accusation of assault against a nameless woman with mental illness and then footnote it with a report that documents the widespread and systematic neglect of people with mental illnesses in jails is appalling. And it tells you everything you need to know about how Jeffreys can produce a moral reprehensible book with just enough careful touches and elements of truth that it can pass as reasonable and compelling sounding from a scholar who appears to have thought carefully about what he’s doing. He sure has, but the image of Jeffreys as a reasonable and rigorous scholar is far from accurate.
There are other issues here, obvious, with the cost-saving part which Jeffreys seems to completely accept as valid, demonstrating either his “fiscally sociopath conservative” political leanings or his in ability to critically engage in anything. (Lastly, there is the weird phrasing of “they were determined to have mental illness” – who says that?).
The white savior complex is on display in one more example that borders on parody in the sense that it defies belief. In the following passage, Jeffreys narrates the absolutely embarrassingly implausible “event” of walking into a jail with as a white dude with a cop and being immediately approached by a hoard of prisoners, begging him to post their bail and regaling him with impromptu confessions about nature of the crimes for which they are “legally innocent” (according to Jeffreys) and still awaiting trial. He writes:
“When I entered a male dormitory one afternoon, numerous inmates suddenly surrounded me. Some thought I was a lawyer, and begged me to intervene to help them post bail. They were disappointed when they learned that I was a professor who couldn’t offer them legal aid. Others told me sad stories of being arrested for minor property theft or inappropriate public behavior. Initially, some inmates seemed rational, but then told strange and incoherent stories” (p. 30).
This farcical vignette is so audacious and vulgar that it defies comprehension. It simply has no basis in reality. Again, I can’t say that this absolutely did not occur, but I will say that this did not occur in reality. Moreover, the fact that Jeffreys the fact that Jeffreys needs to construct such embarrassingly silly narratives “events” in order to center himself with a halo before a flock of sinners is something that should be worked out with a professional therapist, at the very least.
The value-judgements dripping in these “reports” passes the point of parody. Did anyone insist upon verification or support for these claims. Did anyone during the peer review process at New York University Press that I’m not allowed to know about suggest anything here? Did these “events” actually occur and were they addressed by editor?
[Narrator: “They didn’t and they weren’t”]
America’s Jails is less interesting for its anecdotes and arguments than as an epitome of contemporary rhetorical style that wants above all to be civil and reasonable. With the accoutrements of logical thinking and endless adverbs, Jeffreys can actively set the conditions for a more gauzy and comfortable conversation about mass incarceration is rooted in conflict avoidance and denial and serves to establish a power-serving tautology that centers the humanity of an unthreatened majority at the expense of its vulnerable victims. By always teetering around the margins of acceptable opinion, Jeffreys finds safety in the middle. What we get is a whitewashed, unsourced, and revisionist narrative.
It is not just that this book represents yet another conventional story of mass incarceration by an outsider authority who has appointed him a relevant arbitrator on matters he is only tenuously familiar with but that Jeffreys has actually written a reasonable (enough) sounding and compelling book that contains enough rhetorical moves to disguise its conservative and religious agenda. In fact, it’s a book that doesn’t really seem to have politics. At least not on its surface. This set-up makes the author’s proposed conservative right-wing policies seem “reasonable” in the short run, while ensuring the prison industrial complex is entrenched with new avenues for profiteering.
At the same time, Jeffreys employs rhetorical tics and modes of prose that portray him as an “objective” and detached observer – giving an aire of reasonableness and authoritative authorship to the text. But this view of Jeffreys as a reasonable and conscientious scholar is far from accurate. Rather than handle the sensationalism of its material with great care and insight; this book promotes the narcissism of the privileged white gaze – a gaze that often has a cis male heterosexual structure – to an unconscionable degree.
He accomplishes a lot by remaning super vague and speaking in platitudes to avoid being called out and forced to reveal his odious political motivations. With all the accoutrements of logical thinking and a barrage of adverbs, Jeffreys can actively set the conditions for a more gauzy and fun conversation about mass incarceration. It’s an example of what Tayari Jones calls “the ‘both sides are good phenomenon’ phenomenon, an approach rooted rooted in conflict avoidance and denial.” This allows Jeffreys to live a Manichaean world where he can easily lament “the degrading character of the arrest process in the case of Chicago policing, which has often exhibited racism and violence towards those arrested,” but in the next sentence write, “The Chicago Police Department is an enormous institution with many fine employees who treat people well” (p. 133). Throughout the book, Jeffreys presents himself as an author unduly production of his own magnanimity in admitting that he will not hold anyone accountable for abuse or violence. However, such elaborate syntactical balancing evens out at meaningless. What Jeffreys’ refuses to see is that there are no “both sides have a point” when one side is dehumanization and other is survival. There are material fucking consequences for people’s lives and this faux-intellectualism has no place in a book about mass incarceration.
Reasonableness and civility are just ploys that allow one to just amble along, shouting things like “All Lives Matter” and “shut up with your protests and violent protests” and “let’s just get to dignified politics” where everything is just a matter of opinion, “agree to disagree,” and nothing actually changes ever and you know exactly the same shit will happen again and again and again because no one is challenging anything in any case.
An important support for the portrayals in this book is language.
Use of Stigmatizing Terms
Jeffreys refers to prisoners and marginalized as: inmates, criminals, jail targets (militaristic), undocumented. They are never referred as victims.By contrast, captors are accorded respect with titles: correctional/jail officers (as opposed to guards, captors, criminals, abusers). Behind such language is a pervasive double standard in how we often think about crime.
Representations of “People” in Prison
Right-wing populists like Jeffreys often present themselves as siding with the “people” against the opposition (enemy). Importantly, “the people” represented by the author is ill-defined for strategic reasons, allowing him to call a particular “people” into being.
“Other people find convenient excuses or rationalizations to ignore violations of inherent dignity. They claim to know little about the jails in their community. Or they assume that all inmates are liars who fabricate stories about jail violence. Finally, they may harbor strong views about American exceptionalism that blind them to the brutality of our jails. For many Americans, terrible violence in jails simply doesn’t happen in their country; it occurs only in unjust regimes in other countries. Such thinking enables them to turn away from obvious assaults on dignity in their local jails” (p. 94).
A Specifically White “We”
- “We are also learning more about the racial discrimination that pervades our criminal justice system” (p.155).
Jeffreys and I do not fight for the same thing. There is no “us.” There is Them and any attempt to minimize state violence makes you an enemy.
Important point: the opposition (enemy) crafted throughout this book’s discourse style is not simply targeting the author, but also “the people” represented by the author. Yet, much like the vague and shadowy enemy looming in the midst, “the people” is ill-defined for strategic reasons and allows the author the ability to call a particular “people” into being. In this case, “other people” is the author himself.
He uses the metaphor of assault – both in his first person accounts of jail experience, as well as in his philosophical discussion of dignity and disgust. The use of the metaphor in both types of writing indicates that Jeffreys considers himself a “victim” of the degrading conditions of jail. This particular metaphor is explicit and forceful given that he intentionally hides away the actual, real violence that occurs against vulnerable prisoners – the real life victims.
- “We entered a maze of tunnels, and I immediately experienced sensory assault” (p. 15).
- “Horrible sanitary conditions in jails assault inherent dignity by stifling a person’s capacity to express self-transcendence” (p. 94).
Moral Use of Marginalized
Jeffreys writes early in the book of his decision to use “marginalized” as a word to “refer to those whom the jail targets” (p. 5). While this seems like a progressive move, it’s not quite the one it’s claimed to be. This is because it is not concerned with individual liberation, social equality, and social justice. In fact, as Jeffreys describes it: “I use it in a moral and nonmoral sense to include a variety of people. It can refer to those who commit terrible crimes and evil acts that endanger others. Or it can denote those whom a community finds (with or without good reason) problematic, different, risky, or annoying” (p. 5). In other words, marginalized is operationalized in a way that makes it morally useless since it can be applied to anyone. It’s important to note that in the decision to use “marginalized” was based on the suggestion anonymous reviewer during the peer review process at NYU press who suggested that it replace his earlier term, “deviant” which Jeffreys wants to assure us was intended in an entirely sociological and nonmoral sense (p. 181). The problem with Jeffreys’ earlier desire to use the controversial term “deviant” in a nonmoral sense minimizes the fact that the term represents more than the sum of its parts. There is a deep embedded meaning in the term and the word represents much more than its intended sociological usage.
To make such an extreme claim in a book published by a leading university press, surely one must have some pretty damning evidence? Nah. Gut feelings and opinions are fine.
- “I have met many corrections personnel who struggle to make positive changes in a broken criminal justice system” (p. 6).
- “Not all U.S. jails are mismanaged hellholes. Some compassionate sheriffs and staff work hard to prevent violence and maintain minimally decent health care and sanitation” (p. 66).
- “I have a friend who works in a jail that negotiated a DOJ Consent Decree. Monitors conduct regular inspections, and the jail has seen some important improvements. Jail conditions remain imperfect, and problems at the facility persist. However, my friend welcomes the DOJ’s presence, likening it to parents keeping an eye on their children. He believes that such a watchful eye is a positive development, and hopes that the DOJ will bring enduring changes” (p. 134).
- “In my years teaching in prisons and jails, I have spent a lot of time talking to corrections officers. Sometimes I meet veteran officers who work hard to respect the dignity of inmates…They give orders and expect inmates to follow them, yet speak respectfully to them. They also strive to treat inmates fairly” (p. 152). (The final pages of the conclusion end with four paragraphs devoted to veteran prison guards who have informed this entire theory).
How Jeffreys’ personal experience or opinions from his friends are worth anything of value in this conversation is beyond me. Your fucking opinions are not evidence. And yet…such unsupportable generalizations billow on and on in this book.
It should be obvious that an explanation of institutional change that hangs on the official claims of prison personnel themselves is clearly inadequate, even if – and this is a crucial caveat – those prison personnel are honestly conveying what they think they are doing and why.
Who are these people and what are these positive changes? I, for one, would like to see this evidence. Who are these people and what are these positive changes? What are some examples of non-hellish jails? Please cite one example of the “jail officials [who]rarely abandon inmates…but instead treat them humanely” (p. 44). I’ll wait…
Sloppy Treatment of Mental Illness
Jeffreys slapdash analysis of mental illness is probably the most irritating component of this book. Again, I am angry because I care about this topic. My jail experience is directly related to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. While my experience is only my own and doesn’t remotely speak to the violence and neglect suffered by others, I have seen first-hand how often prison staff neglect the severely mentally ill by not only refusing them medication (which has been my experience and the experience of many people I have talked to, which is in stark contrast to Jeffreys claim that psychiatric staff are hampered the procedural red tape involved in obtaining legal authority to forcibly medicating prisoners in severe mental distress; something Jeffreys absolutely believes is unfair to prison staff as it can “involve a hearing that takes a day or longer, and requires staff members to go to court” (p. 29). I spent months in a state hospital only to come back to a jail and be refused my court-ordered medication for several days. In fact, I never received it because I was bonded out. I later found out all along that the jail had the prescription but refused to give me my medications. I would also like to point out that I had a great attorney working on my behalf, as well as outside advocates, and my mental health was still neglected. Which is why it absolutely enrages me to see Jeffreys recasts jailers as caring social service providers, going so far as to “marvel” at the “commitment” of “a dedicated young psychiatrist” who managed to doing no more than “work with patients all day” – his literal chosen profession for which he is paid (p. 29). Again, if these statements provoke or unsettle the reader that’s because Jeffreys is lying. But I will admit that, on their own, these are rather uninteresting. They function in their totality to tell a disgusting fabulist account of US jails that is odious.
“Mental health care areas can be dangerous places for inmates and staff” (p. 30).
This is only ever meaningful when its also followed up with facts about how people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. Individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses in terms of fear of violence, are victimized by police at rates 65 to 130 percent more frequently according to police incident reports (Metzl and MacLeish 2015). Jeffreys follows this statement up with a paragraph devoted to a sensationalist media story where a mentally ill inmate murdered other inmates. He offers no vignettes or case studies of violence against mentally ill prisoners by prison staff. Rather, he presents two more extreme examples of people with schizophrenia who gouged their eyes out while in custody. Of the other news stories, Jeffreys features prisoners who engage in self-harm or suicide.
“A psychologist I met worked hard to help inmates” (p. 31) – This is presented without any explanation or further information about how or what this even means. And we are just supposed to believe this statement. And that’s a tough thing to do given that the vast majority of drug dealers have better ethics than Jeffreys.
“I met a dedicated young psychiatrist who worked with acute care patients. I admired his commitment and marveled at how he could work with patients all day” (p. 29).
“Dedicated but overwhelmed health staff struggle to help these inmates in some minimal way. Overall, custodial and therapeutic goals seemed to coexist awkwardly at the Cook County Jail” (p. 31).
I spoke with the social workers doing them [intake mental health interviews] and expressed admiration for the difficult job they were performing” (p. 25-26).
In another example, Jeffreys claims that if Cook County Jail is neglectful towards the mentally ill, its because they cannot find qualified mental health staff since “correctional mental health is an extremely difficult job” (p. 32). How so? He doesn’t say. He wants to present this as obvious but such statements require explanation and evidence. It is not remotely clear how correctional mental healthcare is. more difficult than working in an overcrowded, state run clinic or hospital? If it actually is more dangerous (as Jeffreys surely believes it to be), it is certainly because abusive staff, coercive punitive culture of prison is making it that way.
I have much more to say about Jeffreys’ awful treatment of mental health in this book, but I am tried of re-inventing the wheel so I am copying and pasting from some of my earlier reading notes. In particular, here are two other ways (again, of many) that Jeffreys betrays is an appalling level of ineptitude for talking with any any degree of authority on a topic where the stakes are so high:
Jeffreys uncritically deals with the calls for opening up state hospitals again by suggesting that they would be the same as they were in the 20th century with same horrors. He argues that “this narrative suffers from historical amnesia and revisionism” (p. 139). (This is silly and very uninformed for someone who talks the discourse of bioethics. See: Dominic Sisti’s work on new asylums).
On the topic of deinstitutionalization, Jeffreys writes:
“A final point I want to make regarding mental health care concerns[,] mass incarceration and mental hospitals. Contemporary criminologists and historians debate why the U.S. penal population has ballooned so incredibly in the past few decades. They offer competing explanations (the New Jim Crow, the power of prosecutors, the war on drugs, the rise of victims’ advocacy groups, economic interests), all of which illuminate this shocking phenomenon. However, only a few scholars (like Bernard Harcourt and Liat Ben-Moshe) have examined mass incarceration in light of the long U.S. tendency to incarcerate marginalized people. As I noted in chapter 2, Harcourt describes the extraordinary figure of 559,000 people in state mental hospitals in 1955. If we add to this figure other coercive (juvenile facilities, forestry camps, etc.), we have an extraordinary level of coercion in the United States even before the advent of mass incarceration. As Harcourt states, “simply put, when the data on mental hospitalization rates are combined with the data on prison rates for the years 1928 through 2000, the incarceration revolution of the late twentieth century barely reaches the level of aggregated institutionalization that the United States experienced at midcentury” (Harcourt 2006, 1754). When thinking about jails and mental illness, we should locate this phenomenon in the United States’ long and ugly history of incarcerating marginalized people. Only if we honestly confront this history will we be able to avoid simplistic responses to our current crisis of mental health care” (pp. 139-140; emphasis added).
Graph from 2006 article by Bernard Harcourt: “From the Asylum to the Prison: Rethinking the Incarceration Revolution.”
This is kinda an absurd comparison. Absurd comparisons can be useful, of course, when treated with care. But this needs some untangling. What Jeffreys is implying here is that we’ve simply moved the mentally ill out of hospitals and into prisons. But the data is NOT saying that. The prison rate ISN’T “mentally ill in prison.” It’s just total prison population, mentally ill or not mentally ill. Also, hospital and prison populations were very different: hospital patients were older, whiter, more female. Not just moving the same population. The graph – Jeffreys’s interpretation of it anyway – seems to imply that we just emptied the hospitals into the prisons. What really happened is far more complex and harder to disentangle. Obviously attitudes about treating various populations has changed during the 1970s. I am NOT saying that the lines aren’t causally linked. But the link is far more complex than a simple one-line-down-up graph suggests. Sadly, the last rigorous analysis of mental health problems among inmates was conducted in 2006 by the Department of Justice (DOJ) – more than a decade ago. Finally, there is another stats challenge with the prison-vs-civilian mental health comparisons: all people are screened for mental illness upon entering jails and prisons so we can imagine that this will lead us to overestimate the frequency of mental illness problems in prison vs. outside of prison: census vs. imperfect sample. That’s not saying “it’s not a big deal.” If anything, it likely signals how much undiagnosed mental illness exists outside prison. And to be clear, we seriously mistreat the mentally ill who are incarcerated and we always overlook the mental health harms of prison. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jeffreys’s interpretation in this quote tells a far too simplistic story about mass incarceration and mental health. (Not to mention that he seems to be suggesting that New Jim Crow, the power of prosecutors, the war on drugs, the rise of victims’ advocacy groups, economic interests are all simplistic stories which is bonkers).
(FYI: The best work I’ve seen on deinstitutionalization and prisons (not jails) suggest about a 4% to 7% prison growth from deinstitutionalization — see: Raphael & Stoll (2013) “Assessing the Contribution of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill to Growth in the U.S. Incarceration Rate”).
Ben-Moshe, Liat, Chris Chapman, and Allison C. Carey (Eds). 2014. Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
Brown, Michelle. 2009. The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle. New York: New York University Press.
Brown, Michelle. 2014. Visual Criminology and Carceral Studies: Counter-Images in the Carceral Age. Theoretical Criminology 18 (2): PAGES.
Geltzer, Jeremy. 2018. “Fake News & Film: How Alternative Facts Influence the National Discourse.” Southwestern Law Review 47: 297–334.
Gornick, Vivian. 1993. “The Reliable Reporter and the Untrustworthy Narrator.” Soundings 76 (2-3): 267–80.
Harris, Joseph. 2006. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.
Nussbaum, Martha C. 2004. “Danger to Human Dignity: The Revival of Disgust and Shame in the Law.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 50 (48): B6.
Metzl, Jonathan M. and Kenneth T. MacLeish. “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms.” American Journal of Public Health 105 (2): 240–9.
Mogul, Joey L., Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock. 2011. Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.
Ross, Jeffrey Ian. 2015. “Varieties of Prison Voyeurism: An Analytic/Interpretive Framework.” The Prison Journal 95 (3): 397–417. Available at SSRN: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2685252.
- This fieldnote/peer-review-ish approach is heavily inspired by Philip N. Cohen's process for reviewing sociological texts on his blog, Family Inequality.
- A caveat is called for here: this is a review of one book, not an assessment of Jeffreys’ work as a whole. I am not particularly interested in reading his previous work and I’m not sure I am willing to reserve judgement that it isn’t as morally problematic as this book. But this review is of his latest book only.
- By my way of thinking, for this to even be a conceivable approach is due to the ambitious and vague delineation of genre and the ruptures between form and content, fact and fiction, and myth and reality that define this text.
- What is an event? An event could be anything. Jeffreys apparently takes “events” to be the basic elements of reality. This is a characteristically narrativistic approach. His versions of truth and fact are shaped as an irregular succession of stories that seem to defy systematic explanation