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Warehousing the Rabble

The following is from the beginning of John Irwin's classic study of jail existence, The Jail, published in 1986 and still considered relevant and keenly insightful. Indeed, there is a recent new edition of the book. The blockquote is a rather long chunk of text – sorry 'bout that – but I believe worthy of your attention -- in significant part because I will be getting into Irwin's "Warehousing the Rabble" ideas, which is what the City, County and Libby Fernandez pursue as homeless containment policies in direct opposition to Housing First and giving homeless people proper control of their restricted lives.
In a legal sense, the jail is the point of entry into the criminal justice system. It is the place where arrested persons are booked and where they are held for their court appearances if they cannot arrange bail. It is also the city or country detention facility for persons serving misdemeanor sentences, which in most states cannot exceed one year. The prison, on the other hand, is a state or federal institution that holds persons serving felony sentences, which generally run to more than one year.

The public impression is that the jail holds a collection of dangerous criminals. But familiarity and close inspection reveal that the jail holds only a very few persons who fit the popular conception of a criminal – a predator who seriously threatens the lives and property of ordinary citizens. In fact, the great majority of the persons arrested and held in jail belong to a different social category. Some students of the jail have politely referred to them as the poor: "American jails operate primarily as catchall asylums for poor people." Some have added other correlates of poverty: "With few exceptions, the prisoners are poor, under-educated, unemployed, and they belong to minority groups." Some use more imaginative and sociologically suggestive labels, such as "social refuse" or "social junk." Political radicals sometimes use "lumpen proletariat" and argue over whether its members are capable of participating in the class struggle. Some citizens refer to persons in this category as "street people," implying an excessive and improper public presence. others apply such labels as "riffraff," "social trash," or "dregs," which suggest lack of social worth and moral depravity. And many police officers, deputies, and other persons who are familiar with the jail population use more crudely derogatory labels, such as "assholes" and dirt balls."

In my own research, I found that beyond poverty and its correlates – under- education, unemployment, and minority status – jail prisoners share two essential characteristics; detachment and disrepute. They are detached because they are not well integrated into conventional society, they are not members of conventional social organizations, they have few ties to conventional social networks, and they are carriers of unconventional values and beliefs. They are disreputable because they are perceived as irksome, offensive, threatening, capable of arousal, even protorevolutionary. In this book I shall refer to them as the rabble, meaning the "disorganized" and "disorderly," the "lowest class of people."

I found that it is these two features – detachment and disrepute – that lead the police to watch and arrest the rabble so frequently, regardless of whether or not they are engaged in crime, or at least in serious crime. (Most of the rabble commit petty crimes, such as drinking on the street, and are usually vulnerable to arrest.)

These findings suggest that the basic purpose of the jail differs radically from the purpose ascribed to it by government officials and academicians. It is this: the jail was invented, and continues to be operated, in order to manage society's rabble. Society's impulse to manage the rabble has many sources, but the subjectively perceived "offensiveness" of the rabble is at least as important as any real threat it poses to society.
From my experience – from three and a half years in Homeless World Sacramento and forty days in Sacramento county jails – I believe Irwin is right, except that the radical fringe has withered and there are no longer protorevolutionaries in our midst -- though Paula Lomazzi and Cat Williams would love to see Stalinist Communism take over Sacramento.

I do believe, whether it is overt or blithering, a lot of effort is made in Sacramento to hide or impair the homeless in jails and in shelters (an extra-legal jail) and in homeless parks -- like the soon-to-come New Friendship Park that is away from the street to keep homeless folk out-of-view and out-of-mind of "respectable" Sacramentans.  This "warehousing" violates people's freedom and keeps good people from re-entering polite society. It is a tragedy; something straight out of Chuck Dickens and Vic Hugo. [Oliver Twist and Les Miserables]

It is all especially sad because leaders in our homeless-help organizations are participants in keeping the underclass corralled and under thumb and eerily tranquilized. Frankly, the more homeless people are visible, the more likely it is that they might get help. Hiding the homeless and pretending they don't exist is the worst thing we could do, IMHO.

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