, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 605-620,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 23 Dec 2010

Prisoner reentry as myth and ceremony


The carceral boom in post-Civil Rights America results not from profit-seeking but from state-crafting. Accordingly, we must slay the chimera of the “Prison Industrial Complex” and forsake its derived tale of the “Prisoner Reentry Industry.” This murky economic metaphor is doubly misleading: first, most released convicts experience not reentry but ongoing circulation between the prison and their dispossessed neighborhoods; second, the institutions entrusted with supervising them are not market operators but elements of the bureaucratic field as characterized by Pierre Bourdieu. Post-custodial supervision is a ceremonial component of “prisonfare,” which complements “workfare” through organizational isomorphism, and partakes of the neoliberal reengineering of the state. Reentry outfits are not an antidote to but an extension of punitive containment as government technique for managing problem categories and territories in the dualizing city. To capture the glaring economic irrationality and bureaucratic absurdities of the oversight of felons behind as well as beyond bars, our theoretical inspiration should come not from the radical critique of capitalism but from the neo-Durkheimian sociology of organization and the neo-Weberian theory of the state as a classifying and stratifying agency.

This article was written in response to the Forum on “No Exit? The Prison Reentry Industry.” I am grateful for the diligent research assistance of Aaron Benavidez, the sharp analytic comments of Megan Comfort and Reuben Miller, and the patience of the editors of Dialectical Anthropology.