PENAL TRANSITIONS AS SOCIAL OCCASIONS
A young man’s movement through the criminal justice system happens in a series of phases: the
police stop him, search him, and run his name in their database; he catches a case, gets taken into custody, gets a bail hearing, attends months or years of court dates, gets sentenced; serves time, pays fees, and comes home on probation or parole. Along the way, he may violate the terms of his supervision, for example by drinking or staying out late, or get accused of a new crime, or fail to pay his court fees and fines, or fail to attend a court date, and be issued a warrant. As he ages, he moves from juvenile detention centers to adult facilities, and from shorter sentences in county jail to longer ones in state or perhaps even federal prison. Over the course of
a young man’s passage through these stages, a number of events
present themselves: bail hearings, trial dates, and returns home after long stints locked up. These
events serve as key social occasions, for which a young man’s friends and family dress up and
argue over who should pay. People watch carefully to see who is in attendance, who is sitting
with whom, who organizes the event or sits in the first row. If the mother of the man’s children is
missing from the benches of the courtroom, talk begins to circulate that she has indeed left him for a man down the street. If a new woman is sitting next to his mother in the first row, people acknowledge her as his main partner.
At these public criminal justice proceedings, the members of a man’s social circle ded
uce where they stand in his life and where he stands in the eyes of those around him. One of the first significant social occasions that the criminal justice system provides occurs when a young man gets booked. With a young man suddenly taken from his home and placed in confinement, the question arises as to what will happen to the belongings he has left behind. Who will care for these items? Who will take responsibility for them or be allowed to use them?
In the first hours or days of a young man’s confine
ment, a tremendous redistribution of his material possessions takes place, and his partner, family, and friends watch to see whom he chooses to manage this movement of goods and to whom they will be given. * * *
Mike’s mother, Miss Regina, usually coordi
nated his legal matters, organized the attendance of his court cases, and kept the schedule for jail visits, letting those who wished to see him know what his visiting hours were and which dates had already been spoken for by others. Often, she also undert
ook the management of her son’s affairs while he was away, and when he was first
taken, she typically spent a number of days taking care of what he left behind: cleaning out the apartment he could no longer pay rent on, canceling his cell phone and paying the cancellation
fees, taking over his children’s school fees, and securing his various possessions—
cars, motorbikes, sneakers, speakers, jewelry, CDs
or selling them to pay his bills. But when Mike went back to prison on a parole violation in 2004, he appointed his new girlfriend, Tamara, to handle his affairs, mind his possessions, and give some of them to specific people. His mother called me to discuss his decision:
MISS REGINA: I got no problem with Tamara; she’s a good person. But he’s known her
, Alice. I’ve been taking care of his stuff for years. Last time, the only thing I didn’t have here was the bike.
ALICE: Yeah, Marie [the mother of his children] had it.