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THE JAIL: MANAGING THE UNDERCLASS IN AMERICAN SOCIETY by John Irwin (University of California: $16.95; 118 pp.)

May 11, 1986|Gary L. Cunningham | Cunningham teaches criminology and history at Ventura School, California Youth Authority. and

"Free the Night Stalker. Re-Elect Rose Bird" read the bumper sticker on the car just in front of me. Tasteless and inaccurate, it nonetheless reflects the sheer emotional intensity of much of our reaction to crime. Angry, fearful and frustrated, many citizens seem barely able to contain their rage at having continually to tolerate that which they find so intolerable.

The nation's prisons, where we house those who have most noticeably trespassed against us, have been a focus for much of our resentment. John Irwin, who spent five years in just such an institution, Soledad State Prison, and is now a professor of sociology at San Francisco State University, thinks jails--as distinct from prisons--are at least equally deserving of attention: quantitatively, because every year, 30 times as many people go to jail as prison in America; and qualitatively, because it is in the jails that the initial and often the most critical decisions are made regarding the future of each and every one of them.

But why should we, the law-abiding fearful, concern ourselves with an institution that effectively if impermanently protects us from large numbers of those who threaten our homes and our bodies?

Because it doesn't. Nor was it ever intended to. The jail, says Irwin, was created for the purpose of managing the flotsam of urban society--the socially detached, disreputable and personally distasteful that form the great, perhaps permanent underclass. In short, the rabble.

Offensiveness being perceived as their primary characteristic, the rabble are people whom society would prefer not to think about, and certainly not to see. Jails exist, says Irwin, to guarantee that we need not do either. They are not criminal way stations where ample numbers of human predators are forcibly located, but simply holding tanks where vast numbers of merely sinful humanity--petty hustlers, derelicts, addicts, mental defectives, ethnic eccentrics, sexual nonconformists and the like--are temporarily and repeatedly congregated. The problem--our problem--is that instead of reducing the numbers and deviancy of its clientele, the jail systematically increases and fosters them. In Irwin's words, it is "an experience that confirms their status and replenishes their ranks."

Irwin is at his best when depicting the traumatic impact of the jailing process upon the individual. The abrupt shock of the arrest and the accompanying loss of free will, the immediate severance of meaningful contact with the outside world and its special inhabitants, and the complete loss of privacy with its equal loss of dignity result in profound personal disorientation. Disheveled and demoralized, the presumed miscreant is eventually cast back upon the streets to try again to achieve what he had so obviously failed at previously--obtaining society's acceptance.

In dealing with the inevitable closing question of what is to be done, Irwin acknowledges that the public wants the rabble to be controlled, perhaps even to suffer. Stuffing jails with them may well be the political and media diversion from the truly serious crime that is committed by corporations and respectable members of society that Irwin claims it to be. "No progress at all can be made on reforming the jail," he argues, "until we begin to reform our fundamental social arrangements." For all of its provocativeness, integrity and style, this book will not likely convince many readers of the necessity that we do so, at least not for the sake of the rabble. Although it was not the author's primary intention, I suspect that the real value of "The Jail" is that it serves to remind readers on either side of the bars, that we are all victims of crime in America.

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