Prison Talk

We firmly believe that even though a prisoner's body is locked up, their mind can always be free to travel the world and learn about anything they are interested through the magic or books.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Youth and punishment: The ‘hypercriminalization’ of black and brown boys

It’s been another travel day, which means more good airplane reading.

The book that’s kept me company while in flight today is Victor M. Rios’ fascinating “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.” Rios is a UC Santa Barbara sociologist with unique perspective on this topic.

A former gang member from Oakland, California, he learned firsthand in his mid-teens what a small break from police and educators can mean for a kid on his way to prison.

Rios made it out of gang life through the support of interested teachers, and a lucky break from a cop who gave him a last chance. His friends weren’t so fortunate. In the book, he describes how nearly ten years ago, he took stock of what had become of his former homies, 68 boys whose names were still scrawled in marker on a dilapidated refrigerator in one old friend’s garage.

Seven had been murdered, including his best friend. Six had permanent injuries from gunshot wounds. A dozen were addicted to drugs.

Only two had finished high school, and only he’d made it to college. He also learned that 28 of his former fellow gang members were doing time. The remaining 40 had all been locked up at one point or another, including Rios, a onetime car thief with several stints in juvenile hall.

What had driven them down this road? All had been subject to the same hardscrabble life in the Oakland flatlands, but there was more to it than poverty and poor role models. Seeking an answer, Rios spent three years studying the lives of 40 black and Latino teenage boys in the Oakland area.

He concluded that in communities like the ones he and they grew up in, a general culture of punishment trickles down from schools, law enforcement, community and other institutions that deeply affects these young men’s perceptions of themselves and their world long before they get involved in crime, and ultimately helps push many of them toward it.

Rios, who describes this phenomenon as a “youth control complex,” writes:

Young people, who become pinballs within this youth control complex, experience what I refer to as hypercriminalization, the process by which an individual’s everyday behaviors and styles become ubiquitously treated as deviant, risky, threatening or criminal, across social contexts.

This hypercriminalization, in turn, has a profound impact on young people’s perceptions, worldviews, and life outcomes. The youth control complex creates an overarching system of regulating the lives of marginalized young people, what I refer to as punitive social control.

Hypercriminalization involves constant punishment. Punishment, in this study, is understood as the process by which individuals come to feel stigmatized, outcast, shamed, defeated, or hopeless as a result of negative interactions and sanctions imposed by individuals who represent institutions of social control.

Rios also gets into the U.S. black and Latino incarceration rate (Latinos now make up the majority of people being sentenced to federal prison), citing familiar but still unsettling statistics: Among men ages 20 to 34, one of every nine black men is incarcerated, one of every 25 Latino men is incarcerated, and one of every 56 white men is incarcerated.

The incarceration of male adults directly affects the boys who follow them, as Rios describes:

When the forty boys in the main group were asked to write down the names of close friends and family members who were currently incarcerated, all of them knew at least six people.

One of them, Spider, knew thirty-two. He wrote down their name and age and rated, from 1 to 5, how close he felt to them. When the boys were asked to respond to the question, “From 1 to 5, 5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest, how likely do you think you are to get incarcerated in the next few months?” all of them responded with at least a 4, meaning that they all felt that their chances of being incarcerated were high or extremely high.

He continues: The young men in this study discussed prison as a familiar place. Since many of the adults they looked up to were convicts, as opposed to college graduates, and police and school personnel often treated them like prisoners, the youths became familiar with the culture and rules of prison life and even attached a sense of glamour and admiration to it, before ever serving a day in an adult jail or prison.

Rios calls for improving non-punitive support systems for young people who are at risk, arguing that the zero-tolerance policies embraced by schools and law enforcement that are aimed at deterring juveniles from crime may in fact be having the opposite effect.

The book was published this year by New York University Press. You can purchase book @

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