This dissertation explores the life course of individuals who were convicted of violent crimes in adolescence and young adulthood and who served long prison sentences in California in the neoliberal era. It argues that the experience of “dislocation” (Polanyi, 1944) – meaning the rupture of meaningful connection to self, others, and purpose – is essential to understanding why individuals commit acts of violence and why they desist from violence. I explore this theory as it manifests in the life histories of 35 men with whom I conducted life history interviews, all of whom were convicted of violent crimes and served time in California prisons between 1980 and 2015. I focus in particular on a cohort of 15 individuals within this broader sample who were born between 1969 and 1979 and who came of age in urban neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s.
I argue that in their early lives, the search for compensatory intimacy resulting from dislocation in the family and community evolved into a subsequent attachment to violence and destructive lifestyles that eventually led each to incarceration. The experience of incarceration under neoliberal penality, characterized by the State’s abandonment of rehabilitation, resulted in further dislocation. As the prison population began rising, leading to the overcrowding characteristic of mass incarceration, the “strategies of control” (Messinger, 1969) promoting rehabilitation and good conduct in previous eras of penal history were replaced with strategies that incapacitated, racialized, and militarized the prisoner population, highly restricting the ability of incarcerated individuals to form genuine relationships and individual identities.
Within these conditions, the private acts of individual prisoners, prison staff, and prison volunteers replaced the state-sponsored rehabilitative offerings previously available. In particular, incarcerated individuals worked with one another to survive and resist their conditions by mentoring one another and sharing resources, providing exposure to new ideas and perspectives, and encouraging each other to take advantage of the limited opportunities at their disposal, including college correspondence courses, the state-run educational and vocational programs that persisted into the neoliberal era, and volunteer-run therapeutic and educational programs.
The personal accounts of individuals experiencing these conditions suggest that the development of “generativity” (Erikson, 1993), or the propensity to promote the well-being of future generations, can occur through maturation, but is also catalyzed by the formation of meaningful relationships and the sense of being attached to a path. The life histories of the young men who came of age during the neoliberal era thus suggest that intimacy – in the form of a meaningful connection to self, community, and a path – is an essential form of survival and resistance to violence and dehumanizing conditions.