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Working Under Threat: Coercive Work on Parole in Los Angeles County


Coercive work occurs when people are required to work under threat of criminal legal repercussions should they fail or refuse to do so. As a requirement of their parole supervision, people on parole must search for and obtain employment; should they fail, they may face criminal legal sanctions including parole violation and reincarceration. In this dissertation, I document the prevalence of coercive work for people on parole in Los Angeles County, identify the mechanisms through which coercive work operates, and illustrate the exploitative employment conditions of coercive work. I use a novel “Hybrid-RDS” methodology to recruit participants and collect and analyze survey data from 520 people on parole in Los Angeles County and to estimate the prevalence of coercive work experiences among the county’s total parole population. To better understand the mechanisms of coercive work, these innovative “Hybrid-RDS” methods are supplemented with additional data from 40 qualitative interviews with the same population, ethnographic observations, and an analysis of official administrative documents from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and others. The findings demonstrate that, though employment is not a formal condition of parole, people on parole largely perceive employment to be a requirement – one that is backed by the threat of sanctions for failure or refusal to comply. This parolee perception is constructed through official parole rules and written documents, verbal communications by parole agents around expectations and what work is “acceptable,” and parolee past experiences of coercion, threats of sanctions, parole violations, and reincarcerations related to work. Though these parole conditions play a critical role in constructing the requirement that people on parole find employment, other conditions of parole function as barriers to work, creating a “double bind” around employment for people on parole; parole conditions constrict parolee movement and agency to such an extent that they often obstruct people’s attempts to acquire the work they are required to obtain. In the face of these requirements, barriers, and threats around employment, parolees are channeled down into exploitative working conditions in the low end of the labor market or in informal work, often outside the bounds of legal labor protections around wages, faithful representations of job duties, and worker safety. Because of their legally precarious status and the employment “double bind,” people on parole often accept these problematic working conditions in response to parole-initiated pressures to work and the perpetual threat of punitive repercussions and a return to prison.

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