Guest post by Juliana da Penha, MA in Human Rights and International Politcs at Glasgow University. Her dissertation investigates how the political discourse on the use of indefinite immigration detention is constructed in United Kingdom and examines the NGOs advocacy against it. She is community development worker with work experience in Brazil, Portugal, Italy, Cape Verde and Scotland. She is also a freelance journalist, writing about immigration, diaspora, culture and politics. Juliana is on Twitter @ju_penha_br.

Review of Caught Up – Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration by Jerry Flores (University of California Press, 2016)

How do Latina girls first come in contact with the criminal justice system in the USA? What is behind the increasing connection between schools and the criminal justice system? Once behind bars, what happens with the lives of Latina girls negotiating the American educational and penal systems? How do race, class, gender and sexuality shape girls’ experiences as they pass through these multiple institutions? How do they eventually exit the criminal justice system?

To answer these and other questions, Jerry Flores investigated two institutions – the El Valle Juvenile Detention Center and the Legacy Community School, in Los Angeles, California. 

For two years he conducted ethnographic research in these facilities, applying a multiple methods approach, conducting participant observation, focus groups and over fifty semi-structured interviews with Latina girls between twelve and nineteen years old. His findings show the problematic realities of Latina girls who run around circles between a troubled home, school, and the detention centre.

Flores starts with an extensive analysis of Latina girl’s individual experiences to understand how they first enter in contact with the criminal justice system (Chapter 1). He found that trouble at home, intergenerational poverty, unemployment, poor housing, substance abuse – as well as their strategies to escape the abuses they experience, such as moving in with their romantic partners or living on the streets -  lead girls to their first contact with the criminal justice system. Once they start their life behind bars they became confined in a difficult system where they are coerced to participate in violent behaviour, and policed in many ways (Chapter 2). 

The constant surveillance of incarcerated girl’s behaviour, even when they attend community day schools is an ‘omnipresent phenomenon’ (Chapter 3). Flores affirms that the girls don’t see the difference between the school and the secure detention: ‘because of the connection between Legacy and El Valle, the young women I studied were in constant danger of ending up back behind bars for academic or criminal infractions’ (P. 72). 

He argues that ‘wraparound services’, in the context of the criminal justice system, presents many limitations.  Despite the ‘well-intentioned idea’ to give at-risk youth support at home, school and at the community, in practice the criminal justice system complicates their lives. The experiences of the girls inside these institutions are surrounded by punishment, surveillance and barriers to a formal education, even when they leave the detention centre.

By disclosing the failure of wraparound services Flores unveils the phenomenon of ‘wraparound incarceration’, a set of hyper surveillance measures, such as constant police presence, at-will drug testing and official reports from adults affiliated with the associated detention facility, constantly following the girls’ paths after their first contact with the criminal justice system. This leads the author to wonder in the conclusion section of the book whether these services are designed only to punish these young women.

One of the most intriguing findings of this book is the exposure of the increasing integration between criminal justice and public education in the USA. Flores analyses ‘how the education and penal institutions are materially, economically and administratively connected’ (p. 6). He argues that the connection between these two sites is no accident and provides examples of how California public schools struggle financially. This fusion increases surveillance through probation, electronic monitoring, security officers or supervision at home and in school - the result for young Latinas lives is that they are arrested, return home, attend community school, are arrested, back again and so on.

When discussing the experiences of the girls at school after incarceration, Flores shows that even if for the most part of the young women in his study dreamed of returning to their home school, they face the stigma of being incarcerated and the school is often an overwhelming and negative experience.  Overall, wraparound services fail to prepare girls to return to traditional school (Chapter 4).

The author argues that it is important to understand whether and how ‘girls can successfully transition to adulthood after getting caught up in the criminal justice system’ (P.110). He identifies some turning points in which some girls manage to escape from this system (Chapter 5). One of his findings in this discussion affirms that girls need to ‘experience a cognitive transformation wherein they viewed criminal justice agents and other practitioners in wraparound services as kind and compassionate allies’ (P.113). Also, they change when they are transiting from detention to college or employment. However, he recognises that once they get in contact with the criminal justice system, their lives become attached to it: ‘Many youths are unfortunately so entrenched in the criminal justice system that exiting that system becomes impossible’ (135).

Flores reveals gaps in criminology, sociology and education research noting that few works address the unique experiences of the growing number of young Latinas navigating between these multiple institutions. His findings make contributions to different areas, from life behind bars, surveillance at schools, feminist criminology, life course, criminal desistance theory and the intersections between race, class, gender and crime.  

Each chapter of this book is intriguing. For me, it was particularly interesting to read Appendix A ‘Who is this man in the classroom?’ where Flores reflects on the challenges of being a man doing research with incarcerated girls. He also highlights how difficult it was to gain access to the research sites and details the strategies he used to build trust. 

Flores shares his own personal biography and experiences, showing how they shaped the research process. He writes frankly about the history of his parents’ immigration from central Mexico to the USA in the 1980s, and of his own experiences as a high school dropout and former drug user. The turning point in his personal history was when he enrolled in a continuation school for ‘at-risk’ students were being encouraged by caring instructors became fundamental to continue his education. Sharing his history from ‘at-Risk’ youth to academic helped him to win the girls’ trust.

This worthy work deserves a caring examination as it helps us to understand the consequences of the frightening accelerated fusion between education and the criminal justice system for Latina girls. It was written with passion and academic accuracy.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

da Penha, J. (2017) Book Review: Caught Up – Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/03/book-review-1 (Accessed [date]).