"It Was Basically College to Us": Poverty, Prison, and Emerging Adulthood

J Poverty. 2012 Jan 1;16(3):308-322. doi: 10.1080/10875549.2012.695923. Epub 2012 Aug 14.


With the tremendous rise in the United States' incarceration rates over the last four decades, historically high numbers of young African Americans are spending their "emerging adulthood" (as theorized by Arnett) in close contact with the penitentiary. In contrast to the exploration of future possibilities facilitated by academic, military, and professional institutions geared toward people in this life stage, imprisonment typically restricts one's social, occupational, and civic opportunities during and after confinement. In this article, I draw on in-depth interviews with young men who had recently exited state prison and their intimate partners to probe the meanings of incarceration for emerging adults in the neoliberal era. This investigation invokes Merton and Barber's concept of sociological ambivalence, Blankenship's discussion of sociological thriving, and Bourdieu's notion of amor fati to analyze the paradoxically positive accounts offered by young people when describing their early experiences with the prison. I argue that these narratives must be interpreted in the broader context of diminished social welfare and intensified socioeconomic disadvantage that force poor people to turn to a punitive institution as a "resource" for the social goods distributed through valorized channels to their more privileged peers. This analysis invites further research by highlighting the necessity of developing a thorough understanding of the dominant role of the prison as a shaping institution at a critical juncture in the lives of those born into poverty.