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The Points Interview: Kerwin Kaye

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Kerwin Kaye, an Associate Professor of Sociology, American Studies, and Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University. Dr. Kaye’s new book, Enforcing Freedom: Drug Courts, Therapeutic Communities, and the Intimacies of the State, was released this month by Columbia University Press. He also writes about issues pertaining to male sex work. He currently lives in New York City.

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In Enforcing Freedom I take a close look at drug courts – courts that offer court-supervised drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration for drug-related crimes – and the nature of the treatment programs they rely upon. Drug courts have often been touted as an alternative to racialized mass incarceration, and certainly the idea of treatment instead of incarceration has a lot of appeal to many people.

My research shows that they have a more problematic impact than is at first apparent. The good is that anyone who completes treatment as part of drug court will have the charge removed from their record – that’s a good deal. The bad is that only about 50% succeed at drug court while the other half fails. Even worse, most courts require participants to plead guilty prior to participating in the court, meaning that the half that fails has no opportunity to strike a plea bargain – they plead guilty to the most serious charges that can be leveled at them. So after failing at treatment – how does one fail at treatment? does not treatment fail you? – this half gets sentenced to incarceration times that are significantly longer than they would have received if they had been able to strike a plea bargain.

In other words, drug courts actually intensify the war on drugs for half of the population, even as they mitigate it for the half that succeeds. And unsurprisingly, the half that fails is disproportionately black and disproportionately impoverished. So rather than entirely mitigating racialized mass incarceration, drug courts act as a sorting mechanism, escalating and aggravating social exclusions for precisely those populations that most need relief.

The title of the book speaks to something of a paradox: how does one justify using the threat of imprisonment to free people of drugs? As I started my ethnography, one of my central questions was “How do the court and the treatment centers think of the concepts of ‘addiction’ and ‘recovery'”? Particularly when most participants are not using drugs (the court tests them on a regular basis), how do they know when someone is getting “better”? How do they operationalize the idea of “addiction”?

I found that the case managers at the courts and the treatment centers have a fairly similar idea, though the prosecutor’s office had a slightly different idea. While prosecutors tended to focus more on “public safety” (they kept on referring drug dealers who only smoked marijuana to residential treatment facilities), the case managers said it was critical to focus on what they called the “drugs lifestyle”; treatment center staff referred to essentially the same idea in terms of “dope fiend behaviors.” What really struck me about the “drugs lifestyle” was that it referred to many of the same things as did Oscar Lewis’s and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s notion of a “culture of poverty”: people suffering from the “drugs lifestyle” supposedly had an inability to defer gratification, a weak work ethic, a hyper-masculine ethic (now augmented by a supposedly over-sexualized femininity), and a sense of irresponsibility – all of this was now diagnosed as a medical condition (“addiction”) for which the cure was to threaten people with incarceration.

Drug court proponents sometimes refer to their goal as creating “NORPs”: Normal, Ordinary, Responsible Persons. To me, it seemed like the “drugs lifestyle” was a way of talking about behavioral adaptations people make to a life of hustling on the street; the “drugs lifestyle” certainly did not have much to do with the life lived by Wall Street brokers who might use illicit drugs a great deal. Instead, the whole idea pointed toward the role of the court in enforcing a type of racialized poverty management. And here I had to think about what being a “NORP” really meant – what were the goals of treatment? In the course of several months of ethnographic observation and interviews at the treatment center, it really seemed to me that treatment was first and foremost oriented toward taking people who had been heavily involved in street life and redirecting them toward the lower levels of formal labor. In practice, this meant having them do lots of boring tasks and learning to tolerate boredom, learning to carry out orders (even when they did not make sense), learning not speak back to authorities (even when they were being treated unfairly), learning to follow bureaucratic procedures and hierarchies, and so on. Treatment center staff called all this “habilitation” for “orderly living,” while I again saw it as something more problematic.

I found myself wishing that the treatment center would be more explicit about its aims – getting people off of the street and into the lower tiers of the formal economy – but the ideas of “addiction” and “sober living” allowed for a new narrative that valorized these new behaviors: work at a lousy job was not part of one’s subordination and degradation via a racist and classist economy, but instead became a way in which one could prove one’s strength and value in resisting “internal” demons. Drug use became a symbol of, and alleged cause of, street-oriented poverty, and its solution. The kicker was that the drug court would not release anyone who had not found a job (so if that is the criteria, I guess the addiction rate climbs and falls directly with the employment rate).

I develop some new theoretical lenses in discussing all of this, in particular the idea of the “para-racial.” The “culture of poverty” arose as a concept just as the black freedom movement was making overt racism less respectable and less possible to speak. Even if it was not their original intent, Lewis and Moynihan created a “non-racist” language that took racist stereotypes and concepts and deployed them in a “colorblind,” “non-racist” manner. The “drugs lifestyle” takes these ideas and medicalizes them, further obscuring their fundamental origin in racist thought. Explicitly racist notions used the alleged characteristics of “race” to exclude non-whites from citizenship; race defined the qualities that were considered necessary for “freedom.” With the drug court, a para-racial idea of addiction refigures and redeploys these ideas through a seemingly race-neutral form, establishing criteria that are needed for citizenship and “freedom,” and enforces this notion of freedom against those who are deemed deficient. Para-racial ideas such as this version of “addiction” are sometimes applied against whites, but generally with less speed and ferocity than when applied against non-whites.

Nevertheless, the fact that the racial origins of this way of thinking is more or less successfully obscured allows new forms of enforcement; in the case of the drug court I examined, most of the case managers were themselves non-white. In this sense, the para-racial allows for the articulation of what is essentially a class conflict within black and brown communities, while reinforcing the overall subordination of non-white populations at a structural level. This whole line of thinking positions drug courts and the treatment centers they work with within a long history of “civilizing institutions” (including missionary schools and so on). In this sense, the threats of violence and incarceration that the court uses might be seen as forms of “civilizing violence” (or “humanizing violence,” as I call it) – violence that, when successful, creates “the civilized human,” or in this case, the NORP. The efforts of the court to “civilize the savage/addict” thus turns state violence into a form of caring, a form of violence which supposedly benefits those on the receiving end. My hope is that the idea of “the para-racial” helps point toward ongoing and profound links between race, freedom, and humanizing violence, as well as enabling greater insight into the ways in which “colorblind” forms of racism continue to operate both through and beyond race.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

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Dr. Kerwin Kaye

History! I have history! In particular, there is one chapter that examines the rise of drug treatment centers based upon Synanon (i.e. “therapeutic communities” or “TCs”). Scholars who are familiar with the history of Synaon will find little new on that point, but I break some new territory in tracing the fate of the early therapeutic communities which operated on principles very different from Synanon (these were known as “democratic therapeutic communities”) and in discussing the rise of Synanon-style programs within the criminal justice system, where the TC model now predominates. I also briefly trace the rise of women’s-only TCs, which operate on somewhat different principles (discussed in the book). Beyond that, I hope that the book helps to better situate the apparent return of rehabilitation within the current neoliberal structure of criminal justice.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I found the history of Synanon to be fascinating! I fell into some deep rabbit-holes in terms of the history of “brainwashing” when I looked at that material. The founder of Synanon, Chuck Dederich, seems to have developed many of his techniques in association with media reports concerning Chinese “brainwashing” techniques of U.S. soldiers during the Korean War. Dederich – who coincidentally coined the slogan “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” – used to say that everyone needed their brain washed every now and then, especially drug users. Meanwhile, Dederich gained his inspiration for Synanon while taking LSD as part of an experiment conducted at UCLA (Bill Wilson also took LSD as part of this same experiment, obtaining his inspiration for Alcoholics Anonymous through the experience). As it was later discovered, the CIA was funding many of these LSD experiments via its MK-ULTRA program because they were interested in the drug’s possible use for… brainwashing! Meanwhile, the techniques that Synanon pioneered – which helped to found the tradition of “attack therapy” popularized in Erhard Seminars Training (EST) – moved into the criminal justice system where they were first deployed against political prisoners in the highest security federal prison that existed (this last detail didn’t make it into the book, alas, but it’s deep background in the dissertation!). In any event, the idea of brainwashing permeates this form of drug treatment!

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

There’s a couple of areas I’d like to work more on. The court and treatment center that I examined dealt primarily with non-white populations in an urban area. I’d like to see how race plays out in predominantly white rural areas, especially in relation to the relatively sympathetic portrayals of drug users that have been disseminated in relation to the opioid epidemic. I also spent a fair amount of time in the footnotes looking at issues pertaining to cost-benefit analyses and drug courts and I’d love to see more on that. Despite the claims, it’s not at all clear to me that drug courts actually save money.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

What a fun question! Well, perhaps Martin Sheen, just because he has been an outspoken advocate for drug courts, and I really think he should read the book. Or perhaps Nancy Reagan? Otherwise, it’d be great to have James Baldwin as the narrator, just because it would mean that he was no longer dead and that would be amazing news. Or maybe Audre Lorde for the same reason? Once I start thinking about including possible people from the past, it really opens up some possibilities. Richard Pryor? Or Brad Bird, the voice of Edna in The Incredibles?


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