- Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People by Alexandra Cox
By Alexandra Cox
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018. 234 pages. https//www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/trapped-in-a-vice/9780813570464
In this ethnographic work, Cox applies a critical lens to examine some of the most pressing questions related to the juvenile justice system in the US. Focusing on juvenile justice institutions, courts, stakeholders, and young people in New York City, this book us to think about what makes a young person "worthy" of rehabilitation, the nature of coercive control, and how systems attempting to govern youth end up failing them.
The book unfolds through deep ethnographic story telling based on interviews and observations taking place over the course of four years between 2007 and 2011. The author creatively and compellingly uses this fieldwork along with historical and current policy facts to uncover the ideologies underpinning the system. One common thread throughout the book is that the system as a whole-and the actors within it-uphold notions of "worth" and "responsibility" that focus a great deal on what is wrong with youth on account of their crimes but fails to account for or address the systemic factors keeping them ensnared in the system itself. Cox then takes us through these foundational elements in a series of chapters about how youth arrive in the juvenile justice systems, what happens when they get there, and how they get "trapped."
Throughout the stories and compelling narrative, Cox returns to several main themes that are considerably important in the current era of juvenile justice " reform" and closing of youth prisons. First, that even the most well-meaning liberal reform, from the child savers of the 1900s to today's attempts to halt the transfer of youth to the adult system, is ultimately not centered on factors driving youth into the system; such as poverty, stop and frisk policies, and the expansion of the carceral state. Cox thus forces all of us-academics and practitioners alike- to come face to face with the reality that a broken system itself is going to have any quick fixes, and that real reform is not just putting curtains up instead of bars.
The book also teaches us to think through what is means for youth to be rehabilitated. As other ethnographies have similarly concurred (Abrams and Anderson-Nathe 2013; Fader 2013), rehabilitation in the context of juvenile corrections often takes the form of forced and even rote mechanisms of identity transformation; which translate often into inauthenticity. In chapter 4, for example, she shows how attempts to reform these youth, most of whom have already been cast aside as "ungovernable" from the state's view ends of reinforcing to the youth their own failures. Yet staff are not necessarily to blame; as they too are shown through the book to be subject to the same systemic failures; often with good intentions but also trapped within a larger penal system that considers most of the youth in its care unredeemable.
While several texts have tackled the juvenile justice system and youth incarceration from an ethnographic perspective, Cox's work stands out in several ways. First, she includes the voices of many staff actors within the system; who are critically important to the overall story as they are the ones tasked with carrying out the logics of "reform" as well as "punishment." She also applies a strong sociological viewpoint, rooted in Foucault, to the story of juvenile justice-a view that is lacking in other texts. This theoretical strength comes through in how Cox relates her rich stories to larger discourses of neo-liberal control. Importantly, Cox addresses racial disparities head on as part of the larger picture of who is seen as "worthy" and redeemable and who it not. While the book raises more questions than answers, it is an important piece to read and ponder in the current wave of reform.