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two| | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | BLACKOUT As she is led handcuffed past the iron gates, across the narrow cement walk, up the steep steps under the rooftop cross of this former Catholic convent, every woman who enters the reentry center called Alpha Omega House begins a new journey. And while she might be well accustomed to different types of confinement cultures, like those in prisons or drug-­ treatment facilities, the experience that is about to unfold is unique. Once she steps through the front door, her handcuffs are removed, and she becomes a new resident assigned to the Blackout phase. Aptly called “Blackout girl” or simply “new girl” by other residents, she is searched by a staff member known as a monitor for contraband such as drugs or weapons. She must give all of her personal belongings, including identification, winter coat and other outerwear, money, medication, and cigarettes to the monitor who will lock up whatever meager possessions she arrives with. The “Blackout girl” is given a thirty-­eight-­page packet of rules and regulations in a manila folder, a legal pad that becomes her “Blackout journal,” and a colorful water bottle depicting characters from the teen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, High School Musical. She is then led down the narrow hallway past the living room and the inquisitive eyes of other residents to the last room in the back of the building. This room is also called “Blackout.” As if in a late-­ nineteenth-­ century home with kept domestic servants where the use of space reinforced class distinctions (Sutherland, 1981), “Blackout girls” are physically positioned in the back of the house, out of the way of everyday activity and a floor below women at advanced phases of stay. This is how every new girl begins her journey of reformation at the reentry center, from criminal offending woman toward a reintegrated member of society. 46 a halfway house for women More than a half century ago a community of Catholic nuns lived in the structure that now houses Alpha Omega House. While the nuns have long since departed , elements of the convent culture and monastic model persist.1 Physically, both the convent of the past and the reentry center today occupy a space with an architecture designed for the isolation and seclusion of women and their particular form of communal living (De Paermentier, 2008). This design creates an “enclosure” for discipline and identity transformation (Foucault, 1977, p. 141). Set back from the busy urban street behind brick columns and rusted iron gates and surrounded by tall trees choked with ivy, its thick walls and small windows offer only the slightest view inside or out. A single narrow door atop a steep entryway emphasizes the sense of enclosure. Both the convent and the reentry center resemble domestic sites of transformation and what Goffman (1961) calls a “total institution,” a place removed from mainstream society at which participants undergo a change process under the tight control of a higher authority. Socially, the women of Alpha Omega House, like the nuns before them, are separated from their familiar social worlds, including relationships with men, for a period of time as they undergo resocialization toward new identities. By the authority of the church and in cloister, the convent was a space for spiritual change from secular to devotional life. It was a “household” within society (De Paermentier, 2008, p. 55), and “just like a family” (Baernstein, 1994, p. 787), the convent imposed limits on women’s autonomy. In this space of the past, personal transformation necessitated obedience and sacrifice —just as it does today—as well as a denial of women’s agency (Brock, 2010). Within the community but still outside regular civic life, Alpha Omega House retains its character as a household space organized to transform women, now from criminal offenders to productive community participants. Also like the nuns of the past, the women residents today participate in a socialization process broken into phases or stages. For nuns, a ceremonious socialization through stages, especially in the cloister experience, was meant to dramatize the gradual transformation from secular life to a new identity (Eisikovits, 1983), for which the novitiate willingly relinquished her private life, her social status, and her sexuality (De Paermentier, 2008). Women of Alpha Omega House go through a similar process, as they are encouraged to discard criminogenic thinking and personal vices in favor of a new status as responsible women ready for personal transformation. Cloaked in the rhetoric of empowerment, this change process serves...


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