Fieldnotes on the Gendered Labor of Prison Visitation

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome a special guest post from Orisanmi Burton as part of our series of anthropological reports From the Field

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NY DOCCS) operates fifty-four prisons, which confine approximately 53,565 people. This captive population is ninety-six percent male; fifty percent black, twenty-four percent latino and twenty-four percent white. Though half of them were convicted for charges that occurred within New York City, most of them are confined in prisons located in distant, rural parts of New York State.[1]

NY Correctional FacilitiesI entered the visitor waiting room, a trailer that rests on the grounds of the prison. Though I arrived at 7:45am, a full 45 minutes before the start of visiting hours, the inside of the trailer was already full. I signed in at the rear of the space where two Correctional Officers (C.O.s) stood behind a tall wooden desk. I took one of the only available seats, which happened to be right next to them.

The gender dynamic in the room was evident. Of the thirty-three visitors, I was one of only three adult males, and the only male that was not accompanied by a woman. The majority of these women had travelled from New York City, which meant that they left their homes at around 2:30am in order to make the more than 300-mile journey to arrive at the prison by 7:30am.

A large group of Black women of different ages carried on a light-hearted conversation about family and personal gossip. Every two or three minutes they burst into raucous laughter.

A Latina girl who looked to be about 10 years old, sat quietly next to her mother, who was speaking Spanish with another woman. The other woman had her bare feet resting on the floor next to a pair of gold stilettos with three-inch heels.

A young black girl at a different table was using an iPad while the older woman next to her sat quietly and stared out the window. She was dressed in white and wore a silver crucifix around her neck.

A group of white women, who arrived after all the chairs had been claimed, stood in an open area by the C.O. table, carrying on a hushed conversation.

These provisional fieldnotes locate and describe a fraction of the largely undervalued and under-theorized work that falls on the shoulders of women who struggle to support their incarcerated loved ones and maintain familial ties

Both of the C.O.s were white and both looked to be in their early forties. One was female, the other male. They wore bulky black combat boots and navy blue cargo pants, each with a ring of keys hanging from their belt loops. Their sky-blue collared shirts bore the crest of NY DOCCS on the shoulder. I noticed that their uniforms were faded and wrinkled. The male C.O.’s collar was unbuttoned, revealing a dingy white undershirt. Nothing about their appearance or affect inspired my confidence in their professionalism or expertise. Their conversation covered a range of topics including: gossip, drinking habits, hockey, the most desirable work shifts, divorce. . .

Across from the C.O. desk, visiting women took turns primping in front of two full-length mirrors. During the two hours I spent in that room, the mirrors were always occupied. One by one the women sat or stood in front of the mirrors and arranged their hair, clothes and make-up. When it was her turn, one young black woman plugged an electric pressing comb into the socket and straightened her hair. For the next 25 minutes, bellows of smoke and the scent of cooking hair filled the room. Other women waited patiently for their turns, showing no signs of aggravation or impatience. Above the mirror, signs in English and Spanish described the NY DOCCS clothing regulations, which prohibited low cut tops, cut-off shorts and bathing suits. While in the vising room, hugging, kissing and holding hands was allowed, but prolonged kissing or “necking” was not.

One woman entered the bathroom wearing sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and sneakers. She exited the bathroom wearing an intricately patterned blouse, form fitting jeans, and high heel shoes. She then fell in line to use the full-length mirror.

Just before 8:30am, the official start of facility visiting hours, one of the C.O.s yelled, “Packages!” When several of the women stood up and formed a line at the desk, each holding one or two large bags, I heard the male C.O. curse under his breath. One by one, the women unloaded the contents of their shopping bags and rolling suitcases, revealing cans of tuna and vegetables; bags of Doritos and pork rinds; cakes; cookies; nuts; packaged noodles and soups. As the women placed these items on the desk, the female C.O. recorded the last name and Department Identification Number of their loved one. She accounted for each item on a package form while the male C.O. repacked the items in a large paper bag, weighed each bag, then stored each bag behind the desk. Assuming that everything goes according to protocol, each package will be inspected and delivered to an imprisoned person.

The visiting women returned to their seats after being handed a package receipt. Many of them still had large bags of food with them. They brought these, I realized, to sustain them during the long trip home. They also had baggies filled with one-dollar bills or rolls of quarters. These were for the vending machines in the visiting room.

At about 8:45, the female C.O. matter-of-factly yelled, “One, two, three,” signaling that the first three people to sign in were now allowed to pass through the visiting entrance of the prison. When some, but not all of the women from the lively center table stood up for their visit, I realized that they had arrived separately and were visiting separate people. I began to wonder how they knew each other. Did they have histories that preceded the imprisonment of their loved ones or had they developed a sense of kinship and intimacy during the frequent bus trips that shuttle the families of incarcerated people back and forth across New York State? As the women left the trailer, other women from the table wished them a “good visit.”

Without the affective-political labor of these anonymous women, hundreds of thousand of incarcerated people would be crushed under the weight of the carceral empire

By 9:30 there were fifteen people still waiting to enter the prison and the conversation at the lively table shifted to more serious matters. The women had begun to discuss their interpretations of scripture and their faith in God’s divine plan. They also described the specifics of their loved ones convictions in ways that demonstrated their awareness of and fluency with New York criminal code and sentencing protocol. It would seem that many of them are actively working on getting their men out of prison.

These provisional fieldnotes locate and describe a fraction of the largely undervalued and under-theorized work that falls on the shoulders of women who struggle to support their incarcerated loved ones and maintain familial ties. These women write letters. They advocate for commutations, paroles, and retrials. They work extra hours to make up for lost income. They send food, money and photographs to their loved ones. They raise children and care for other family members. They dedicate significant time and effort to making themselves beautiful and attractive for their men. They form organizations to resist police violence and the prison industrial complex. They care for each other.

Without the affective-political labor of these anonymous women, hundreds of thousand of incarcerated people would be crushed under the weight of the carceral empire.

[1] New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. “Under Custody Report: Profile of Under Custody Population as of January 1, 2014.

Orisanmi Burton is a doctoral student in social anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  Among his publications is article “Black Lives Matter: A Critique of Anthropology,” which is part of the journal Cultural Anthropology’s Fieldsites – Hot Spots series on “#BlackLivesMatter: Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, and Resistance“. His twitter handle is @orisanmi 

DragNet: February 9 – 22, 2015

Is America ready for an NYPD cop show with a Muslim twist? In my favorite post of the month, Wajahat Ali recounts the inspiration, hilarity and first steps of writing the pilot script of MJ for HBO.

Is America ready for an NYPD cop show with a Muslim twist? In my favorite post of the month, Wajahat Ali recounts the inspiration, hilarity and first steps of writing the pilot script of MJ for HBO.

What do women bring to police command positions? Decentralized leadership, partnership and transparency, according to Lieutenant Colonel Nadia Rodrigues Silveira Gerhard. We shared Professor Lenin Pires’ interview with Gerhard earlier this month as she is the first woman to take on a leadership position in Rio Grande do Sul’s military police. Pires works as an anthropologist with the Public Safety Department of Fluminense Federal University. Be sure to catch more articles in Cultural Anthropology‘s Protesting Democracy in Brazil series here.

When there’s something strange about an officer’s demeanor, who you gonna call? This is precisely the dilemma Lisa Mahon faced. Don’t miss her interview with This American Life’s Ira Glass, titled “Cops See it Differently“. You can view the video footage (recorded by Joseph Ivy, who was also in the car during the confrontation) referenced during the interview here.

In shocking news, Republicans and Democrats appear to agree on one thing lately: reducing federal prison costs. In an effort to lower recidivism, the crime rate AND federal prison system costs, H.R. 759 is quickly gaining bipartisan support. Also known as the Recidivism Reduction Act, the evidence-based measure would serve to connect eligible inmates with recidivism reduction programs. There, inmates could earn credits toward “alternative custody arrangements” to lower the amount of dollars otherwise being spent to house them within the federal system.

It’s no wonder the script for the first half of MJ has generated such an overwhelming internet response. The co-creation of Al Jazeera‘s Wajahat Ali and author Dave Eggers, MJ isn’t your typical cop show…it’s a cop show with a Muslim twist. In my favorite post of the month, Ali recounts the inspiration, hilarity and first steps of writing the pilot script for HBO. The only bummer comes toward the end, when you realize MJ hasn’t yet made it to TV (why, we ask, WHY?!). Feel free to peruse the piece, available here, and freer to clamor for Hollywood to make this show happen (Ali even entertains the idea of revamping it Walking Dead style if all else fails…)

In the aftermath of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I’ve been surprised to hear several officers insist that citizen education about how to interact with officers would reduce such tragic encounters. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that at least one city has recently made baby steps in this direction. This month we shared ML Schultze’s post, which covers Akron’s first-of-its-kind “crib sheet”; detailing the do’s and don’ts of officer-citizen interactions. The sheet was created by high school students with assistance from the city’s police department. The question is, will other departments follow suit?

Did I miss something? No worries- it does happen on occasion. If you have any suggestions for DragNet, or if you want to call attention to a specific blog or article, send an email to anthropoliteia@gmail.com with the words “DragNet” in the subject header and I’ll get on it!


DragNet: June 15 – 30, 2014


After months of debate, the ACLU released previously sealed records regarding the cell phone-tracking tool in use by several departments.


The topic of surveillance packed a powerful punch this month, with the court releasing documents regarding Stingray technology capabilities. After months of debate, the ACLU released previously sealed records regarding the cell phone-tracking tool in use by several departments. The publication comes nearly 3 months after initial buzz about the tool that circulated after a suspect’s phone was used by police to track him to his apartment prior to obtaining a warrant. The more notable specifics of the technology can be found here.

The problem of prison over crowding is presented by Alyse Berenthal’s article in Anthropology News this month. As an anthropologist interested in the ethnographic aspects of justice, Berenthal spent time working with people in self-help legal clinics. By restricting definitions of justice to the individual level, Alyse work offers insights to the pitfalls of an over burdened justice system.

The truth is in the data.   The proof is in the series of graphs presented by Nicole Flatlow in Think Progress’ article about the existential growth of the US prison population. States like California are so over-populated with prisoners that courts have ordered that prisons take steps to reduce inmate populations. Local jails are feeling the pain of overcrowding, with large volumes of low-risk or offenders awaiting trial making up a large proportion of total prisoner populations.

Also in surveillance is Kirsten Weld’s post about the institutionalization of intelligence gathering by the US. From the Spanish-American War, to FDR’s administration, to the aftermath of 9/11: it becomes apparent that data mining is nothing new to the US’ administrative history. Whether or not the US has a right to act as “global policeman” has yet to be determined by both the law and its citizens.

Stingray technology was not the only cause of raised eyebrows this month. James Eyers of Financial Review put tap-and-go credit card technology under scrutiny in a post from earlier this month. Some departments are criticizing tap and go transactions; pointing to higher theft and break-ins by criminals looking for this specific type of credit card. Banks are standing by their anti-identification policies, stating that crime inevitably changes alongside technological innovations and they as a financial entity cannot be held accountable.

First shared in May, Mother Jones’ post by Katie Quandt was popular again this month. Entitled “What it’s like to visit your mother in prison on mother’s day”, Quandt reflects about the impact of her foster sister’s incarceration on her role as a mother. The article comes shortly after Sesame Street’s recent initiative to talk about challenges children with parents in prison face, citing that 1 in 28 children fall into this category (with that stat increasing to 1 in 9 children among African American children).

Have plans to lounge beachside this summer? If so, you can’t miss David Thompson’s “must read” journal articles for Spring 2014. Catch up on the latest in anthropology and policing in scholarly publications here.

Border Criminologies announced their recent initiative to first digitize and eventually physically document material works by UK immigrants. The archive is intended to act as a reminder of the creative process of individuals even during times of extreme stress and uncertainty. It serves to emphasize the role of material culture in criminology.

Should community policing lead the way in 2014? Steve Early advocates for this approach in In These Times pose on June 23rd. He attributes the more “reactive policing” approaches to post-9/11 emphasis on response. Would regular officer assignments result in higher reliability ratings from the public? Should community relationship building be instated to replace reactive responses?


DragNet: June 1 – 15, 2014

"The challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability," ~ACLU

“The challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability,” ~ACLU

June kicked off with a post by Scott Shafer of NPRNews regarding the drastic increase in California parole rates. Where previous years saw less than a 10% release rate for “lifers”, 2013 recorded a near doubling of this statistic. California governor Jerry Brown has reiterated that crime type is no longer as much of a determining factor for parole as is the level of threat an inmate poses to the community.  For more about the parole increase, check out Matt Levin’s article about lifers freed from prisons as well as his timeline cataloging the history of California parole trends.

“To the radicalized youth who demonstrated in 14 Brazilian state capitals on May 15, the World Cup represents a fundamental flaw in the Workers’ Party (PT) project,” writes Rodrigo Nunes in a news post from Aljazeera. While your friends are busy blowing up your Facebook feed about the soccer of World Cup, Brazilians continue to show outrage that the event has brought their country few winners, but many losers. For more about the political implications of the World Cup, check out Werner Krauss’ article on the Huffington Post.  Here, he dissects the event from a structural-ritual perspective. Anthropoliteia also featured a post from Meg Stalcup in our continuing coverage of the World Cup.

It’s not just police getting virtual these days- so are crime scenes. In a personal favorite post by Kashmir Hill of Forbes, Hill recounts the Internet trail left behind by Santa Barbara Shooter Elliot Rodger. The troubled youth produced several YouTube videos documenting his gradual decline into criminal violence.

What would Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault have to say about Lebanese prison systems? Yazan al-Saadi’s post on Al-Akhbar evokes this and other questions about surveillance and control. The original panopticon envisioned a top-down power structure wielded by authority figures over non-authority figures.  In the context of Lebanese prisons, however, this concept is turned on its head as it is the prisoner who seemingly wields ultimate control.  Also in surveillance, the wife of ex-IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre has requested a formal investigation by the US state department after sensitive information from a phone call with the US embassy appeared in a popular tabloid a few days later.

An unlikely economical analysis of police body mounted cameras appeared in The Motley Fool’s investing section.  Ryan Lowery reflects on the potential profitability of the leading police tech companies (including TASER and L-3 Communications) that produce the majority of the equipment.

Issues of excessive force, surveillance and militarization come to a head in Kent Paterson’s post on CounterPunch. Using recent examples of militaristic responses by members of the Albuquerque police department, Paterson builds up to a broader discussion about the impact of police technologies on aggressive responses and use of force by US police departments.

Juvenile detention centers in California will be receiving $80 billion in coming months to rejuvenate current facilities. Several proposals for amenities and new features reinforce a community-based emphasis.  Officials hope the restructuring will help to solidify rehabilitation as a prevailing theme.

Tina Dupuy authored an engaging piece about casual vs. institutionalized racism in AlterNet this month. Why does the US rally more readily against casual comments than it does to institutionalized forms of racism (such as the prison system)? And further, does/can one form of racism lead to the other?

“Ban them, ban them all with a carve out for hunting weapons,” says Scott Martelle from LA Times Opinion. Referring to his admittedly minority stance on gun control in America, Martelle proposes the next steps for eliminating gun violence in America.


DragNet, April 2014


What was on April’s Blog Menu, you ask? A flurry of posts covering everything from issues in ethnicity, crime stat validity, police social media involvement and ongoing Ukraine and surveillance coverage, of course! Continue reading