Appointed As

Community Engaged Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow


ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships program


University of Texas at Austin

PhD Field of Study

PhD, Cultural Studies, George Mason University

Dissertation Abstract

"The new poorhouse: poverty wrangling, predatory justice, and the rise of modern “debtors’ prisons”

The rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2014 and the Department of Justice’s investigation into policing practices in Ferguson, Missouri highlighted that acrimonious relations between city residents and police were due in part to excessive and frivolous traffic ticketing aimed at increasing the City’s budget rather than improving public safety. These were not aberrant practices. Almost a third of U.S.
jurisdictions have engaged in similar tactics, piling on fines, fees, and penalties, resulting in what many have called a resurgence of modern “debtors’ prisons.” Large numbers of mostly poor residents face incarceration not because they have committed violent crimes but because they cannot afford their encounters with the criminal and sometimes the civil legal system. This dissertation provides a new
genealogy of the American prison system, distinct from the much heralded “new Jim Crow” thesis, centering poverty as a mechanism of mass incarceration. It traces the current use of these practices, which I term predatory justice processes, through the historical poorhouse/workhouse system. I argue for an analysis of the deep social and cultural technologies that have survived from these historical institutions. Opening up this new line of inquiry into the role of class and poverty through the
poorhouse/workhouse offers new insights into the way the criminal legal system works in the modern era. I use the term “poverty wrangling” to describe interconnected social and cultural mechanisms that include the levying of “user pays” costs, functional cyclical debt, ostracization, class fossilization, and labor extraction. I postulate that the current expansion of poverty wrangling is due to an obsolete funding infrastructure for the criminal legal system, and I offer policy suggestions to decrease adverse outcomes. Through multiple case study examinations, I demonstrate that technologies of the poorhouse/workhouse have survived, even revivified, in the neoliberal era. Dissecting financialization and neoliberal private-public partnerships, I discuss the St. Louis Workhouse in Missouri, Angola Prison in Louisiana, and the New Orleans courthouse. I also examine the state-level fines/fees and reform in the context of Mecklenburg, North Carolina. I conclude by examining recent practices in the Netherlands. Could the Dutch model provide a blueprint for system reform in the U.S.?