For young second- and third-generation Latina women living in segregated Mexican neighbourhoods in southern California, the cycle of incarceration and disruptions in education seems endless. The cycle may begin with drinking in public as their first criminal infraction. As punishment, the law may serve them a two-month sentence at a juvenile detention center. Eventually, they may be released on probation and transition back to a normal high school routine. Any breach in probation, such as failing a drug test, breaking curfew, or spending time with the wrong people, will put these girls back behind bars.
In his recent book Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration, Jerry Flores, a new assistant professor in UTM’s sociology department, explores the factors that contribute to the incarceration of young Latina women and how their lives change after their first encounter with the criminal justice system
Flores also researches the relationships between gender and crime, intersectionality and crime, and most recently, strives to understand the continued disappearance of First Nations women in Canada, America, and Mexico. He speaks to The Medium about the journey behind his academic work and what motivates him to ask these questions.
After the Mexican economy collapsed in 1982, Flores’ parents immigrated to Los Angeles in pursuit of a better life. Born in Los Angeles, California, Flores describes his journey through academia and becoming a professor as “unorthodox.” Around the age of 15, Flores dropped out of high school and later enrolled in an alternative school. With the small class sizes offered by the alternative school, Flores focused on his grades, received one-on-one attention and assistance from teachers, and eventually graduated. In community college, Flores took a sociology class about prisons and systems of oppression that ignited his interest in investigating the relationship between incarceration and education.
When asked why he decided to focus the research for his book on young incarcerated women, Flores explains that he remembers witnessing many forms of gendered violence during his youth. His community would “treat men as if they were the standard, and treat women as second class.” Often, men in the community would mistreat the women in his life, including his mother.
“For me, there was something unique about doing work with young women from my community. These are all people who look like me. They’re folks I didn’t grow up with directly but they could be related to me. I’m trying to have a direct impact on some of the folks that are connected to who I am or who I was,” he says.
“I see that these young women are still suffering, and for a long time I asked myself ‘Why aren’t people doing more about this?’”
The sociology professor conducted his research at two locations in southern California, “El Valle,” a detention center, and “Legacy,” an alternative school. In the book, he focuses on one particular classroom that he refers to as the “recuperation classroom.” Inside the classroom, a probation officer observes the girls’ behaviour and performs drug tests.
“I’m finding that every facet of young women’s lives have been sort of permeated, or the criminal justice system has inserted itself into [their lives], at home, in detention, at school, and when they try to leave,” Flores says.
According to Flores, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services provide surveillance as a “wraparound service,” a tool to support young people at home and in the community, and prevent future transgressions with the law. However, Flores instead defines this service as “wraparound incarceration.” He adds, “Because [these women] have been incarcerated and they’re on probation, they’re connected to probation services. For every bad thing they do at school or in the community, they’re punished and end up behind bars.”
This study began as a project for a research methods class. Flores began his investigation by sitting in the parking lot of the center and taking field notes. The next day, he sat at a bench in the jail, then moved to the lobby and interviewed employees who worked at the school housed within the juvenile detention center. After these preliminary steps, Flores emailed the school’s principal asking to volunteer in the classroom. Flores took field notes for a year as a volunteer where he organized workshops catered towards things like creating poetry, or discussing the transition from community college to a four-year program. After a year, he led focus groups and one-on-one interviews with girls from the age of 13 to 19 years old to collect the data he needed for his book.
“One of the key parts about doing work with young people is you can’t just show up and start asking questions. You need to be there, be a present figure, spend time, and get to know them. They were always wondering who this man was in the classroom,” Flores recalls. “I think it took them several months to figure out if I was a predator or who I was.”
Through his research, Flores discovered that almost all of the girls in the detention center lived in poverty, suffered from sexual abuse, and had intergenerational family ties to street gangs. Flores would share his stories of being an at-risk youth, listen to them recount events of experiencing sexual abuse as children, and educate them on the resources available.
“I think society has gotten better about it, but we need to teach young men not to rape women—that’s the starting point. Teach young men to respect women. I’m already having these conversations with my sons now about what consent means,” Flores says.
After being incarcerated, the young women struggled with transitioning back into the traditional school system. Behind bars, the officers enforced control. Every person had an assigned seat at the detention center and the girls only interacted with a small number of people. Compared to this, the girls felt overwhelmed in a high school of 500 students and believed that everyone would try to hurt them. Teachers targeted those on house arrest identified by their ankle monitors, and would threaten to call their probation officer for any small violation. Flores notes that “teachers would see [the girls] as criminals.”
For these young women, an incarceration changes the way their community perceives them. After jail, they’re targeted as criminals and scrutinized under constant police surveillance. To prevent these girls from falling back into this vicious cycle, Flores suggests removing police from schools. Once pulled over at gunpoint by the police, the researcher explains that he and other men in his family have been mistreated by police their entire life. If you put a police officer in a school, Flores explains, he’ll find crimes because “that’s what he’s trained to do.”
“For example, if I had police follow you around for a week, I guarantee everyday he’d find you committing a crime—speeding, jaywalking, We all commit crimes,” Flores says.
In addition to this, Flores believes that the police must stop drug testing youth. He explains that it’s unfair that poor youth and youth of colour are punished for experimenting with drugs and alcohol, while rich youth have the privilege of experimenting within the safety net of their homes. Most importantly, Flores says that society must provide youth with access to education, three healthy meals a day, and a safe place to discuss their issues.
“When we take care of the most marginalized people in society, that is an indicator of how much we care about ourselves and how much we care about our communities. I always tell folks: Look, I’m in solidarity with you, with all marginalized and oppressed people across the world. I have quite a bit of power and privilege as a professor at U of T, so let’s attempt to do our best to address some of these issues.”