The Chronicle Review

The American Police State

A sociologist interrogates the criminal-justice system, and tries to stay out of the spotlight

Photographs of Philadelphia by Will Steacy

November 18, 2013

On a winter afternoon in 2004, a woman waits in the detective unit of a Philadelphia police station. Two officers, outfitted with combat boots and large guns, enter the room. The cops place their guns on the table, pointed at her.

The woman is 22, tiny, and terrified.

The officers show her a series of photos of men from around her neighborhood. Two of the men are her roommates, Mike and Chuck, low-level drug dealers who keep crack and guns in the shared apartment. Some of the photos were taken in front of her home.

Spewing obscenities about the woman's supposed appetite for casual sex, the cops press for information about her roommates and threaten criminal charges if she fails to cooperate.

"If you can't work with us," one cop says, "then who will you call when he's sticking a gun to your head? ... He'll kill you over a couple of grams. You know that, right?"

Such scenes are nothing unusual in the lower-income black neighborhood where this woman spends most of her time. Girlfriends and relatives routinely face police pressure to inform on the men in their lives.

Unknown to the cops, though, there is one difference this time. The woman under interrogation, Alice Goffman, has been watching them.

Nearly a decade later, Goffman is emerging as a rising star of sociology. The 2004 interrogation shows why. After spending her 20s immersed in fieldwork with wanted young men—a project she began as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania—Goffman has brought back the story of a "profound change" in the way America governs urban ghettos.

In a book coming out this spring, Goffman, now a 31-year-old assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, documents how the expansion of America's penal system is reshaping life for the poor black families who exist under the watch of its police, prison guards, and parole officers.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the United States stiffened its laws on drugs and violent crime and ratcheted up the police presence on city streets. The number of people in American jails and prisons has risen fivefold over the past 40 years. There are now roughly seven million people under criminal-justice supervision. "In modern history," Goffman writes, "only the forced labor camps of the former U.S.S.R. under Stalin approached these levels of penal confinement."

Goffman's book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (University of Chicago Press), is an up-close account of that prison boom told largely through the story of a group of young friends in Philadelphia's 6th Street neighborhood. (The location and names in the book are pseudonyms.) The study describes how fear of confinement has transformed work, health, and family life, causing men to disengage from the very mainstream institutions that might put them on a better path.

The threat of incarceration has created "a new social fabric," Goffman writes, "one woven in suspicion, distrust, and the paranoiac practices of secrecy, evasion, and unpredictability." It has turned ghettos into "communities of suspects and fugitives."

When the police threatened Goffman with criminal charges, her seriousness of purpose was becoming dangerous.

Over six years of fieldwork, Goffman shed much of her old life to view the world through her subjects' eyes. With them, she dodged police, partied, and discussed shootings. She watched a nurse's aide pull a bullet out of one boy in an off-the-books, kitchen-table surgery; accompanied various people who arranged for drugs to be smuggled into jail; and attended nine funerals of young men killed in the neighborhood. This drama came to a boil the year Philadelphia police officers brought her in for the interrogation.

But after braving violence and intimidation to get this story, Goffman now faces a different challenge. How can she keep the focus on black poverty, and not her own biography?

To her frustration, when she discusses her research publicly, many people want to hear about the details of her own unusual story. Instead of mass incarceration, they ask questions about what she dismisses as "the story of a blond young woman living in the 'hood." Questions like: Did they ever hit on you—the guys that you were writing about?

 "This is a community worried that at any moment its members will be taken away," Goffman says. "So, to me, that's the story. It's part of the racial politics of this country, right? It's way more interesting to people to hear about the experience of a white woman. I'm completely irrelevant to the story that I'm trying to tell."

Goffman's bid to remain irrelevant is hampered by another personal detail. Her father, the late Erving Goffman, was one of the defining sociologists of the 20th century.

In 1959, his first book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, changed scholars' understanding of the self by portraying people as actors. Rather than core identities, he argued, we adopt different performance strategies in different settings, to make others view us in ways that suit our social ends. Goffman published another classic two years later, Asylums, based on fieldwork he did while working at a mental hospital. His skeptical account of psychiatric practices contributed to the deinstitutionalization of mental patients.

Alice Goffman never knew her father, who died in 1982, when she was a baby. But his famous name has made her the subject of chatter and heightened expectations. That chatter is stoked by the early accolades she has received from top sociologists, among them Mitchell Duneier, at Princeton (who calls her "a very special young scholar"), and Elijah Anderson, at Yale (who calls her work "riveting").

"People are waiting for the book," says Gary Alan Fine, a veteran ethnographer at Northwestern University who studied under Erving Goffman at Penn in the 70s. "Is the book going to be as great as we hope that it's going to be? We'll see."

Alice Goffman's fieldwork differs from her father's research. Still, scholars have been writing urban ethnographies since W.E.B. Du Bois published The Philadelphia Negro, in 1899. Why should people pay attention to this one?

Because only during the past 10 or 15 years has the country seen the emergence of extraordinary incarceration rates among young, poorly educated black men, answers Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard who is vice chair of a National Research Council panel investigating the causes and consequences of high incarceration rates. About 35 percent of black male high-school dropouts under age 40 are now behind bars, he says, compared with an incarceration rate of 0.7 percent for the population as a whole. "What this means for day-to-day life has never really been shown in such detail before," he says.

Western calls Goffman's work "a breakthrough contribution" that raises basic questions about penal systems conceived to promote public safety and improve quality of life in poor communities.

"What her research shows is that these institutions may be self-defeating and may carry very significant social costs," Western says. "And so the whole effort to improve public safety through criminal-justice supervision and through incarceration may have significantly backfired, and may in many ways have contributed to the ongoing poverty and shortage of opportunities that we see there. That's a fairly new story."

On a Sunday evening in August, I meet Goffman at an Afghan restaurant in New York City to hear that story. Like thousands of sociologists, she's in town for the discipline's big annual conference. Unlike many of them, she seems to have little interest in publicity.

A savvy scholar who spends years in an urban danger zone can parlay that into a media splash—think of Columbia University's Sudhir Venkatesh, the self-branded "rogue sociologist" who wrote Gang Leader for a Day. Goffman, by contrast, is wary of press attention, concerned, in part, that it could spawn fresh charges against the people in her book. This is her first interview.

It begins, unexpectedly, with a lesson in eavesdropping.

After we've chatted for a few minutes, Goffman mentions that she's listened in a bit on other tables while carrying on the conversation with me. Her snooping technique involves weaving among the conversations by focusing on one for a couple of seconds, and then moving on to another, in a circle. The point of this exercise, which Goffman teaches students, is to practice valuing what you hear around you, not just what people tell you.

"All the action is over here, in this direction," Goffman says, gesturing behind us in the narrow, low-lit kebab joint. "The worst are the couples who have been together for a long time. Conversation declines with length of relationship."

Nursing a cup of hot water with sugar and cream, Goffman explains that she didn't set out to study young men on the run. She stumbled on the project by doing pretty much what she's doing now: observing social life.

It began in her freshman year at Penn, when she got a job in a campus cafeteria. Penn's mostly white students often griped about the mostly black older women who worked there, calling them lazy and rude. So, for a class, Goffman conceived an ethnographic project to learn what the cafeteria workers thought of the students.

The penal system, Goffman argues, has become America's way of managing the problem of black poverty.

Over time, working alongside them led to tutoring her boss's grandchildren, Aisha and Ray. Tutoring them led to living in the neighborhood. And living there led to hanging out on a daily basis with Mike and his friends, who exposed Goffman to a world she had never read about.

Mike, a part-time crack dealer whom Goffman describes as bearded and intense, appeared to command respect among the neighborhood's young men. When she was set up on a date with him, he showed her a recent gunshot wound to his thigh. The date was a disaster. But meeting Mike also proved to be a stroke of luck. He ended up taking her under his wing like a sister.

Mike and his friends mystified Goffman. "They sort of had jobs, but they also seemed to have income that they didn't speak about," she writes in On the Run. "They were getting arrested and coming home on bail and visiting their probation officers. They got into fights; their cars were stolen or seized by the police. It was all confusion and chaos."

At first, Goffman assumed that Mike and his friends were an outlying group of "bad apples." But she came to understand that many young men in the neighborhood earned money by selling drugs at least some of the time. And many were caught in a web of legal entanglements, often involving arrest warrants for minor infractions.

During a five-year period in his mid-20s, Mike was behind bars for three and a half years. He spent 87 weeks on probation or parole under five overlapping sentences. He went 35 weeks with a warrant out for his arrest, had 10 warrants on him, and appeared in court at least 51 times.

Men like him lived a paradox. The penal system was supposed to shape them up. But its tentacles had become so invasive that the opposite happened. Goffman argues that the system encourages young men to act shady—"I got to move like a shadow," one of Mike's friends told her—because a stable public routine could land them back behind bars.

Take work. Once, after Mike was released on parole to a halfway house, he found employment at a Taco Bell. But he soon grew fed up with his crowded house and decided to sleep at his girlfriend's. That resulted in a parole violation. When Mike went back to the Taco Bell to pick up his paycheck, two parole officers arrested him. He had to spend another year upstate.

Goffman's research subjects avoided hospitals for similar reasons. One night Mike and his friends Alex and Chuck were shooting dice. On the way home, a man robbed Alex, pistol-whipped him, and pounded his face into a concrete wall. When Goffman and Mike got to Alex, he was drenched in blood, searching for his teeth on the ground. His nose and chin were broken.

Yet Alex vehemently resisted being taken to the hospital. Police crowd the emergency room, running the names of young black men through their database, Goffman explains. Alex was on parole, close to completing his two-year sentence. He feared that the police would arrest him or slap him with a parole violation. That would send him back to prison.

Girlfriends, too, could become paths to confinement. Three months into a budding romance with a woman named Michelle, Mike missed a court appearance, triggering a warrant for his arrest. The cops knocked down her door and took him away.

When police brought Michelle in for questioning, they told her that Mike—who had been selling drugs in the suburbs during this period—was now claiming that she was the one who had been selling the drugs. They showed her texts and phone calls indicating that he was still involved with the mother of his kids. They also threatened to take away her child.

The result: Michelle buckled and betrayed Mike. She gave police a statement detailing "his activities, his associates, and the location of his drug-selling business," Goffman writes.

"You see this in movies with high-profile criminals," she tells me over dinner. "It's just that this is happening for really small amounts of drugs. Most of the guys in this neighborhood have had this experience a number of times, where their girlfriend is brought in and threatened with arrest and eviction and loss of child custody to give up all the information about him."

"I don't know if you've ever been put in a position to inform on your wife," Goffman says.

I haven't.

"It's amazingly ruinous."

While Goffman absorbed these lessons in street life, she also learned more about her famous father from professors at Penn. Erving Goffman had been an important figure on the Penn faculty. Sarcastic and skeptical, he spoke little about himself, disliked being photographed, and had the unprofessorial habit of leading seminars in sweat clothes. So great was Goffman's reputation that professors, not just students, attended his classes.

In the 1970s, he helped to recruit and mentor an up-and-coming ethnographer named Elijah Anderson. By the time Alice Goffman turned up at Penn, decades later, Anderson had become a prominent figure in the field, known for his study of ghetto life, A Place on the Corner. Anderson supervised her undergraduate thesis about the 6th Street boys. He also told her stories about Erving Goffman, describing, for example, the man's knack for making himself invisible in spaces—almost blending into walls—as he observed people.

"It was very exciting to be able to be in a position to teach her, to be encouraging, to perhaps be that kind of a mentor that her father was for me," says Anderson, now at Yale.

Alice Goffman seems reluctant to speak much about her father. She quickly changes the subject when I bring him up at dinner. But she writes, in an appendix to On the Run, that his shadow may have pushed her to go "further than was safe or expected" in her own research.

By the winter of 2004, when the Philadelphia police threatened her with criminal charges, Goffman's seriousness of purpose was becoming dangerous.

That year, one of Mike's 6th Street friends rekindled a conflict with guys from 4th Street. Mike came home with seven bullet holes in his car. He began wearing a bulletproof vest. When Goffman and the 6th Street guys were apart, she writes, they checked in every half-hour by text.

"You good?"



Goffman was questioned again, this time by officers she believes were federal. The agents—whose unmarked cars had apparently been circling her apartment—had a reputation for taking only the cases they were certain to win. They told her it was in her best interest to tell them everything she knew about Mike.

Goffman's academic life fell apart. She missed meetings. She failed classes. She applied to graduate school at the University of California at Los Angeles and Princeton, but it seemed to her equally likely she'd end up in prison.

"It was sort of like, am I gonna get into graduate school? Or am I going to just descend into this world of criminal cases and drug dealing and shootouts?" she says.

That spring, after more than a year of court dates in an attempted-murder case, Mike took a deal and pleaded guilty to gun possession. He went to state prison.

"In a silent apartment filled with Timberland boots, empty cartridges, and a sizable gangster movie collection," Goffman writes, "I found out I had been accepted to graduate school at Princeton."

There was a time when this kind of firsthand human observation dominated sociology. It first blossomed in the 1920s at the University of Chicago, where Robert Park exhorted students to "go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research."

A slew of crucial studies followed: Frederic M. Thrasher on "1,313 gangs," Norman S. Hayner on hotel life, Paul Goalby Cressey on "taxi-dance" halls, Louis Wirth on the Jewish ghetto, Clifford R. Shaw on the story of a delinquent boy, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton on the "black metropolis."

Starting in the 1960s, urban ethnographic research became marginal as sociologists turned increasingly to surveys, statistics, and computers. The field has undergone a revival since the 1990s, though, with many faculty hires and new publications.

Still, ethnography, dismissed by some sociologists as "journalism," can be risky for young sociologists keen to please the field's gatekeepers. And some leading scholars say there isn't nearly enough of it.

At Princeton, where Duneier supervised her dissertation, Goffman began to understand the broader context of her shoe-leather scholarship: the escalation of criminal-justice intervention into the lives of black families like Mike's. That story dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, when urban street crime soared and politicians responded with a crackdown on drugs and violence. Federal and state authorities raised the penalties for the sale and possession of drugs. They also stiffened sentencing rules for violent crime and flooded the streets with more police.

Get-tough policies continued in the 1990s even as crime and violence "began a prolonged decline," Goffman writes. Under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 50 new federal offenses were established and billions of dollars flowed into urban police departments.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, Goffman writes, "the near unanimous endorsement of tough-on-crime policies by police and civic leaders accompanied the mushrooming of federal and state police agencies, special units, and bureaus. These policies increased the sentences for violent offenses, but they also increased the sentences for prostitution, vagrancy, gambling, and drug possession."

The cops, says Goffman, had ignored segregated neighborhoods like 6th Street. But urban police departments expanded sharply in the second half of the 20th century. Between 1960 and 2000, Philadelphia's force grew from 2.76 officers for every 1,000 citizens to 4.66 officers—a rise of 69 percent.

As policing changed, so did the drug trade. Twenty or 30 years ago, says Goffman, the business was much more stable. Higher-level dealers controlled neighborhoods. A corporate-like hierarchy protected their workers from the police and from people who might rob them.

But the drug business, faced with intensified policing, devolved into a more fragmented market, in which each dealer protected his own product with his own gun. For the young men caught up in it, selling drugs became more unstable, violent, and legally risky.

The crackdown on the drug economy coincided with a welfare overhaul that cut aid to poor families. Those seeking work in the drug trade, says Goffman, were arrested "on a grand scale." The prison population grew fivefold between the early 1970s and 2000.

More black men are ensnared in the criminal-justice system today than were enslaved before the Civil War. Goffman and others view the situation as a setback to the advances that African-Americans made in the civil-rights movement. One recent book calls mass incarceration "The New Jim Crow."

Still, outside the left-wing precincts of academic sociology, many readers may conclude that Goffman's subjects are violent criminals who belong in prison. And other academics emphasize that targeted policing reduces crime.

Philadelphia is on track to have the lowest number of homicides since 1968, says Jerry Ratcliffe, a criminal-justice professor at Temple University. "That's tied to police officers' being active on the streets, being focused on violent-crime neighborhoods, being focused on crime hot spots ... and repeat offenders," he says. Philadelphia police have increased their pedestrian stops in recent years, he adds, making it riskier for people to carry guns. That has helped reduce homicides and other violence. The professor, who has spent more than a decade studying crime and policing in Philadelphia, admires Goffman's research. But he wonders about its practical applicability.

"It's fine to have a sociological perspective that says that this is wrong," says Ratcliffe, a research adviser to the Philadelphia police commissioner. "But we need to be able to provide mayors and politicians and community members viable alternatives."

Goffman views the criminal-justice system from the perspective of black poverty. The penal system, she argues, has become America's way of managing that problem. What people need to do, Goffman suggests, is abandon the divide in their heads between victims and offenders. "The people who are involved in violent conflict, who are selling drugs, they're all the victims of each other," she says. "There's parts of poor communities that are leading violent and desperate lives between prison and an early death. And we need to see those people as human and to see what's happening to them as something that could be prevented."

Signs of reform are emerging, influenced by two trends: Crime rates remain down, and state budgets face financial duress. In August, the Obama administration announced that it would no longer invoke mandatory minimum sentences in certain federal drug cases. Some states, meanwhile, are decriminalizing marijuana and experimenting with changes in probation and parole. And in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California's prison system violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, chiefly because of overcrowding and poor medical care. It ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 40,000.

Over the past two years, national imprisonment rates have declined for the first time in more than three decades. "The current has flowed mostly in one direction for 30 years," says Bruce Western, of Harvard. "And now we're starting to see a real change in the way people are talking about the criminal-justice system."

Goffman, for her part, has faced a rocky readjustment to the rituals of academic life. On her first day at Princeton, she writes, she cased the sociology department's classrooms, identifying TVs and computers she could steal in the event that she needed some quick cash. She feared white men, the younger male professors especially. Even though she knew they weren't cops, her chest pounded when they came close.

She also came to understand how much she had missed by not hanging out with other undergrads at Penn. Having restricted her media diet to the things Mike and his friends consumed, she couldn't even follow conversations about current events. "It's one thing to feel uncomfortable in a community that is not your own," she writes in On the Run. "It's another to feel that way among people who recognize you as one of them."

Her research subjects have it far worse.

Some of them are dead. Others aged out of crime, only to experience what Goffman describes as a defeat in aspirations. They resign themselves to scraping by in low-paying jobs. To never earning enough to own a home or support a spouse.

Mike went straight after returning from prison a couple of years ago. Now in his 30s, with another son, he works at a warehouse and washes cars. He still lives in Philadelphia.

Correction (1/29/2014, 12:04 p.m.): This article originally provided an inaccurate figure for the number of people under criminal-justice supervision. It is roughly seven million, not roughly six million. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

Marc Parry is a staff reporter at The Chronicle.