The Points Interview: Kerwin Kaye

Editor’s Note: Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Kerwin Kaye, an Associate Professor of Sociology, American Studies, and Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University. Dr. Kaye’s new book, Enforcing Freedom: Drug Courts, Therapeutic Communities, and the Intimacies of the State, was released this month by Columbia University Press. He also writes about issues pertaining to male sex work. He currently lives in New York City. 

Screenshot 2019-12-12 08.49.32Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

In Enforcing Freedom I take a close look at drug courts – courts that offer court-supervised drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration for drug-related crimes – and the nature of the treatment programs they rely upon. Drug courts have often been touted as an alternative to racialized mass incarceration, and certainly the idea of treatment instead of incarceration has a lot of appeal to many people.

My research shows that they have a more problematic impact than is at first apparent. The good is that anyone who completes treatment as part of drug court will have the charge removed from their record – that’s a good deal. The bad is that only about 50% succeed at drug court while the other half fails. Even worse, most courts require participants to plead guilty prior to participating in the court, meaning that the half that fails has no opportunity to strike a plea bargain – they plead guilty to the most serious charges that can be leveled at them. So after failing at treatment – how does one fail at treatment? does not treatment fail you? – this half gets sentenced to incarceration times that are significantly longer than they would have received if they had been able to strike a plea bargain.

In other words, drug courts actually intensify the war on drugs for half of the population, even as they mitigate it for the half that succeeds. And unsurprisingly, the half that fails is disproportionately black and disproportionately impoverished. So rather than entirely mitigating racialized mass incarceration, drug courts act as a sorting mechanism, escalating and aggravating social exclusions for precisely those populations that most need relief.

Continue reading →

Stories of Synanon, Part One

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. This is the first of a series of oral histories Mylet is working on with former members of Synanon. More will run on Points in the future. 

When Synanon is remembered at all today, it is as a “vindictive” and “violent cult,” whose methods still lie at the heart of destructive “tough love” programs for recovering drug addicts and problem teens. These exposés detail how Charles (“Chuck”) Dederich, who founded the group for alcoholics and addicts in 1958, forced his followers to shave their heads, switch romantic partners, and verbally abuse one another in a form of attack therapy called the “Synanon Game”—all of which, depending on your perspective, is one hundred percent true.

Nonetheless, supporters of Synanon throughout the 1950s and 1960s—among them senators and congressmen, famous movie stars and authors, renowned criminologists and psychologists, corporate leaders, and civil rights groups—would have been shocked by the way Synanon has been both forgotten and vilified. By the early 1970s, the organization had expanded to tens of thousands of members (including “dope fiends” and non-using “squares,” in Synanon lingo), partnered with state governments to manage semi-autonomous Synanon prison wings, produced a jazz LP, and donated truckloads of food and supplies to the United Farm Workers and Black Panthers. 

This summer, I interviewed one of the organization’s earliest members as part of an ongoing oral history project to capture the complexity of the Synanon story. Lena Lindsay moved into Synanon House in December 1959, when the group was operating out of an abandoned National Guard armory on the beach in Los Angeles. Much attention had been paid to drug addiction in California during the years before Lindsay joined Synanon. State lawmakers, responding to public outcry, introduced hundreds of narcotics bills, many of which recommended the first mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. In the mid-1950s, Camarillo State Hospital began publicizing its facilities to addicts, while the state’s Department of Corrections initiated plans to build facilities specifically for narcotics violators. Community resources for people struggling with drug addiction were basically nonexistent. 

Screenshot 2019-11-26 at 8.39.27 AM

Synanon House, circa 1962

In this interview, Lindsay describes her experiences in and out of California institutions in the 1950s and her life in Synanon until she left in 1974, disillusioned and frustrated by the changes that Dederich was making in the organization. 

Continue reading →