Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Blue-Collar and No-Collar Community News

On a recent road trip to St. Louis, I stopped off at a gas station in Tennessee and noticed Just Busted News. Just Busted is a Tennessee-based weekly, which publishes the names of recently arrested locals, their mug shots, and a description of their arrest charges. Just Busted is just one of several such weeklies. In the issue I purchased for $1, there were *22* pages of mugshots for 10 counties of Eastern Tennessee. There are 95 counties in Tennessee. Yes, 22 pages of rows and rows of mugshots in *one week* in only 10% of Tennessee's counties. Here is just one page on Sevier County, the home of Dollywood. I am writing here about rural Tennessee, but the trends there have many similarities to those in DC and Ward 6.

As many have argued, such weeklies make a profit exploiting people who have just been arrested, presenting them as criminals when in fact they have not been to trial and many are likely innocent. Here I want to talk about a different aspect. Such weeklies sold in gas stations are some of the only sources for community news, especially for those without regular internet access, reporting from an expanding and precarious social world in which increasing numbers of people live.

I had never seen such a paper before, so I asked the gas station cashiers about it:
JB: Why do people buy Just Busted? 
Cashier 1: They buy it just to see if they know anybody.
Cashier 2: Yeah, they want to know if people they know have been arrested. 
The cashiers and their customers regularly read Just Busted. Members of this social world know enough people moving through the courts, jails, and prisons that they would expect to recognize someone in an issue of Just Busted. It reminded me of a kind of Facebook page or alumni magazine, where you could find some significant, though not happy, updates on former classmates, neighbors, acquaintances, and customers. One of the cashiers said that, at another gas station she worked in, she saw at least one customer each week in Just Busted. Just Busted provides news about their social world, even if they possibly live in multiple social worlds.

This social world likely works either in low-wage jobs, such as as cashiers at gas stations, or in the informal economy. While Sevier County has many positives, like a relatively good median household income and educational attainment as compared to the rest of Tennessee, Sevier Country also has some of the worst adult unemployment in Tennessee (12.8% vs. 8.8% in the state as a whole), which is on an upward trend. Many of the arrests reported in Just Busted are related to the rural drug economy: promoting meth manufacture, initiation of meth manufacturing process, "poss soma poss hydrocodone," and "manu poss dist cont con subst." In a county with high unemployment, the informal drug economy can be understood as a means for making a living.  

However, the overwhelming majority of the arrests reported in Just Busted are not for drug crimes, violent crimes, or crimes in a conventional sense. The overwhelming number arrests are for probation violations, failure to obey court orders, and failure to appear. One way to violate probation or parole is to be unemployed and thus unable to pay one's prison fees and fines. It is very difficult for the formerly incarcerated and for those currently on probation or parole to find jobs, which can mean a return to prison. In "The Impossible Debts of Inmates," I wrote about the extreme difficulties that people have paying these fees and fines because they make such low wages inside prison (according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inmates make between 12 cents and 40 cents per hour) and outside prison.

The economy inside the prison and outside the prison are related. My Mason colleague Professor and Director of Women and Gender Studies Angela Hattery has written a fascinating article, arguing that prisons remove people from the labor pool of the overcrowded low-skill, low-wage service sector and make them unemployable in this formal economy outside the prison. These people are then employable in prison at very low wages. As Hattery and her co-author demonstrate:
Taking the lead from practices such as the convict lease system that have been around for a century or more, dozens of Fortune 500 companies -- including McDonald's, Microsoft, Dell, and Victoria's Secret -- have moved at least part of their operations into prisons. This transition to prison labor allows corporations to significantly cut their labor costs and thus presumably increase their profits.
The social world of the gas station cashiers, rural drug economy workers, and prisoners cross the prison walls. Those working inside prisons and those working outside prisons either in low-wage formal jobs or in the informal economy thus share an expanding social world, which is reflected in the pages of weeklies like Just Busted, a kind of community news for the blue-collar and the no-collar.

In what ways is this also happening in Ward 6?


  1. How friggin' depressing is this?! I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and have always been struck by the commonalities between poor white folk in the country and poor black folk in the city. I hope you're planning to answer the question for us, "how is this also happening in Ward 6?" Excellent post!

  2. Over 60-some years I’ve seen several versions of “Just Busted,” notably in the southern town where I grew up. There the local daily newspaper published (and still does) the contents of the town’s police blotter. There were (are) no mug shots though, because most people knew each other. Photos would have been redundant. The point, as impressed upon us children by our parents, teachers, preachers and older friends, was that you never, EVER, wanted to have your name show up in that section of the newspaper, which nearly everyone read. My classmates and friends were from families in many social and economic circumstances, ranging from very comfortable to dire, but we all got the same lesson and fear of consequences. The town’s residents would have been puzzled by a suggestion that the published police blotter and its record of arrests served to reflect a shared expanding social world of blue collar workers and prisoners.


  3. Many people have written about the shaming aspect of weeklies like Just Busted, which are connected with a long history of shaming strategies. What we have had since the 1980s is an expansion of the prison population, so we're seeing new phenomena in society as more and more people are marked as unhireable and move in and out of the prison. These social worlds crossing over the prison walls are expanding, seemingly without concern for shaming or the amount of shame people feel.

  4. It should be clear that the gas station cashiers did not suggest that going to prison was in any way a positive event. Just Busted provides very unhappy news: "...where you could find some significant, though not happy, updates on former classmates, neighbors, acquaintances, and customers. "


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