Document Type


Publication Date


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Social Currents


Crime, Law, Deviance, Inequality, Poverty and mobility, Racial and ethnic minorities, Marxist sociology, Labor and labor movements


In this study, I analyze the experiences of people leaving prison and jail, using the concept of urban neoliberal debt peonage. I define urban neoliberal debt peonage as the push of race-class subjugated (RCS) formerly incarcerated people into the low-wage labor market. I argue that urban neoliberal debt peonage is a social process of economic extraction from and racial control of RCS groups structured by state bureaucracies and corporate employers. I provide evidence for this argument using participant observation and interview methods in a large northeastern U.S. city at an employment-oriented prisoner reentry organization that I call “Afterward.” People came to Afterward seeking employment, but were forwarded to work that was often unstable and unable to support subsistence living. Unstable low-wage work did not alter people’s social and economic situations enough to preclude them from engaging in income-producing criminal activity that comes with the risk of reincarceration. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system extracted money from the formerly incarcerated via debt collection, and corporate employers benefited from neoliberal policies that give them tax breaks for hiring Afterward clients. While not identical, the social process of urban neoliberal debt peonage echoes that of post–Civil War debt peonage and convict leasing.




This is the manuscript version of an article published in Social Currents. The final published version is available at


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