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Criminalization of the Unclean: An Examination of Legal and Moral Consequences for Living without Access to Sanitation in the United States

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Abstract:

Throughout America marginalized populations based on racial, class, and gender statuses are subjected to bear the costs associated with living in an industrialized nation. Less often considered, however, is how marginalized populations are excluded from access to what can be some of the most basic of needs. While most Americans enjoy the benefits of advanced wastewater treatment technologies, those who cannot afford to pay the high costs of participation in a system of wastewater management are rendered deviants. This paper introduces data collected from September 2009 to August 2010 and December 2010 to January 2011 in two sites, one rural and one urban, where residents in the communities have been cast out of the system of wastewater management and who have been punished for their exclusion. In these two sites I explore the multiple pathways in which individuals in the United States are denied access to sanitation and how this process of exclusion is both racializing and criminalizing.

In rural Lowndes County, AL residents who are largely poor and African American live without access to full sanitation because many cannot afford to install the expensive septic systems that the local soils require. To address the need to handle sewage, some households installed plastic PVC piping from their outlet to open ditches at the edge of their property. These conditions were ignored by local government until complaints from neighbors required they take action. Around forty families were notified that if they did not install adequate sewage treatment systems they would face jail time. More than a dozen individuals were arrested for failure to comply with the judge’s order. In addition to threats of incarceration, residents faced water and utility cutoffs and evictions. In 2002, the arrests were sufficiently disturbing to garner national media attention and the sympathy of a national, faith-based non-profit organization. The director of the organization called the situation in Lowndes County a “criminalization of the poor” and accused the county of having a “debtor’s prison.”

Urban Detroit is symbolic of the rise and fall of industrial capitalism in America and its realignment through dispersing labor and manufacturing around the global marketplace. Due to federal changes in the welfare structure and statewide changes in certain welfare programs, many Detroit residents faced utility bills in the thousands of dollars when they were transitioned off of AFDC. Unable to pay their bills and meet their regular expenses, many faced shutoffs. In 2000 alone, over 40,000 customers had their water service shut off. To make matters worse, many families also had their children taken away. According to the regulations that govern Child Protective Services (CPS), if a household has more than one utility cut off the home can be considered abandoned. Without being able to afford their utilities, parents were viewed by CPS as placing their children in a state of neglect. Children were placed in foster care until parents could get their utilities turned back on and pay their overdue fines.
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MLA Citation:

Carrera, Jennifer. "Criminalization of the Unclean: An Examination of Legal and Moral Consequences for Living without Access to Sanitation in the United States" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The Law and Society Association, Westin St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, CA, May 30, 2011 <Not Available>. 2014-07-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p496242_index.html>

APA Citation:

Carrera, J. S. , 2011-05-30 "Criminalization of the Unclean: An Examination of Legal and Moral Consequences for Living without Access to Sanitation in the United States" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The Law and Society Association, Westin St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, CA <Not Available>. 2014-07-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p496242_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: Throughout America marginalized populations based on racial, class, and gender statuses are subjected to bear the costs associated with living in an industrialized nation. Less often considered, however, is how marginalized populations are excluded from access to what can be some of the most basic of needs. While most Americans enjoy the benefits of advanced wastewater treatment technologies, those who cannot afford to pay the high costs of participation in a system of wastewater management are rendered deviants. This paper introduces data collected from September 2009 to August 2010 and December 2010 to January 2011 in two sites, one rural and one urban, where residents in the communities have been cast out of the system of wastewater management and who have been punished for their exclusion. In these two sites I explore the multiple pathways in which individuals in the United States are denied access to sanitation and how this process of exclusion is both racializing and criminalizing.

In rural Lowndes County, AL residents who are largely poor and African American live without access to full sanitation because many cannot afford to install the expensive septic systems that the local soils require. To address the need to handle sewage, some households installed plastic PVC piping from their outlet to open ditches at the edge of their property. These conditions were ignored by local government until complaints from neighbors required they take action. Around forty families were notified that if they did not install adequate sewage treatment systems they would face jail time. More than a dozen individuals were arrested for failure to comply with the judge’s order. In addition to threats of incarceration, residents faced water and utility cutoffs and evictions. In 2002, the arrests were sufficiently disturbing to garner national media attention and the sympathy of a national, faith-based non-profit organization. The director of the organization called the situation in Lowndes County a “criminalization of the poor” and accused the county of having a “debtor’s prison.”

Urban Detroit is symbolic of the rise and fall of industrial capitalism in America and its realignment through dispersing labor and manufacturing around the global marketplace. Due to federal changes in the welfare structure and statewide changes in certain welfare programs, many Detroit residents faced utility bills in the thousands of dollars when they were transitioned off of AFDC. Unable to pay their bills and meet their regular expenses, many faced shutoffs. In 2000 alone, over 40,000 customers had their water service shut off. To make matters worse, many families also had their children taken away. According to the regulations that govern Child Protective Services (CPS), if a household has more than one utility cut off the home can be considered abandoned. Without being able to afford their utilities, parents were viewed by CPS as placing their children in a state of neglect. Children were placed in foster care until parents could get their utilities turned back on and pay their overdue fines.

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