Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jeff Maskovsky

Committee Members

Jaqueline Nassy Brown

Dána-Ain Davis

Miriam Ticktin

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology


Substance Use, Gender, Rehabilitation, Race, Incarceration, Urban Geography


During an historic re-articulation of incarceration in New York City, Refusing Rehabilitation: Outlaw Epistemologies and the Carceral-Therapeutic State explores how gender, race, and class have been transformed at the intersection of criminal legal system reform and the overdose crisis. I take up how multiracial groups of criminalized women—thrown together by the state, not by choice—refuse forms of state control and violence, and imagine together alternative “outlaw” horizons of justice, healing, drug use, and escape from carceral-therapeutic capture. Countering the individualizing mandate of rehabilitation, women in rehab articulate visions of healing grounded in interdependence, collective safety, and an end to structural violence, not individual responsibility. In meditating on what it means to desire collective freedom from state violence, I show how the lives of criminalized women reveal durable practices refuting the liberal project of reform, which seeks to violently subjugate and domesticate those it purports to transform.

Focusing on women’s experiences with court-coerced drug treatment, I argue that “alternatives to incarceration” programs trap working-class women who use drugs in complex webs of surveillance and punishment concealed by talk of decarceration, racial justice, and recovery. Traveling across sites of state violence, I show that medical and criminological, therapeutic and punitive approaches to the management of “substance use” as a social problem are deeply intertwined in the “carceral-therapeutic state,” revealing “rehabilitation” as a logic of social control. Through ethnographic research in NYC drug courts and, a residential drug treatment program in Queens, archival research, and correspondence with currently incarcerated people, I argue that practices and ideologies of “rehabilitation” simultaneously secure a racialized class available for perpetual carceral-therapeutic capture and secure whiteness as magnanimous, civilizing, intervening force, always overcoming the (past) violence of its instantiation.

At a moment when prison and jail reformers are arguing for a return to the “rehabilitative” penal ideal, this dissertation refuses this romantic rhetoric and thus provocatively argues for the abolition of rehabilitation itself. Across a range of presumptively-progressive reforms—supervised release, alternatives to incarceration, “problem-solving” courts, and summons-instead-of-arrests— New York has positioned itself as the vanguard of the end of mass incarceration and an anti-racist vanguard besides. But rather than ameliorating anti-Black, patriarchal, and ableist state violence, these reforms have created new tangles of coercion and control under the sign of “rehabilitation,” which redistribute, rather than eliminate, criminalization’s geographies, logics, institutions, and effects. In tracing how the state takes up a particular vision of womanhood that reinscribes courts, jails, and rehabs as gender-responsive technologies, I show how these reforms reproduce investments in carcerality as sites of gendered, racialized management. Thus, contrary to liberal promise, reformism functions to disarticulate and redistribute the carceral system.

Informed by abolitionist organizing and research methodologies, this dissertation focuses on sites of collective struggle and theorization against state violence located within the state-sponsored sequence of “rehabilitation” to work against the social destabilization produced by policing and incarceration. In so doing, it centers what I call “outlaw epistemologies” among people surviving state violence yet often structurally interrupted from theorizing it together. Thus, I have tried to theorize alongside the people in this text where they are, not in some promised-but-often-never-actualized space of “redemption” and “rebirth” distanced from the prison industrial complex, coerced rehabilitation, and their ancillary environs. I hold fast to the notion that there is something to be learned—about liberation, about pleasure, about embodiment, and struggle—from those whose forms of life have been criminalized and repressed, not just by the state, but by white cisheteronormative and bourgeois hegemony, who nonetheless strive to inhabit those repressed forms. Thus, this text experiments with forms of polyvocality and textual collaboration, the nestling of different, and often dissonant and provisional, analyses, stories, and voices of criminalized people who use drugs

If nothing else, I hope that this dissertation convinces the reader that within a racist-sexist carceral-therapeutic regime, rehabilitation will never be outside punishment. If imaginaries of reform subtend the progressive carceral apparatus, so too is the white liberal promise of rehabilitation subtended by the fiction that it escapes the violent domination and coercion of the prison.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, September 30, 2024

Graduate Center users:
To read this work, log in to your GC ILL account and place a thesis request.

Non-GC Users:
See the GC’s lending policies to learn more.