Behaviorism as Moral Rearmament: The Making of Strong-Arm Drug Treatment

Teresa Gowan, University of Minnesota

Over the last 30 years the warehousing of enormous numbers of drug offenders has drawn criticism across the political spectrum. A disaster for those imprisoned, their communities, and government coffers, the racialized war on low-level dealers and their clients has posed one of the greatest challenges to the legitimacy of mass incarceration. No wonder then, that the alternative of criminal-justice mandated (or “strong-arm”) drug treatment has gained enormous support, growing fast through the institution of drug courts and other “diversion” measures. The dominant model is a highly confrontational method based on the long-standing “therapeutic communities” now rebranded as “cognitive-behavioral therapy” (CBT). I use ethnography, institutional documents and interviews to both trace and question this rebranding process. In forging much closer relationships with courts, departments of corrections and human services, the reborn therapeutic communities needed to find ways to translate idiosyncratic terminology and declarative truths unique to Alcoholics Anonymous. Most importantly they needed to moderate and reframe their “family” rituals of shaming and hectoring addicts as a medically legitimate process. There is little doubt that strong-arm CBT distorts classical definitions of the modality. Rather than working on specific disorders they undertake a wholesale remaking of the individual; not rehabilitation but “habilitation “ in their words. And rather than working to change “faulty” thinking in a collaborative process the counselors mobilize both fear of jail and grilling by the group to impose homogenous self-narratives. This is a primarily moral and collective project, teaching right and wrong ways to live far more than than investigating individual psychology or biography, and reinforcing the racial coding of desirable and pathological cultures. As such I argue that large-scale strong-arm drug treatment for the criminalized poor needs to be understood within the context of the Anglo-American history of WASP temperance activism as “moral rearmament” and Christian revival.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 119. Regulating Criminal Bodies