Chasing Recovery: Labor, Governance, And Mobility In Philadelphia’s Drug Treatment Network

Tali Rosenman Ziv, University of Pennsylvania


PhilRecover is a nexus of recovery houses and intensive outpatient treatment centers that emerged in Philadelphia’s poor communities during the height of mass incarceration in the late 1990s when the city began to struggle with jail overcrowding, and yet has become a nonprofit alternative to policing and incarceration in Philadelphia’s decarceral turn. In this dissertation, “Chasing Recovery: Labor, Governance, and Mobility in Philadelphia’s Drug Treatment Network” I explore the subsistence practices — from street-based drug sales to institution-based manipulation of city regulations — that define the work of poor clients, staff, and directors within this community-based drug treatment organizational network. Though Philadelphia’s poverty and the sparse landscape of labor opportunity that produces it have remained unchanged since the mass incarceration era, PhilRecover has corporatized and thus has lost some of its oldest service providers. Using ethnographic, historiographic, and archival research from 2017–2020, I examine the labor and institutional formations underlying the economic struggles of Phil Recover’s remaining older nonprofits and the clients they treat to demonstrate how these labor and institutional structures stymie the transformative possibilities of decarceration. While social scientists studying urban development in the Global South have focused on racialized labor-based transformations among the poor, urban studies in the Global North have focused mostly on the carceral and rehabilitative institutions that respond to the social problems of the poor. If we follow the lead of those studying urban development in the Global South, the question arises: What can a historically informed examination of Philadelphia’s street and non-profit informal urban labor markets illuminate about the contemporary political and economic systems of American cities and their relationship to incarceration practices? My dissertation offers an ethnographic response to this question by placing the street-based informal labor of PhilRecover clients in relation to the institution-based informal rehabilitative labor of struggling PhilRecover directors in the context of the neoliberal city to reveal a racialized system of governance that is structuring decarceration in Philadelphia.