As the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world,1 the US now imprisons over 2 million people, most of whom are poor/working class and people of color. The “gigantic experiment” (Melossi & Lettiere 1998: 42) of the US prison system, what is aptly called the “Prison-Industrial Complex,”2 benefits, for example, politicians who win elections on reactionary “get tough on crime” platforms (Austin & Irwin 2001: 5), transnational private prison corporations (Beyens & Snacken 1996: 242), private and public businesses that super-exploit prison laborers (Lafer 2003), and, more generally, those individuals who benefit from various dimensions of privilege in US society including even the very condition of not being locked up (free world privilege).3 The current carceral state that brutalizes millions of the most oppressed and vulnerable populations in the US – those struggling with the worst effects of race, class, and increasingly gender oppression –- poses a threat not only to offenders and their families and communities, but also to the prospects for actualizing democratic politics. Simply put, “Prisons constitute one of the most controversial and contested sites in a democratic society” (James 2003b: 14).
Some of the anti-democratic features of mass incarceration4 have been highlighted by a number of theorists (see e.g. Davis 2005; Christie 1993: 14; Mauer 2006: 15); in particular, the issue of enfranchising prisoners and former prisoners, which has obvious import for democratic political theory, has garnered some limited scholarly attention.5 There still remain, however, vital unexplored questions. For example, how do the theories of prison abolitionist Thomas Mathiesen (1986) contribute to a discussion regarding the conflicts between mass imprisonment and democracy? Mathiesen has argued for the importance of examining prison’s symbolic and cultural effects, but it remains to be seen how this theory may illuminate the more subtle anti-democratic effects of mass incarceration. In her pioneering work Inclusion and Democracy, Iris Marion Young (2000: 196-235) contributes a great deal to an understanding of how race- and class-based residential segregation can be morally problematic, but can her analysis also illuminate the anti-democratic features of mass incarceration? The parallels between residential segregation based upon race and class and the system of large-scale offender segregation found in mass incarceration deserves more investigation, especially if it can be shown that the latter shares many of the problematic features of the former. Lastly, if mass incarceration is fundamentally at odds with the realization of a democratic, inclusive society, how does one begin envisioning alternative, more liberatory possibilities? In this paper, I will examine each of these questions and then conclude with some reflections on the current movement for prison abolition.
The Symbolic Effects and Cultural Values of Mass Incarceration
The direct effects of a system of imprisonment can be measured in very specific and quantifiable terms, such as the number of offenders removed from the dominant society, the cost to governments or private corporations to feed and clothe prisoners, etc. But there are also indirect effects of embracing institutionalized punishment – especially mass incarceration – which are more subtle yet still tangible. Mathiesen, in arguing against prison construction, touches on the dimension of “cultural values”:
The prison system is a system with cultural effects. Not only does it constitute a set of material institutions, and not only is it a complex social organization, but it is also a system which is symbolic of a way of thinking about people. As a way of thinking it emphasizes violence and degradation as a method of solving inter-human conflicts. And when the system is expanded through new prisons, that symbolic effect is also enhanced (1986: 88).
The symbolism of continued prison growth therefore ought to be critically evaluated, according to Mathiesen, because these institutions produce violent, antisocial practices and values that a society intent on cultivating nonviolent conflict resolution would do well to reject. The symbolic consequences can be understood in another way as well, namely, as the promulgation of values inimical to an inclusive, democratic society. Mass incarceration –- which materially excludes prisoners and often former prisoners in virtually every area of social, political, and economic life –- symbolically represents and produces at least two cultural values that are incompatible with ideals of inclusion and democracy.
First, this system of punishment constructs a false “us vs. them” moral and ontological dichotomy. The cultural message of mass incarceration is that only two types of person exist: the morally pure (“good guys”) on the outside and the morally defiled (“bad guys”) who are either locked safely away behind prison walls or controlled and surveilled through the caste system for “ex cons.” Lynch and Groves describe this process in political terms: “By imprisoning certain types of people (especially lower class persons, blacks, and the young), capitalist forms of punishment create the belief that there is a ‘class of criminals’ … what earlier criminologists referred to as the dangerous classes” (1989: 117). Creating two quasi-religious, naturalized6 ontological categories effectively demonizes and degrades offenders at the same time as it glorifies and renders blameless non-offenders. This peculiar construction of social reality, perhaps a legacy from a Puritanical worldview that equates crime with sin (see Gottschalk 2006: 47), obviates a more complex analysis demonstrating how all individuals, whether they are convicted felons or not, are “morally mixed,” neither angels nor devils (Reiman 2005: 7).
The symbolism of the angel-devil ontology/axiology is not conducive to inclusion and democratic participation because it degrades the trust in and sense of solidarity with one’s fellow citizens. Since democracies rely upon a form of generalized trust among individuals and groups within their societies (Warren 1999: 12), a powerful state-based institution whose symbolic effects undermine trust is, at a minimum, problematic. One could argue that such anti-democratic symbolic effects are compensated by other, benign effects of mass incarceration, but this overlooks the devastation generated by the present system. There are of course many symbolic and material advantages of mass incarceration for the economic, social, and political elite, but this has nothing to do with democracy.
Second, the “sheer physical repression” exhibited through mass incarceration (Mathiesen 1990: 15) promotes values contrary to constructive dialogue, understanding, and reconciliation. The cultural message of mass incarceration, with its distinctive militaristic discourse (Harris 2003: 35) –- as in the ongoing “wars” on crime and drugs -– is one that encourages the use of debilitating, even deadly force against others during times of conflict. A society cannot be inclusive or participatory if its citizens are encouraged to resolve conflicts through physical force or social ostracism. Mass incarceration therefore tends to undermine democratic process. Alternative non-incarcerative systems of conflict resolution, such as those based on restorative justice theory (see e.g. McLaughlin et al. 2003; Elliot & Gordon 2005), are therefore needed.
Dismantling the present system of punishment would force a constructive confrontation with the stigmatizing ideologies toward offenders now prevalent in US society, even among their own families and communities (Braman 2002: 129). More fundamentally, overcoming mass incarceration would call into question the social inequalities that require such a practice.7 Alternative institutions and practices to mass incarceration, such as conflict mediation centers and open-access hospitals and colleges, would promote quite different symbolic effects and cultural values.
Offender Segregation and Democratic Participation
In a chapter of her important work Inclusion and Democracy, Iris Marion Young attempts to articulate why residential segregation based upon race and class can be morally problematic. After rejecting the idea that the primary wrong is group clustering itself, she argues that the central issue arising from residential segregation is the processes of exclusion it generates (205). Young goes on to describe four ways residential race segregation and three ways residential class segregation can endanger democracy. Using her analysis as a guide, I will argue in this section that offender segregation of the type exhibited in mass incarceration shares at least three of the morally problematic features that Young attributes to race- and class-based residential segregation. First, segregating offenders produces and reinforces structures of privilege and oppression. Second, the structure that generates privileges through mass incarceration also serves to hide such advantages from those they benefit. Third, the segregation of offenders impedes political communication and personal interaction between those differently situated in relation to mass incarceration, a fact that also prevents the formation of a robust, inclusive democracy.
1. Residential racial segregation acts to reproduce structures of privilege and oppression by providing minority communities with, for example, less access to public transportation, diminished opportunities to attend high quality public schools and obtain private services, and decreased collective status and sway among local politicians. Moreover, those who live in race- and class-based segregated communities are often stigmatized by the dominant society and blamed for neglecting their neighborhoods, even though racism and market forces play a significant role in constructing and impoverishing segregated areas (Young 2000: 205ff). As others have thoroughly demonstrated (e.g. McIntosh 1995; Cudd 2006: 25; Jensen 2005), unearned privilege is the hidden underside of all forms of oppression. Young explains, by using this concept, how race and class segregation allocate unfair advantages to white and wealthy people: predominantly white and affluent neighborhoods encourage, for example, further economic investment and development, which translates into superior pubic and private services for those residing in such areas (Young 2000: 207), thus preserving and reproducing class and race privilege.
The segregation of offenders through mass incarceration likewise reproduces structures of unjustified disadvantage and privilege. Most individuals in prison are poor/working-class people of color; removing large numbers of them –- typically young, potentially wage-earning males8 –- from their already oppressed communities contributes to the deepening impoverishment of their families and, collectively, to the exacerbation of entrenched structures of race and class oppression. More than 1.5 million children in the US are now growing up with a parent behind bars (Gottschalk 2006: 20). Not only is an imprisoned parent unable to provide financially for his or her family,9 but the prisoner’s partner and children are often deprived of regular physical contact and sustained emotional involvement, a problem worsened by the forced relocation of offenders many miles from their towns of origin (see Bernstein 2003).
In the communities most heavily targeted for imprisonment, where the incarceration of one’s loved ones and friends has become an accepted fact of life,10 the pervasive injury of mass incarceration is apparent in increased economic loss (Western et al. 2002), truncated life options for offenders (Travis 2002), further disintegration of families (Braman 2002), and the racialized stigmatization that accompanies large-scale criminalization of primarily male bodies of color (Davis 2001; Mauer 2006: 130-56). In addition, the psychological damage inflicted on offenders through the present system of segregation also strengthens class and race disparities in US society. For example, the antisocial survival-based behaviors and values forced upon offenders through mass incarceration -– a traumatizing socialization process termed “prisonization” by Harry Brodsky (1975: 10) -– further mark offenders as unsuitable employees and, in the eyes of the dominant society, as generally “unfit” for the free world, thus confirming classist and racist stereotypes. These injuries wrought by offender segregation ensure that communities already overwhelmed with institutionalized race and class oppression will be inundated by a continuous flow of people saddled with the additional obstacles posed by prisonization.
Perhaps even more significantly, the permanent second-class status attached to those who have experienced incarceration or who otherwise have a criminal history guarantees that former offenders, their families, and their communities will suffer the additional weight of legal discrimination in housing, employment, welfare, and student loan access. These legal but destructive “invisible punishments” (Travis 2002) further disadvantage already oppressed people while simultaneously advancing the unearned privileges of those with white skin, wealth, and other means to escape incarceration and a criminal record. Offender segregation in the form of mass incarceration specifically benefits those with free world privilege by giving them 1) greater access to the political process, 2) the economic and social prerequisites for meeting their basic needs, and 3) the distinct (but almost always unrecognized) psychological benefits bestowed on those with an easy assurance that, no matter how immorally one may have behaved or how “low” one’s status in a patriarchal, white supremacist capitalist society may be, at least one is not one of those people of the despised criminal caste.11 The current penal policy of pursuing an unprecedented path of increased criminalization and offender segregation despite falling crime rates during the 1990s (Mauer 2006: 93) -– and, importantly, $40 billion spent annually that could be used to develop rather than corrode human potential (Austin & Irwin 2001: 13) -– is creating troubling consequences for those who seek to build democracy and inclusion. In many ways, then, it appears that during this unique carceral age of mass offender segregation and brutalization “we are gradually putting our own apartheid into place” (ibid., 244).
2. Another problematic feature of residential racial segregation described by Young is that the structures that assign unfair disadvantages and privileges also render invisible such benefits to those who have them. She writes:
In order to see themselves as privileged, the white people who live in more pleasant neighborhoods must be able to compare their environment with others. But this comparison is rarely forced upon them because those excluded from access to the resources and benefits they themselves have are spatially separated and out of sight… As a consequence, those who have privileged lives compared to the disadvantages in the quality of life produced by segregation can think of their lives as normal, average (208).
If white and affluent people were less spatially segregated from those oppressed by race and class, then social, economic, and other inequalities would be more visible and thus, one would hope, less easily ignored by those with privilege. The physical segregation of offenders acts to obscure the ways in which free world privilege attaches to those existing outside the injurious apparatus of mass incarceration.12
One means by which this obfuscation of social reality occurs is through linguistic manipulation. Paul Wright has shown how the discourse on “victims’ rights” is constructed by the dominant, free world culture in a way that further stereotypes young men of color and, at the same time, denies even the possibility that victimization could occur among segregated offenders. According to Wright,
If the police, media, and politicians have made the universal face of crime that of a young black or Latino man, they have also strived mightily to make the face of the universal victim that of the middle- or upper-class white woman or child… Hence, there is no concern whatsoever for the prisoner who is raped, robbed, beaten, or killed, whether by prisoners or prison staff (2003: 62).
For many though not all outside prison walls, it is expected to have at least some access to police, legal support, or supportive friends and family when one is subjected to physical violence, sexual assault, or other harms. This is true even though, especially for poor communities and communities of color, emergency services may be woefully negligent, and one may have well-founded fears of police harassment and brutality (see e.g. Nelson 2001). Those segregated by mass incarceration, by comparison, are usually denied even the most minimal forms of support, as they are not viewed by the dominant society -– or, least of all, by prison authorities -– as legitimate victims.13 The isolation of prisons in small, economically impoverished rural communities (Fraser 2003; Parenti 1999: 214-17) places offenders on the margins of social consciousness and at the mercy of inaccurate and reactionary ideologies. The widespread belief that prison is not harsh enough, for example, legitimates additional repression and, significantly, further obscures the privileges of those on the outside.14
3. Finally, Young argues that residential segregation hampers democracy by obstructing, in two ways, the free exchange of ideas. First, segregation can prevent open political communication from disadvantaged groups (208), and, second, it can prevent public encounters between those differently situated within an unjust society (214). These concepts are based on Young’s theory of communicative democracy:
[P]olicy change to undermine structural inequality is more likely to occur if subordinated groups are politically mobilized and included as equals in a process of discussing issues and problems that lead to decisions…. The very processes of segregation that produce structural privileges for many white people, however, also impede the establishment of such inclusive political fora…. where differentiated groups come together to debate whether there are injustices and, if so, what should be done about them (209).
If inclusive political fora were available for offenders to communicate their experiences of exclusion and abuse to non-offenders, then the ubiquitous, normalized injustices taking place would probably encounter more sustained resistance. Due to the nature of offender segregation and the resulting hierarchical, unidirectional, monological flow of information (i.e. offenders are rarely allowed to speak for themselves but always spoken to and on behalf of, even by some prison reform organizations [Kilroy 2005: 285]), the opportunity for authentic, honest political communication, an essential requirement for democratic participation, is thwarted. As a legally segregated group experiencing “internal exile” both during and after imprisonment (Travis 2002: 19), offenders suffer great political disempowerment that prevents them, first, from being viewed as the moral equals of those possessing free world privilege and, second, from obtaining the means to communicate their experiences of oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words are relevant here: “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured” (2003: 40).
The segregation of offenders is not limited to matters of political discourse; it blocks public interaction with them in every sphere. This presents a problem not only for offenders who strive to overcome disabling stereotypes and inhumane treatment -– and to regain their self-respect –- but also for privileged people who remain oblivious (at times willfully so) to their unjustified advantages. Many privileged people, to be sure, have no interest in challenging their own unearned benefits, particularly in a capitalist society where intense competition sometimes converts any advantage, earned or not, into a prerequisite for satisfying one’s basic needs. On the other hand, however, as is now increasingly recognized (see e.g. Wise 2005: 119-50), members of privileged groups are psychologically and emotionally damaged by their own unjustified social, economic, and political status.15 With almost complete lack of awareness, non-offenders in the US possess extraordinary benefits in a society with one of the harshest and most expansive carceral systems ever devised. Ignorance about these benefits is much more difficult to maintain when one regularly encounters the criminalized Other whose actual person rarely resembles the bigoted stereotypes manufactured by a racist, classist, and virulently anti-criminal society. It is in this educative role that dismantling prisoner segregation –- and all the collateral injustices of mass incarceration -– would truly be a service to the humanity of non-offenders and to the justice of their society. Jeffrey Reiman speaks well to this point:
If we think that felons are somehow irretrievably evil, fundamentally different from law-abiding people – a kind of caste or even a unique species – then all we can learn from them is how better to protect ourselves from them. But, there is more than that to learn from criminals. Similar to how branding dissidents insane in the former Soviet Union was a means to defuse challenges to the justice of the Soviet system, so too, the belief that those who deviate from our rules are wholly different from us normal law-abiding people is a shield against thinking about the justice of our society (2005: 14).
Democratic Alternatives to the Carceral State
The preceding arguments, if persuasive, further strengthen the case that “a fundamental requirement for the revitalization of democracy is the long-overdue abolition of the prison system” (Davis 2003a: 39). If mass incarceration should be rendered obsolete for these and other reasons, including that the highly-touted “prisons deter crime” argument is flawed (Mauer 2006: 92-112; Austin & Irwin 2001: 222-36), why does this institution continue to persist and even expand? While there is some truth in John Braithwaite’s statement that “A lack of theoretical imagination among criminologists has been one underrated reason for the failure of the criminal justice system” (2003: 56), it is more realistic to view this “failure” as a success from the vantage-point of controlling those populations rendered superfluous to and most disadvantaged by modern capitalist production (see Reiman 2004: 11-54; Wacquant 2001; Debs 2000: 174). In addition, as I have suggested, the multitude of material, symbolic, and psychological advantages afforded to non-offenders produces, first, an additional cleavage by which to further divide oppressed people and, second, incentives among those with free world privilege to evade a critical interrogation of the penal structure that bestows upon them unearned advantages. These and other factors have made mass incarceration seem inevitable, but in this section I will offer three proposals for creating a more inclusive, democratic society opposed to mass incarceration.16
First, in the short-range future, state policies mandating the blanket disenfranchisement of offenders –- whether prisoners, former prisoners, or those with felonies who escaped imprisonment -– ought to be rescinded immediately. “To proclaim democratic governance today,” argue Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, “means, at a minimum, universal suffrage for all citizens” (2002: 778). The current US disenfranchisement laws that deny the vote to 2 percent of the adult population (Mauer 2002: 51) can be justified neither philosophically (Brenner & Caste 2003) nor in light of democratic principles (Sentencing Project 1998: 22). Disenfranchisement laws against offenders, as Elizabeth Hull (2003; 2004) illustrates, are legacies of overtly racist states intending to exclude African Americans from the electorate following the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.17 To what degree the same conscious racist intent remains a part of contemporary justifications for disenfranchisement may be controversial, but it is clear that this practice, as Reiman maintains, “does not seem like a good idea for a democracy. It is surely not a good idea for the Democratic Party!” (2005: 5).18 Indeed, disenfranchising millions of poor whites and people of color, particularly in close elections such as the 2000 Presidential election,19 cannot be good for Democratic Party members, socialists and other radicals who seek the political empowerment of the marginalized; and it is even opposed by fair-minded conservatives, who recognize the contradiction of disenfranchising citizens in a presumed democracy.20 Despite the obvious conflict between disenfranchisement laws and democratic principles, no other society calling itself a democracy denies the vote to as many people with felony convictions as does the US (Sentencing Project 1998: 1); the fact that the US leads the world in imprisonment need not result in widespread disenfranchisement, since it is a political choice –- one not made by all countries –- to deny suffrage to prisoners and/or former prisoners.21
To be sure, those committed to radical social change should not exaggerate the significance of electoral reform (Lippke 2001: 558), especially as long as the US is dominated by two capitalist parties equally hostile to fundamentally restructuring society. Gaining the franchise should not be emphasized to the exclusion of obtaining other rights rejected by capitalist conceptions of democracy, such as the right to housing, health care, and employment (Davis 2005: 103). Offenders, however, can be easily scapegoated for classist and racist purposes due to their lack of political power, which is only exacerbated by their widespread denial of the franchise. One practical step, therefore, towards extending democracy is ensuring that the right to vote, among other rights, is universal among prisoners and former prisoners.
A second, more short- to middle-range goal is the decriminalization of victimless offenses, such as prostitution among consenting adults, homelessness, and, especially, recreational drug use. There are nearly half a million people in prison or awaiting trial who are now or potentially about to be needlessly severed from the body politic solely for drug-related offenses (Mauer & Chesney-Lind 2002a: 6). There are various arguments for drug legalization (see e.g. Husak & de Marneffe 2005: 3-105), but it takes little analysis to understand that the enormous resources now used to police and incarcerate drug offenders could be more effectively and humanely directed into providing the social services that, first, enable individuals to fight drug addiction (where treatment is needed at all) and, second, meet their basic human needs for housing, employment, health care, education, and community, which would help eradicate the oppressive social conditions that engender drug abuse. The current “war on drugs” also serves a vital function in preserving white supremacy and class inequality (Chomsky 2003); drug legalization, as an alternative to current practices, would therefore prevent the use of this tool to further divide and depoliticize poor people and people of color.
A final middle- and long-range goal for challenging the anti-democratic institution of mass incarceration is to begin replacing current penal practices with non-incarcerative restorative justice methods and, more fundamentally, preventing harmful antisocial behavior by ameliorating social, economic, and political inequalities. In the present climate of seemingly limitless prison expansion, however, merely halting the planned construction of any new prisons would be a worthy achievement. Every year the cost of constructing new prisons alone is nationally about $7 billion, and the annual expense for maintaining the entire structure of mass incarceration is between $20 and $35 billion (Parenti 1999: 213; cf. Austin & Irwin 2001: 220f). If society were more rationally organized to meet human needs for the many rather than to maximize private profit for the few, then these valuable assets would be much more usefully employed facilitating victim-offender restitution and mediation programs, reducing social, economic, and political inequalities, and providing sufficient resources for the rehabilitation of – and perhaps some non-incarcerative means of restraint for – the small remaining segment of the offender population who pose a genuinely violent threat of harm to others.22
Conclusion: Thoughts toward an Abolitionist Future
Contemplating prison abolition at this time in the US, the international center of mass incarceration, is seemingly utopian given that “It is as if prison were an inevitable fact of life, like birth and death” (Davis, 2003a, 15). It is essential, however, to reflect on the fact that no system of punishment (least of all the grotesque deformity of mass incarceration) is natural, normal, or eternal; rather, it is historically and societally specific (see Mathiesen 2000: 335-8; Rusche & Kirchheimer 2005; Foucault 1997). At the close of the fundamental text on prison abolitionism, Instead of Prisons, this insight is invoked along with an invitation to reinvigorate the criminological imagination of which Braithwaite spoke earlier. The book concludes:
Prison, we have been taught, is a necessary evil. This is wrong. Prison is an artificial, human invention, not a fact of life; a throwback to primitive times, and a blot upon the species. As such, it must be destroyed. What has been worthwhile in human history… has been the work of… those who believed in the absurd, dared the impossible. Remember… that less than two hundred years ago, slavery still was a fundamental institution, regarded as legitimate by church and state and accepted by the vast majority of people, including, perhaps, most slaves… Like slavery, [prison] was imposed on a class of people by those on top. Prisons will fall when their foundation is exposed and destroyed by a movement surging from the bottom up (Critical Resistance 2005: 188).
For those who seek to build a society of democratic inclusion and comprehensive structural equality, the emerging struggle against mass incarceration is crucial. Few social movements today lie at the intersection of as many forms of oppression or have the potential to expose and therefore potentially undermine the deep structural injustices based in the US but benefiting capitalist, white supremacist interests on a global scale (see Sudbury 2000; Evans 2005; Mallory 2006). Moreover, even if one does not possess radical political commitments, the basic moral impetus remains to alleviate the severe and routinized human rights abuses now occurring in US prisons, such as rape and sexual abuse,23 the abysmal state of medical and mental health care,24 and the psychologically torturous conditions of Maximum and Super-maximum prisons.25 The various collateral harms now inflicted onto millions of offenders’ families (Braman 2002), who all but the most reactionary must agree are innocent victims of mass incarceration, also ought to be condemned on basic moral grounds.
In light of the unparalleled devastation and exclusion wrought by mass incarceration, one might assume there would be a thriving mass movement, both inside and outside prisons, to counter these injustices. If one gauged the movement by the progress it has made in publicizing and thinking through these issues within the last 10 to 20 years, then in many ways it is evidently having some success. For example, the founding or reinvigorated strength of anti-prison and prison reform organizations (e.g. Critical Resistance, Stop Prisoner Rape, Women’s Prison Book Project, Prison Activist Resource Center, and the various anti-death penalty groups), publications such as Prison Legal News and other writings by prisoners,26 the growing popularity of a select few current or former political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, and Assata Shakur, and the increasing scholarly interest in what might be labeled the new field of “radical prison studies”27 all suggest that the backlash against mass incarceration is growing organizationally and theoretically. If, however, one examines the movement now in comparison with that of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, especially in terms of its ability to mobilize large numbers both behind and outside prison walls, then it is clear that much work remains to be done. In 1970, for example, the year before the Attica prison rebellion took place, the US rate of incarceration was “only” 96 prisoners per 100,000 residents (Austin & Irwin 2001: 2), whereas today the US incarcerates at the astounding rate of approximately 727 per 100,000, resulting in 1 out of every 140 people in the US behind bars (Human Rights Watch 2001: 27).
A seven-fold growth in imprisonment, combined with the institutional abandonment of less overtly repressive “rehabilitation” and reintegration policies28 that do not encourage recidivism as much as contemporary, retributive policies, ought to fuel an even more vociferous anti-prison resistance than that witnessed three and a half decades ago. Perhaps a less conspicuous mass rebellion has been slowly rising, waiting until conditions are right to fully emerge, but as political prisoner David Gilbert has pessimistically pointed out (2004: 105), “prisoners today are less socially conscious and yet angrier than before.” Yet, at the same time, if one examines the objectively worsened prison conditions coupled with the gargantuan growth of the imprisoned and formerly imprisoned classes, the words of George Jackson in 1971 would, if true then, apply even more today: “The sheer numbers of the prisoner class and their terms of existence make them a mighty reservoir of revolutionary potential” (2003: 89).
Prisoners, former prisoners, and their affected communities must of course lead the movement themselves (Critical Resistance 2005: 172), but those on the outside with free world privilege can be allies by campaigning to stop prison construction, supporting prisoners’ rights and political prisoners, and working to put into place non-incarcerative alternatives, such as restorative justice practices that are more respectful and fair to victims and offenders. As others have argued (e.g. Magnani & Wray 2006: 162f; Critical Resistance 2005: 101), abolitionists must also endeavor, on the practical level, to strike a balance between, on the one hand, advocating for direly needed reform that will save and improve the lives of those now threatened but may, in so doing, reduce the pressure to abolish mass incarceration and, on the other hand, putting forward revolutionary proposals that may have little immediate effect on those now suffering but are more ideologically pure and resistant to co-optation by the carceral state. There are no easy solutions to this dilemma, but one possibility is that abolitionists can select realistic, practical aims that, if achieved, would directly aid those now caught within the prison system while supplying additional propulsion and increased consciousness toward actualizing a long-range liberatory movement that frees prisoners and non-prisoners, based on a fundamental commitment to end not only white supremacy29 and classism but also sexism, homo/bi/transphobia, ableism, and imperialism.30
The abolitionist movement, however, should not be understood, as it sometimes is characterized, only as having the negative stance of being against mass incarceration. Simply removing prisons but leaving other oppressive systems intact will not touch the structurally criminogenic features inherent in societies based on exploitation. Ultimately, significantly reducing (and redefining) crime will require, as James W. Messerschmidt argues (1986: 182), a thorough transformation to a democratic socialist feminist society. The struggle for prison abolition under the present carceral regime, in the final analysis, requires advancing, even in the face of overwhelming odds, the life-affirming, revolutionary, and even visionary ideals of global liberation, cooperation, restoration, and radically inclusive democracy.
If prison abolitionists can hope that their work positively changes the world to such an extent that “prison studies” will eventually become obsolete, one day dissolving harmlessly into historical studies of an embarrassing backward era (Sudbury 2005b: xxvi), then perhaps a time will come when the practice of incarcerating human beings, along with the racialized, exploitative economic system of which it is a part, will have long been abolished, and future generations will recall with horror the dark ages of mass incarceration in which their ancestors so complacently and oppressively lived. As many today are perplexed at how the obvious inhumanity of Antebellum slavery was invisible for hundreds of years to those “free men” who tolerated and even defended such an institution, so too those in the future may reflect on this present carceral age and wonder with incomprehension: How could they be so apathetic as millions of their sisters and brothers were thrown into such abominable cages?
*Earlier drafts of this paper were presented at the Engagement with the Global Community Conference: Social Justice, Nature, Politics, and Economics, on April 7, 2006, at Estrella Mountain College, in Avondale, Arizona, and at the North American Society for Social Philosophy Conference, on July 28-30, 2005, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York. I would like to thank those who offered their criticisms at these conferences. I am also grateful to Bat-Ami Bar On, Lisa Tessman, John Arthur, Michelle Katz, and Victor Wallis for reading and commenting on various versions of this paper.
1. The US rate of imprisonment has increased greatly during the last thirty years, as explained by David Garland: “For most of the 20th century, America’s imprisonment rate fluctuated around a stable mean of about 110 per 100,000. In 1973 the rate began to increase and it has continued to increase in every single year since. During the 1990s –- the decade of widespread and sustained reductions in American crime rates –- prison growth accelerated and the already high prison population was doubled. Today’s imprisonment rate (the number in custody as a proportion of the general population) is over 450 per 100,000 or 680 per 100,000 if one includes inmates of local jails. This rate is five times as large as it was in 1972. Compared to European and Scandinavian countries, the American rate is six to 10 times higher” (2001a: 1). As another point of comparison, “Western European countries and Japan trail far behind with 40-120 [per] 100,000” (Melossi & Lettiere 1998: 42).
2. Davis [M.] 1995; see also Gottschalk 2006: 29f. This term is sometimes questioned (e.g. by Wacquant [2001: 84], who prefers “carceral-assistential complex”), but it remains useful insofar as it links the system of mass incarceration not only to the military and imperialism but also, more generally, to capitalist interests (Davis 2005: 39).
3. One may object to the notion that prisoners and former prisoners constitute oppressed social groups and, therefore, may argue against the existence of free world privilege. I do not offer a full defense of this claim here, but it should become obvious throughout this paper that there are at present a wide variety of gratuitous and undeserved benefits that attach to non-offenders in the US.
4. I use the terms “mass incarceration” and “mass imprisonment” interchangeably here, employing them to refer, following David Garland, to the unique American prison system that has emerged and expanded over the last two decades. The two defining features of this system are, first, the sheer historically and comparatively high numbers of prisoners and, second, the way imprisonment has become less about punishing individual offenders and more about the systematic containment of whole groups of people, which means, in the US, predominantly African American males from the lower classes (2001a: 1f).
5. See e.g. Lippke 2001; Brenner & Caste 2003; Reiman 2005; Behrens et al. 2003; Uggen & Manza 2002; Mauer 2002.
6. The ideology of a genetically determined criminal class, the “myth of a criminal type” (Magnani & Wray 2006: 10) has grown substantially in the last thirty years, coinciding perfectly with shifts in penal practice toward increased retribution, warehousing, and overt repression. The paralyzing fear of criminalized, mostly African American bodies also may serve some of the ideological purposes formerly employed by anti-communist paranoia during the 1950s and 60s (Davis 1998: 66f). See Wacquant (2001: 100f) for an argument that renewed biological explanations for crime thinly disguise and re-animate well rehearsed racialized scripts about African American criminality. It is possible that these attempts to naturalize criminality are a defensive reaction to justify what has been heretofore simply assumed; if so, this ideological development may indicate a felt weakness in the current carceral order.
7. An often ignored but useful function of the prison is to relocate rebellions against class and race oppression from the poor communities on the outside, where they may have a chance to build momentum, to inside prison walls, where every revolt for economic/racial justice, or even simply more humane conditions, can be dismissed publicly as apolitical insubordination and invoked to legitimate further prisoner repression: “By entombing poor blacks in the concrete walls of the prison… the penal state has effectively smothered and silenced subproletarian revolt” (Wacquant 2001: 106). In this way, mass incarceration either makes invisible or construes as criminally subhuman those who have the most to gain from revolutionary social change.
8. Although women constitute a small minority of US prisoners overall (6.7 percent in prisons and 11.4 percent in jails), women’s rate of imprisonment is at an historic high, rising from 6 women prisoners per 100,000 in 1925 to 66 women prisoners per 100,000 in 2000 (Chesney-Lind 2002: 81), and the number of women in US prisons and jails is 10 times greater than the total number of women prisoners in all of Western Europe (ibid.). Latina and African American women together constitute 60 percent of all US women prisoners (Sudbury 2002: 60).
9. Some prisoners, at least in theory, are able to assist their families through prison labor, but this is very difficult when hourly wages range from 15 cents to $1.12 per hour, or, when prisoners are paid the minimum wage, their income is subject to prison taxes and other fees up to 80% (Parenti 1999: 231f). Furthermore, in some prisons those who refuse to work under such super-exploitative conditions are subject to various additional punishments, thus further drawing connections to the convict lease system (Davis 2001: 40f) and slavery (Browne 1996: 62f; see also Gilmore 2000). Resistance to prison labor exploitation is visible, for example, in the actions of prisoner Bill Dunne, who stamped the receipts for the cabinets he was packaging with the message, “SLAVE LABOR IN THIS PRODUCT” (Browne 1996: 70).
10. According to Paul Street, “In many predominantly black urban communities across the country, it appears, incarceration is so widespread and commonplace that it has become what the United States’ Bureau of Justice Statistics Director Jan Chaiken recently called ‘almost a normative life experience.’ Children there are growing up with the sense that it is standard for older brothers, uncles, fathers, cousins, and, perhaps, someday, themselves to be locked up by the state” (2003: 32). Voicing similar concerns, Todd R. Clear writes: “The dynamics of growing concentrations of the residents of certain neighborhoods going to prison (and jail) are not insignificant for these locations. Imagine, for a moment, living in an area where one in eight parent-aged males is removed for confinement each year, and one in four is locked up at any given time. It is not difficult to see that this social process, over time, would be one of the truly important aspects of community life” (2002: 184).
11. In US society, the “mark of Cain” (Travis 2002: 19) ascribed to felony offenders is almost always permanent, thus constructing an inferiorized class of quasi-citizens who cannot, except in rare circumstances, escape their subjugated status. Joel Olson elaborates upon some of the experiences that await those who recently “paid their debt” through incarceration, only to discover that their social-moral-legal debt can never be fully paid: “When and if a prisoner is released, s/he is often condemned to a life of poverty and run-ins with the law. Prisoners have a difficult time getting a job because they are required to notify all potential employers of their felon status on job applications. College scholarship funds for former prisoners have been slashed or eliminated. By sticking people in prison, the prison system condemns them to poverty and stigmatizes them as lifetime members of a criminal class” (1996: 41).
12. Marc Mauer rightly questions the lack of outrage surrounding the prison crisis among privileged Americans: “It is hard to imagine that this complacency would exist if the more than two million prisoners were the sons and daughters of the white middle class” (2006: 13).
13. The experience of Cyryna Pasion, an 18 year old transgender woman housed in a male youth facility, is all too common: when she reported the repeated sexual abuse she was experiencing to one of the guards, the response she received was “just ignore it” (Stop Prisoner Rape 2006). Another prisoner reported to Human Rights Watch: “When a man gets raped nobody gives a damn. Even the officers laugh about it. I bet he’s going to be walking with a limp ha ha ha. I’ve heard them” (2001: 168). Prisoner rape survivor Stephen Donaldson (2001: 124) has also suggested that some prison sexual assaults are orchestrated by prison authorities to subdue political inmates or in exchange for bribes.
14. This tactic of ideologically reversing economic, social, and political reality in order to favor those who are relatively privileged is of course not limited to the issue of mass incarceration. The claim, for example, that males are now an oppressed social group, given the alleged ascendancy of feminist achievements (for a critique of this position, see Clatterbaugh 1996), similarly attempts to render invisible institutionalized sexism and male privilege.
15. The argument that members of dominant groups are damaged by their unjustified elevated status does not entail, of course, that they are also oppressed in virtue of such harms (Clatterbaugh 1996: 302; Frye 1983: 1).
16. Penal and prison abolitionists have been criticized for their lack of constructive alternatives to the present carceral system (Saleh-Hanna 2000: 62); it is with this objection in mind that I offer the following suggestions as possible paths toward eventual prison abolition.
17. Virginia Senator Carter Class in 1901 expressed the shamelessly white supremacist agenda behind US disenfranchisement laws: “Discrimination!… That, exactly, is what this Convention was elected for -– to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limits of the Federal Constitution, with a view to the elimination of every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate” (quoted in Hull 2003: 47).
18. This point is also made by Uggen et al.: “The major political parties need not attend to the concerns of more than five million citizens –- mostly poor people and people of color –- who are currently locked out of the democratic process” (2006: 298).
19. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza analyzed the 2000 Presidential election outcome and considered how it might have been different if offenders legally disenfranchised at the time were allowed to vote. Their results are revealing: “Although the outcome of the extraordinarily close 2000 presidential election could have been altered by a large number of factors, it would almost certainly have been reversed had voting rights been extended to any category of disenfranchised felons. Even though Al Gore won a plurality of the popular vote, defeating Republican George W. Bush by over 500,000 votes, he lost narrowly in the Electoral College. Had disenfranchised felons been permitted to vote, we estimate that Gore’s margin of victory in the popular vote would have surpassed 1 million votes…. If disenfranchised felons in Florida had been permitted to vote, Democrat Gore would certainly have carried the state, and the election” (2002: 792).
20. Conservative James Q. Wilson’s concession that the “perpetual loss of the right to vote serves no practical or philosophical purpose” (quoted in Hull 2004: 52) is admirable, since his statement challenges capitalist ideology that has served to legitimate an important, particularly reactionary feature of mass incarceration.
21. “Most countries have more narrowly tailored disenfranchisement laws. To our knowledge, the United States is the only nation with broad ex-felon voting bans that extend to all former felons in several states. A few nations, such as Finland and New Zealand, disenfranchise for a few years beyond completion of sentence but only for election offenses…. In Germany, a judge may impose disenfranchisement for certain offenses, such as treason, but only for a maximum of five years…. France excludes from suffrage only those convicted of election offenses and abuse of public power. Ireland and Spain both allow prisoners to vote, and in Australia a mobile polling staff visits prisons so that inmates may vote…. In 1999, South Africa’s highest court ruled that prison inmates had the right to vote… and in October 2002 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that prison inmates may vote in federal elections….” (Behrens et al. 2003: 562).
22. For abolitionist discussions on the problem of the “dangerous few,” see e.g. Saleh-Hanna 2000: 61f; Morris 1995: 81-89; Morris 2000; Bianchi 1986: 118f; Critical Resistance-Incite! 2003: 143; Critical Resistance 2005: 129-35; Salah-El 2005: 74.
23. See Mariner 2003; Parenti 2003; Burton-Rose 2003; Talvi 2003b; Human Rights Watch 2001; Amnesty International 2001; Davis 2003a: 60-83; Anonymous 2001; Donaldson 2001; Kupers 2001; Paczensky 2001.
24. See Talvi 2003a; Young 2003; Cusac 2003; Sherwood & Posey 2003; Rosenblatt 1996: 84-91; Human Rights Watch 2003.
25. See Rhodes 2004 for a descriptive analysis and Lippke 2004 for a normative critique.
26. e.g. Abu-Jamal 1995, 1997, 2000, 2004; Gilbert 2004; Muntaqim 2002; Franklin 1998; James 2003a, 2005; Scheffler 2002; Faith 2006; Greenspan & Mallory n.d.
27. e.g. Hames-Garcia 2004; Davis 2003a, 2003b, 2005; Rodriguez 2006; Sudbury 2005a; Gottschalk 2006.
28. By all accounts, rates of re-arrest following release are and have been very high in the US. One 1983 study conducted by the US Department of Justice showed that among the sample that they studied of former prisoners released on parole, 63 percent were arrested again at least once within 3 years for a felony or serious misdemeanor (Austin and Irwin, 2001, 142). In 2000, another study by the US Department of Justice showed that between 1990 and 1998, the number of parole violators returning to prison increased by 54 percent (Virella, 2003, 100). Part of the reason for this failure lies with the ideological and material transformation regarding postprison supervision (and institutionalized punishment in general) from one of so-called rehabilitation and correction in the early 1970s (e.g. assistance undergoing drug treatment and securing employment) to retribution during the 1980s and 1990s (e.g. strict control, surveillance, and few or no educational opportunities), which has not only extended the average parole term to 23 months in 1996 (Wacquant, 2001, 99) but also permits the revocation of parole for relatively minor or unavoidable infractions such as overdrawing one’s checking account or chronic unemployment (Virella, 2003, 100-1).
29. See Appel (2003) for a critique of white supremacy among anti-prison activists. Also, see Critical Resistance-Incite! (2003: 142f), Sabo et al. (2001b: 3), and Richie (2005) for similar analyses showing how the anti-prison movement has failed to address the oppression of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
30. The torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib illustrates particularly well some of the connections between mass incarceration and US imperialism. As Jasbir K. Puar notes, “conquest is innately corporeal” (2004: 533) whether directed against poor, inassimilable bodies of color in the form of domestic incarceration or against other bodies of color overseas in the form of occupation. In his insightful analysis of the Weather Underground, Dan Berger concludes that “one cannot isolate the foreign aggression of wars from the domestic aggression of prisons” (2006: 301). Kristian Williams also usefully draws this prison-imperialism connection: “[D]eep-rooted prejudices about political, cultural, and racial superiority seem almost axiomatic to the imperial project; without them the Bush administration’s arrogance and the public’s initial enthusiasm for war are impossible to understand. Likewise, many of our government’s domestic practices -– police profiling, routine brutality, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of ‘foreigners’ -– arise from these same racist premises…. The culture wars are worth fighting, and the politics of daily life does matter – but they cannot substitute for prison abolition, or the demilitarization of our society, or the workers’ control of our economy, or the full participation of women in civic life” (2006: 253f).
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