Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration

Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration

Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration

Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration


Mass incarceration is one of the most pressing ethical and political issues of our time. In this volume, philosophers join activists and those incarcerated on death row to grapple with contemporary U.S. punishment practices and draw out critiques around questions of power, identity, justice, and ethical responsibility.

This work takes shape against a backdrop of disturbing trends: The United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world. A disproportionate number of these prisoners are people of color, and, today, a black man has a greater chance of going to prison than to college. The United States is the only Western democracy to retain the death penalty, even after decades of scholarship, statistics, and even legal decisions have depicted a deeply flawed system structured by racism and class oppression.

Motivated by a conviction that mass incarceration and state execution are among the most important ethical and political problems of our time, the contributors to this volume come together from a diverse range of backgrounds to analyze, critique, and envision alternatives to the injustices of the U.S. prison system, with recourse to deconstruction, phenomenology, critical race theory, feminism, queer theory, and disability studies. They engage with the hyper-incarceration of people of color, the incomplete abolition of slavery, the exploitation of prisoners as workers and as "raw material" for the prison industrial complex, the intensive confinement of prisoners in supermax units, and the complexities of capital punishment in an age of abolition.

The resulting collection contributes to a growing intellectual and political resistance to the apparent inevitability of incarceration and state execution as responses to crime and to social inequalities. It addresses both philosophers and activists who seek intellectual resources to contest the injustices of punishment in the United States.


Pre- and postmortems attending U.S. society are intricately woven into histories of legal discourse and political hubris that oversee executions and penalties administered by the state. Official language seeks to shape our memories of what is right by law. The counterdiscourse prepares our minds for what is just.

On behalf of the United States and its society, an elite sector of the United States is allowed to kill and torture with impunity—while expecting gratitude for the safety it “ensures.” A quick survey reveals death sentences meted out by state courts, federal courts, and military courts, and internationally by military drones that target both U.S. citizens and noncitizens. The extrajudicial killings by bureaucratic appendages of the state include police shootings, jail cell deaths, and deputized whiteness dispatching black teens. Physical deaths or killings coexist with devastating “penalties.” Those other penalties are administered for deviance, mundane drug offenses, property theft, and tragic assaults. Finally, there are the punishments against rebellions. This last category, which encompasses rebels and revolutionaries with lives shaped by responsibilities to confront injustice, is often diminished in its importance; hence, its transformative acts disappear from print or are rendered less viable because of the asymmetrical warfare waged against it. One need only recall the 1971 suppression of New York’s Attica Prison rebellion for human and civil rights.

State killings, the raw expression of state violence, are macroaggressions against life and community. Democracy’s microaggressions, the “other penalties,” are expressed in intimate state violence: the invasive incarceration practices that ravage the person without immediately killing his or her body. “Other penalties” is a synonym for trauma: “medical handcuffs” and drug stupors; captivity in mental and emotional wastelands; sterilization; vulnerability to (gang) rape while institutionalized; solitary confinement’s evisceration of the soul and neurological stability. In the face of death and other penalties, life responsibilities have included resistance to human rights abuses, lethal injections, auction block transactions, and the . . .

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