Academic journal article Social Justice

Resisting the Carceral State: Prisoner Resistance from the Bottom Up

Academic journal article Social Justice

Resisting the Carceral State: Prisoner Resistance from the Bottom Up

Article excerpt


TO PROTECT ITS CITIZENS AND MAINTAIN THE STATUS QUO, THE STATE HAS CREATED numerous coercive agencies (Ross, 2005). Some of the most dominant are law enforcement, intelligence/national security, and the military. Although these organizations have been analyzed in the specific context of state crime (e.g., Gill, 1995; Menzies, 1995), few scholars have explicitly reviewed correctional institutions (especially correctional workers, their policies and processes) as perpetrators and facilitators of state crime that can include corruption, civil and human rights violations, and torture (Ross, 2000a; Ross, 2000b; Rothe, 2009). In general, the correctional sanction is established to punish, rehabilitate, and serve as a specific deterrent for lawbreakers. It is also supposed to protect the community and deter others who might engage in similar criminal activity. Aside from punishment, jail and prison sentences rarely achieve the objectives of the correctional sanction.

Although it is generally understood that prisoners give up certain rights such as privacy, it is also acknowledged that the state must achieve its carceral objectives without violating the constitutional guarantees of its incarcerated citizens. Notwithstanding these broad goals, individual correctional systems (i.e., the Federal Bureau of Prisons and individual state Departments of Corrections) and professional organizations (e.g., the American Correctional Association and American Jails Association) have drawn up mission statements, policies, and procedures that clarify their objectives. Most contain clauses regarding the role of correctional officers in relationship to inmates.

To deal with or confront substandard living conditions or an overly punitive environment--known as the deprivations of prison (Sykes and Messinger, 1960) or penal harm (Clear, 1994)--prisoners generally adapt (through prisonization) or innovate so as to lessen or blunt the impact of the deprivation/sanction. Alternatively, inmates may test or protest institutional norms, practices, and policies by resisting. Much of this is expressed in "weapons of the weak" (Scott, 1987). Not all poor prison conditions have easily recognizable prisoner adaptations and it is not always possible to identify all prisoner acts of resistance. Some deprivations require the intervention of family members, prison activists, the correctional facility, and/or state or federal government. This, however, is no guarantee that the problems will be fixed. Because of its overwhelming resources, the state typically reasserts its will through the legal system, by implementing new polices or practices, or preventing convicts and their allies from exercising their rights through the mobilization of bias (Bachrach and Baratz, 1962). (l)

However, courts no longer consider prisoners to be slaves of the state. (i.e., Ruffin v. Commonwealth) and penal facilities are no longer sovereign entities. Moreover, the Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that inmates enjoy constitutional protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. They are applicable to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment (federal guarantees to citizens under the protection of states). As Justice Douglas noted, "prisoners are still 'persons' entitled to all constitutional rights unless their liberty has been constitutionally curtailed by procedures that satisfy all of the requirements of due process" (Procunier v. Martinez, 1974: 428).

A small group of scholars has provided prison, prisoner, or country-specific reviews of prisoner adaptations and resistance (Buntman, 1998; Bosworth, 1999; Bosworth and Carrabine, 2001; Carlton, 2008; Gomez, 2006; Law, 2009), but the field lacks a relatively comprehensive model of the relationship among these processes. Neither is it geared to the American context or situated as a form of resistance to state crime. The following discussion reviews the most salient and problematic prison conditions through a brief examination of prisoner adaptations and prisoner resistance. …

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