Academic journal article Social Justice

Trouble with the Child in the Carceral State

Academic journal article Social Justice

Trouble with the Child in the Carceral State

Article excerpt

IN THE FALL OF 2011, THE STATE OF ILLINOIS WAS DEAD BROKE. FACING SHRINKING revenues and mounting expenses, Governor Pat Quinn proposed closing a number of state facilities, including several youth prisons. Among those targeted for closure was the 156-inmate capacity Illinois Youth Center (IYC) Murphysboro, which at the time housed 75 young detainees at an annual cost of $84,403.00 per head (Illinois Department of Corrections 2011). Yet in early October 2011. after news broke of the facility's potential shutdown, more than 200 employees and local residents wearing "Save IYC Murphysboro" T-shirts packed a public closure hearing and elected officials told the press how shuttering the prison would damage the local economy. State Representative Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg) stated: "We can't balance the budget on the backs of working families" (Norris 2011).

What transpired in Murphysboro is not unique. Despite documented evidence that newly built prisons fail to boost local economies (Fraser 2003; Gilmore 2007), communities across the United States push for prisons and hamper decarceration and prison closures, citing employment, safety, and economic concerns. Notably, arguments extolling the benefits of new prison construction are predicated on a particular racialized and patriarchal logic: adults imagining futures in which their sons are on the "right" side of the prison bars or their daughters are married to a unionized prison guard earning a good salary.

The notion of "saving" communities and towns is common to the campaigns of both proponents and opponents of local prisons. Jobs and a better future for "our children" are cited in arguments for new prisons and against closures, and these same children, both real and anticipated, surface repeatedly in anti-prison messages. Exploring prison expansion in California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007,177) writes in Golden Gulag', "in fact, people who organize against prisons invoke the same beneficiaries ('the kids') as those who organize for prisons." The invocation of "the child" represents a significant thread in prison-related issues, one that anti- prison organizers and critical prison studies scholars must examine.

While "the kids" and their futures are invoked in arguments for and against prison construction, the parameters of childhood, always elastic, are contracted and elongated. In the United States, the criminal justice system is coming to the fore in reshaping these boundaries. For example, legal and social protections are extended to some categorized as children--a construct that stems from adults 'curious investments in temporal status--but denied to many others .This includes six- year-old Salecia Johnson, who in April 2012 was handcuffed and taken to the police station following a tantrum at the school she attended in Georgia (Jefferson 2012). Policing, punishment, prisons, and their associated carceral systems continually redefine who qualifies as a child, but the category of the child has other consequences. Historian Robin Bernstein (2011, 8) describes the "perfect alibi" of the child, or its ability to "retain racial meanings but hide them under claims of holy obliviousness." She notes how it shields particular sociopolitical transactions, for example, the racialized and hetero-gendered production of innocence. Never a "neutral" representation, the child as deployed in pro- and anti-prison debates performs a kind of temporal magic, while masking key social and political transactions.

This article examines how the child, as a flexible signifier, frames transactions within the US carceral sphere. The first part defines the frameworks of prison abolition and movement assessment, which shape the political landscape underpinning or informing this analysis. The second part briefly identifies the contemporary flexibility of the child. The third part tracks how the child is deployed in ways that elide such complexities through three examples of how representations of the child operate across the spectrum of pro-punishment and anti-prison movements. …

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