Academic journal article Social Justice

Razing the Carceral State

Academic journal article Social Justice

Razing the Carceral State

Article excerpt

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, MASS IMPRISONMENT WAS LARGELY AN INVISIBLE ISSUE IN THE United States. Since then, criticism of the country's extraordinary incarceration rate has become widespread across the political spectrum. The huge prison buildup of the past four decades has few ardent defenders today. But reforms to reduce the number of people in jail and prison have been remarkably modest so far. (1)

Meanwhile, a tenacious carceral state has sprouted in the shadows of mass imprisonment and has been extending its reach far beyond the prison gate. It includes not only the country's vast archipelago of jails and prisons but also the far-reaching and growing range of penal punishments and controls that lie in the never-never land between the prison gate and full citizenship. As it sunders families and communities and radically reworks conceptions of democracy, rights, and citizenship, the carceral state poses a formidable political and social challenge.

The reach of the carceral state today is truly breathtaking. It extends well beyond the estimated 2.2 million people sitting in jail or prison today in the United States (Glaze and Kaeble 2014, 2). It encompasses the more than eight million people--or one in 23 adults--who are under some form of state control, including jail, prison, probation, parole, community sanctions, drug courts, and immigrant detention (calculated from Pew 2009, 10). (2) It also includes the millions of people who are booked into jail annually, (3) and the estimated one in four adults in the United States who has a criminal record (National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers 2014, 84, n. 2).

The carceral state directly shapes, and in some cases deforms, the lives of tens of millions of people who have never been arrested or served a day in jail or prison. One in 10 children has had an incarcerated parent (Glaze and Maruschak 2008; Kjellstrand and Eddy 2011). Millions of people reside in neighborhoods and communities that have been depopulated and upended as so many of their young men and women have been sent away to prison during what should be the prime of their lives. Hundreds of rural communities have chased after the illusion that constructing a prison or jail will jumpstart their ailing economies.

The problem of the carceral state is no longer confined to the prison cell and prison yard or to poor urban communities and minority groups--if it ever was. The US penal system has grown so extensive that it has begun to metastasize. It has altered how key governing institutions and public services and benefits operate, including elections, schools, public housing, and the US census. The carceral state also has begun to distort essential demographic, political, and socioeconomic databases, leading to misleading findings about trends in vital areas such as economic growth, voting turnout, unemployment, poverty, and public health (Gottschalk 2015, 251-56; Pettit 2012).

As it creates a large and permanent group of political, economic, and social outcasts, the carceral state has been bluntly and subtly remaking conceptions of citizenship. Millions have been condemned to "civil death," denied core civil liberties and social benefits because of a criminal conviction. An estimated six million people have been disenfranchised either temporarily or permanently because of a criminal conviction. (4) Many more are ineligible to receive public benefits such as student loans, food stamps, and public housing due to their criminal records.

Over the past decade or so, the growing opposition to mass incarceration has tended to gravitate toward two different poles, both of them inadequate in the face of these challenges. One pole identifies racial disparities, racial discrimination, and institutional racism as the front lines in the challenge to the carceral state. The other pole seeks to find a winning bipartisan path out of mass incarceration by downplaying its stark racial causes and racial consequences. …

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