Academic journal article Social Justice

Against Punishment: Centering Work, Wages, and Uneven Development in Mapping the Carceral State

Academic journal article Social Justice

Against Punishment: Centering Work, Wages, and Uneven Development in Mapping the Carceral State

Article excerpt


The carceral state's tenacity draws its strength from diverse political and economic pools, allowing prisons, jails, and other constitutive parts to serve as solutions to very different kinds of communities navigating through different elements of neoliberal crisis. Drawing from fieldwork conducted in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, where prisons are built on and adjacent to former mining sites, we make an argument against evaluating prison reform through the narrow framework of crime and punishment. Instead, we find that the carceral state's tenacious grip on society has less to do with a given punishment or treatment regime and everything to do with the ravages of racial capitalism and attendant concerns about work and wages.


WE MIGHT MARK THE CURRENT MOMENT BY THE CONTRADICTIONS revealing themselves within the dominant discourses and politics of imprisonment. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, Donald Trump claimed the mantle of the "law and order" presidential candidate, while others vying for the nomination in both major parties spoke of sentencing reform, mass incarceration, and even "the New Jim Crow," identifying themselves with the growing bipartisan consensus on prison reform. As we write, the Trump White House is positioned between these same two dominant poles of mainstream criminal justice politics. On one side, formerly embodied in Trump's original Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the administration is firmly rooted in the populist punitivism characteristic of the rise of the carceral state. On the other is the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who helped to draft the First Step Act and was the administration's connection to prison reform bills in both the House and Senate (Apuzzo 2018, Dolven 2018).The space between racist revanchism and technocratic tinkering is the terrain on which current policy discussions occur.

The dynamics of the moment are also visible in other seats of power. The Koch brothers, Tea Party stalwarts otherwise famous for their aggressive union-busting campaigns (Deal & Lessin 2014), have organized major meetings around penal reform, including a three-day conference in New Orleans that included critical scholars and Black Lives Matter activists among its participants. Strange bedfellows is almost an understatement for the political shapeshifting of today's prison reform movement, as intellectual architects of tough-on-crime policies say they have been misunderstood, dismanders of the welfare state like Newt Gingrich join liberals like Van Jones in calling for change, and private prison companies position for a share of the reentry market. (1)

This rhetorical attention accompanies some gestures toward legislative and judicial change. More than half the nation's states have passed some kind of sentencing reform, including scaling back mandatory minimums; the federal government passed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing, although not eliminating, the violent disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences; and a handful of jurisdictions, including the federal government, have tried to ban the box in an attempt to ease the barriers former prisoners face during reentry and their return to the workforce. Subjecting these changes to scrutiny, however, should give pause to any attempt to characterize them as marking a "new sensibility" (Petersilia & Cullen 2014). A recent Vera Institute of Justice report shows that the dubiously heralded "era of reform" in fact "seems never to have arrived in some jurisdictions, where growth has continued unchecked" (Kang-Brown et al. 2018,33). Some of the changes that have occurred are quite narrow in scope or merely symbolic. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice announcement that it would not renew contracts for privately owned and operated prisons, for example, did not come with any commensurate prisoner releases, nor plans for actual prison closures (Bello 2016); Jeff Sessions made quick work of reversing even this nominal change, rescinding the memo to cease private prison contracts just two weeks into his position as attorney general under the Trump administration. …

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