Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Fear and Loathing: Public Feelings in Antiprison Work

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Fear and Loathing: Public Feelings in Antiprison Work

Article excerpt

For antiprison organizers, one potential source of hope in the current economic recession has been an increased willingness of budget-conscious state officials to reconsider mass incarceration. Starting in 2009, many states have tried to decrease prison-related expenses through the expansion of parole and the implementation of early release programs. These efforts to cut costs have inspired a national backlash, its core concern summarized in a 2010 New York Times headline, "Safety Is Issue as Budget Cuts Free Prisoners." In response to a proposed early release initiative in Oregon, "an anticrime group aired radio advertisements portraying the outcomes in alarming tones. ? woman's asleep in her own apartment/ a narrator said. 'Suddenly, she's attacked by a registered sex offender and convicted burglar'" (Davey 2010, 2).

Politicians - unwilling to be perceived as soft on crime or emotionally out of tune with "victims'" rights - backpedaled in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, and other states. After less than 2 percent of the approximately seventeen hundred people released on a "meritorious good time push" were rearrested, the Illinois governor distanced himself from his administration's actions, labeled the move to decrease prison populations as a "mistake" (Garcia 2009), and subsequently replaced the head of the Illinois Department of Corrections (Dai 2010).1

The debate regarding early release programs or other attempts to reduce or reform the US criminal justice system demonstrates that challenging mass incarceration requires grappling directly with questions and feelings of safety, and in particular, how a gendered fear (of sexual assault of women by men) is publicly deployed to augment the prison system. For antiprison organizers and thinkers, this work to challenge mass incarceration as a public safety strategy is made difficult by how "common sense" the ideas of both incarceration and exclusion appear, as well as how frightening the prospect of dismantling the current criminal justice system can seem. In this essay, we explore the connections between the private and public feelings of both fear and safety, and the construction of policing and incarceration as commonsense solutions to feelings of fear and disgust.

From our varied locations as organizers, educators, researchers, queers, caregivers, and community members, this essay explores the centrality of feelings to the carcerai state, or the prison industrial complex (PIC), and the difficulty of making both structural and local shifts in public feelings.2 First, we frame how feelings are central to the maintenance and expansion of the PIC. Second, we focus on safety to describe how all too often safety is framed in public and private discourses as an absence, rather than a positive value. Third, we offer some organizations that challenge popular constructions of safety as absence and suggest how these organizations engage in affect-oriented antiprison organizing.

Our work starts from two premises. First - by any measure - the tough-on-crime public safety project in the United States is a failure. More than 2.3 million people are now housed in prisons and jails across the United States, 1 in every 99.1 adults (Pew Center 2008). Compared with all other nations, the United States has the highest incarceration rate and the largest number of people (poor, African Americans, and Latinos) locked behind bars. This expanding punitive system harms low-income communities of color and is the direct result of public policy failures, including the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikesand-you're-out laws, and immigration policies (Davis 2003; Mauer 1999; Rodriquez 2008). The impact of the PIC continues beyond life in prison: according to a 2007 report from the Sentencing Project, "5.3 million Americans, or one in forty-one adults, have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction" (2007, l). In addition to this diminishment of civil rights, the very state systems set up for promoting "safety" in communities of color expose their residents to increased risk of premature death (Gilmo re 2007) through overcrowding in unhealthy facilities and substandard physical, dental, and mental health care (Human Rights Watch 2003; Von Zielbauer 2005). …

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