Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Place, Space, Race, and Life during and after Incarceration: Dismantling Mass Incarceration through Spatial and Placial Justice

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Place, Space, Race, and Life during and after Incarceration: Dismantling Mass Incarceration through Spatial and Placial Justice

Article excerpt

Introduction

Buildings embody societal meaning. Prisons are no different and stand as embodiments of their respective society's attitudes towards punishment.1 Incarceration represents the apex of state control over a citizenry, presumably imposed only when threats to the social order justify dehumanizing loss of autonomy. It is therefore of some concern that the United States is unmatched globally in its use of incarceration as a response to rule-breaking. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' 2016 report, the American incarceration rate is 830 per 100,000 persons.2 Prisons are then, for good or ill, the settings in which a substantial proportion of our compatriots encounter their government. If buildings indeed embody meaning, prison facilities, it would seem, are important loci of social meaning-making for a significant many, and special attention should be paid to what our society communicates through these powerful and dreadful places.

Given the nation's cultural propensity toward punishment, it may come as little wonder that institutions of punishment should house populations seen historically as inherently culpable.3 Race has long been a known predictor of incarceration, stemming from several causes, including disproportionate minority contact with the police4 and harsher sentencing for minorities.5 Today, African Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their White counterparts,6 and, as a result, African Americans represent 33 percent of Americans with a felony record.7

Among this carceral population of color are the significant numbers who were once incarcerated and subsequently re-entered the correctional system-victim to a revolving-door effect.8 Wagner and Rabuy (2017) cited Bureau of Justice Statistics that the United States spent over $80 billion in 2012 to operate correctional agencies,9 yet, despite the largesse of this investment, the nation maintains a national five-year recidivism rate ranging from 50 percent to a little less than 70 percent, according to some research.10 While some recidivism is explained by individual behavior-for instance, individual criminal propensities11-a fair portion is explained by myriad social disadvantages, including those arising from racial status.12

The burden of racial oppression through persistent, cyclical recriminalization can be immense. Researchers concur that imprisonment is detrimental,13 and repeat incarceration presumably multiplies this negative effect. Incarceration splits families, creates economic burdens, and leaves those impacted traumatized by the experience.14 Formerly incarcerated persons have a difficult time overcoming stigma and collateral consequences associated with their criminal record.15 For instance, obtaining employment,16 education,17 and housing become more difficult,18 and these problems are exacerbated for African Americans.19 The added detriment to people of color comes as no surprise, considering the historical and ongoing obstacles, including obstacles to accessing employment, education, and housing, African Americans face even when they never experience incarceration.20

Discussions about the treatment of correctional populations are taking place nationwide, with an emphasis on maintaining community safety while reducing the harmful effects of incarceration and addressing the disproportionate representation of people of color under the carceral system.21 There is also greater consideration of how the carceral experience impacts life after incarceration.22 Remedies offered to ameliorate the difficulties of life post-imprisonment must begin in the carceral setting. Here, we propose a placial and spatial solution for the proper treatment of incarcerated persons, with a goal of reducing the number of persons cycling between community and corrections. Moreover, we do so with a specific focus on the overrepresentation of persons of color. At present, the semiotic value of prison buildings is in signaling the retribution of the state against culpable miscreants. …

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