I’ve lived my life within one degree of separation from what Harriet McBride Johnson called the “disability gulag,” the various sites in which people with disabilities are made to disappear. Over the years I have been to carceral spaces (prisons, psych facilities, institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disability labels) as a visitor, professional, and teacher, but was never captured therein. Still, the resemblance between these carceral places seemed striking. Even more striking to me were the movements and activism that refute the rationale for carcerality—the need for psychiatric hospitals, residential institutions for people with disabilities, and prisons.
The need to write about the connections between deinstitutionalization, disability/antipsychiatry, and prison abolition came from two pivotal encounters. The first and most influential figure to cast his enormous shadow over this project was Dr. Steven J. Taylor, who passed away in November 2014 but whose spirit and knowledge reverberate in many chapters of this book. At his memorial, I shared the following story. The first time I ever met him was during my first week in the United States, in August 2002, as a new Ph.D. student coming to study sociology and disability studies at Syracuse University. Imagine my surprise (and later delight) to meet for the first time my new American advisor, whom a few minutes prior I thought was a housing-insecure person wandering into the building for shelter, with flip-flops and raggedy clothing, and sporting a long, mostly unkempt beard. It is most telling that this humble man worked all his life to make sure that people, whatever their disabilities or labels, all had homes, real homes. Most of what I know about deinstitutionalization, as spirit, praxis, ethical stance, and process, came from him. He was not only an advisor but very much an informant for this project.
Steve was most well known for his tireless activism and scholarship advocating the closure of institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and supporting meaningful participation and life in the community. As part of that work, in which he was involved from the 1970s until his passing, he created spaces, developed courses, and provided academic support toward the development of what we now call “disability studies.” His work was especially influential in bringing attention to developmental disabilities within disability studies. He exemplified not only what can be done under the rubric of disability studies but that one can be an academic and still maintain some semblance of integrity and ethics. The guiding question for all projects, grants, and writings was: Is this going to aid in liberating people?—a core question at the heart of abolition praxis and one that guides me to this day.
This question led me to the second encounter that birthed this book. In 2008, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Angela Y. Davis when she was visiting Syracuse University. I came to her office hours wide-eyed, trying to make connections with and between movements, prodding for any leads. After a few meetings, I asked, “Do you know anyone who is connecting disability to prison abolition in critical ways? I would like to read or meet them.” She said, without flinching, “Yes, I do. You are.” Her words stayed with me for two reasons. First, it was validating to hear that what I was embarking on was needed and that I (at that point an ABD student) was becoming an expert on the topic. Her words also made clear the paucity of written work (and, at that time, activist work) that connected deinstitutionalization as a form of decarceration and prison abolition. Second, it modeled for me the kind of generosity and reciprocity that was so moving coming from such a luminary, and one I try to model for my students today. It underscored how, as scholar-activists entrenched in radical political projects, we learn and build from and with each other.
This book is therefore a physical manifestation of ideas, discussions, and renumerations with scholar-activists who were and are actively fighting against the tyranny of carceral edifices. Their/our relentless efforts not only propelled me to put these genealogies of activism and resistance into printed form but also have inspired my everyday life—the kind of person I aspire to be and the kind of world I want to be a part of creating.
Beth E. Richie is a model of the kind of academic-scholar I aspire to be and has become my mentor on how, in the words of Rod Ferguson, to be “in the university but not of it,” or in other words, how to be an ethical academic without losing my morals. I thank her and other abolitionist feminists like Andrea Richie, Barbara Ransby, Dean Spade, Emily Thuma, Eric Stanley, Erica Meiners, Joey Mogul, Mariame Kaba, Ruthie Gilmore, and countless others who have opened this world of activism to me as a space of co-learning and co-struggling.
Jean Stewart and Marta Russell’s article “Disablement, Prison and Historical Segregation” was incredibly influential for my (and so many others’) understanding of the connection between disability, incarceration, and political economy. I highly recommend that anyone interested in the topic read it. Years after the article’s publication, and after Marta’s death, I would come to meet Jean and call her a colleague and comrade. I thank her for the opportunity to return to that groundbreaking article in our shared writing—a process meaningful to me well beyond the page. I also appreciate the important work connecting the asylum and the prison done by Anne Parsons, Jonathan Metzl, and Bernard Harcourt and thank them for pushing this research in critical ways.
My deepest appreciation to disability studies and disability justice comrades for sustaining radical conversations over the years: Aimi Hamraie, AJ Withers, Allison Carey, Angel Miles, Angela Carter, Candace Coleman, Carrie Sandahl, Chris Chapman, Eliza Chandler, Jina Kim, Lena Palacios, Leon Hilton, Leroy Moore, Lezlie Frye, Meghann O’Leary, Nili Broyer, Nirmala Erevelles, Shelley Papenfuse, Simi and David Linton, Subini Annamma, Sumi Colligan, Tanja Aho, and Tia Nelis and many others too numerous to mention. And to the Society for Disability Studies, a much-missed home, which, just like any other home, was as cringeworthy and exacerbating as they come, but also full of cutting-edge scholarship, cultural production, beauty, and imaginative potential. Finally, membership in disability clubs had rewards!
Wonderful colleagues and mentors at Syracuse University, such as Marjorie Devault, Jackie Orr, Arlene Kanter, Beth Ferri, Rachel Zubal-Ruggieri, Zosha Stuckey, and others, helped create the spark to what, many years later, has become this book.
Colleagues at the University of Toledo’s Disability Studies program have been incredibly supportive of my work and my family. In addition to building what I think is the best disability studies BA program in the United States, they have also created an intellectually stimulating and caring environment—thank you, Ally Day (and Catherine Harrington and Bob), Kim Nielsen (and Nate, Maya, and Morgan), and Jim Ferris (and family), the strongest smallest program that could. Also, thanks to Linda Curtis and colleagues at the University of Toledo, especially Sharon Barnes, Jean Kusina, and Kimberley Mack, for your friendship and collegiality. I especially thank Renee Heberlee and Susan Ford for introducing me to the painful joys of teaching in prison and, of course, all the students at TOCI for making me accountable and giving me a lot to think about.
To fearless midwestern abolitionist comrades, Sangi Ravichandran, Alejo Stark, Jackie Miller, Ami Harbin, Mike Doan, Shannon Frye, and Tia Carley, thanks for the nourishment in food, camaraderie, and thought.
I thank Beth Richie and many colleagues, staff, and students in the Criminology, Law, and Justice Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, my new home since 2019. Special thanks to Rahim Kurwa, Susila Gurusami, Ronak Kapadia, Alana Gunn, and Stacey Krueger for their help with publication anxiety and the cover design.
Thanks to the numerous students, faculty, and others who invited me to give talks in 2015–19 and commented on different iterations of chapters, or ideas that became chapters, for their patience, feedback, and sometimes righteous anger. I was also privileged to be the recipient of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for 2017–18, which enabled me to complete a partial draft of the manuscript.
Special thanks to all who offered feedback on this manuscript. H Rakes and Ray Noll were invaluable for their intellect, ongoing friendship, most enticing conversations, and finding of joy in misery. Thanks to Jasbir Puar for pushing my thinking in reciprocal, challenging, and much-appreciated ways. Craig Willse, Allison Carey, Alison Kafer, Aly Patsavas, Petra Kuppers, Jiji Voronka, Zhiying Ma, Akemi Nishida, Sue Schweik, Erica Meiners, and Mike Gill read drafts of chapters, provided generous comments, and were thoughtful editors, colleagues, comrades, and badasses. Renee Heberlee, Beth Currens, and Ally Day formed the nucleus of our feminist writing group in Toledo, and I also thank them for commenting on chapters in formation.
Since this is called “acknowledgments,” I want to acknowledge at the outset that this book is long and potentially hard to read. It runs defiantly against current trends in academic publishing (short succinct books, written or revised in a span of one to three years to make them relevant and fresh, one idea per chapter, and so on). This book took more than a decade to conceptualize and many years to write. I want to be transparent about this for other struggling authors, writers, and thinkers and also for you who read this. It was a difficult book to write because of its subject matter (institutionalization, imprisonment, liberation, racial criminal pathologization and its long-lasting effects on people and communities) as well as its magnitude and scope. It was also hard due to my desire to be accountable to the movements, fading historical moments, people, and ideas that I attempt to represent here. Deinstitutionalization and prison abolition are living movements and frameworks that require the kind of nuance and heft I tried to offer here.
I want to thank the University of Minnesota Press, especially Dani Kasprzak, for not bowing down from this heft and for taking up this project in its entirety. Anne Carter was a constant throughout this process, and I want to thank her for her assistance in bringing this book to fruition. This book would not be possible without the labor of many at the Press, most of whom I do not know by name, but I wish to convey my gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes work.
Last, much gratitude to my family, chosen and otherwise. My appreciation goes to Kennedy Healy and the younger generation for whom struggles for liberation and their accompanied oppressions are always already intersectional. I especially thank her and Carrie Kaufman for queercrip camaraderie and for grounding me in what matters (sloths).
To the whole Ben-Moshe clan, much love for your support (from a “writing retreat” at my parents’ apartment to harping on me to get it done). Thanks to Olivia McAdams for putting up with my lackluster cooking and long hours devoted to the actual writing of this book, and for making me think really hard. Throughout the many years of working on this book, you have turned from a smart tween to an accomplished college student.
Finally, I give my endless gratitude to my (human) love throughout this process, Dean Adams, who embodies interdependence, compassion, and curiosity, without which any discussions of liberation are futile. From 10,000 Days to Fear Inoculum, thanks for reading everything I write and being my biggest and smartest cheerleader and teacher.
And to all the “we need to have a conversation abouts,” the naysayers, reformers, and carceral feminists, the “we’re not racists” and ableists of all sorts: you have propelled this work, its necessity and immediacy, beyond imagination.