Freedom Struggles and the Future of Carceral Space
The very idea of precariousness implies dependency on social networks and conditions, suggesting that there is no “life itself” at issue here, but always and only conditions of life, life as something that requires conditions in order to become livable life and, indeed, in order to become grievable.
—Judith Butler, Frames of War
What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons.
—Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “The University and the Undercommons”
The United States operates the largest archipelago of jails and penitentiaries in the world. And yet it can be hard to find the prison in today’s landscape. Prisons are, after all, by design and definition, spaces of disappearance. They disappear (or attempt to disappear) the people inside them. And they are themselves increasingly disappeared from the dense social spaces where many of us live and move around. Prisons today are built far away from urban areas, often invisible from major thoroughfares. Some facilities are redacted from Google Maps. Others are so disguised in their built form that they are commonly mistaken for warehouses or logistic compounds, thus blending seamlessly into the bleak scenery of rural and peri-urban deindustrialization.
But prisons are disappeared in other ways as well. They are disappeared behind common ideas, exploited anxieties, and persistent mythologies, including the fantasy that prisons keep us safe by holding those who pose us danger apart and far away. In this sense, not only are they themselves disappeared, but they perform a disappearing trick of their own. For, as well as disappearing people, prisons also disappear the social crises that they are tasked, in practice, with resolving: poverty, unemployment, political dissent, inequality, uneven development, and other social calamities inscribed in the landscape by racial capitalism.
One concept that usefully encapsulates this phenomenon of disappearance is reification. Reification and ideology are closely related, but if ideology is the interpretation in thought of social relations, reification is the mystification of those social relations into “things”—things that appear to us as pregiven and self-contained but whose historical formations and social contingencies are thoroughly obscured. The prison is just such a thing: its built form betrays little of the historical conditions that produced it in the first place or for which it now serves. Wedded in “common sense” and legal logic to the problem of crime, the prison as a building in the landscape mystifies the underlying social formations, those gendered, racialized, capitalist relations, that actually produce and reproduce the carceral state in our lives.
The problem, politically, with the reified world is that it robs the conditions of existence of their collective action. It seeks to turn injustice into tragedy. The Marxist critic Georg Lukács theorized the reified world as “the only possible world, the only conceptually accessible, comprehensible world vouchsafed to us humans” (1971, 119). Prisons endure, at least in part, because of their reified status in the social landscape. Just by existing, they seem to have always been part of our lives. They mask their own contingency, concealing their emergence out of particular struggles, debates, and crises that are themselves rooted in (relatively recent) historical transformations. The problem of reification and the politics of prison abolition are thus intimately connected: the latter becomes possible only once the prison is deconstructed and perceived not as a “thing” or as “fact,” but as the ossification of a set of social relations, or relationships of power, that could, in fact, be arranged otherwise. The question, therefore, is not simply how to close down existing spaces of detention, but also how to transform the kind of society for which the prison is required in the first place.
Prison abolition is a movement aimed at changing the relationships that produce the kinds of events and behaviors for which prison seems to be the solution. Within this framework, the goal of dismantling penal facilities necessarily coexists with the seemingly disparate aims of, for example, providing stable housing, interrupting interpersonal violence, or guaranteeing access to wealth and resources, for these are all social problems for which the prison currently serves as a surrogate solution. Demystifying the prison, then, is at once both about revealing the place of the prison system within the larger social fabric and about recuperating the transformative power of people as agents of collective action. Such work, it follows, includes identifying those forces that function ideologically as counterproductive to that power.
One argument of this book is that, since ideology is always mediated through space (Goonewardena 2005), we should expand the geographies within which we investigate the contemporary prison system and its social functions. The spatial move as analytic move has precedence within critical thought. Karl Marx was already deep into writing Capital when he decided to include a chapter on the working day. In order to describe and understand the market, he realized, one had to actually turn away from the marketplace and peer instead into the factory floor, for it is within the walls of the factory that actual relations between people are transformed into commodities (Ross 2015, 80). So it is with the prison and the broader task of understanding and deconstructing carceral power. It is the social relations and social processes invested in the production of the prison regime that tell us how the system works, and why. Discerning those relations and processes requires, at times, a shifting of perspective.
While this book is, on one hand, about the production and operation of carceral spaces as landscapes of power, it is also about how geographic or spatial inquiry can yield new frameworks for understanding the work that prisons do and how things might be otherwise. New frameworks are frequently the lifeblood of critical thought, but they are especially needed in the field of penal studies, where the criminal-justice system is too often treated as a closed circuit of laws and policies within which tautological claims and logics then circulate unchallenged. The most hegemonic of such claims is that prisons are a response to crime and/or criminals, with the normative choice then being limited to whether we see them succeed or fail in this function. A central ambition of this book has been to challenge this claim. To do so, I have invited you, as readers, to journey outward with me in search of the prison in the peripheries of our frame. To see the prison clearly, and therefore differently, I suggest, we might do well to cast our gaze, at least for a period, everywhere but the actual penitentiary.
Prison Land attempts to interrupt the work of reification by resituating the prison in everyday landscapes (some urban and some rural, some in transition and some in motion) that may not immediately appear to us as carceral. “Carceral space,” as I have elaborated in these pages, designates both the exterior sites that make up the whole continuum of the prison system itself and also those social relations, like property and waged labor, and geographic processes, like gentrification and resource enclosure, through which racial capitalism reproduces itself and for which the state’s capacities of containment and social control are put to use. Making that case opens up new sites for intervention and the making of demands. The political stakes revolve around the possibility of a world without prisons, and a world in which the violence that prisons perform is not continued by other means or through new spatial arrangements. This is the challenge provoked by neoliberal prison reform, which, among other things, holds us to the myth that mass incarceration simply reflects the sway of punishment within public opinion. The political project of rethinking the practice of incarceration altogether and abolishing prisons and other like structures of captivity and premature death will fail so long as the terms we use to describe or even denounce imprisonment hinge on the assumption that prisons emerge out of the logic of punishment, rather than vice versa.
The expanded framework of carceral space reveals new terrains of contingency for prison reformers and abolitionists to intervene and transform our social landscape, helping us connect across discretely organized struggles and disciplines. It also helps us think about how these places are themselves connected across space. The most salient organizing features of the prison regime, as found in Detroit’s downtown real-estate corridor and eastern Kentucky’s impoverished coalfields, for example, have to do with property, waged labor, and race. It is through the production and cognition of those social relations, rather than any overwhelming drive to punish, that the carceral order is reproduced. For example, the recognition that the prison system is intimately bound up with the capitalist reification of work—“the fact that at present one must work to ‘earn a living’ is taken as part of the natural order rather than as a social convention,” as Kathi Weeks describes it (2011, 3)—helps further the case for centering the problem of waged labor and dispossession as necessary facets of abolitionist struggle. Whether this means making demands on the state for a more robust system of public goods, or control over the social surplus and the means of producing it, or the redistribution of wealth and resources, or something else entirely, is up to us, though it is the suggestion of this book that all constitute necessary abolitionist demands.
Similarly, recognition of the property relation at the heart of carceral logic helps us connect today’s racialized struggles in urban spaces against police violence, criminalization, and securitization to the ideology of settler colonialism as a historical and ongoing state project. Making just such a connection after the death of Trayvon Martin and the release of his killer, George Zimmerman, the historian Robin D. G. Kelley (2014) instructs us to be clear:
The point is that justice was always going to elude Trayvon Martin, not because the system failed, but because it worked. Martin died and Zimmerman walked because our entire political and legal foundations were built on an ideology of settler colonialism—an ideology in which the protection of white property rights was always sacrosanct; predators and threats to those privileges were almost always black, brown, and red; and where the very purpose of police power was to discipline, monitor, and contain populations rendered a threat to white property and privilege. This has been the legal standard for African Americans and other racialized groups in the U.S. long before ALEC or the NRA came into being. We were rendered property in slavery, and a threat to property in freedom.
Kelley invites us to look beyond the killing itself to the suburban real estate that was securitized to exclude people like Trayvon Martin, whose blackness marked him as a threat to those properties. Indeed, the modality of race and the ordering logic of white supremacy structure the form and character of all the carceral geographies explored in this book. If the ideologies of race and racism live on today, it is because we continue to create them today. As Barbara Fields suggests, we reritualize them to fit our own terrain. That terrain is a neoliberal racial order in which the production of a permanent surplus labor force and the terrorization of that labor force through wagelessness and incarceration condition the possibility of continued accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2004). The social vocabulary that helps such practices “make sense” includes crime, property, individual responsibility, and race. This does not mean there is anything natural or necessary about any of these categories. Quite the contrary. But it is precisely because these concepts bear so meaningfully and materially on the world, and for some violently so, that we must continue to ask how they are socially constructed, and to what ends.
The punishable subject is itself an ideological product of carceral space, one that bears intimately on the production of difference and disposability. The question of who can be punished is also a question about whose labor has value, or who can be housed near toxic waste, or who can be killed. Retrieving these as genuine questions available for democratic debate and transformation is part of the work and the challenge of fighting for economic and racial justice within the context of unbridled carceral state power. This work will require a broad rethinking of the property and labor relations that currently organize the social order and the legitimizing cover racial categories give the inequities of that order. But it will also require including in an abolitionist politics those “indefensible” categories of criminal, such as the sex offender, upon which the prison’s promise to punish holds strongest purchase across the spectrum of public opinion. Such a politics is in keeping with the abolitionist commitment to recovering effective and empowering (rather than surrogate) strategies against harm, including sexual violence.
Feelings of vindication in the aftermath of harm are no evidence of justice’s triumph, however much they may be desired or even deserved. Similarly, the shift from exclusion to inclusion does not in and of itself necessitate any form of structural or systemic change to a given system. An example can be found in President Obama’s passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Introduced in response to the mainstream LGBT community’s appeals in the wake of a number of bias-motivated murders, the measure expanded the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Like hate-crime legislation generally, this act is strictly concerned with retribution through the criminal-justice system. It authorizes expanded powers of policing, persecution, and punishment and effects greater severity of treatment under the law of those individuals engaging in acts of hate against identified groups of people. There is little, however, to suggest that hate laws appealed to on the basis of bad feeling offer anything more substantial than emotional catharsis. What they do instead, like all carceral strategies, is legislate the disappearance of the perpetrators while, at the same time, reproducing the social conditions that give rise to such violence by failing to express them as anything other than individual. Retributive politics makes such violence somehow bearable, yet it does little for the struggle to reshape collective life.
The case studies investigated in this book have shown geographies of economic abandonment, real-estate accumulation, and devalued labor power (including caregiving) functioning alongside the neoliberal logic of individual responsibility to undermine the project of collective life-building at every turn. Capitalist fantasies about failure and scarcity continue to underwrite the banishment of some and the self-isolation of others. The anti-sex-offender park, for example, demonstrates the role of carceral space in producing privileged categories of deviance even within the already stigmatized arena of criminality, reinforcing the common-sense belief that carceral spaces protect people from harm through dispossession and banishment, while also shoring up affective attachments to the punishment functions of the state. In the case of the long-distance prison bus, the geographic isolation of faraway prisons compounds and conditions the secondary prisonization of visiting loved ones, most of whom are women of color, already bearing the extended physical and psychic burdens of neoliberal austerity. Under such conditions, self-isolation is both an affective condition of internalized neoliberal logic and a coping mechanism against risk in the high-stakes game of caretaking across prison walls.
Together, these spatial investigations demonstrate how a variety of capitalist social relations seemingly outside the aegis of the criminal-justice apparatus, including property, waged labor, and race, powerfully animate and legitimate the penal regime. It is in this sense that a radical deconstruction of carceral space serves not only to demystify the prison itself as a social construction but also to assemble an alternative analytical framework that disarticulates crime from punishment. The imperative to punish is a product, not a cause, of the practice of incarceration, one best challenged by closing down prisons and interrupting the very relations that make penal institutions and disposable subjects useful in the first place.
Penal-reform initiatives forged under the neoliberal auspices of fiscal responsibility will fail to ensure an abolitionist future precisely because they do not and cannot challenge the social relations for which prisons are put to work. One consequence of appealing to neoliberal rationale is a remade carceral apparatus retrofitted for the age of austerity, one in which the social- and racial-control functions of the modern prison are outsourced to new or revitalized institutions within the scene of class-fortified urban space or the sacrifice zones of urban and rural abandonment. In the wake of a new and self-stylized “law and order” president in Donald Trump, however, the ostensible beacon of neoliberal prison-reform will, for many, take on an extra glow.
Where We Are Now
The election of right-wing stalwart and revanchist demagogue Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016 threw the period’s great elite hope of bipartisan prison reform into a tailspin. Promising to stamp out “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential” (what he also dubbed “American carnage”), Trump staked his political legacy firmly on the claim of law and order, a gainful political strategy for such past presidential aspirants as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Complicating things for those invested in the idea of an unassailable bipartisan reform movement was the fact that some of the movement’s key figureheads, such as “Right on Crime” founder Newt Gingrich, stumped openly for Trump and currently advise him. Laments now abound that the right–left coalition in support of criminal-justice reform is on the verge of collapse. As the nonprofit news site The Marshall Project put it in a piece published in collaboration with The New Yorker: “Left and right came together on criminal justice reform. Then Trump happened” (George 2017). Indeed, the Trump presidency, while still in its early days as of this book’s writing, already forecasts much to be alarmed about, including rollbacks to sentencing-reform measures, the revocation of limits to federal use of private prisons, decreased oversight of local police, and increased immigration enforcement and detention (Grawert and Camhi 2017).
The appointment of career racist Jeff Sessions to the position of Attorney General under President Trump sounded another alarm. Despite crime rates nearing historic lows, Sessions reinvigorated the war on drugs, calling on all federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” for federal crimes in a memo titled “Department Charging and Sentencing Policy” (U.S. Attorney General 2017). The memo resurrected the emphasis on mandatory-minimum-sentencing requirements within federal drug law and built on other initiatives historically integral to the massive buildup of our carceral facilities. Trump and Sessions actively stoked racist and white-nationalist antagonisms. Even though Sessions resigned his position as Attorney General in November 2018, Trump’s policies continue to pose real and immediate threats to many already marginalized and some not-so-marginalized groups. The Trump administration thus gives us much to worry about and fight against. The danger, however, is that, in focusing on the Trump administration as the key adversary to a decarcerated future, one may mistake the bipartisan reform movement that it putatively tramples for a liberatory politics with substantive social justice promise. It is not.
This book points to some of the ways that, under the pretext of bipartisan prison reform, the capacities of the carceral state may be retrofitted for the current conjuncture, producing new spatial fixes for managing surplus life. Such findings are in keeping with the history of prison reform. Scholars have offered examples throughout U.S. penal history of reform efforts that have failed to stem either the growth or the increased racialization of U.S. prisons, in some cases having even engendered more austere and punitive conditions (Rothman 1971; Foucault 1977; Gottschalk 2006; Reiter 2012). Indeed, recent scholarship shows that reformist appeals to a more “rehabilitative” approach to incarceration have actually helped facilitate the building of more carceral spaces in the guise of “justice campuses” (Schept 2013a) and “gender-responsive prisons” (Braz 2006).
Recent reform efforts forged within the active zone of neoliberal state-building appear to be continuing the punishment system’s coercive management of people of color and urban poverty while rendering the system as a whole more flexible and cost-effective. The rise of electronic monitoring as a so-called alternative to incarceration, for example, figures crucially in the rebranding of the carceral state. As an extension of mobility control at the urban scale, such monitoring forms part of the penal-reform landscape that is refashioning cities into sites of carceral control. Likewise, Proposition 47 in California, a reform initiative passed in 2014, purchases the decarceration of certain low-level drug and property offenders at the cost of those convicted of so-called violent and sex offenses, whom it promises to keep sentencing severely. It also mandates and financially underwrites the proliferation of police officers in schools, furthering the degree to which the public education system in America figures as a locus of carceral power (Meiners 2011). While prison reform at the federal scale may thus be in a holding pattern, many of the nation’s financially beleaguered states are continuing to beat the drum of bipartisan prison reform. Animated by fiscal pressures and framed through neoliberal rationalities, many of these reform strategies widen the net of carceral control while reproducing the racialized inequalities, exploitative capitalist relations, and social crises that produced mass incarceration in the first place.
If neither tough-on-crime policies (whether issued from the political right or the political left) nor bipartisan neoliberal prison reform (championed by Republicans and Democrats alike) offer a meaningful justice or freedom from harm, then what is to be done? The answer, as always, can be found on the ground.
Learning from Movements
During the writing of this book, a powerful set of events was unfolding in the United States. In cities and towns across the country, demonstrators took to the streets in coordinated and spontaneous actions against violence and systemic racism. One of the flashpoints for these uprisings occurred in the predominantly poor and African American suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. In communities like Jennings and Ferguson, where I began at the opening of this book, decades of economic disinvestment and racial segregation have coalesced to produce a situation of almost daily harassment and police violence for local residents. In August 2014, one of those residents, an eighteen-year-old Ferguson man named Michael Brown, was fatally shot by a white police officer who fired twelve rounds of ammunition at the teenager’s body. In late November, a grand jury failed to indict the officer who killed Brown, sparking sustained social protests in the streets and sidewalks of Ferguson and adjacent municipalities. A short week later, a separate grand jury in New York also sided with law enforcement in a verdict of nonindictment against the NYPD officers who had choked to death Eric Garner, a forty-three-year-old black man whose livelihood depended on selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. The protests that erupted in anger around these killings and the nonindictments of the police officers responsible grew quickly into a nationwide uprising. Responding not just to the news of Mike Brown and Eric Garner but also the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, and countless other unarmed African Americans killed by police and vigilantes, tens of thousands of people across the United States took to the streets not only to proclaim but also to demand that “Black Lives Matter.”
Under this mantle, sustained protests and actions have united around the issues of police violence, systemic racism, and vulnerability to premature death. At the core of this uprising is the assertion that black life has value, despite and against a societal backdrop in which it is constantly and actively rendered valueless. In today’s context of unfettered racial capitalism, black life is life structurally degraded by and within an economic system that requires a permanent, differentiated class that does not appear as a class so that those people can more easily be exploited as laborers, expropriated from resource-rich territories or profitable real estate, and banished or killed if unabsorbable or threatening to the social order (Linebaugh 2015). Class, of course, is not a fixed identity, but a relation, which is why we can acknowledge the prison’s role in upholding and naturalizing a racial order even while recognizing that those identified as “white” represent 39 percent of the people currently held in America’s prisons and jails (Wagner and Rabuy 2017). Inequality as a whole has increased in the United States to levels not seen in a hundred years. This means that life for almost everyone is getting worse, even while African American, indigenous, and Latinx people bear the brunt of economic hardship disproportionately. Following previous black-liberation struggles, Black Lives Matter has enabled us to think through the economic dispossession of, state violence against, and premature deaths of Latinx, Native, Muslim, poor white, queer, and other marginalized populations together, not just as an aberration of black suffering but as part of a shared condition of economic exploitation and systemic violence.
Black Lives Matter demonstrates a dialectical expansion of activism in our current moment, inviting us to pivot from the sites of police violence to a reimagining of an entire apparatus. As the poet and scholar Fred Moten argues, the police killings of Brown and Garner were both deadly manifestations of broken-windows policing. As a theory and model of intensive policing of working-class African American communities that itself builds on a longer history of black criminalization, broken-windows theory encourages police to intervene in low-level, so-called quality-of-life issues, such as Garner’s selling of loose cigarettes. The official purpose of broken-windows policing is to prevent more serious crime, but its effects have been mainly to intensify police dragnets in neighborhoods and communities of color. Moten extends his analogy further: “What they made clear, is that we are the broken windows. We constitute this threat to the already existing normative order” (2014). In other words: some lives are deemed valuable to the existing order while others can be abandoned, and even killed.
In everything that comes out of the Black Lives Matter movement, I see the prison. In every prisoner struggle I participate in or read about, I hear people declaring that black lives matter. The statistic (widely touted over the past few years) that tells us that a black person is killed by law enforcement or vigilantes every twenty-eight hours on average (Malcolm X Grassroots Movement 2012) is part of the same story as the fact that one in three young African American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system, either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole (Alexander 2010, 9). This is not to say that prisons and other spaces of carceral control are a neat and inevitable continuation of other modes of racial state violence, such as Jim Crow laws. Rather, it is to assert that the production of black criminality in particular serves, like all regimes of systemic racism, to naturalize the social wreckage of a capitalist order and to legitimize the state violence required to quell the contradictions endemic to it.
What Donald Trump calls “American carnage” the historian Khalil Muhammad calls the production of “black criminality.” Invented after the Reconstruction by white sociologists, the idea of black criminality differed from “white criminality,” Muhammad argues, in that black criminality was supposedly impervious to remedy through government policy because it was reflective of so-called black culture, or even a black biology. Black criminality, according to Muhammad, thus became a “tool to measure black fitness for citizenship” and to “shield . . . white Americans from the charge of racism, helping to determine the degree to which whites had any responsibility to help black people” (Muhammad 2011, 139). In other words, white criminality, as it emerged in this period, was considered society’s problem, but black criminality was the affliction and liability of black communities alone. In this way, the concept of black criminality served—and still serves—to naturalize black poverty and disinvestment from the social wage, even while legitimizing massive state expenditure in a growing punitive apparatus for containment and control.
Carceral spaces, including the prison, do not respond to criminality, black or otherwise, so much as they help produce and reproduce black criminality as an ideological construct. Banishment spaces and containment sites, from the neighborhood exclusion zone to the police holding van, demonstrate to a wider public that danger is nearby, that it is predominantly black or brown, poor and working class, and that those labeled as dangerous are socially disposable. In this way, they also undermine and occlude the shared material basis for solidarity that should exist among ordinary people whose living conditions continue to worsen under neoliberal capitalism. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminds us, “solidarity is only possible through relentless struggle to win white workers to antiracism, to expose the lie that Black workers are worse off because they somehow choose to be” (2016, 215). The case studies in this book reveal how carceral space produces and manages disposability in various ways: by individualizing social problems and disorganizing collectivized counterpower; by dispossessing urban residents of public space, social resources, and state entitlements; and by responsibilizing people into neoliberal subjects. It does so perhaps most meaningfully, however, by producing the criminal as a class of human being, one that overlaps and provides ideological cover for other racial classifications and class divisions. The category of the criminal may be the paradigmatic vehicle for antiblackness in the United States today, even while it also enshrines other racial and gendered identities as indexes of danger, risk, and ungrieveable life. So, when we see so-called alternatives to the prison, like the Brownsville Youth Courts, continuing to construct certain people as criminal subjects, they are actually reproducing a central function of the prison system. They do so at the same time as they recuperate the carceral state by making it seem responsive to waning public support for mass incarceration.
One thing I have tried to do in this book is show the ways in which the production of surplus life is braided within the organization of carceral space. The concept of surplus life suggests something more complicated than just the production of superfluous labor in reserve or its intimate relation to the contemporary “warehouse” prison, though that too is relevant (Irwin 1980; Wacquant 2009a). To be sure, capital accumulates not just through the laboring body but also through the coerced idling of those whose labor is deemed extraneous. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, however, surplus life also recalls something more closely akin to what Judith Butler calls “precarious life”: the ideological and material practices of class production through which some lives are rendered grievable and others are not: “These normative schemes operate not only by producing ideals of the human that differentiate among those who are more and less human. Sometimes they produce images of the less than human, in the guise of the human, to show how the less than human disguises itself, and threatens to deceive those of us who might think we recognize another human there” (2004, 146). The racialized category of the “criminal” continues to operate as one such powerful cover, as we witnessed in the cases of Garner and Brown. In mainstream-media coverage of both deaths, debates about police culpability hung not on the recklessness and harmfulness of the uniformed perpetrators, but instead on the putative criminality of their victims.
Much ink was spilled in the national press on the question of whether Brown was indeed shoplifting from a convenience store just before his murder, while Garner’s hawking of loose cigarettes had made him a target of police harassment for many years. In a country where over seven million people are under some form of state supervision by the criminal-justice system, the massive reach and potency of “criminality” as camouflage for the less-than-human is almost ungraspable. For Butler, this necessitates that we challenge all political forms that exclude the conditions of a livable life for so many. It is mass criminalization and mass incarceration that require immediate dismantling. But we must also challenge the continued enclosure of the commons, the structures of private property that limit access to the means of survival, like housing, water, and food, and the relations of power that force people to labor at the lowest possible wages only so that others can profit from that labor.
Black Lives Matter is a movement against the creation and oppressive management of surplus life. It is also a movement for radical black sociality in a context of such aggressive neoliberalization that sociality itself constitutes a kind of insurgent threat. Moten puts it powerfully: “When we say that Black lives matter I think what we do sometimes is obscure the fact that in fact it’s Black life that matters; that insurgent Black social life still constitutes a profound threat to the already existing order of things” (2014). Communalized survival and collective struggle have always been both an object of and a threat to capitalist relations and carceral power. For this reason, the external geographies and afterlives of the prison matter. They point to our progress toward an abolitionist future, irrespective of whether we are in a moment defined by the elite bipartisanship of criminal-justice reform or the law-and-order revanchism of Donald Trump. Financial disinvestment from penal institutions, while critical as a demand, does not by itself portend the end of the production and management of surplus life. In fact, as we have seen throughout the history of prison-reform movements, and especially in the past decade, such disinvestments can facilitate new spatial fixes for that surplus life out of the carceral state’s own crisis of legitimacy and under the guise of penal critique.
The project of Prison Land has been to demonstrate that what is at stake in both the prison regime and prison reform is the production of dispossession and disposability, the development of new carceral spaces and new penal mechanisms. The prison is but one spatial technology within a larger state regime of organized racial capitalism. By recasting the prison as a set of social relationships and exploring the landscapes within which those relationships play out, we also discover its vulnerabilities. We cannot interrupt the growth and transformation of imprisonment without looking, clear-eyed, at the present conjuncture: renovations in contemporary practices of statecraft and political economy, restructurings of urban and rural space, and the shifting terms and terrain of systemic racism and its discontents.
Transformations in carceral space are signals of crisis. Our current juncture exemplifies Stuart Hall and Bill Schwartz’s observation that “crises occur when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the preexisting system of social relations” (quoted in Gilmore 2007, 54). The systemic change necessary to resolve such crises, Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, must be determined through struggle: “Crisis means instability that can be fixed only through radical measures, which include developing new relationships and new or renovated institutions out of what already exists” (26). The afterlives—and afterspaces—of the prison are already being determined in the present. The gentrifying urban neighborhood is one site where we can see how the current period’s preoccupation with prison reform as an exercise in corrections-budget recapture is being translated on the ground into a widening, rather than downsizing, of the carceral regime. In this case, the economic imperatives and neoliberal initiatives that drive urban gentrification dovetail productively with reified narratives of individualized black criminality. Stitched onto poor, black urban neighborhoods, these practices effectively render the space of the neighborhood a legitimate target of increased state and economic intervention under the liberal guise of justice reinvestment and prison reform.
We cannot predict, exactly, the future of criminal justice under President Donald Trump. Unfolding power battles within the White House and elite turmoil within both major political parties render the immediate future of penal policy, at least at the federal level, still unclear. Just as this book was being completed, the Department of Justice released its 2018 budget, within which it rescinded its request for the $444 million needed to construct the long-planned federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky. Members of Congress with vested interests in the new construction project, most vocally U.S. Representative Hal Rogers, are livid at the betrayal and are spoiling for a fight. What we do know, however, is that the current administration is explicitly and unflinchingly hostile to unions, immigrants, women, and the poor. Every Trump policy and budgetary initiative thus far forecasts a continued dismantling of the social wage and further fomenting of the social and economic crises for which prisons have long served as the surrogate solution.
Taking a longer view, we also know that the neoliberal processes by which the carceral state is remaking and respatializing itself, whether under the sign of prison reform or a revanchist doubling down on tough-on-crime politics, offer important terrain for continued research and vigilant organizing. The prison’s afterlives and afterspaces are being forged at the elite level in terms that ensure the continued expansion of the carceral state: producing new means and spatial configurations through which to control and contain, to degrade and destroy those rendered surplus and/or threatening to the capitalist economy; deepening the fracturing of the social and obliterating the commons; and generating new cover stories to legitimate the abandonment and containment of some lives and not others. The category of the criminal is itself an uneven ontological field in that regard: as the freedom of low-level and drug offenders is increasingly purchased through appeals to relative innocence, those labeled by the state as violent or sex offenders pay the high price of the carceral regime in the form of longer and harsher sentences.
Even while the concept of “punishment” may be a misleading framework for making sense of the prison’s ideological traction, an effective abolitionist challenge to the carceral regime must include precisely those categories of prisoner or criminal who seem so legitimately punishable. For, even while the carceral state is actually expanded through normative appeals to the sanctity of property, the responsibilizing ethic of work, and a racial ordering of valuable life, its camouflage remains the spurious promise that it and it alone can keep us from harm. The task, then, is to disinvest from the economy of guilt and innocence altogether, which is also to insist, without caveat, that black life matters.
Under the mobilizing mantle of Black Lives Matter, important links are being forged across the arenas that constitute the “matter” of life, in particular between economic well-being and freedom from state violence. Activists from Black Lives Matter have called for an economic program that resurrects from previous black-liberation struggles such demands as a freedom budget, universal healthcare, and good housing for all. Expressing a clear vision of how economic precarity undergirds state violence, authors of the “Ferguson Action Demands” write: “Inability to access employment continues to marginalize our communities, ready us for imprisonment, and deny us of our right to a life with dignity” (Ferguson Action 2014). In Ferguson, residents who are fighting against ongoing police violence understand that work to include abolishing the entrenched practice of bankrolling local municipalities though traffic stops and poverty fines. In other words, they understand their fight to be about economic justice as well as racial justice; theirs is a class struggle for living wages and desegregated housing as much as it is also about freedom from police brutality.
Moten, meanwhile, continues on the theme of black life as broken windows: “Part of what’s at stake is that to fix a broken window is to fix another way of imagining the world; to literally fix it, to destroy it, to regulate it, to exclude it, to incarcerate it. But also at the same time, to incorporate it, to capitalize upon it, to exploit it, to accumulate it” (2014). The prison as a set of relations is just such a fix, and when we go looking for it through this frame, we find it materialized as much in the rural industrial sacrifice zone or the urban no-trespass area as in the cell block and the solitary-confinement unit. The demand that black lives matter is radical and transformative precisely because the capitalist status quo requires that they do not. The existing order of things cannot continue if they do. This is not a claim about the essentialism of race or racism, but rather precisely the opposite. It is a reminder to remain vigilant in our efforts to map the consolidations of racial capitalism and carceral power, as well as the challenges against that power. To insist that black lives matter is to struggle to remake, out of the intertwined crises of police violence, mass incarceration, and economic inequality, a new system of social relations altogether. It is a demand for freedom, without exception.