Social Control in Everyday Life
A satirical sketch on the popular comedy show Portlandia showcases an easy fix for profit-seeking artisanal entrepreneurs lacking imagination: “Put a bird on it.” Poking fun at the clichéd hipster affection for bird imagery, the skit works on the idea that, just by attaching such an image, any worthless item might be revalued exponentially. Want to sell a rock? Put a bird on it. Want to start a bidding war for your dirty sock? Put a bird on it. In the skit, a picture of a bird is more than just easy value added; it also has the magical power of revalorizing denigrated objects whose worth has been undermined by time or changes in public appetite, or both. The irony, of course, is that the bird is an empty signifier. It does nothing and means nothing more than the public consensus electing it a symbol of virtue.
The equivalent in the realms of police and prison reform might be summed up as: “Add community to it.” Both “community policing” and “community corrections” are finding new legs in today’s climate of revolt against police brutality and the bloated, increasingly discredited system of mass incarceration for which that brutality serves as a metonym. Community policing, for example, while a strategy originating in 1960s counterinsurgency efforts, is ascendant today as authorities across the country seek appeasement strategies in the context of increased tension between law enforcement and people of color. In May 2015, the Detroit Free Press printed a feel-good story about a local precinct’s recent acquisition of an ice-cream truck. “The ice cream truck is one part of an Oak Park initiative to bridge the gap between the community and law enforcement,” the paper reported, as it then gave numbers to the amount of free ice cream that would be delivered throughout the neighborhood by uniformed police officers (Farrell 2017).
As law professor and activist Justin Hansford notes, the term “community” attached to policing, like a more insidious version of the bird in the Portlandia skit, “denotes nothing in particular, but it hints at positive values such as community control and police de-escalation.” As he argues, however, not only does community policing do very little to curb violence or decrease tension, but “as an ideological framework it is essential to support [of] broken windows policing, mass incarceration, and America’s system of anti-Black state violence” (quoted in Camp and Heatherton 2016). Indeed, the connection to broken-windows policing is not only meaningful, but immediate. George Kelling of broken-windows-theory fame has himself boasted: “For me, broken windows was about community policing” (Pinto 2017).
Community corrections is a similarly trendy concept with a growing roster of champions. Defined at its most basic as the supervision of criminal offenders in the resident population, community corrections as a component of carceral strategy has been given a boost by the recent neoliberal prison-reform movement and its promise to cut spending. The Pew Center on the States, for example, cites the 2008 financial crisis as an opportunity to retool existing penal policies in the name of cost efficiency: “If we had stronger community corrections, we wouldn’t need to lock up so many people at such a great cost. By redirecting a portion of the dollars currently spent on imprisoning the lowest risk inmates, we could significantly increase the intensity and quality of supervision and services directed at the same type of offenders in the community” (2009, 3).
Indeed, before the election of President Trump, bipartisan prison reform seemed to be an unstoppable movement among the political classes. The agenda encompassed particular reforms that generally fall into a few areas: addressing “overcriminalization” by amending sentencing laws and reforming pretrial practices, prison release and reentry, and increasing investment in community corrections (Whitlock 2017). As modest sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration gained traction, states from the East Coast to the West boasted declining incarceration rates for the first time in forty years. In the name of fiscal responsibility, policy makers, prison reformers, and government officials breathed life into new and old technologies of surveillance and control that operate outside penitentiary walls and inside communities. Sex-offender registries, exclusion zones and other spatial restrictions, and electronic monitoring are all touted as low-cost alternatives to incarceration that will ensure public safety. Policies enacting them have proliferated in turn. The result is that, even where the numbers of people incarcerated are decreasing, the numbers of those subject to some form of correctional control on the outside are actually going up. In New York, for example, a state that has boasted some modest success in its decarceration efforts, the number of people inside prisons has gone down while the number of people under correctional control has increased. In the nation as a whole, the number of people on probation and parole, the cornerstones of community corrections, has skyrocketed in recent years. Close to 5 million people are now on probation or parole, up from 1.6 million a quarter of a century ago. At the end of 2015, one in every fifty-three adults in the United States was under some form of criminal-justice supervision in the community (Kaeble and Bonczar 2016).
“Community” is a malleable term, at once spatial and social, and invested heavily with normative, even romantic, ideas of virtue, care, and belonging (Joseph 2002). In his entry on the word in his first edition of Keywords (1977a), Raymond Williams noted that its most important attribute might be that it “seems never to be used unfavorably.” Perhaps this is why the concept does such mollifying work for the institutions of policing and penality. Community always seems to be positioned outside the state, rather than as simply a more local scale of it (Schept 2015). Materialized in space, community is also understood to be where everyday life takes place, interdependence is enacted, and existence is reproduced. James Defilippis and Susan Saegert, for example, define community as “places where people live and work,” continuing: “People, places and institutions we encounter in everyday life that provide opportunities and support for our activities as well as barriers and constraints, communities are places of interdependence” (2012, 1). In the context of its appropriation by the central institutions of the carceral state, the term community designates both an ideological strategy of legitimation and a geographic site for action. Both have serious implications for the exercise, reproduction, and transformation of carceral power.
As Stanley Cohen cautioned many decades ago, state initiatives taken in the name of community alternatives often simply usher in new interventions that resemble the old ones in key ways and then “reproduce in the community the very same coercive features of the system they were designed to replace” (1979, 343). Cohen uses the term “community control” (already confused by its simultaneous but very divergent usage by state authorities and grassroots activists) to describe forms of social control undertaken by the state outside the walls of penal institutions. Reforms enacted over the past decade that might also be considered forms of community control include the expanded use of alternative sentencing protocols and drug courts, certain reentry programming initiatives, and the expansion of electronic monitoring.
In this chapter, I survey the extension of the prison’s functions of containment and banishment into spaces aligned with the concept of community, including neighborhoods, homes, and public landscapes. Comprising places where everyday life happens and is reproduced, community is also where people encounter the political and economic structures that produce and uphold the social order. I look at three specific carceral tactics that widen and outsource the reach of the carceral system into communities and whose proliferation can be tracked alongside prison reform initiatives ostensibly designed to downsize prison capacity. These are: sex-offender spatial restrictions, along with the rise of “pocket” (i.e., miniature) parks and other banishment mechanisms; neighborhood-based gang injunctions and the introduction of “safety zones”; and electronic monitoring devices like ankle bracelets. I examine the ways in which these tactics continue the functions of the prison proper, such as controlling movement, fragmenting relationships and isolating individuals, and dispossessing subjects of access to public resources, while simultaneously absorbing family, friends, and neighbors into the coercive roles conventionally occupied by police, guards, and parole officers. I do so in order to illuminate the ways community interventions reinforce the carceral system from which they are ostensibly diverting. These tactics and technologies do three particular things simultaneously that belie their reformist promises: they widen the net of carceral power into outside spaces of social life, they authorize increased social control over urban neighborhoods in the service of real estate and other economic interests, and they reinscribe racialized ideologies about who constitutes danger, what activities are criminal, and how safety should be secured.
Civil Gang Injunctions and Contested Neighborhoods
In October 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for its deployment of civil gang injunctions. Twenty-two-year-old Peter Arellano, a resident of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Echo Park, is one of the litigants represented by the ACLU. Arellano is subject to an injunction initially secured for six gangs, with the names of additional individuals appended at the discretion of the LAPD. He grew up in Echo Park and has witnessed its transformation into a trendy neighborhood for young professionals with disposable incomes. He was standing in the street with his father in 2016 when an LAPD officer stopped and arrested him, accusing him of vandalism a few blocks away. Within minutes Arellano was served with a gang injunction, restricting where he could go in public and with whom he could associate. Among those he is restricted from visiting is his own father.
A gang injunction is a civil court order filed against a group of people identified or construed as a “public nuisance” prohibiting them from participating in certain activities within a designated area. These activities might include being outside after an evening curfew, wearing colors identified by police as signaling a particular street organization, or appearing in public with a person police have labeled a “gang member,” even if that person is not him or herself named in the injunction. An injunction is obtained by the city or district attorney, who asks a judge to declare a particular gang a public nuisance and then imposes permanent restrictions on the targeted individuals’ daily lives within a designated area. As civil proceedings, injunctions face a lower legal standard than required by the criminal-justice system, therefore allowing police to label people gang members and restrict their liberties without actually having to present any evidence or charge someone with a crime. What they actually do is make otherwise legal, innocuous activities—from loitering to possessing paraphernalia identified with graffiti art—illegal for those people targeted and named by an injunction.
The ACLU’s lawsuit argues that the city’s civil gang injunctions violate the right to due process of thousands of city residents, effectively subjecting them to house arrest without legal cause. Because gang injunctions begin as civil proceedings, they can be imposed without the due processes afforded those subject to the criminal-justice system, but they turn into criminal matters once their provisions are breached. Those found in violation of their injunctions, perhaps by wearing certain colors while in a gang injunction zone or being found outside after curfew, can thus be charged with contempt and face up to six months in jail. The ACLU argues that, because the injunctions restrict liberties without offering an opportunity for those named under them to prove that they are not actually gang members, they infringe on the constitutionally protected right to challenge legal orders.
Legal experts compare gang injunctions to being subject to the restrictions of probation or parole without actually being convicted of a crime. Police officers are authorized to decide whom to serve with an injunction at their own discretion (Caldwell 2010). In addition to naming a handful of specific people on a given injunction, prosecutors are also allowed to list hundreds of “John Does,” to be identified at a later point. As subjects of a civil rather than criminal proceeding, those named are not entitled to a public defender if they chose to appeal their order. While getting added to an injunction list or a gang database is easy, moreover, given the low burden of proof and discretionary power accorded to police, getting oneself removed from the lists is remarkably difficult. Of the almost 10,000 Angelinos subject to gang injunctions, fewer than fifty have managed to get off the list, according to legal advocates (Flores 2017).
As of October 2016, the city of Los Angeles was enforcing forty-six separate injunctions against approximately 10,000 people putatively suspected to be gang members, barring them from engaging in certain activities in areas of the city designated as “safety zones.” Los Angeles has more gang injunctions than any other city in the United States. At last count, at least seventy-two neighborhoods were under a gang injunction, with one of those injunctions covering an entire sixteen-square-mile radius. Combined, the enforcement areas covered seventy-five square miles, or 15 percent of Los Angeles. In California, being named in an injunction also means having one’s personal information, social contacts, and even tattoo details entered into a massive statewide surveillance registry called the CalGang database. By 2012, CalGang contained the names of more than 200,000 individuals who police had identified as “gang members,” some as young as ten years of age. The lists, critics point out, tend to disproportionately target people of color. One in ten of all African Americans in Los Angeles County between the ages of 20 and 24 is on the list, and 66 percent of those named are Latinx (Alarcón 2015).
Once an area is under a gang injunction, police authority expands exponentially. Because enforcement depends almost entirely on the visual identification of alleged gang membership or of broadly defined activities deemed associated with gang membership, gang injunctions serve police a vast amount of discretionary power. That power can intensify the racial discrimination already proven to accompany urban policing more generally. Gang injunctions tend to lead to increased harassment of people who “fit the description” of anyone on the lists, often resulting in racial profiling of African American and Latino young men. The effect is not only to further criminalize people of color and expand police power against them but also to stigmatize and socially control whole neighborhoods predominately made up of black and brown residents. Olu K. Orange, a civil rights lawyer who won a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles in 2016 for unconstitutionally imposing curfews in twenty-six gang injunctions, described the effect of the curfews as turning Los Angeles “into a Jim Crow-era ‘Sundown Town’ forcing several thousand black and brown residents indoors on a nightly basis” (quoted in Flores 2017).
Los Angeles has been the test case for gang injunctions, becoming the first city to enact the then novel policing tactic in 1987. Since then, and especially from the 1990s onward, gang injunctions have increased in popularity throughout both the state and the nation. At least seven states other than California have imposed civil gang injunctions in their cities. The injunctions are part of a trend in law-and-order politics that has seen the incorporation of criminal law into administrative legal processes in ways that enhance state carceral power (Beckett and Murakawa 2012, 224). Indeed, gang injunctions are just one of a myriad of civil and administrative alternatives to conventional criminal-justice techniques that municipalities have created to extend official control over urban space.
Historically, control over the urban poor has been exercised by a wide variety of mechanisms putatively outside the criminal-justice system, such as zoning regulations and neighborhood redlining. But municipalities have also relied heavily on specific criminal-justice mechanisms, such as criminal-vagrancy and loitering statutes, to govern and constrain their most socially marginal residents. In a series of decisions throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these statutes unconstitutional, finding that they penalized people for behaviors that were based on the status of being poor, rather than behaviors over which they could ostensibly exercise control. While municipal ordinances that penalize people for so-called crimes of poverty (e.g., panhandling, sleeping on public benches) have continued to proliferate under new forms and legal guises, court rulings against vagrancy and loitering statutes pushed city bureaucrats to search out new, more broadly applicable, malleable, and often legally “hybrid” tools. These tools are now on the ascendance as popular policing methods for the production of social “order” in urban spaces and the social control of their most marginalized residents (Beckett and Herbert 2010).
Legally, gang injunctions operate as just such a tool. Injunctions entail a civil order to comply with certain spatial restrictions, but they are ultimately underwritten by the criminal-justice system and its punitive capacities. Those found in violation of a civil gang injunction can be arrested and convicted under criminal law. Like no-contact orders and innovations in trespass law that authorize the exclusion of individuals perceived as disorderly from urban space, gang injunctions involve a merger of civil and criminal law, effectively undermining the rights of those subject to them while strengthening the power of the state. As such, civil gang injunctions are precisely the kind of institutional innovations that Katherine Beckett and Naomi Murakawa point to as enhancing carceral power in the present political era through the development of a kind of “shadow carceral state” (2012). By “carceral state power,” they mean specifically “the capacity of governments to incarcerate and otherwise curtail the liberty and mobility of subjects” (232). Insofar as the gang injunctions are operationalized and legitimated within a so-called “administrative” realm of criminal justice that is putatively distinct from a “real” criminal punishment regime, they not only restrict freedom and movement (both defining characteristics, notably, of incarceration itself) but also create new spatial criteria for criminalization proper.
What is notable about civil injunctions is not just who they control, but where such control is deemed useful and productive to authorities. The vast majority of civil gang injunctions, like other regulations that empower officials to exclude people perceived as disorderly from urban spaces, are enacted in cities undergoing or aspiring toward rising property values and urban revitalization projects. Insofar as gang injunctions authorize law enforcement to remove identified individuals from public space, and those individuals tend disproportionately to be low-income youth of color, they both parallel and elaborate on the broken-windows tactic of policing. Within the logic of broken-windows theory, small acts of disorder, such as loitering, informal vending, and graffiti, supposedly create an environment conducive to more serious crimes. In practice, such logic simply expands discretionary police power, serving less to resolve harm than to shore up real estate values and bolster gentrification efforts.
Criticism of gang injunctions from rights-advocacy organizations and social-justice groups abounds. Gang injunctions have been found to drain community resources, facilitate processes of gentrification, increase police harassment (especially against residents of color), and divide and fragment communities. At the same time, they actually fail to reduce harm and violence within historically underserviced neighborhoods. The Oakland chapter of the prison abolition group Critical Resistance, for example, has organized extensively and successfully against the application of civil gang injunctions in the Bay Area, issuing reports on their findings on the injunctions’ costs and consequences. While accurate information is difficult to find, Critical Resistance estimates that Oakland’s first injunction cost the city $430,000 in legal fees alone. The group also gathered evidence demonstrating that, rather than being instituted in the most violent neighborhoods of the cities in which they are applied, gang injunctions tend to be enacted in poor, predominantly black and brown neighborhoods that border white or gentrifying neighborhoods (Critical Resistance Oakland 2011).
Indeed, lessons from the Oakland case are instructive. In February 2009, Oakland City Attorney John Russo announced plans to file gang injunctions throughout the city, following through a year later with a temporary injunction in North Oakland, a second proposed for East Oakland, and the threat of eleven more to come. The first of these, enacted in June 2010, named fifteen African American men and created a “safety zone” across a 100-block area within which the named individuals were prohibited from conducting a variety of activities, including loitering, being outside between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., and possessing paraphernalia associated with graffiti, such as felt tip markers. As the ACLU points out, police often label people gang members based on things like how they dress and whom they know, a fully discretionary and arbitrary means of delineating affiliation not subject to due legal processes of evidentiary corroboration. Close scrutiny of Oakland’s two gang-injunction lists revealed a long catalogue of individuals who have never actually associated themselves with any gang (Critical Resistance Oakland 2011, 5). Meanwhile, maps showing the location of Oakland’s redevelopment-project areas during the period of Russo’s gang injunctions reveal the close proximity between areas targeted by the gang injunctions, both in North Oakland in East Oakland, and areas targeted for economic revitalization (6).
The socioeconomic profile of gang injunctions nationwide suggests that they are often applied in poor neighborhoods of color in urban areas targeted by state and economic actors alike for gentrification and commercial development (Alonso 1999; Barajas 2007; Caldwell 2010). The imposition of the gang injunction in Echo Park, the historically Latinx area of Los Angeles where Arellano is fighting his injunction restrictions, occurred at a time of declining crime rates in which the area was also seeing an influx of white and more affluent residents. As local scholar Ana Muniz has demonstrated, this is in keeping with LA’s gang-injunction history (2014). Looking back at the city’s very first injunction, instituted in 1987 in the Cadillac-Corning neighborhood, she found that prosecutors and police had targeted the area because the neighborhood and others near it were undergoing a demographic transformation that threatened nearby property values. “With the 1987 injunction in Cadillac-Corning,” she writes, “authorities sought to control black youth in an early version of broken windows policing” (232). Its implementation in that area specifically, she notes, had less to do with crime or violence than with counteracting the dissolution of existing neighborhood boundaries of class and race.
The imperative to banish the poor in the service of urban property markets continues. The racialized figure of the gang member offers a useful cover story in these efforts. To that point, it is worth noting the possible new and unanticipated applications of gang injunctions, which are extensive. As the New York Times reported early in the presidency of Donald Trump, for example, gang membership and the databases cataloguing it could be used to help deport unauthorized migrants that the federal administration considers criminals, even if they have no criminal record (Medina 2017). En route to the presidency, Trump consistently vowed to immediately deport two to three million unauthorized migrants. Immigration lawyers with experience representing accused gang members against deportation orders say that inclusion in state databases leads to an exponentially more difficult process fighting deportation proceedings. Meanwhile, immigrant detention has never been included in the agenda for bipartisan prison reform, nor does it seem likely any time soon, given the rhetoric coming out of the Trump White House.
Sex Offender Spatial Restrictions and the Punishable Subject
In July 2013, Harbor Gateway, a 5.14-square-mile working-class neighborhood running north–south in the southern region of Los Angeles, cut the ribbon on the smallest park in the city. At one fifth of an acre, the park has barely enough room for the tiny jungle gym that constitutes its only playground infrastructure. Enclosed inside a code-secured metal gate and located on a busy intersection at the edge of a set of train tracks, the park appears inhospitable, even inaccessible, to the children and residents who might be expected to enjoy its public provisions. The site, however, was never actually intended for enjoyment as such. Instead, the park—what planners call a “pocket park” because of its diminutive size—was constructed for the sole purpose of forcing thirty-three registered sex offenders to move out of a nearby apartment building. It can have such power because a state statute known as Jessica’s Law prohibits sex offenders in the state of California from living within 2,000 feet of a park or school.
The brainchild of Joe Buscaino, the local city councilor and a former LAPD officer, Harbor Gateway’s pocket park cost over $300,000 to build and took over three years to plan (Jennings 2013). In public statements, Councilor Buscaino has been unequivocal about the park’s purpose as a technical strategy to displace and recapture otherwise law-abiding residents with sex-offender status. As he described his goals to one radio broadcaster: “We need to be strategic in addressing this quality of life issue. Anything that has an opportunity to cause fear in the community, we need to stand with the parents and the kids. . . . As a police officer, I visited that location, and checked on compliance, and we netted some arrests for non-compliance” (Mantle 2013).
The location referred to by Councilor Buscaino is actually a halfway house, one of the few structures of secure housing available to people with registered sex-offender status. Because of spatial restrictions across the country like those operationalized under Jessica’s Law, secure housing is one of the most serious challenges facing parolees with sex-offender status once they are released from prison. According to reports from the Ex-Offender Management Board, the number of homeless sex offenders in California has tripled since 2006, which is when the latest residency restrictions were passed. A third of people with sex-offender status on parole are now homeless (Lovett 2013).
In some cities across the United States, spatial restrictions are so vast in scope and severe in their consequences that whole residential areas have been rendered off limits. The result has been the proliferation of homeless encampments across the country, many of which have large concentrations of registered sex offenders. In one high-profile case in Miami, dozens of homeless people with sex-offender status were found to be camped under a bridge, where they remained until the encampment was broken up by city police. Elsewhere in the city, dozens of registered sex offenders were forcibly dispersed from the sidewalk they had been sleeping on when a city commissioner named Marc Sarnoff had three anti-sex-offender pocket parks built in the neighborhood (Lovett 2013). The sex-offender-registry spatial restriction in Miami is a formidable 2,500 feet. For perspective, a football field is about 300 feet by 160 feet.
The New York Times reports the proliferation of such pocket parks across the country in recent years. A Houston-based playground installation company even advertised its park-building services to homeowner associations as a means of keeping sex offenders away (Lovett 2013). It is in this context that such parks must be examined, for here they function less as spaces of leisure and play (if at all) than as physical expressions of contemporary penal power enacted and extended into the community in the disguise of a public good. Just by existing in the landscape, the Harbor Gateway pocket park operates as both a technical and an ideological mechanism for sending former prisoners back to prison as so-called recidivists. It is, in this function, itself a carceral space.
The category of “sex offense” has proven historically elastic, and Sex Offender Registries (SORs) specifically have a long and sordid record in American life. The nation’s first SOR law was enacted in California more than seventy years ago, in 1947. Its primary purpose at the time was as a sociolegal tool for the police harassment of gay men. It required people to register with the police for such “crimes” as consensual adult sodomy and gay solicitation (Jacobson 1999, 2432). Indeed, consensual sodomy was a crime punishable by life imprisonment in California until 1975, and much later in many states. Sex offense as a category of crime has also historically included interracial marriage. The last state law prohibiting black–white marriage was not struck down until 1968. The category of sex crime has also included, variously, contraception, adultery, oral and anal intercourse even between spouses, and the perusal of pornography (Wacquant 2009a, 210).
Today, California’s SOR laws cover a broad range of offenses, from the consensual to the injurious, including noncontact activities such as public urination, streaking, and “sexting,” as well as some consensual teen sex. While offenses also include deeply harmful violations such as sexual assault, the point here is that such laws neither differentiate nor track responsively to actual evidence of fluctuations in sexual injury. California law, meanwhile, requires that all sex offenders, even those whose crimes were not violent or against children, register for life. It is one of only four states for which the SORs are lifelong, with little to no possibility of removal.
Over the past two decades especially, SORs have assumed an increasingly restrictive and high-profile character, first with the passage in the 1990s of “Megan’s Laws,” and then in the 2000s with the passage of “Jessica’s Laws” in states across the country. Megan’s Law is the informal umbrella term for a slew of state statutes that require law enforcement to make personal information about registered sex offenders publicly available. The specifics of what information is included and how it is distributed are at the discretion of individual states; the offender’s name, photograph, and address are commonly made public. That information can often be accessed on public websites, but it may also be published in newspapers or disseminated through other channels like neighborhood pamphlets. At the federal level, Megan’s Law is officially titled the Sexual Offender Act of 1994, which requires people convicted of sex offenses to notify local law enforcement of any change of address or employment for at least a ten-year period, or in some cases permanently. Failure to register or to update personal information, including home address, counts as a felony offense and can be prosecuted as such.
The first of what are commonly referred to as Jessica’s Laws was enacted in Florida in 2005. More than forty states have introduced versions of Jessica’s Law since then. California’s version of Jessica’s Law, also known as the Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act, was voted into law in 2006 through Proposition 83, a statute supported by 70 percent of California voters as well as by Governor Schwarzenegger and law-enforcement agencies throughout the state, despite vigorous opposition by California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, among other groups. The law bars convicted sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school, park, or any other place where children ostensibly congregate. Its provisions also increased penalties for sex offenders, broadened the definition of certain sexual offenses, and allowed the civil commitment of a sex offender (meaning preemptive indefinite detention) with a minimum of one victim and any previous criminal history. It further increased court-imposed fees on sex offenders, prohibited probation for certain crimes, eliminated good-time credits for early release of certain offenders, and provided for lifelong GPS monitoring of high-risk sex offenders. In 2010, the Supreme Court of California ruled that the residency requirements of Jessica’s Law could be applied retroactively.
Anti-sex-offender pocket parks, like the one built in Harbor Gateway, function as a spatial enactment of carceral power at two interrelated registers. The first is as a technical, administrative mechanism for the return of formerly incarcerated people back into prison, literally expanding prison holdings and the nation’s rate of incarceration. By geographic design, the park works to impede registered sex offenders from settling in the area, or expels those who are already there by materializing the spatial prohibitions applied to them in the state of California. Failure to abide by this restriction, whether accidentally or intentionally, can result in a revocation hearing. Revocation hearings are administrative proceedings that shadow the formal criminal-justice system, in which correctional officers present evidence of a technical violation (rather than evidence of a commitment of a new offense) that may, and in fact often does, lead to reincarceration.
Revocation hearings are not actually construed as criminal legal processes requiring due-process standards. As Beckett and Murakawa note, “the construction of revocation hearings as administrative (rather than criminal) in nature has therefore had important consequences for the nature and strength of parolees rights protections, and has significantly enhanced carceral state power” (2012, 227). In the state of California, which already has the largest population of prisoners in the country, some 64 percent of all parolees are returned to prison within three years. Of those, 39 percent are reimprisoned for a technical or administrative violation, such as a violation of one’s settlement restrictions (Grattet et al. 2008, 5). These numbers point to a larger trend obscured by the dominant discourse, which is the degree to which growing “recidivism” rates are driven by tighter controls and regulations, rather than by an increase in criminal activity on the part of people on parole. In 1980, parole revocations represented 18 percent of U.S. prison admissions. That number nearly doubled in just twenty years. By 2000, 34 percent of all prison admissions were triggered by parole violations (Beckett and Murakawa 2012, 227). A 2011 study by the Pew Center on the States showed that 25 percent of people released in 2004 went back to prison on technical violations within three years (Pew Center on the States 2011, 10).
Secondly, anti-sex-offender parks and the spatial restrictions they enforce also operate as a material terrain of ideological practice, which is to say a site for the enactment and reenactment of particular and often hegemonic ideas about safety, danger, and the geographies of risk. The anti-sex-offender pocket park normalizes in space two interrelated narratives about the contested category of the “sex offender”: first, a moral panic around the prevalence of “stranger danger”; and second, the belief that protection, or safety from such danger, is productively achieved through transformations in geography, and specifically through tactics of spatial banishment. In the latter sense, the park serves ideologically to veil the illogic of prisons and other banishment spaces (their evidenced failure to secure community safety or reduce harm) with the appearance of logic. The park’s ideological work is thus also to reproduce common-sense epistemologies regarding the sex offender himself as an especially irredeemable and abhorrent subcategory of “criminal.” The marking off of the category of the sex offender in terms that exceptionalize the threat he or she poses in turn serves to expand and cement carceral state power.
As critical feminist Rose Corrigan argues (2006), the passage of Megan’s Laws across the United States actually works to undermine feminist efforts to challenge sexual violence by excluding many of its most common perpetrators from their legal and ideological purview. The laws deflect attention from offenses committed by family and friends of victims, despite the fact that those offenses constitute the bulk of sexual assaults, and instead focus almost exclusively on the category of the “deviant stranger.” Statistically, when it comes to sexual violence against children and women, the “deviant stranger” actually poses the least significant risk (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000). Research suggests that the overwhelming majority of survivors of sexual assault know their attackers. This is especially true of children: it is estimated that approximately 90 percent of child victims know their offenders, as do 80 percent of adult victims (Kilpatrick et al. 1992).
Public perception of “stranger danger” is not only amplified by the logics and restrictions embedded in contemporary sex-offender laws but also has had enormous implications for the organization of public space and production of disposable subjects. Erica Meiners writes: “The rampant fear of stranger sexual assault on children requires sex offender-free neighborhoods. These fears reshape public and private spaces, expand the punitive functions of the state, and also produce identities” (2009, 43). Like SORs generally, the anti-sex-offender park is not designed to monitor or prevent violence by family members or acquaintances, the populations most likely to engage in the sexual assault of children and adults alike. Nor does it offer protection from sexual violence committed within intimate, often domestic spheres, where such violence is most likely to happen. Of all reported sexual assaults against children, 70 percent are actually committed in a home, usually the victim’s own residence (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000).
The emphasis within these anti-sex-offender strategies on public spaces thus suggests that a political purchase is at play other than the protection of women and children from violence. As a material and symbolic social space, the park itself mediates the production and reproduction of beliefs about what kinds of spaces are dangerous, what social proximities are to be impeded, which categories of people are defensible, and which need to be defended against. SORs and spatial restrictions disproportionately impact the poor and link intimately to racialized stereotypes of deviance and danger (Meiners 2009). As Meiners argues, the constitution of the “dangerous” stranger “functions to erase the reality of the much more prevalent threat of violence in the family, a space that is conceptualized as both natural and safe” (2009, 41). This ideological construction serves to absolve society and the state of any responsibility in the production of actual danger structured, for example, through relations of patriarchy, homophobia, and misogyny and directed at those most often vulnerable to sexual violence. There is little actual data to suggest that SORs reduce violence against women and children. On the contrary, the registries would seem to participate in the continued mystification of the patriarchal family as a central site of violence, sexualized or otherwise. The unevenness by which anti-sex-offender schemes target specific individuals and spaces thus contributes to a tautology identified by Corrigan: “All sex offenders will come to be seen as sexual predators, but only those defendants who fit the preconceived profile of a sexual predator will be recognized as sex offenders” (2006, 306).
The point here is not to further bifurcate those that fall under the category of sex offender into new divisions of guilt and innocence, real or fictitious, or more or less bad. Rather, it is to point out that even those spaces that enact and ritualize the logic of punishment and punishability are fraught with so many contradictions as to belie almost entirely their claims to be productive solutions to the problem of sexual violence. Their productive work is better understood as operating at the level of symbolism and popular thought: they produce the very idea of the punishable (and thus disposable) subject while harnessing aspirations for harm reduction to enactments of punishment against certain categories of people and in certain kinds of places.
As a visible index of which places and people pose dangers to be preempted within the landscape of sexual violence, the anti-sex-offender park mimics the logic of prisons themselves. The anti-sex-offender park further reifies the demonstrably false idea of the prison as a solution to violence by exemplifying, and thus ritualizing, the idea that spatial banishment constitutes a sensible means of protection from sexual danger. Prisons have always been used, as Angela Davis writes, as “a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent” (2003, 41). Anti-sex-offender parks operate on—and reproduce—the same organizing logic. Like prisons, anti-sex-offender parks and the legal restrictions they activate “don’t pretend to change anything about people except where they are” (Gilmore 2007, 14). Yet their increasing popularity suggests the existence of an alternative political investment in geographical displacement and disappearance.
Meanwhile, while sex offenders themselves tend more likely than other felony offenders to be white, middle-class, and married (Corrigan 2006, 280), Harbor Gateway is a predominantly working-class neighborhood of color. As such, it is in keeping demographically with other neighborhoods disproportionately targeted for surveillance by the criminal-justice system and law enforcement. It is worth noting that Councilor Buscaino, the former LAPD officer now representing Harbor Gateway, was among the park’s main champions and easily won reelection to the city council a month after the park’s February 2013 groundbreaking. Two more pocket parks are in the works for another neighborhood in Buscaino’s district (Lovett 2013).
Meiners points out: “Privatizing public spaces and institutions has long required the production of disposable identities. . . . These identities become integral to the reconfiguration of public institutions and state resources” (2009, 43). While other racialized categories of disposability such as the “welfare queen” and the “illegal alien” have justifiably provoked vast bodies of critical literature (see, respectively, Hancock 2004 and Nevins 2002), the “sex offender” appears to be a more challenging category of “bad” for even radical activists and scholars to ally themselves with, especially those active in ongoing struggles against sexual assault and gender-based violence. The sex offender is seemingly indefensible, and is thus continuously constructed as such. But, as Meiners argues, the feelings of disgust, fear, and anger harnessed in both the enactment and enforcement of sex-offender laws “become rationalizations to expand the punitive arm of the state and to contract its social-service functions.” She continues: “The fearful feelings invite tough love, a defensive and protective ‘daddy’ state, while the feelings of anger fuel more accountability from the public sphere and justify the dismantling of public programs” (2009, 43). Such spaces, in addition to cementing moral consensus around the punishability of the sex offender, further actualize and legitimate state tactics of dispossession and social exclusion. By heightening the judicial vulnerability and public isolation of people with sex-offender status, spatial restrictions further consolidate public opinion on the disposability of such individuals. Sex offenders, in other words, become ideal targets for the public performance of tough-on-crime politics.
It is precisely because “the sex offender” operates as such a powerful placeholder or “mobile artifact,” as Meiners puts it (36), for the worst of the worst in both the general and the activist imaginations that it poses such a great ideological impediment to conceptually challenging the conflation of incarceration with punishment, and thus the relationship between prisons and crime. Whatever else it does, the category of sex offender shores up deep and visceral attachments to the affective logic of punishment, thus reinforcing the common sense idea of incarceration as a response to crime and the punitive feeling that such putatively heinous acts elicit in people. In contrast to the other carceral spaces explored in this book, the anti-sex-offender park does actually ritualize the ideology of punishment, while also mystifying the other social relations and imperatives at work in the production and siting of such spaces. In so doing, it demonstrates another reason for abolitionists to refuse the partitioning of some carceral subjects as legitimate targets of state intervention: perhaps more than another other category of “criminal,” the sex offender is produced in such a way as to make affective sense out of the desire to punish, the practice of incarceration, and thus the production of indefensible and disposable life.
It is in this sense that the anti-sex-offender park does such effective work to shore up the legitimacy of the prison system. This is not a merely theoretical observation. Undertaking a comprehensive study of criminal-justice law and policy between 2000 and 2006, Beckett and her collaborators found that many states continued to enact “tough” anti-crime legislation through the onset of the recession and that much of it was aimed at sex offenders (2014, 15). Between 2007 and 2013, there were zero progressive reforms aimed at or inclusive of sex offenses. In other words, as they put it, “the punitive trend vis-à-vis violent and sex offenders remains untouched and, in some states, has continued to intensify” (17). Indeed, current reform efforts have already begun to demonstrate a bifurcation in the populations deemed deserving and undeserving of imprisonment, with reform initiatives aimed at lessening sentences or facilitating releases of some prisoners often purchased at the expense of increasingly restrictive sentences and conditions for other prisoners, usually those cast as violent or sex-related.
Scholars have crunched the numbers to demonstrate that mass incarceration will be impacted only if we reduce sentences for long-term “violent offenders” and “sex offenders” as well (Beckett et al. 2014; Gottschalk 2015). It is thus conceivable that current prison-reform efforts might contribute to a long-term entrenchment of mass incarceration, insofar as they deepen the political commitment to severely treating and intensively confining undeserving prisoners. Sex offenders are almost always constructed, within such partitions, as undeserving, irredeemable, and indefensible. Refusing the idea that prisons and other like structures are legitimate in the case of these populations and rejecting those strategies and policies organized by such logic, including the production of banishment spaces within the community, thus constitute important means of interrupting the logics and tactics through which the carceral state is actively reproduced.
The Electronic Ball and Chain
On any given week, about 125,000 people in the United States go about their day with an ankle bracelet affixed to their leg. On that ankle bracelet is a transmitter that sends a continuous location-tracking signal to a monitoring center, assuring the constant supervision of the monitored person’s movement. The ankle bracelet, in other words, operates as a kind of electronic ball and chain, one whose capacity to enact spatial control and bodily surveillance is only getting more sophisticated. With the development of global-positioning-system (GPS) technology, corrections supervisors are privy to increasingly detailed information about a subject’s whereabouts: on what street corner, in what building, at what precise spot on a digital map. Many monitors are also currently programmed to incorporate “exclusion zones” into their GPS tracking of individuals. These are areas deemed prohibited and whose GPS coordinates are built into the capacity of the device, which is then set to trigger an alarm and alert authorities if a person enters the prohibited area. The slightest travel delay, battery fritz, or accidental stroll into an exclusion zone can authorize a supervisor to find a monitored person in violation of their restrictions. For those subject to electronic monitoring, the margin of error for rearrest is so low and the control capacity so high that they render this putative “alternative” to incarceration little more in actuality than an extension of incarceration into the community. Rather than set people free, in other words, electronic monitoring simply turns the home into a prison.
While electronic monitoring (EM) has been a part of the U.S. criminal-justice system for more than two decades, its use has been rising in recent years. In 2005, only 53,000 people were subject to electronic monitoring. According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the number of people accused and convicted of crimes who are monitored with electronic tracking devices has risen by nearly 140 percent in the decade since (Public Safety Performance Project 2016). EM is often trumpeted as a popular alternative to incarceration that offers a means of reducing penal costs while maintaining public safety. Its proponents tout it as an affordable way for officials to conduct active monitoring outside of the penitentiary. In the prison-reform era of fiscal crisis and revalorized community corrections, EM seems poised to proliferate. For example, in Wisconsin in 2013, GPS monitoring was projected to expand by nearly 50 percent over the next two years. Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposed austerity budget that year recommended $10 million in new funding for expanded use of GPS tracking in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 (Koran 2013). The introduction of user fees for most people on EM means that proponents can claim it to be not only cost-effective, but income-generating as well, even when administered publicly through state correctional departments. In many jurisdictions, it is common for a monitored person to pay as much as $105 to the state in fees every week. This leads some to speculate that politicians will be tempted to order GPS monitoring for those who would not otherwise be incarcerated as well as those who would (Saletan 2005).
Meanwhile, the net of EM use is widening. Juveniles, individuals on pretrial release, and immigrants awaiting adjudication are all new populations for the application of EM. Their numbers expand the existing categories to which EM has traditionally been applied: people on parole or probation, those with sex-offender status, people found guilty of DUIs and traffic offenses, those charged with minor transgressions such as municipal ordinance violations or trespassing, and individuals involved in cases of domestic violence. Within these realms, the extension of punitive measures within the law often means an increase in EM deployment. The expansion of SORs in many states is often accompanied by the rise of EM and other mandatory surveillance devices. Due in no small part to Jessica’s Law and Chelsea’s Law, for example, which mandate lifetime GPS supervision for many people with sex-offender status, the state of California currently operates the largest EM program in the nation (Gottschalk 2015, 2010).
As a popular supervision technique that is playing an increasingly important role in many community corrections programs, EM works in various ways to extend and intensify networks of carceral power. It expands carceral power spatially through exclusion zones, de facto house arrest, and movement restrictions. And it tightens the hold of that control through relaxed legal parameters. Indeed, legislation governing the use of technological incapacitation is decidedly lacking, in contrast to that for its architectural counterpart, the prison. As legal scholar Erin Murphy writes, “across legal doctrines, courts erroneously treat physical deprivations as the archetypal ‘paradigm of restraint’ and thus largely overlook the significant threat to liberty posed by technological measures” (2008, 1323). Rather than circumscribe use, legal frameworks tend instead to further empower authorities to use EM and penalize those who breach its rules. Under California’s legal code, for example, supervising officers are allowed to take an individual into custody for violation of parole if he/she finds that person to be in contravention of the rules or conditions set forth for the use of EM. No warrant of arrest is deemed necessary (California Penal Code 2010, 3010.7). With such unregulated parameters, the house becomes a site of incarceration and supervising authorities obtain almost unlimited power. If your supervision officer decides, for example, to institute a “lockdown” and deny all requests to leave the house for any reason, there is no means of appealing that decision or contesting its duration (Staples and Decker 2011; Kilgore 2013).
The extensive power granted authorities in cases where someone has been found to breach the restrictions on their movement becomes especially problematic in light of the enormous technical glitches EM devices have already evidenced. As well as being cumbersome and conspicuous, these devices are also notoriously prone to technical difficulties, such as misfiring in public. Even those responsible for their manufacture concede that their technical limitations are numerous. Signals can be lost, for example, due to weather conditions, car travel, and even the presence of tall buildings (Koran 2013). James Kilgore recounts the case of a man whose device kept losing the satellite signal the GPS needed in order to track his movements, a common failing in many such devices. When the man’s efforts to restore the signal failed, he was told by his parole officer that he would simply have to find a new place to live, which is already a tremendously difficult undertaking for those with felony status. He was forced to impose on an aunt who was reluctant to have him stay and soon found himself again scrambling to find a new residence (Kilgore 2016).
Kilgore has not only studied the proliferation and consequences of EM; he has himself been subject to it. He edits a website called Voice of the Monitored that collects information about the experiences of people subject to electronic monitoring through their encounters with the criminal-justice system. His findings corroborate other existing surveys that have found EM to bear considerably on two areas central to a person’s economic and social wellbeing: work and relationships. EM control puts increased pressure on a person’s relationships with family and loved ones, especially those with whom one shares a home, and it often compromises a person’s ability to find and maintain employment (Bales et al. 2010).
The kind of caregiving intimates must perform to keep their loved ones safe while incarcerated often becomes intensified and integrated with the security regime once a loved one is out and attached to a monitor. Alongside the labor of earning an income and conducting domestic chores like cooking, cleaning, and childrearing, there is the extended burden of providing the support services once performed by social workers, case managers, and parole officers. Frequent visits by authorities expand the scope of surveillance and control to all of those residing in the home, including children. Rather than experiencing a sense of freedom upon release from prison, many people on monitors report feeling that the house arrest and curtailed movement to which they are subjected instead turn their homes and neighborhoods into a new kind of prison. As well as still feeing unfree, they also bear the guilt of having brought the carceral apparatus with them into the lives of their families and neighbors (see Kilgore 2013; Staples and Decker 2011).
GPS and other forms of electronic monitoring transform the domestic spaces where parolees live, including their relationships with those they might cohabit with. Even probation officers have recognized this consequence. In a study by the Justice Department, 89 percent of officers surveyed felt that being monitored transformed a person’s relationship to their significant others (Nation Institute of Justice 2011). Indeed, electronic monitoring often has the effect of transferring the control and supervision functions of prison staff to the loved ones and family members of a person on EM. Kilgor writes: “As the default position is house arrest, already overextended family are landed with an often angry, frustrated individual occupying space in their home virtually 24 hours a day. . . . There may be no spare bedroom or extra bathroom to cater to their needs. Their transition to civil life often takes place in the public space of the house, severely disrupting the normal routine” (2012, 131).
In some states where GPS is employed, individuals are required to remain at home for six hours per day in order to recharge their devices. For many, this spatial restriction means that they are subjected to de facto house arrest. A curfew of 2 p.m. (to take a common example) creates an immense barrier to participation in the job market, school events, or community activities. Depending on the restrictions, even the movement of those allowed to leave their homes is highly restricted, with all stops requiring authorization. One advocate recounts the example of a person on a monitor who wanted to get a job mowing lawns. The conditions of his electronic monitor required him to get permission from his parole officer for every residential address that he wanted to visit. His job as a lawn cutter, by definition, would necessitate travelling to at least thirty or forty different houses. The amount of paperwork involved in being cleared to visit all of those homes was undoable, time-wise, for both the parolee and his parole officer (Kilgore 2014b).
As for employment, something already rendered more difficult by felony status, EM produces formidable obstacles for those under its charge. Not only is a person wearing an ankle bracelet subject to strict limitations on their movement outside of the home; their mobility outside of that sphere also becomes dependent on the discretion of their supervision officer, rendering the monitored person that much more dependent on the officer’s availability and will. This severely limits a person’s ability to secure work that demands travel or movement between various locations (such as house cleaning), changes in schedule, short notice given for job interviews, or the need for flexibility in daily hours worked, all conditions common to the kind of low-wage employment in the service economy that people with convictions are more likely to obtain.
Journalist Maya Schenwar (2015) calls the ankle bracelet “an imprisonment device attached to the body at all times.” Framing EM as an extension of rather than an alternative to the prison points to the enormous, life-altering consequences such surveillance has for those monitored, their families, and their neighbors. To underscore this point, Kilgore characterizes EM as a kind of privatized, remote-control incarceration or a form of virtual incarceration that outsources costs to families while transforming homes into spaces of isolated captivity and surveillance. He also highlights how EM functions even more insidiously as a reformist technological innovation in the ongoing project of producing a “humanist” carceral state retrofitted for the age of austerity. In the name of costs savings and prison reform, EM adds a whole new mesh of complex, even unknowable, controls to the lives of those subject to its surveillance. Access to medical care, intimate relationships, and participation in the labor force are all areas of life fundamentally impeded by these controls, not to mention the climate of fear, suspicion, and self-censorship that the virtual and mostly unregulated monitoring of their lives produces.
As Joan Petersilia argues, “the ability to arrest, confine and, in some cases, re-imprison the parolee for violating conditions of the parole agreement makes the parole agent a walking court system” (2003). When that ability is augmented by GPS satellite technology, battery-life issues, twenty-four-hours-per-day surveillance, and the electronic delineation of exclusion zones, that walking court system becomes more like a walking prison system. Like spatial exclusions and gang injunctions, the exclusion zones enforced through location tracking and EM reproduce a key property of the prison regime: banishment. The prison’s function as a space of disappearance for people and social problems alike is carried over and into the community through the production of exclusion zones and the exile of particular people and activities from those spaces. In this sense, EM fits into a larger devolution of imprisonment back to communities. One expression of this devolution is the increased importance of county jails to the prison industrial complex, as the numbers inside them expand even while state prison populations shrink (see for example Hinds and Norton 2018). Penal devolution, however, also encompasses the relocation of carceral authority from spaces of detention to the churches, homes, schools and local nonprofits currently tasked with everything from reentry programming to the surveillance of movement and behavior.
Civil gang injunctions, SORs and their spatial banishment mechanisms, and EM are all powerful tools enacted outside of prison walls for law enforcement and other authorities to exert control over particular people and places. Much like the Brownsville alternatives described in chapter 2, they are also all decidedly geographic interventions that serve to shore up the legitimacy of the penal state under the guise of community corrections. In this way, they operate alongside and in concert with a whole host of initiatives, some explicitly reformist and some not, that currently serve to support or legitimize the expansion of the carceral state. This means more people, rather than fewer, enmeshed in an ever-expanding matrix of control, confinement, and responsibilization, all of which serve to destabilize relationships and undermine participation in civic and social life. In these instances of carceral power, space is used strategically, just as law is.
The term “transcarceration” has been used to describe the kinds of nonprison tactics of socially controlling former and would-be prisoners outlined in this chapter, as well as the neoliberal reorganization of prison facilities and other like structures themselves (Schept 2013b; Hallett 2012). Beckett and Murakawa, meanwhile, use the term “the shadow carceral state” to describe those activities outside of but effectively undergirding more visible institutions of criminal law and criminal justice, or as they put it, the “more submerged, serpentine forms of punishment that work in legally hybrid and institutionally variegated ways” (2012, 222). These include emerging processes such as the expansion of civil and administrative pathways to incarceration, the creation of civil alternatives to invalidated criminal-social-control tools, and the incorporation of criminal law into administrative legal processes in ways that enhance state carceral power, for example civil gang injunctions (224). Both concepts (transcarceration and shadow carceral state) are useful frameworks for anticipating and recognizing the reproduction of carceral power, often in the name of prison reform and under the sign of community.
The expansion of carceral technologies out of prisons and into homes and communities penetrates all aspects of daily life, including intimate and community relations. For those subject to parole, probation, or “precrime” surveillance, such as those named under gang injunctions, all aspects of life on the outside continue to be governed and regulated. This includes everything from where one lives and who one befriends to whether one is permitted to carry a cell phone or have a drink at the end of the day. But these technologies and tactics also perform the ideological work of the carceral state and the prison regime, insofar as they reproduce hegemonic ideas and feelings about who is dangerous and where danger happens. They neither dislodge the surveillance apparatus through which authorities maintain control over certain people and certain places nor disturb the logics through which the carceral state maintains legitimacy, including the idea of the prison as the ultimate repository of danger. Indeed, by invoking community, whether in the context of “community corrections” or more generally during the implementation of gang injunctions and banishment spaces in the name of keeping communities safe, these tactics work only to mask the widening of a shadow penal regime. These activities, while seemingly outside and beyond the prison and sometimes situated within civil law, serve both to further carceral logics and to enhance state carceral power insofar as they effect punitive bodily control and create new criteria for criminalization proper.
Stuart Schrader extends the caution against what he calls “the romance of the community,” borrowing from the title of Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community (2002). In response to the reemergence of community policing, he warns: “Community is the terrain of intervention for police, shaped by police. It does not preexist police and it does not provide a bulwark against police power. . . . Community and police double-back on each other under present social arrangements, to maintain and reproduce present social arrangements” (Schrader 2006). The reproduction of existing social arrangements is indeed what is at stake in current debates about prison reform and the role of community corrections as a so-called decarceration strategy.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, prison reform has historically, as now, opened the door to the expansion of the prison under the guise of social improvement (2009, 82). A half century ago, André Gorz offered this useful distinction between reformist and nonreformist reforms:
A reformist reform is one which subordinates its objectives to the criteria of rationality and practicality of a given system and policy. Reformism rejects those objectives and demands—however deep the need for them—which are incompatible with the preservation of the system. On the other hand, a not necessarily reformist reform is one which is conceived not in terms of what is possible within the framework of a given system of administration, but in view of what should be made possible in terms of human needs and demands. (1967, 7–8)
In the context of the prison system, therefore, nonreformist reform can be understood as “changes that, at the end of the day, unravel rather than widen the net of social control through criminalization” (Gilmore 2007, 242). Gilmore further underscores how reformist reform is particularly crucial to the way that neoliberalism operates. Its very ability to adapt to and incorporate itself into critique is part of what makes neoliberalism, with the structures of violence it enacts, so dangerous to the project of prison abolition. Prison reforms forged in the context of unabated neoliberal restructuring and state austerity, even those measures that seem to get people out of prisons and into the communities ostensibly outside their walls, are especially important to appraise with a critical eye precisely because, as Williams noted a decade after Gorz (1977a), the notion of community is so rarely viewed unfavorably. Even the prison boosters of eastern Kentucky invoke community in order to characterize the penitentiaries they want to build as an unassailable social good.
If we are indeed witnessing the unfolding demise of America’s regime of hyperincarceration, then it is necessary to extend the critiques lodged against jails and prisons to those other spaces of everyday social life where the carceral state may be repackaging and reinstantiating itself. Differentiating between reformist reform and nonreformist reform in practice, however, can be a difficult challenge. It requires vigilance and an expansive analytical frame to decipher whether initiatives funded and propagated under the sign of community have the effect of making lives better, or instead structure further immobility, displacement, and racialized immiseration into our existing social order. Even while the prison remains the state’s privileged spatial fix, the invention and proliferation of new, community-based instruments of social and geographic control signal a crises of legitimacy for the carceral state, even while they also reinforce its power and continue its work. This suggests that, in the spaces of transference between one mode of carceral control and another, there is also organizing potential. The community, after all, is also where everyday life is reproduced, and thus also where people will fight to survive and work to be free.