The Prison out of Place
Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.
Samantha Jenkins, a fifty-year-old African American woman from Missouri, once stole two steaks from a local grocery store in the city of Jennings, a small town just seven miles outside of St. Louis. She was homeless and she was hungry. Over the next fifteen years, Jenkins would be arrested and incarcerated in the Jennings jail nineteen separate times, all for that one theft. Having accrued a court fine that she was unable to pay, she was arrested over and over again, accumulating new court fines in the process, which in turn begot new arrest warrants. In and out of the overcrowded and unsanitary local jail, denied legal defense and refused forgiveness on her debt, Jenkins repeatedly lost jobs and lost homes, caught in a never-ending cycle of poverty fines that ended only when she became the lead plaintiff on a landmark settlement in 2016 that saw the city of Jennings pay out $4.7 million to over 2000 class members. The city was found to be locking people up illegally, in contravention of a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared that incarcerating someone for being unable to pay his or her debt is unconstitutional.
One of over ninety small municipalities carved into the outer suburbs of St. Louis, Jennings is a majority-black subdivision of 15,000 people, forged out of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies that embedded racial segregation into the postwar landscape of greater St. Louis. Zoning rules that classified white neighborhoods as residential and black areas as industrial or commercial, that segregated public housing projects from whites-only real-estate markets, and that bulldozed through predominantly African American neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal have, over the past century, produced one of the most highly balkanized greater municipal areas in the nation. Municipal boundary lines, some of them enforced by actual street barriers like large concrete balls or gates, formalize class and racial segregation, ensuring the nondistribution of resources and tax revenues among the dozens of discreet “towns” of St. Louis County. These towns range in population from thirteen residents to over 50,000, together forming a patchwork of what the urban historian Colin Gordon calls “postage-stamp municipalities.” They are situated so close together that a person driving a four-mile stretch of one major road would pass through eight separate cities. Each of these municipalities is likely to have their own police force.
Public attention became newly directed onto these small, otherwise seemingly nondescript communities, like Jenkins’s home of Jennings, late into the summer of 2014, when a young black man named Michael Brown was shot dead by a local police officer in the adjacent St. Louis County suburb of Ferguson. Brown’s was one of a number of high-profile deaths of African Americans at the hands of police to spark public outrage that year. As protests erupted in Ferguson and its neighboring communities and international media descended on the area, reports began to circulate about a systemic practice of overpolicing in the most economically neglected of these subdivisions. Like elsewhere, middle-class white flight and economic deindustrialization are at the root of some of this woe, but local tax policy also figures prominently as a key cause of the area’s financial problems.
Municipal tax revenue in St. Louis County is limited by the Missouri constitution, specifically a clause called the “Hancock Amendment.” The amendment was written in 1980 by the founder of a group called the Taxpayer Survival Association, Representative Mel Hancock, and radically limits the ability of local municipalities to raise money through taxes, even from commercial enterprises. Any increase of local taxes must be approved by a city-wide referendum, which has proven difficult at best. So constrained, local governments turned to a more reliable source of local revenue: their traffic cops. Each equipped with its own municipal code, its own police force, and its own court, many of these communities, including Jennings and Ferguson, now lean heavily on municipal fines to fill their public coffers, systematically incentivizing a widening net of police crackdowns on the most minor and anachronistic of offenses (Balko 2014b). Finable infractions include driving with a suspended license, failing to provide proof of insurance, and being found in a residence without an occupancy permit on hand.
Defense attorneys in the St. Louis area call these “poverty violations” and describe how it is the region’s poor black residents who bear the economic brunt of this extractive system of municipal financing (Balko 2014a). Because indigent defendants are not provided with public defenders, many of those who do not have the resources to pay their fines avoid showing up in court at all out of fear of the penal repercussions. Police are then legally able to issue an arrest warrant, setting off a chain of events that can lead to jail time. In 2014, the city of Jennings issued an average of more than 2.1 arrest warrants per household, mostly in cases involving unpaid debt for tickets. In Ferguson the same year, the police handed out an average of three arrest warrants per household (Drum 2014). Municipalities may also imprison individuals for ordinance violations and keep them detained until the fine and cost of the suit against them are paid, a practice tantamount to running debtors’ prisons. In Jennings, over 2,000 people languished nearly 9,000 days in the city jail during 2015 solely because they were not able to pay traffic tickets and court fines.
The town of Ferguson became a flashpoint for the Black Lives Matter movement and a metonym for the national epidemic of state violence against black individuals and communities. But the suburban municipalities of St. Louis County, including Ferguson and Jennings, also call our attention to the complex racial geographies of what I in this book call “carceral space”: the sites and relations of power that enable and incentivize the systematic capture, control, and confinement of human beings through structures of immobility and dispossession. In other words, the local geography conditions carceral practices, including police harassment, arrest and court proceedings, and incarceration, in various ways. Indeed, the modern debtors’ prisons that proliferate throughout the towns of St. Louis County are made possible by a historical alignment of policies, forces, and crises that coalesced to produce a particular socioeconomic landscape and organize the relations that govern life within it. Those relations include private property, work and waged labor, and race and racism. The space produced out of these forces in Ferguson and its neighboring communities is one in which police harassment, court bureaucracy, and the specter of detention dominate the conditions of life for local residents. Questions of where and why people live where they do, what resources are made available or taken away from them, and who is rendered vulnerable to state injury are written into the very power relations that design and govern this inhabited landscape.
The ways space is organized, used, and rendered meaningful are always socially determined. Critical geographers have long argued that the spatial organization of everyday life is a social product arising from and mutually constitutive of purposeful social practice.1 What this means is that space is political and ideological. It conveys existing power dynamics and the governing logics that make sense of them, and it also structures those dynamics into being. As David Harvey puts it, “Space and the political organization of space express social relationships but also react back upon them” (1973, 306). To examine the determination of space, therefore, is to ask how power operates materially and ideologically within society, to demystify the social relations that organize everyday life and inhabited space, and to critically deconstruct the historical contingencies that condition the present situation.
To return to the example of Ferguson, then, the story of so-called incidental or exceptional police violence that emerged after the death of Brown can be recast as a broader narrative about penal infrastructure and the very production of carceral space. The political economy of St. Louis County’s urban landscape—how these municipalities came to be in the first place, how resources are distributed among them, why police are so powerful here, and who is adversely effected by their interventions—exposes the kinds of social and economic relations that actually underwrite the local penal system. Here, tax policy and the racial vagaries of residential zoning are as salient to the production of carceral control as are the so-called criminal-justice-system or public-safety concerns, if not more so. St. Louis County offers a point of departure, then, for investigating the kinds of social relations that produce and reproduce the carceral regime across the United States more broadly.
By “social relations,” I refer specifically to the relations of power over the productive forces in society. If the forces of production are the technologies, inputs, materials, and tools we use to transform nature, then the relations tell us how people fit into those processes. Social relations tell us, for example, how people relate to each other vis-à-vis the ownership and control of productive assets, who works for whom, and who controls and benefits from the surplus created. The social relations that organize contemporary life in the United States are, of course, capitalist relations, and the prison system, as a mechanism of control and discipline increasingly central to the state’s operations, can be understood as an expression of, and means of enforcing, those relations.
While the term “mass incarceration” is most often invoked to indicate the proliferation of structures of captivity and the inflation of the prison population, one core argument of this book is that mass incarceration also points to how the U.S. carceral system has become increasingly bound up in matters of finance, electoral politics, land use, racial ordering, labor deregulation, citizenship, gender governance, and urban restructuring, among other processes. In other words, the prison is more than just a building or the numbers of people inside that building, but rather, as many have established, a robust and extensive “industrial complex” that is fully implicated in the functioning of the contemporary capitalist economy. As its influence as a structure of power has grown, its complex interrelationships with other social systems and power relations, from real-estate finance to union deregulation, have also deepened. It follows, then, that any productive analysis of the prison system’s functions, meaning what it is actually doing as a central institution of the contemporary U.S. state, requires a broadening of the political and social fields within which it is normally examined.
Prison Land attempts to expand the boundaries within which we assess the criminal-justice system by restaging the prison as a set of relationships dispersed across a set of landscapes we don’t always view or conceive of as carceral. It is precisely because relationships are necessarily made up of contingencies that mapping their complex geographies can be so useful to social struggle. I try to do some of that mapping by casting carceral space as encompassing the whole continuum of relationships that make up the prison system: from the sites of criminalization, arrest, and conviction to the landscapes of building construction; from zones of immobility and social control to the spaces deployed for the forced circulation and transfer of bodies. Yet it also encompasses something broader than these penal nodes. Carceral space constitutes those very social relations and geographic practices through which the state’s capacities of containment, displacement, and dispossession are put to work for “racial capitalism,” a term that acknowledges that, insofar as capitalism requires inequality to function as a system of exploitation, it has always also relied on racial categories to enshrine that inequality as natural rather than produced (Robinson 1983). The U.S. capitalist state’s dramatic investment in its carceral machinery over the past half century has less to do with crime and criminals per se than it does with broader social dynamics in the economy and race relations. These dynamics and relations are always at once spatialized and spatializing, and it is to their complex geographies that this book turns its gaze.
Directing our attention to a set of carceral spaces as understood here, this book offers a new framework for thinking about the role of the prison in the contemporary social order. The spaces examined in the following chapters are themselves “produced” in the sense that they are manifestations of social constructions and practices (see Smith 1984; Lefebvre 1974), but they are also productive of a capitalist order in which prisons are increasingly “what the growing neoliberal state is made of” (Gilmore and Gilmore 2008, 143). The neoliberal state is itself an evolving entity, and thus this book suggests we look to the spaces beyond the penitentiary in order to comprehend it and the work of carceral logics and practices more broadly.
Prison Land situates its investigation in the unfolding and contradictory present of the post-2008 financial recession, as state budgetary crises across the United States fueled bipartisan initiatives for cost-cutting penal reforms. Throughout these pages, I return to the question of whether these reforms portend the demise of the carceral state, or simply its repackaging. To answer this question, I propose that we take an expansive view of what constitutes carceral space by uncoupling the prison from both crime and punishment in the analytic imaginary and by interrogating the less visible social relations by which carceral space both manages life and makes that life disposable. Framing the prison as a set of relations allows us to ask about the production of new carceral forms and correlative carceral practices across the landscape of contemporary reform efforts. To that end, it is worth briefly looking back at the long relationship between reform, place, and space in the evolution of the U.S. prison system.
Rethinking Prison and Place
Place has always been central to what a prison is, and to what it does. Developed in the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century, between the Revolution and the Civil War, the modern penitentiary system was premised from its very inception on the dedication of a discrete locale for systematic punishment. Up until this time, the state’s interventions against those found guilty of lawbreaking consisted primarily of corporal punishments, usually floggings or executions, enacted out in the open and within full view of the sovereign’s subjects. These subjects were the intended audience. It was to instill in them a fear of the state and obedience to the law that the offender’s body was publicly displayed while the wrath of the sovereign performed violently upon it. Not all, however, went as planned. Officials began to notice that these public acts of corporal brutality would often produce an inadvertent effect on the crowds who gathered to take in their spectacle. Witnesses would become riled up, unruly, and even riotous. Worse yet, that rowdy collective energy would sometimes be infused with a sympathy toward the condemned subject, rather than the antipathy anticipated by the punishing state (Foucault 1977; Smith 2011b).
Openly displayed bodily punishment was facing its own crisis of legitimacy, as the Enlightenment period in Western Europe and the new republic heralded humanist ideas about the redeemability of certain subjects. The era’s governing elites, increasingly anxious about growing sympathy among the poor for the penalized and the possibility of common cause among them, joined with Enlightenment thinkers in imagining a new apparatus for the meting out of state punishment. The penitentiary as a place, by which I mean a discrete and enclosed architecture of confinement, was subsequently introduced in Philadelphia and then in Auburn, New York, with the deliberate intent of taking the practice of penality out of the public square and relocating it somewhere less visible. The emergent penitentiary form served, at least partly, to foreclose the risk of public sympathy by hiding the violence of the state behind closed doors and high walls. Thus concealed, criminals could continue to be represented to other sections of the possibly empathetic poor as dangerous and wicked, neutralizing their potential alliance.
The built form and urban siting of the penitentiary served a secondary function as well. The edifices themselves were designed to operate as terrorizing public spectacles for those on the outside. The literary historian Caleb Smith describes how the awesome gothic facades of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, for example, were crafted to elicit the fear and dread one might have in relation to the dungeons of the old world, even as the prison reformers who championed this new system wanted to describe what was happening inside them in Enlightenment terms of humane correction (Smith 2011a). The nonincarcerated subjects of the new republic were meant to encounter the prison edifice regularly in their everyday movement throughout the city and be both menaced and disciplined by the penitentiary’s specter of terror.
At the same time, the prison has always been much more than just a place. The nineteenth-century emergence of the penitentiary as a system of punishment signaled a new era in American state-building, one in which the prison would play a pivotal role as an apparatus for subject production. Much of this disciplinary work was (and is) elided by the reformist agenda that conjured the penitentiary into being in the first place. Couched in terms of “humanism” and “correction” by the penitentiary’s Enlightenment champions, the prison’s revolutionary promise was the rehabilitation of those who had broken the law. But as Foucault demonstrated so keenly, such reformation was itself premised on the prison’s function as a technique of subject formation and social control, materially and ideologically hewed to the emergent ontologies of citizenship, individualism, and the market within the new republic. The prison emerged in service to a transforming industrial capitalist economy not simply as a humane alternative to beatings and executions, but through its very production of docile, individuated, and disciplined subjects.
Changes in the penitentiary’s form and function have since kept apace with the changing imperatives of the capitalist state. So, while the earliest ideals of the nineteenth-century prison architects fused seamlessly with proto-industrial ideas about the laboring self, the American prison’s heyday of rehabilitation would correspond, in the mid-twentieth century, to the full maturation of the Fordist economy and Keynesian state. As Angela Davis puts it, “the process through which imprisonment developed into the primary mode of state-inflicted punishment was very much related to the rise of capitalism and to the appearance of a new set of ideological conditions” (2003, 43). Its apogee, under the mantle of what is now known widely as mass incarceration, has been reached alongside the ascendance and entrenchment of neoliberal capitalist restructuring over the past four decades of American life.
It is precisely in its deep imbrication with the emergent capitalist state over two centuries that Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and other prison activists and scholars urge us to think of the prison not as simply an edifice, as a place made up of walls and cells and mess halls, but to conceive it as a set of relationships. It is this characterization of the prison that this book takes up and elaborates in its case studies. Prison Land offers a geographic investigation—a journey across place and space—into the functions and consequences of the social relations that constitute the prison. These relations include property, work, gender, and race, enacted and expressed across various landscapes in American economic and political life. It is the ways in which these relationships organize everyday existence in the United States that make the prison possible, but not inevitable.
This book thus attempts to displace the prison in two senses. First, it proposes an array of places and spaces outside the penitentiary’s walls that help disclose the functions and consequences of the contemporary prison regime. Second, it demonstrates how the frameworks traditionally used to think about the prison and its functions (the place of the prison in our imaginaries) are inadequate to the task of comprehending the prison’s role in American society, and thus to unthinking its necessity in our lives.
Each of the book’s central case studies asks what it means to consider the prison not merely as a building or a place indexed to the ostensibly closed circuit of crime and punishment, but rather as a structure of power whose influence is spatialized across the uneven geographies of the nation. In each, I ask how the prison intersects with and upholds other structures of power and to what end it does so for the current neoliberal social order. By geographically excavating the relationships that render the prison system productive for neoliberalism in particular, the book attempts to deconstruct the very function and necessity of the prison in our lives. It is, in other words, an attempt to rethink the very place of the prison in the American political and economic landscape, precisely so that we can begin thinking of life beyond it.
To this end, Prison Land reconsiders what constitutes carceral space and how it functions to both produce and manage social inequities in late-capitalist American life. Carceral space is explored as a complex geography, one that inscribes the production of racialized poverty, social control, and devalued life into its everyday sociospatial relations. The book investigates the production of carceral power at various sites, from long-distance buses to rural coalfields and from cities in decline to financial urban hubs, in order to demonstrate how the organization of carceral space is ideologically and materially grounded in the neoliberal restructurings of racial capitalism. In so doing, it challenges both the “common sense”2 idea of prisons as simply responses to the problem of crime and affective attachments to punishment as the relevant measure of a transformed criminal-justice system. The different cases studied all demonstrate that the production of disposability and surplus life is an active process, racially coded through the shifting category of the criminal and spatialized in a range of mutable and contested places and forms.
Incarceration is certainly made possible in part because some lives have been rendered systematically superfluous to the formal labor market (Peck and Theodore 2008; Wacquant 2009a) and ungrievable within the public imagination (Butler 2004). Yet carceral space, I argue, also contributes to the construction of disposable people in our social worlds. The production of the “criminal” as a racialized category of so-called indisputable depravity provides powerful legitimizing cover for the making of surplus populations and socially differentiating them. This occurs even while carceral spaces do all kinds of work that bears little actual relation to so-called crime or its resolution.
Today, criminal status consigns some people to informal and hyperexploited labor markets and marks some bodies as legitimate targets of state and vigilante violence, abandonment, and dispossession, while it also categorically divides the poorest and most oppressed people against each other (Linebaugh 2004). It further serves as a powerful vehicle of ongoing racialization in the ostensibly “postracial” era, enshrining racialized disentitlement as natural and legitimate insofar as individuals can be seen to have brought it upon themselves by their own ostensibly deviant actions, behaviors, or choices. The criminal is a paradigmatic category of disposability in capitalist democracies precisely because the ideology of neoliberalism makes it so hard to divest from the economy of individualized responsibility and accountability. This may be why the category of innocence has such purchase within liberal reform movements: it is a way of rescuing some, and thus attenuating aggregate harm, without actually challenging the underlying premise of responsibilized and individualized subjecthood.
At its broadest, this book is about the production and operation of carceral spaces as landscapes of power, but it is also about the work of carceral space in managing the social fragmentation of those at the lowest echelons of the neoliberal social order. The demolition of racialized sociality is one important part of this story and is intimately related to the historical production of black “criminality” (Muhammad 2011). The ideology of black criminality finds reinforcement in analytic frameworks that treat the criminal-justice system as a kind of closed circuit of laws and policies within which tautological claims and logics (for example, that the prison is a response to crime and that crime is performed by individuals) tend to circulate unchallenged. Examining the prison not as a place but as a set of relations, in contrast, serves to upend the crime-and-punishment dialectic as the putative centerpiece of the penal order. In this way, the book attempts to offer a new framework for understanding the work that prisons do and then for imagining how things might be otherwise.
What Is the Work That Prisons Do? Neoliberalism and the Spatial Turn
The scene from which this book emerges is the scene of penal space in the late-capitalist era of mass incarceration. This period runs from about 1973 onward in the United States and is characterized broadly by the rollback of the Keynesian welfare functions of the state, deindustrialization, deregulation of the labor market and the stagnation of workers’ wages, revanchist restructuring of urban space, and the unprecedented expansion in the number of prisons and of prisoners.
The U.S. prison population began climbing in 1973 and rose dramatically over the next forty years. By 1985, the number of people behind bars had doubled to 740,000. Over the course of the 1990s, America saw an unprecedented average annual growth of nearly 8 percent, leading it to surpass the 2 million mark in 2000 (Wacquant 2009a, 60). Today, the number of people imprisoned in the country’s jails and prisons hovers around 2.2 million. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and its rush to incarcerate has progressed along profoundly racialized contours. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.
The past half century of spectacular prison expansion is also the period of neoliberalism’s ascendance and entrenchment across the industrialized West. The term neoliberalism describes a particular set of transformations in the organization of free-market capitalism, and as a project, it bundles a variety of policies and practices. Forged as an attack on the Keynesian welfarist state, and flourishing in its wreckage from the 1970s onward, neoliberalism heralded the construction of new institutional forms and regulatory conventions designed to secure and extend “market rule” into all realms of life (Peck 2003, 224). Neoliberalism also constitutes an active zone of experimentation, spatial restructuring, and ritualization of “individual responsibility” in all spheres. The buildup of the state’s criminalization and incarceration mechanisms over the period of neoliberalism’s advancement has been essential to securing such experiments and to managing their social costs and damages (McNally 2011).
Scholars have by now well demonstrated that the phenomenon of exploding incarceration rates and the ascendance of neoliberal policies and rationalities in American life are correlative rather than coincidental. As techniques of state dominance have shifted decisively in the neoliberal era, the period has given birth to what Bernard Harcourt (2010) terms “neoliberal penality”: a particular mode of crisis abatement wherein market deregulation and the delegitimation of state entitlements are secured through the expanded deployment of carceral interventions and institutions. Noah De Lissovoy similarly posits the “carceral turn” of the past four decades as a central expression of neoliberal culture: “Networks of solidarity and obligations to the vulnerable are replaced by a culture of blame and externalization . . . . In this process, structural crises and contradictions are reinterpreted in moralistic terms, as the proper neoliberal subject recognizes itself through its exclusions of the pathologized other” (2012, 740).
The institutions of prisons and policing of course have a long history of managing the poor and disciplining waged labor under the sign of the market. Criminalization has been actively deployed as a mechanism for both capital accumulation and the production of social differentiation along axes of race, class, and gender since at least the nineteenth century (Linebaugh 2004; Muhammad 2011). In the neoliberal period, however, such work has intensified and become even more central to the state’s facilitation of market rule. Criminalization functions to absorb the social wreckage wrought by neoliberal policies by displacing state violence onto responsibilized and disciplined individuals while simultaneously serving to uphold the neoliberal myth of state retreat. Everywhere in the world that economic inequality has increased, prison space has expanded, and this is especially true in the United States. And there is less sympathy for the homeless mother who steals food or the poor teen who runs drugs within a worldview that upholds the individual’s ultimate responsibility for their own material well-being rather than assigning this role to the state or to society.
Attempts to explain mass incarceration in the United States are by now numerous, spanning multiple disciplines and analytical approaches (see, for example: Garland 2001; Simon 2003; Gottschalk 2006). In recent years, however, geographers and other spatial theorists grounded in historical-materialist research methods have made some of the most insightful connections between prisons and capitalism generally, and between mass incarceration and neoliberalism in particular. Characterizing prisons as “partial geographic solutions to political economic crisis, organized by the state, which itself is in crisis,” Gilmore’s Golden Gulag heralded an emerging field of carceral geography (2007, 26), out of which we have seen increasing attention paid to the spatialities of prison siting (Bonds 2009; Norton 2016), state restructuring and labor market management (Peck and Theodore 2008), and urban social control (Parenti 1999; Camp 2016). These scholars have generated important insights into the work that prisons do by couching their inquiries in increasingly geographic terms. It turns out that asking questions about where yields remarkably insightful answers to the question of why.
When one asks, for example, where the majority of the nation’s prisoners come from, most roads lead back to the metropolis. Indeed, one place to begin an investigation into mass incarceration is the city and the structural homologies between urban redevelopment and prison expansion over at least the past forty years. Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, states and cities across the United States were hit by dual economic and social crises: a series of economic recessions that rocked the country, on the one hand, and increased social and racial unrest, most dramatically manifest in urban rebellions, on the other. Emerging out of this period, President Nixon’s 1970 “war on crime” focused explicitly on the poor, racialized populations of the nation’s major cities, constructing them as a social problem by conflating black men in particular with criminality. Urban restructuring and prison expansion from this era onward constituted duel spatial strategies for addressing these intersecting urban crises (Parenti 1999; Gilmore 2007; Camp 2016).
With the decline of Fordist manufacturing economies in many American cities, the reconfiguration of industrial capitalism through what Harvey (1990) calls “flexible accumulation” and the uneven ascendance of urban economies organized primarily around finance, real estate, and the service sector, large segments of the workforce historically contained in the “black belts” of major metropoles were rendered economically redundant (Wacquant 2002, 48). Expanded prison space in the neoliberal period, the sociologist Loic Wacquant argues, served “to warehouse the precarious and deproletarianized fractions of the black working class, be it that they cannot find employment or are underemployed” (2002, 53). Wacquant thus suggests that the urban ghetto and the prison constitute a “carceral continuum” with shared functions vis-à-vis surplus labor and the production of race. Relatedly, Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore (2008) have analyzed the labor-market impacts of mass incarceration in the more recent period, arguing that the twenty-first-century prison functions institutionally not only to manage but also to produce systemic unemployability across a criminalized class of African American men in particular.
As cities in the neoliberal period have restructured increasingly along revanchist terms (Smith 1996), the emergence of interurban competition for corporate investment, real-estate speculation, and luxury consumption has ushered in a flurry of new punitive ordinances and spatial exclusions in U.S. cities across the country. The rise of new forms of urban sociospatial exclusion, strategies of urban policing, and tactics for criminalizing “undesirable” urban populations (Davis 1990; Harcourt 2001; Beckett and Herbert 2008) mark the emergence of what has been termed the “punitive neo-liberal city” (Herbert and Brown 2006). Beginning in the 1990s, for example, “broken windows policing” and civility laws were introduced as part of the broader coercive project of eliminating hindrances to downtown revitalization efforts. These new legal tools and techniques have increased the criminalization and social control of poor, often black and brown individuals and communities across urban space.
Within this picture of urban restructuring and the coercive management of urban poverty, the state has been ever-present, even while elided by the neoliberal myth of the state’s retreat. While prison privatization has figured as a popular bogeyman of left critique, the overwhelming majority of prisons and jails in the United States are actually public institutions financially underwritten and organized by the state. To ask why, then, the state undertook such an expansion of its organizational and financial capacity to arrest, forcibly remove, and then immobilize mass numbers of people from the early 1970s onward, one must ask how the state itself was transforming during this period. This was the period in which neoliberalism began to ascend as the dominant mode and rationality governing social relations.
The state, in the formulation of Stuart Hall and his collaborators, building on the work of Antonio Gramsci, “is not so much an entity, or even a particular complex of institutions, so much as it is a particular site or level of the social formation” (1978, 205). They make the case that the state should be conceived less as a thing and more as an organizer. It organizes capacity in the sense that it puts capacity—financial, political, ideological, and logistical—into force. In terms of the state’s relationship to capitalism and class power, Hall et al. argue: “[The state is] the key instrument which enlarged the narrow rule of a particular class into a ‘universal’ class leadership and authority over the whole social formation. Its ‘task’ is to secure this broadening and generalizing of class power, while ensuring also the stability and cohesion of the social ensemble” (1978, 204; emphasis in original).
This conception of the state helps us bring into focus the character and condition of something that scholars of the prison system have come to call the “carceral state” (Gottschalk 2015) or the “penal state” (Peck 2003). Simply put, the carceral state is a state restructured and expanded through its punishment and criminalization functions. The expansion of prisons and the criminalization mechanisms that lead to imprisonment are politically organized as well as underwritten by the state, which is itself in the process of radical restructuring. The concept of the carceral state thus refers to the state as it has remade itself using the newly vast prison system’s coercive powers (Gilmore and Gilmore 2008).
The upward march of incarceration rates in America beginning in 1973 maps onto a period in which the state began to shed its role as welfare provider and employment broker. As a consequence of this withdrawal, the post-Keynesian state faced a growing crisis of legitimacy for which a buildup of its military and punishment infrastructures (themselves premised on the claim of new threats from which the public required state protection) became the favored solution. The mission of the state became redefined: its social welfare functions were diminished while its coercive and penal capacities were expanded and intensified. In Peck’s words, “in terms of the regulation of poverty and poor subjects, this is not less government but different government” (2003, 224). As the state’s resources have been redistributed toward its policing and incarceration apparatuses, its legitimacy has been purchased through its promise to punish.
Rather than constituting a state in retreat, the neoliberal state might be better characterized as an “anti-state state:” a state that grows on the promise of shrinking (Gilmore and Gilmore 2008). Indeed, the myth of the state in retreat is belied by the money alone: in the United States, state expenditure at all scales (federal, state, and local) has increased as a percentage of GDP by approximately 10 percent (from about 30 percent of GDP to about 33 percent) since the beginning of the nation’s prison-building boom in the early 1970s (Gilmore and Gilmore 2008, 146). According to a 2008 study by the Pew Center on the States, prison spending by the nation has outpaced all other comparable spending budgets except Medicaid, based on federal and state data (Harcourt 2010, 85).
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore write, “prisons are symptomatic and emblematic of anti-state state-building” (2008, 142). They are the product of increased state power under the mythology of a downsized state apparatus. To this end, anti-state state-building might be itself characterized as emblematic of globalized capitalism and the crises and instabilities endemic to an economic system constantly in search of new terrain for growth and profitability. Under capitalism, if money doesn’t circulate, it creates a crisis for the system as a whole. And when it does circulate, exploitation of the earth and its people intensifies, straining both and creating new conditions for instability and unrest.
Carceral spaces, including prisons, signal the function of spatial restructuring as a mechanism of crisis abatement and neoliberal experimentation. The economic concepts of surplus, crisis, and spatial fix are particularly salient to this discussion, and their connection to the carceral state has been most prominently invoked and elaborated in Gilmore’s work. As she demonstrates in her study of California’s prison boom in Golden Gulag, surplus labor, surplus land, surplus state capacity, and surplus capital geographically distributed along the poles of urban and rural space all threaten to produce crisis in a capitalist system, either economically, through over-accumulation, or socially, as political unrest. Prison expansion offered not just a fix, but a specifically spatial fix to the multiple manifestations of capitalist crisis experienced in California and many other states from the early 1970s onward. Prison infrastructure helps absorb over-accumulated capital and puts idled or surplus land back into productive use, partially and temporarily resolving some of the contradictions inherent to capital circulation (Marx 1976).
The social production of race also constitutes an important component of how the prison system serves the accumulation of capital. As Cedric Robinson (1983) has demonstrated, capitalism, even in its earliest Western European formations, has always been racial, even while processes of racialization have themselves shifted over time and across bodies. As a system and mode of production that necessitates inequality to function, capitalism, and perhaps especially within liberal democracies, requires race as an ideology and racism as a hierarchical system to enshrine that inequality as legitimate, even natural. Insofar as prisoners themselves have come to constitute a kind of class (Gilmore 2007, 7), and are themselves overwhelmingly racialized before incarceration and through incarceration (Goodman 2008), the prison has come to play a central role in the production of race and the reproduction of racial capitalism. Indeed, the prison can be considered, among other things, a race-making institution (Goodman 2008; Alexander 2010).
In sum, the phenomenal rise in the rate of incarceration from the 1970s onward in the United States can at least partly be explained by the various kinds of productive work that prisons do, even while they destroy communities (Clear 2007), shorten life spans (Patterson 2013), and bear little relationship to fluctuations in crime (Travis and Western 2014, 3). The achievements of this work, in service primarily of the capitalist social order, can be found primarily in the external geographies of the prison regime. Indeed, spatial inquiry has been instrumental in explaining the prison system’s productive functions, alerting us to how most of those functions fall outside the narrow parameters of crime and punishment or “law and order” within which the prison is most often scrutinized. Prisons offer legitimacy to the neoliberal state, while also constituting an active zone of state-building. They absorb the labor and land rendered surplus by deindustrialization and the globalization of capital. They also operate as a new kind of labor-market institution, one that, as Gretchen Purser writes, “has shown to conceal unemployment in the short run, by absorbing many who would assuredly otherwise be jobless, but exacerbate it in the long run, by dramatically increasing joblessness among inmates after they are released” (2012, 399). Prisons and (I will argue) carceral space more broadly, further shore up the racialization of crime and the ontology of the criminal, adding new ideological cover to the production and racialization of disposable bodies, exploitable labor, and ungrievable lives.3
In the survey of carceral sites that follows, I critically investigate the processes by which these spaces threaten to be harnessed, generated, or transformed to extend the work that prisons do even in a political context of prison downsizing. Such work has new urgency in the era of bipartisan prison reform and a conservative-led “right on crime” movement. Framing the prison as a set of relations, rather than as a place hewed to crime rates and punishment imperatives, allows us to ask about the production of new carceral forms and correlative carceral places across the landscape of contemporary reform efforts. And it allows us to build toward a world in which the social relationships for which prisons operate, or seem to operate, as the solution are themselves transformed in terms that are life-building rather than life-destroying.
Prison Reform and Its Discontents
Two centuries after the penitentiary’s introduction as an institution of discipline and state making at the margin of the new republic, the scale and associated fiscal burden of the U.S. prison system have provoked bipartisan calls for prison reform. Under the aegis of the conservative right-on-crime movement and other coalitions critiquing mass incarceration, politicians of all stripes and parties are jockeying to position themselves, and in some cases reinvent themselves, as “prison reformers,” forging common cause on sentencing reform and the fiscal downsizing of the U.S. prison system.
Coupled with mass incarceration’s legitimacy crisis, the fiscal burden of the U.S. prison system has proven to be a lightning rod in recent years for bipartisan penal reform efforts. Since the 2008 onset of the “great recession,” liberals and conservatives have joined in a chorus of criticism faulting mass incarceration for failing to generate projected social returns and exacting too high a cost for cash-strapped states. While Donald Trump claimed the mantle of the “law and order” presidential candidate during the lead up to the 2016 election, others vying for the nomination in both major parties spoke of sentencing reform, mass incarceration, and even “the New Jim Crow.” The Koch brothers, Tea Party stalwarts otherwise famous for their aggressive union-busting campaigns (Teal and Lessin, 2014), have organized major meetings around penal reform, including a recent three-day conference in New Orleans that included critical scholars and activists from Black Lives Matter among its participants. “Strange bedfellows” is almost an understatement for the unlikely alliances that form a part of today’s prison-reform movement, as intellectual architects of tough-on-crime policies claim they have simply been misunderstood, dismantlers of the welfare state like Newt Gingrich join liberals like Van Jones in calling for change, and private prison companies jostle with charitable nonprofits for a share of the reentry market.4
This rhetorical attention accompanies some gestures toward legislative and judicial change, at least before the 2016 election of Trump: The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced, to great fanfare, the end of its use of private prisons; more than half the nation’s states have passed some kind of sentencing reform, including scaling back mandatory minimums; the federal government passed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing, although not eliminating, the violent disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences; and a handful of jurisdictions, including the federal government, have tried to ban employers from querying job applicants about their criminal records in an attempt to lower the barriers former prisoners face during reentry and during their return to the workforce.
Many of these changes, however, are quite narrow in scope or largely symbolic. The DOJ’s 2016 announcement that it would not renew contracts for privately owned and operated prisons, for example, does not come with any commensurate prisoner releases or plans for actual prison closures (Bello 2016). Meanwhile, freedom for what Marie Gottschalk (2015) calls the “non-non-non’s,” meaning those “redeemable” prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent, nonserious, and nonsexual offenses, has been purchased only through the hardening of punishment regimes against many others. As Gilmore (2015) notes about the privilege accorded to the “relatively” innocent within many reform initiatives, “most campaigns to decrease sentences for nonviolent convictions simultaneously decrease pressure to revise—indeed often explicitly promise never to change—sentences for serious, violent, or sexual felonies.”
Groups like the Council of State Governments and the DOJ have channeled the financial discontent of today’s right-on-crime movement into a firmly neoliberal approach to penal reform, focusing on what Gottschalk calls “the three R’s” of reform: reentry, justice reinvestment, and recidivism (2015, 3). Fiscally oriented prison reform has subsequently been operationalized through a set of initiatives and interventions that take place outside of prison walls and, as James Kilgore (2014a) and Maya Schenwar (2015) have pointed out and I discuss further in chapter 5, risk widening the carceral net through the rise of electronic monitoring and other postcustodial forms of social control.
Finally, despite a handful of prison closures and legislative changes, new or expanded prisons and other carceral institutions continue to appear, albeit through notably different justifying logics than we are used to seeing. Indeed, a fuller vantage of the carceral state affirms Gottschalk’s recent observations: “A tenacious carceral state has sprouted in the shadows of mass imprisonment and has been extending its reach far beyond the prison gate. It includes not only the country’s vast archipelago of jails and prisons but also the far-reaching and growing range of penal punishments and controls that lie in the never-never land between the gate of the prison and full citizenship” (2015, 3).
With the story of mass incarceration’s legitimacy crisis still unfolding, it remains to be seen whether the emerging mainstream critique leads to anything other than a repackaging of the carceral state and an exercise in the recapture of corrections budgets. In the meantime, this book attempts to anticipate the character of a decarcerated future by critically excavating the carceral state’s investments in the broader political and economic landscape. This landscape includes “deep structural changes in the job market, growing income and other inequalities, the escalating political assault on the public sector and organized labor, and the economic decline of wide swaths of urban and rural America” (Gottschalk 2015, 7). If we are indeed witnessing what Michael Hallett calls “the unfolding failure of America’s hyper-incarceration security state” (2012, 223), a question still remains: what is the future of mass incarceration? And might there be a postprison landscape in which the work that prisons do is continued through new institutional, juridical, and spatial arrangements?
This book raises crucial questions about this particular moment of bipartisan prison reform and attempts to anticipate some of the ways in which recent reform initiatives might portend a widening and repackaging of the carceral net across social space. Reform efforts that treat the prison as merely a place, narrowly indexed to the metrics of crime and punishment, offer little insight into or promise for a truly decarcerated future. For a better view, it is worth considering the prison out of place, dislodged from the literal spaces of courts and detention facilities, disarticulated from law-and-order frameworks, and anchored instead to the transformative politics and dialectic analysis of the prison-abolition movement.
This book emerges out of and seeks to contribute to a movement of radical prison critique that calls itself “penal abolition.” A politics of prison abolition aims at changing the relationships that produce the kinds of events, interests, crises, and behaviors for which prisons and other carceral formations operate as surrogate solutions. Such a politics reminds us that at stake in the excavation of carceral space are the social relationships through and for which those spaces make sense and do productive work. An abolitionist politic is, at its core, transformative, seeking to remake the social relations and power inequities that give rise to the prison system and for which the prison system does work. Rather than beginning from the premise that the prison system is broken, and thus in need of reform, it invites us to ask to what ends and in whose interests the prison system succeeds, an invitation that requires a remapping of caceral power as connections are necessarily forged between racial capitalist forms and sites of exploitation and the criminalization and confinement of ever-growing numbers of people.5 Prison abolition, in other words, necessarily encompasses antiracism and class struggle, just as the freedom of prisoners is fundamental to any truly emancipatory anticapitalist politics and social justice.
Prison Land offers a set of concrete case studies investigating how carceral space produces and manages social disposability in late-capitalist American life. Together, they demonstrate that the production of disposability is an active process, spatialized in a range of places and forms that are politically mutable, highly contested, and differentially experienced. Throughout my case studies, geographies of capital accumulation are seen functioning alongside the neoliberal logic of individual responsibility to undermine black sociality and counterpower at every turn. I approach these investigations from the position that race, crime, and space are all social and political constructions. This does not make them not “real” (Fields 1990; Hacking 2002; Muhammad 2011). Indeed, a central ambition of Prison Land is to demonstrate, through an interrogation of diverse carceral landscapes, the intimacy with which ideological and spatial productions inform and reinforce each other as social realities, with serious implications for the state-sanctioned production of surplus life and premature death.
Each of the book’s chapters examines the imperatives, logics, and crises that produce carceral space, including but not limited to the prison edifice. Its central case studies traverse a diverse set of geographies across the United States in which criminalization and incarceration are both a condition and consequence of contemporary social relations within late capitalism. They are, in effect, investigations into the work carceral space does for racial capitalism and the production of disposable life to those ends. The themes of crisis and neoliberalism, isolation and individuation, and sociality and racialization appear prominently throughout, anchoring each chapter’s inquiry and its analysis and underscoring the stakes of investigating the functions and consequences of the carceral state.
In the book’s first two chapters, the coproduction of urban transformation and mass incarceration is explored through the lens of the property relation, specifically real estate. Here I investigate transformations in urban space and carceral control by critically tracking the role of police and security within urban revitalization strategies in both Detroit and New York. Through these case studies, I link historical carceral practices such as broken-windows policing to contemporary urban interventions posed as alternatives to incarceration, finding shared logics and underlying commitments to urban real-estate markets and property rights.
The first of these chapters takes place in Detroit, where approximately 2.2 square miles of downtown make up ground zero for multibillionaire Dan Gilbert’s current urban investment ventures. In Gilbert’s billion-dollar downtown, a Rock Ventures security force patrols the streets twenty-four hours per day, reinforcing the unflinching gaze of the hundreds of high-tech security cameras fixed to the buildings. If the revitalization of downtown Detroit is underwritten by Gilbert’s mortgage and real estate empires, those investments are themselves buttressed by a vast infrastructure of surveillance technology and network of private security companies working in collaboration with the Detroit Police Department. I investigate the 2013 introduction of broken-windows policing in Detroit and increased securitization of downtown as part of the city’s revitalization efforts, suggesting that property, specifically the real-estate economy, continues to drive carceral power and its racialized operation in urban space.
In chapter 2, I explore the predominantly working-class African American neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn, home to the largest concentration of public housing towers in the nation and high numbers of criminalized and incarcerated residents. The neighborhood is also a frequently cited example of community-based efforts to interrupt the cycle of mass incarceration. Such reformist efforts are examined against the broader context of real-estate pressures and generalized gentrification in Brooklyn as a whole. I offer insights from a study of two alternative-to-incarceration initiatives in Brownsville to argue that their overall effect has been to extend the power of the neoliberal carceral state in the service of real-estate demands in one of New York City’s last remaining “frontiers” of gentrification.
In chapter 3, “Rural Extractions,” the wage relation is examined as an animating ideological pillar of continued rural prison expansion in the Appalachian coalfields of eastern Kentucky. Here I ask how unemployment, poverty, and the ideology of work structure the desirability and logic of prison siting as an economic development strategy. In the postcoal communities of eastern Kentucky, prison construction has proliferated over the past decade, despite state legislative commitments to the reformist politics of “justice reinvestment.” Coal mining has been in decline in the region for close to half a century, and local coal jobs have plummeted dramatically over the past two decades. By mapping the salience of work and waged labor to the spatial politics of rural prison development in the region, the chapter suggests that the unemployment of poor Appalachians cannot be seamlessly disentangled from the structural poverty and joblessness that conditions both the preincarceration and postincarceration lives of prisoners across the country.
The increased geographic fragmentation of rural communities, where prisons are built, and urban neighborhoods, where prisoners come from, has generated new corollary carceral spaces that both bridge and circulate between the geographically segregated lives of prisoners and their loved ones. Chapter 4, “The Prison In-between,” considers one such liminal field—the prison bus—as a carceral space within which the loved ones of immobilized prisoners experience the slow violence endemic to both incarceration and neoliberal austerity. The prison bus is investigated as a gendered “in-between” space and a site of secondary prisonization, structuring and circumscribing the socially reproductive labor of caregiving across the isolating geographies and economic margins of the prison system.
Every Friday and Saturday night, hundreds of visitors, mostly working-class women of color and their children, gather on specific street corners across New York City to wait for the buses that will travel all night to take them to prisons dispersed across the state. As well as constituting itself a carceral space, the prison bus is also explored as a scene of ordinary crisis, neoliberal subjectivity, and fragile solidarity for its riders. I argue that riding the bus constitutes, among other things, a means of reproducing life in a context proven to diminish life. As such, it offers at least a partial basis of opposition to the fragmentation and isolation of the prison regime.
In chapter 5, “Community Confinements,” I survey the extension of the prison’s functions of racialized containment and banishment into community spaces, encompassing neighborhoods, homes, and public space. I examine three specific carceral tactics that extend and outsource the reach of the carceral system into communities: spatial restrictions and the rise of pocket parks and other banishment mechanisms for registered sex offenders; neighborhood-based gang injunctions and the introduction of “safety zones”; and the rise of electronic monitoring devices like ankle bracelets and their transformations of home space. I consider the ways in which these tactics continue the functions of the prison proper, including by controlling movement 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.
The book’s concluding chapter brings the insights produced by my case studies to bear upon the current conjuncture, taking stock of how the multiple crises of this moment are producing struggles for power both at the elite level and on the streets. A primary challenge for penal abolitionists is to rehistoricize prisons as social, rather than natural, constructions, hewed to a set of mutable social relations and contestable political imperatives. I describe how the sites visited within the course of the book’s journey help us deconstruct the ideologies and ontologies that naturalize the abusive force of the prison regime as both ahistorical and asocial. I conclude with an investigation into new carceral futures by critically assessing the prison-reform strategies that have emerged or been augmented by the most recent economic recession, as well as the revanchist law-and-order politics heralded by the Trump presidency. Prison Land ends by pointing to some of the ways in which the capacities of the carceral state are seemingly being retrofitted for the current political–economic conjuncture, but also to new liberation struggles, like the Black Lives Matter movement, that aim not just at dismantling prisons, but at interrupting the very capitalist social relations that produce penal institutions and disposable lives in the first place.
Together, these spatial investigations demonstrate how a variety of seemingly nonpenal ideologies and ontologies, including property, labor, and race, work powerfully to animate and legitimate the penal regime. At the same time, the prison and other carceral spaces work to mystify those underlying relations by ideologically reproducing the current era’s most paradigmatic figure of racialized disposability: the criminal. So long as the actual social relations for which the carceral state is put to work remain unchallenged, the spatial organization of oppression and disposable life remains a pressing and pernicious threat. 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 erect an alternative analytical framework that disarticulates crime from punishment, disposable life from danger, and carceral space from collective life-building.
Perhaps most important, this remapping of carcerality serves to connect spaces, and in connecting spaces, to connect people and their struggles. The spaces documented throughout this book are contiguous rather than self-enclosed, as are the sufferings experienced by their inhabitants. The degradations of low-wage work and unemployment, of unaffordable rent and housing foreclosure, and of illness and vulnerability to violence are certainly unevenly distributed along lines of race, class, and gender, among other axes. They are at the same time all expressions of a capitalist economic system that functions through exploitation, creates perverse levels of inequality, and then legitimates that inequality though various tools of social division. If abolition politics is about rebuilding the relationships that have been severed by the machineries of the carceral system—severed in some cases by cell walls and arrest warrants and in other cases by remote distances or no-trespass zones—it is also necessarily about facilitating connection and coalition among the exploited and the oppressed. Just as sailors joined port workers and former slaves in eighteenth-century movements of “excarceration” (Linebaugh 2004, 372), today’s liberation struggles will require alliances between workers, the unemployed, welfare recipients, land defenders, prisoners, and the many others with shared stakes in a world that is as free of poverty and racism as it is free of cages.