The Political Theory Consortium met last night to discuss Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman’s Nov. 2010 American Political Science Review article, “Political Consequences of the Carceral State.” Coincidentally, yesterday my Contemporary Political Theory class discussed the first chapter of Michel Foucault’s 1975 masterpiece, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The effect of reading these two texts together was fascinating, and disturbing.
Foucault’s chapter traces the historical transition from one “penal style” to another across Europe. He starts with a gruesome accounting of a public execution in France in 1757, written by an officer of the watch in attendance. The horses on hand to quarter the criminal weren’t quite up to the task, so the executioner, “drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joint.” Apparently that did the trick. Yuck!
Eighty years later, Foucault cites accounts of a sanitized “time-table” of punishment – hyper regimented, bureaucratized, “humane.” His point: in this new penal style punishment was no longer about public spectacle, and it was no longer about inflicting pain. Rather, “the body as the major target of penal repression disappeared.” Quite literally, the modern prison has functioned to disappear prisoners. We can see the arrest, the trial, and the sentencing, but the incarceration is out of view, and serves a certain disciplinary social function in so far as the idea of imprisonment works on our imaginations (unlike the visually horrifying spectacle of torture in execution, which leaves little to the imagination).
For Foucault, the body becomes a “vehicle” for punishment, but not its target. And since it is no longer the body that punishment targets, “it must be the soul.” Indeed, part of the justifying framework for the modern penal system is precisely this notion (which, it seems, many of us recognize as utterly fictional at this point) that incarceration rectifies or rehabilitates or “cures” the criminals that it “treats.”
But what does contact with the criminal justice system actually produce? Not rehabilitated persons, and not, as Weaver and Lerman demonstrate, functional citizens. Even minimal contact with the “carceral state” (by which they mean “the totality of this spatially concentrated, more punitive, surveillance and punishment-oriented system of governance”) has profound implications for trust in government, civic participation, and voting. And an increasing number of American citizens have their primary contact with the government by way of police, judges and wardens. As the authors write, “the scale of citizen contact with the American criminal justice system is now unmatched in modern history. For the first time, one in 100 Americans is incarcerated, topping all other countries in the world. If current trends persist, 11% of American men – and 1 in 3 black men – will at some point in their lives serve time in prison.”
Contact with the carceral state, as “a primary site of civic education,” produces a disenfranchised class. This is literally the case for ex-convicts in states with felony disenfranchisement statutes. But what Weaver and Lerman make clear is that states need not bother – serving a one year or longer prison sentence reduces by 33% the chance that the subjects of this study would vote.
So what does contact with the carceral state produce? Deactivated citizens. Societal opt-outs. Is it any surprise, then, that what the modern prison system actually produces is prisoners?
On the one hand, this is a stinging indictment of our system. If you happen to be a member of the private prison industry, however, this is good news! As recent investigative reporting on Arizona’s immigration law has revealed, the private prison industry sees stricter criminal justice laws as “good for business.” The Arizona law, which makes failure to carry immigration documents a crime, has created a whole new “customer base.” And if initial contact with the criminal justice system makes it vastly less likely that a person will vote, participate or have trust in the state, and vastly more likely that they’ll end up back in prison, then laws like this one have just generated a future clientele for companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and The Geo Group.
In fact, as the President of The Geo Group put it, when talking to investors about the Arizona law: “Those people coming across the border and getting caught are going to have to be detained and that, for me, at least I think, there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do.”
So, the prisoner production system is good news for The Geo Group and the Corrections Corporation of America, as is the Arizona law. This should come as no surprise, though: they wrote the bill.
But this unfolding reality cannot be good for America. Your thoughts??