Thursday, March 3, 2011

Political Theory Consortium discusses the "Carceral State"

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??


JJ said...

Well, if law breakers are to be punished, and most agree there should be some sort of social sanction, then how might we do it "fairly"? One idea has been to use genetic accounting. this model suggests that society seeks to balance the genetic books by making the punishment match proportional to the genetic impact and relationship between criminal and victim. You kill my brother, we kill yours. The genetic equivalent of "eye for an eye" yields logical outcomes not based on race, etc. and should impose some family pressures to not engage in criminal acts because it could affect other members of the family. Although not perfect, perhaps it approaches equity.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that sounds ridiculous. While the idea of genetic retribution might make for an interesting scifi or fantasy novel, it seems severely flawed. I don't know if you have a personal tiff with someone but vengeance is not the way to settle it. Killing off someones brother, or mother in law for that matter, might not be an effective punishment. Some people do not possess a genetic equivalent and even if they did punishing those who have done no wrong seems absurd. I would sooner see floggings return.If people can be held accountable for acts they which they did not commit, then the incentive to be moral dies.

Their is no fair, and their is no justice. Those are abstract words created by humans so that we can feel good about our actions. In the end there is only the economic good.

So how about we legalize Marijuana which the economist declares the least bad option. Build lots of infrastructure,fund and reform education. Lets also install breathalysers in DUI drivers cars because apparently that punishment is rarely assigned. I believe there is a long list of sensible ways to reform American society that are constantly being passed up by the willfully ignorant.

In the mean time if we the people figure out a better way incarcerate our fellow citizens then fine by me.

Milton Friedman said...

Couple things I'd like to note about this. I'm surprised that my claim that minimum wage creates unemployment caused so much confusion. When combined with pour public schooling and the illigality of so many consumer goods creates higher rates of law violations by poor people. And especially African Americans who are dispropotionally pour in the the US.

Also I'd wished we would have gotten to a good point about this article. What is the difference between what this private firm did and what the government does all the time?
If the county Sherif said, "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.” Wouldn't that be just tyrannical? If a business is empowered with the power and faith of government and then it acts tyrannical like government we are surprised?