SSJ Blog: To Define “Incarceration” Against “Mass Incarceration” by Dylan Rodriguez

The Problem with “Mass Incarceration”

Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it….[I]t is important for us to recognize that violence in our communities is serious and that historically, in fact, the African American community oftentimes was under-policed rather than over-policed.  Folks were very interested in containing the African American community so it couldn’t leave segregated areas, but within those areas there wasn’t enough police presence.[i]


-President Barack Obama, Remarks to the NAACP in 2015


It is the moment in which the organic intellectuals and figureheads of the racist state—even and especially in its post-racialist and multiculturalist forms—begin to use the ostensibly critical language of “mass incarceration” that we must admit to ourselves that the term may have reached its point of explanatory and analytical obsolescence (that is, if it ever adequately explained and analyzed anything to begin with). The reformist narrative of mass incarceration endorses a statecraft of policing that skillfully links liberal post-Civil Rights racial sympathy and the long historical fact of racist (anti-Black) state repression to adamant demands for carceral downsizing and a kinder, gentler, expanded cultural and martial infrastructure of law-and-order policing. As a consequence, the logic of mass incarceration reform is generally symbiotic with demands for more and better policing, sometimes issued by ostensible spokespeople of police-occupied communities themselves.


Consider a different critical activist task, undertaken for the sake of offering an insurgent, radical story against the reformist rhetoric of “mass incarceration”: to define “incarceration” against its juridical-cultural normalization as such.


Defining “Incarceration”


Incarceration is legitimated state violence, mobilizing the power of law, policing, and (gendered racial) common sense to produce, fortify, and/or militarize the geographic isolation and (collective) bodily immobilization of targeted human groups.


A strategic focus on the particular US carceral formation of jails, prisons, and detention centers in the late-20th and early-21st centuries enables a historically supple and geographically dynamic understanding of incarceration that can be utilized across different historical conditions and sociopolitical/cultural contexts. By any historical measure, the institutional formation of incarceration within the specific purviews of US criminal justice statecraft has produced a social logic, jurisprudence, cultural structure, and militarized policing apparatus that naturalizes the condition of state captivity for criminalized people, populations, and geographies.[ii]


All available empirical and archival accounts affirm that the institutional capacity, racialized asymmetry, geographic scale, multi-generational impact, and sheer longevity of US incarcerating technologies stand alone in recorded human history, particularly in the realm of jails and prisons. Further, the astronomical growth of this carceral regime since the 1970s cannot be attributed to any growth in “crime rates” (which have in fact declined over the period in question).[iii] A vast archive of criminological data consistently demonstrates that this institutional form of incarceration is structured in gendered racist state violence,[iv] suggesting that there is a much longer story to be told.


Modern US incarceration is structured by a long, overlapping history of complex interactions between gendered racist chattel and colonial power. The roots of the US carceral regime are global, emerging through two fundamental relations of dominance: 1) the historical technologies of captivity that structured the Transatlantic Middle Passage and the hemispheric racial chattel enslavement of African-descended peoples; and 2) the geographic-ecological production of the Western Civilizational project via the Treaty of Tordesillas, Manifest Destiny, and the manifold forms of conquest that have produced the (continuing and continuous) carceral subjection of Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples via reservations, nation-state borders, notions of “the frontier,” and other incarcerating measures.


Thus, “incarceration” is not a self-contained or historically isolated practice of legitimated state violence. Incarceration is not reducible to the particular institutional forms of jails, prisons, detention centers, and other such brick-and-mortar incarcerating facilities (and their corresponding juridical protocols). Rather, incarceration is best understood as a systemic logic and institutional methodology that produces and coheres spatial, cultural, and juridical structures of human dominance within specific social and state formations:[v] incarceration takes the form of narrative, juridical, spatial, and sociopolitical processes through which criminalized or otherwise (ontologically and socio-culturally) pathologized populations are rendered collective targets of state-sanctioned social liquidation and political neutralization. This may or may not involve premature physiological death and militarized killing. Crucially, the immediate and accumulated individual and collective experiences of incarceration, however, are consistently articulated by (formerly) incarcerated people in the vernaculars of domestic war, survival, and involuntary intimacy with constant bodily and spiritual vulnerabilities to violence and degradation.[vi]


Contrary to being a scandalous excess of the racial/racist state in the post-civil rights period, incarceration is thus more accurately understood as a form of normalized warfare against those (human) beings that embody the gendered-racial symbolic orders of death, pathology, and unassimilability into the order of Civilization, an order that thrives in the long historical disordering, immobilization, and/or (attempted) destruction of other human societies. Any attempt to conceptualize the ongoing formation and geographic metastasizing of incarcerating regimes requires that the labors of dynamic critical theorization and conceptual reflection be situated in the radical possibility that the historical targets of incarceration are also the complex embodiment of its imminent undoing, hence its abolition as such.




[i] Ibid.

[ii] Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

[iii] Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics. “Estimated Crime in the United States: Total (1970-2014).” Washington, DC: US Bureau of Justice Statistics. (accessed January 30, 2017).

[iv] The Sentencing Project, “Criminal Justice Facts.” (accessed January 31, 2017). Christopher Hartney and Linh Vuong, “Created Equal: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System.” National Council on Crime and Delinquency report. March 2009.

[v] See Angela Y. Davis, “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison: Frederick Douglass and the Convict Lease System,” The Angela Y. Davis Reader (Joy James, Ed.) (Maldon, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998) p. 74-95; Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Penguin Group, 2007); Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (New York: Verso, 1995); David Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: Free Press, 1996); Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008); Matthew J. Mancini, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1996); Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007; Nils Christie. Crime Control As Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style. London: Routledge, 2000; Loyd, Jenna M, Matt Mitchelson, and Andrew Burridge, eds., Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

[vi] See by way of recent example: Bukhari, Safiya. The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison & Fighting for Those Left Behind. New York City: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2010. Conway, Marshall, and Dominque Stevenson. Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther. Oakland: AK Press, 2011. Peltier, Leonard. Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.  Abu-Jamal, Mumia. Live from Death Row. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, 1995. Rosenblum, Nina. Through the Wire (film). New York: New Video Group, 1991. Shaylor, Cassandra. “‘It’s Like Living in a Black Hole’: Women of Color and Solitary Confinement in the Prison Industrial Complex.” N.e. J. on Crim. & Civ. Con. 24 (1998). 385-416. Childs, Dennis. Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Pres, 2015. Haley, Sarah. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.  Rodríguez, Dylan. Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the US Prison Regime. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Rodríguez, Dylan. “‘Allow One Photo Per Year’: Prison Strikes (Georgia 2010, California 2011-2012) as Racial Archive, from ‘Post-Civil Rights’ to the Analytics of Genocide.” The Nation and Its Peoples: Citizens, Denizens, Migrants. John S. W. Park and Shannon Gleeson, eds.. New York: Routledge, 2014. 70-91.

Photo Credits: Flickr

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