Against Punishment: Centering Work, Wages, and Uneven Development in Mapping the Carceral State.

Author:Story, Brett


The carceral state's tenacity draws its strength from diverse political and economic pools, allowing prisons, jails, and other constitutive parts to serve as solutions to very different kinds of communities navigating through different elements of neoliberal crisis. Drawing from fieldwork conducted in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, where prisons are built on and adjacent to former mining sites, we make an argument against evaluating prison reform through the narrow framework of crime and punishment. Instead, we find that the carceral state's tenacious grip on society has less to do with a given punishment or treatment regime and everything to do with the ravages of racial capitalism and attendant concerns about work and wages.


WE MIGHT MARK THE CURRENT MOMENT BY THE CONTRADICTIONS revealing themselves within the dominant discourses and politics of imprisonment. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, Donald Trump claimed the mantle of the "law and order" presidential candidate, while others vying for the nomination in both major parties spoke of sentencing reform, mass incarceration, and even "the New Jim Crow," identifying themselves with the growing bipartisan consensus on prison reform. As we write, the Trump White House is positioned between these same two dominant poles of mainstream criminal justice politics. On one side, formerly embodied in Trump's original Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the administration is firmly rooted in the populist punitivism characteristic of the rise of the carceral state. On the other is the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who helped to draft the First Step Act and was the administration's connection to prison reform bills in both the House and Senate (Apuzzo 2018, Dolven 2018).The space between racist revanchism and technocratic tinkering is the terrain on which current policy discussions occur.

The dynamics of the moment are also visible in other seats of power. The Koch brothers, Tea Party stalwarts otherwise famous for their aggressive union-busting campaigns (Deal & Lessin 2014), have organized major meetings around penal reform, including a three-day conference in New Orleans that included critical scholars and Black Lives Matter activists among its participants. Strange bedfellows is almost an understatement for the political shapeshifting of today's prison reform movement, as intellectual architects of tough-on-crime policies say they have been misunderstood, dismanders of the welfare state like Newt Gingrich join liberals like Van Jones in calling for change, and private prison companies position for a share of the reentry market. (1)

This rhetorical attention accompanies some gestures toward legislative and judicial change. 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 the box in an attempt to ease the barriers former prisoners face during reentry and their return to the workforce. Subjecting these changes to scrutiny, however, should give pause to any attempt to characterize them as marking a "new sensibility" (Petersilia & Cullen 2014). A recent Vera Institute of Justice report shows that the dubiously heralded "era of reform" in fact "seems never to have arrived in some jurisdictions, where growth has continued unchecked" (Kang-Brown et al. 2018,33). Some of the changes that have occurred are quite narrow in scope or merely symbolic. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice announcement that it would not renew contracts for privately owned and operated prisons, for example, did not come with any commensurate prisoner releases, nor plans for actual prison closures (Bello 2016); Jeff Sessions made quick work of reversing even this nominal change, rescinding the memo to cease private prison contracts just two weeks into his position as attorney general under the Trump administration. Meanwhile, freedom for what Marie Gottschalk (2015) calls the "non-non-non's"--those so-called redeemable prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent, nonserious, and nonsexual offenses--has been purchased only through the hardening of punishment regimes against many others (see also Gilmore 2015). In addition, and as James Kilgore (2014b) and Maya Schenwar (2015) have pointed out, we are in a moment of net widening through the rise of electronic monitoring and other post-custodial forms of social control. Finally, despite some prison closures and legislative changes, new or expanded prisons and other carceral institutions continue to appear, albeit at times through different justifying logics than we are used to seeing. Indeed, a fuller vantage of the carceral state affirms Marie Gottschalk's (2015, 1) recent observation that

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. Of these constitutive contradictions, one of the most striking is the disjuncture between the reforms to criminal justice policy and the struggles over working conditions, labor power, and living wages that continue afoot. Although decades of research demonstrate that the growth of the prison system is intimately tied up with the problems of structural joblessness, poverty economies, and stagnation of workers' wages following the economic crises of the early 1970s (see Gilmore 2007, Travis et al. 2014, Wacquant 2009, Western & Beckett 1999), prison reform continues to be propagated as if autonomous from the ongoing issue of labor power and income. For example, for all the reentry monies and job readiness training proliferating within penal reform packages, the contemporary period's jobless economic growth and contingent labor opportunities for ex-prisoners in particular coalesce to produce what Hallett (2012) calls the "jobless future" as the definitive condition facing those reentering society. Hallett describes how structural forces work so devastatingly against the income security of the poor and racialized populations that make up the bulk of the US prison population that even the best individual reentry programs offer little chance of offering their participants actual secure employment. The Koch brothers' efforts to drive down wages and undermine labor organizing efforts must thus be seen as constitutive of, rather than simply coincident with, the historical present of mass incarceration they ostensibly critique.

In this article, we argue that the time is right for a remapping of the carceral state to fit the current conjuncture, and with it the development of new analytic tools for appraising penal reform efforts. We question, in particular, whether or not ostensible transformations in the "punitive political climate" (Travis et al. 2014, 4) or the "punitive turn in contemporary penality" (Garland 2001, 142) actually offer a meaningful barometer of reform efforts and the degree to which they portend the retreat of the carceral state, or simply its reformation. Even as punishment itself may have lost some purchase, we conclude, the carceral state reveals itself able to adapt to and stabilize itself through other guiding logics. In integrating what has been called carceral humanism into its animating rationale and in deepening a commitment to the narrative of prison building as rural economic development, the carceral state's tenacity draws its strength from diverse political and economic pools, allowing prisons, jails, and other constitutive parts to serve as solutions to very different kinds of communities navigating through different elements of neoliberal crisis. With both carceral humanism and rural prison building, we argue, the neoliberal state further retracts from the social wage and further cements its political organization around police and carceral power (Camp 2016).

We make the case for revisiting the material landscapes of carceral power and examining the logics and imperatives at work in these spaces. We suggest such landscapes reveal an array of forces that in many cases have little to do with crime as a social phenomenon or punishment as an ideology. We make an argument against evaluating prison reform through the narrow framework of crime and punishment by drawing from fieldwork conducted in the Appalachian coalfields of eastern Kentucky and examining that geography as a carceral landscape. In eastern Kentucky, prisons are built on top of former coal mining sites as well as into the local imagination as the next form of rural economic development, literally filling the spatial, economic, and psychic void left by coal and the extraction process known as mountaintop removal (MTR).

In excavating the discursive and political work that animates continued prison growth in this region, we find that the material health of incarceration is underwritten not by affective commitments to punishment, fears of crime, or even racial animus, but rather by diverse logics arising out of the relations of racial capitalism, specifically, for our purposes, the ideology of work and the fraught social relation of wage labor. We contend that Bethlehem Steel, Inland Steel, and other coal companies in Appalachia--and the history of capitalism of which they are a part and which they index--can tell us as much about the carceral state and its vagaries as the changing sentencing laws and attempts at reform that supposedly serve as its barometer. Here, the carceral state's tenacious grip on society has less to do with a given...

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