It is perhaps unfortunate, from a moral and pragmatic point of view, that the United States is not on the verge of revolution. But until a revolutionary situation exists in the United States, conventional politics has the undeniable advantage over armchair revolution in that it can accomplish some positive changes. If prison reform groups are to have any real hope of modifying the prison system in the foreseeable future, they must begin to focus their energies on established political institutions, for in the foreseeable future it is through these institutions that change must come. (Wright 1973,279; emphasis in original)
With hyper-segregation firmly established in public education and housing, chronic unemployment in already impoverished communities, and ongoing cuts in public welfare and public health, I cannot imagine meaningful reform in the prison system until carceral issues are incorporated into a broader agenda for social justice and economic equality. (Piatt 2015, 188)
THE WIRE, CREATED BY BALTIMORE SUN JOURNALIST DAVID SIMON, famously dramatizes the human suffering associated with urban crime and violence as a boon for various stakeholders: Lawyers, jailers, philanthropists, drug lords, preachers, scholars, journalists, educational bureaucrats, and--not least--politicians all figure into the drama. In a trope reminiscent of Emile Durkheim, Simon turns the commonplace understanding of crime on its head, portraying urban crime as the indispensable grist for large government bureaucracies, neoliberal rent seekers, lawyers and bondsmen, left-leaning journalists and professors, and all those who--let's face it--make a living responding to crime. From a certain vantage point, the complex of interests served by the de facto mismanagement of America's urban crime problem is vast: for-profit prisons come to mind, but also the nonprofit industrial complexes selling nominally therapeutic modalities that promote incrementalist concepts like rehabilitation.
As noted by Wright and Piatt above, the scope of any truly ameliorative agenda for prison reform must extend well beyond the traditional purview of criminal justice. Solutions to the problem of crime, quite simply, lie well beyond the reach, scope, authority structure, and resources of the US criminal justice system. As such, the scope and complexity of required civic action is extremely broad--often to the point of overwhelming all practical attempts to respond to the prison crisis. Indeed, grappling with a growing and paralyzing sense of dread about the complexity of late-modern environmental and social collapse has become its own essential preoccupation (Bauman 2004, 2006). However, dialogue and hope must be kept alive--especially given that conditions have so dramatically worsened. That agendas for meaningful prison reform must begin with broader questions about economic justice, race, democracy, gender equality, and human rights should not be allowed to intimidate our efforts nor thwart hopeful dialogue.
This special issue of Social Justice expands previous editions' explorations of emancipatory justice and incarceration. Citizens who find themselves in US prisons today are no longer the simple victims of penal welfarism--that is, of a correctional regime that promoted rehabilitation and failed. Today's inmates have been subjected to a much broader and more pernicious and aggressive regime of neoliberal mass incarceration, featuring human warehouses that fetishize security and austerity and have no agenda for human uplift. Put succinctly, I'm sick and tired of "losing the revolution" even as the long-term effects of mass incarceration have compounded and amplified the conditions of previous correctional failures (Rose & Clear 1998, Wacquant 2001). We need direct action, and we need it now. Today's correctional crisis is arguably deeper and more complex than it has ever been. In my home state of Florida, for example, roughly 65 percent of inmates serving time in Florida Department of Corrections institutions have a sixth-grade achievement level. (1) Basic realities of widespread functional illiteracy, documented histories of child abuse and mental illness, and serious familial entropy amid high poverty and unemployment have rendered the corrections morass more complex than any previously faced. Human beings who end up in US prisons today are more profoundly and more systematically disenfranchised than ever before (see Mauer this volume). For an increasingly large percentage of US citizens, particularly those who have been incarcerated, levels of psychosocial habilitation and prospects for full employment at living wages have essentially disappeared (Wacquant 2001). According to the US Department of Justice prison policy initiative, mental illness now affects over one-third of citizens caught in the US carceral net, and rear-rest after release is the norm rather than the exception (Bronson & Berzofsky 2017, Gottschalk 2015). In short, virtually nothing correctional is currently taking place in American prisons.
Transcarceration: Coming to Grips with the Crisis
Disenfranchised by felony convictions, traumatized by lengthy incarceration, and marginalized by an urban poverty that both precedes and exceeds the duration of a typical sentence, many criminal justice-involved citizens experience not just mass incarceration but massive transcarceration--the experience of having one's status as a former inmate rendered meaningless by conditions of intense surveillance and exclusion from anything but precarious labor upon their return to society (De Giorgi 2013). Zip codes themselves have become prisons, just as for-profit outsourcing and neoliberal privatization have constricted resources for...