Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Carceral geographies: Mapping the escape routes from mass incarceration

By Jonathan Simon

Today and tomorrow (Sept. 18-19, 2014) at UC Berkeley we will be launching a new undergraduate course thread titled "Carceral Geographies." Our launch will begin with a keynote address by the great Ruth "Ruthie" Wilson Gimore, scholar/activist extraordinaire who has given us the definitive study of California’s descent into mass incarceration, Golden Gulags: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (UC Press 2007).

Gilmore’s address  titled “The Present and Future of California Prisons” — which I’ll be tweeting— will take place today, Sept. 18th, 5 to 7 p.m. in 370 Dwinelle Hall, on the UC Berkeley campus. All are welcome.

Course threads are intended to encourage Berkeley students to integrate their knowledge of particularly important contemporary themes across the disciplines they study.  They do not replace majors (like Sociology, Physics, or German) or create a “minor” (which are generally also disciplinary), instead a course thread is a way for students to deepen their knowledge of a subject whose pervasive influence on human life spills-over the boundaries of existing disciplines and professions.  The “thread” connects existing courses (and we hope their faculty and Graduate Student Instructors).  Students who complete three courses in a thread, and participate in a course threads symposium (offered each semester), will have the course thread noted on their official university transcript.

Incarceration belongs among those topics.  After several decades of rising imprisonment rates (and the aggressive policing, prosecution, and jailing that is required to produce that), Americans live in an environment that is unmistakably carceral. While its most violent aspects are highly concentrated in communities of color and poverty, the carceral imperatives has touched virtually all communities.

Whether you live in a high crime neighborhood with many abandoned buildings, open air drug markets, and regular police actions, a “gated community” in the suburbs, or a newly gentrifying neighborhood on the periphery of a revitalizing downtown, the forms of life, ways of building and dwelling, ways of exercising power, are marked by America’s experiment with mass incarceration which has placed 1 percent of American men in prison (10 percent of African American men), more than 3 percent of the American population in some form of correctional custody, and by some estimates, as many as 1 in 3 Americans have their names in searchable police and court records.

This calls for a perspective on incarceration that goes beyond the prison to study the institutions of criminal justice, the form and structure of the urban (and increasingly rural) environment, the history of America’s obsession with confining and or excluding threatening “others” (indigenous peoples, immigrants, the psychiatrically disabled among others), the biology of chronic illnesses that are deepened by prolonged exposure to incarceration.  We think “carceral geographies”, although framed initially by geographers (itself a very broad “discipline”), fits the scope of this problem.

Students will explore a range of foundational questions including: How do we understand the historical and juridical relationship between carcerality and conceptions of human being? How do the domains of carcerality move across a range of global sites and scales? How does this relationship inform concepts of time, place, culture, policy, etc.? How have artists, scholars, and activists, including those who have experienced incarceration, produced representations of, knowledge about, and challenges to carceral life?

This moment is right to raise these questions also because of the historic and contemporary importance of Berkeley and the Bay Area as a hub for students, faculty, and activists engaged in contesting mass incarceration.  The growing body of formerly incarcerated students and (soon) faculty at Berkeley and other leading institutions are at the core of this intellectual in-gathering and the opportunity it offers to understand and overcome this dire period in our common American history, just as California has been the Mississippi of mass incarceration (see chapter 2 of Mass Incarceration on Trial).

The kind of synthetic thinking that a course thread invites is particularly critical at this moment, when signs of change are everywhere and yet evidence of mass incarceration shape shifting and hardening into the American landscape is undeniable.  Compared with the mid 1990s, when a broad consensus on expanding extreme punishments (life imprisonment, the death penalty) for felons that were perceived as threatening every corner of America, including its supposedly safe suburbs (remember Polly Klass), the climate of political discussion has changed dramatically.

Decriminalizing or even legalizing soft drugs like cannabis, and ending routine incarceration for even dealers in hard drugs has become politically acceptable, while a wide range of political leaders call for strategies to reduce our reliance on incarceration for public safety (read Barry Krisberg's contemporaneous article here, may require library ID).

For three years, from 2009 to 2013, the nation’s prison population actually dropped in absolute numbers as releases crept over admissions. At the same time, powerful narratives of the imperative to incarcerate “violent”, “sexual”, and “serious” crime remain fully active despite a dramatic drop in violent crime since the 1990s.  These terms, are inextricably embedded in racial meanings that are likely both historical and cognitive in operation, which means a carceral geography refocused on repressing crimes of these types will produce the same kinds of degrading policing, prosecution and imprisonment that we have now (only slightly smaller in scale).

We do not even have confidence that the latter point will be true.  In 2013, according to the federal government’s latest statistics (the prison population ticked up by a fraction (thanks to immigration based population growth our incarceration rate, prison population compared to overall national population, continued to tilt down).   The struggle to overcome mass incarceration and its pervasive effects on the U.S. population and landscape will take a generation or more, and it will require large numbers of active citizens with a commitment to see the job done.  Those citizens will need a broad toolkit of analytical frames and historical insights to address not just mass incarceration as it exists today but in the myriad of forms it is likely to take as the current crisis of legitimacy either deepens or stabilizes (its is already shape shifting before our very eyes).

This years marks the 50th anniversary of the year Civil Rights as a social movement triumphed in its half century long quest to outlaw “Jim Crow” segregation with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, today the major platform for equal rights in employment, education, housing and commerce.  Segregation quickly lost its defenders, and its public narratives.  What remained however were pervasive patterns of residential and employment segregation that has tended to reproduce itself. Today we live with far higher levels of segregation than activists would have settled for in 1964.

I’m not counting on being there, but I invite readers to hold this moment accountable in 2034, or 2064: Did we end mass incarceration or did it simply shift its shape, reframe its narratives, and morph into a new carceral normal?

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.