What makes us safe? Downsizing carceral discourses

Activist and scholar, Judah Schept, challenges so called ‘progressive’ penal reforms and argues that we need to disrupt ‘common sense’ notions about carceral institutions.

The anthropologist Lorna Rhodes (2001:75) has claimed that, ‘the most pressing need for the study of prisons is to challenge the terms of the discourse that frames and supports them.’ Coming of age as an activist and scholar in the era of mass incarceration, I was accustomed to carceral growth justified through racialized discourses of law and order and neoliberal logics of personal accountability. While living in a small and politically progressive city in the Midwestern United States, however, I was disoriented by liberal and leftist civic leaders and politicians championing massive carceral expansion in their community. Their advocacy for a ‘justice campus’—a complex of facilities that would have exponentially expanded carceral capacities in the community—appealed to therapeutic justice, rehabilitation and education; explicit invocations of ‘punishment’ or other strains of dominant carceral logics were rare. At a time when bellwether carceral states like Texas are rethinking their leviathan prison systems and beginning to downsize and calls for prison reform come from unlikely places (see, for example, www.rightoncrime.com), jail expansion justified through discourses of benevolent justice suggests that, a dozen years later, Lorna Rhodes’s imploration continues to resonate.

My research in the community revealed that, in fact, national logics of carceral control and transnational practices of neoliberal capital mobility heavily structured the proposal for the justice campus. Yet the dominant narrative among many in the community was that the justice campus would embody the city’s progressive ethos and enact rehabilitative justice. Those of us opposed to carceral expansion on principle faced an intriguing if disconcerting political and discursive challenge: fighting would-be allies on shifting and unpredictable rhetorical territory.

Broadly speaking, our success hinged on disrupting certain ‘common sense’ conclusions about the role of carceral institutions. One memorable example with some substantial impact occurred during a day of popular education about mass incarceration organized by an activist coalition. In one facilitated exercise, workshop attendees (including many supporters of the justice campus) responded to a single prompt: “What Makes Our Community, and we as Individuals, Safe?” Answers were rapid and enthusiastic, with comments ranging from concerns about the prevalence of weapons in the community to calls for access to healthy food and clean water to powerful cries for expelling police from poor neighborhoods.  In a diverse and dynamic brainstorm, noticeably absent were suggestions for bigger jails, more police, or an increasingly active and encroaching criminal justice system.

That exercise began to leverage support away from expansion. Multiple people remarked to me that their experience questioning what it means to be safe—and realizing that their answers didn’t include increased carceral capacity—mitigated their allegiance to the justice campus. One politician observed that the exercise marked the first time he ever subjected his belief in policing and imprisonment to serious interrogation. Taken in the context of broader critiques of mass incarceration offered that day, the exercise helped to construct a counter-narrative to carceral expansion and was an essential step in both weakening the proposal and beginning to imagine radical alternatives.

Judah Schept is Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. His article, Contesting the “Justice Campus”: Abolitionist Resistance to Liberal Carceral Expansion, from which this blog post derives material was published in ‘Radical Criminology’ – http://journal.radicalcriminology.org/index.php/rc/index. Judah can be reached at judah.schept@eku.edu.


Rhodes L (2001) Towards an anthropology of prisons. Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 65–83

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2 Responses to What makes us safe? Downsizing carceral discourses

  1. Pingback: ‘Alternative’ Alternatives: Counter-Visual Challenges to Carceral Growth | Reclaim Justice Network

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