‘Alternative’ alternatives: counter-visual challenges to carceral growth

Judah Schept explains alternative visions of criminal justice

Most scholars and activists fighting incarceration likely have encountered the question of, “What do you propose instead?” Perhaps one of our greatest challenges in organizing for decarceration is the development of alternatives to imprisonment that provide for communities what the prison removes from them, and which also avoid net-widening practices.

To undertake such a challenge, we may need to reconsider what we mean by “alternatives” to both carceral logics[1] and their expression in criminal justice systems. In addition to promoting transformative justice or harm reduction practices, for example, what if we considered what it might mean to reclaim carceral space? When we study and fight against jail and prison expansion, what if we could offer a “counter-visual” arrangement of space that could provide the basic needs, healing, empowerment, and even safety that these institutions take away?[2]

Such an ‘alternative’ alternative vision, if you will, comes out of field work studying significant carceral expansion in an outwardly progressive city in the United States. The city had proposed a ‘justice campus’ to sit on 85 acres that had been abandoned by industry in the late 1990s. Despite the exponential increase to the community’s incarcerated population, liberal officials embraced the campus as an expression of local benevolent justice and a disarticulation from the logics and practices of the carceral state. I have called this embodiment of penal logics ‘carceral habitus’ and propose that it—our internalization of neoliberal responsibilization, racialized constructs of criminality, and cultural embraces of punishment—can help explain how communities come to participate in the carceral state even as they purport to reject it.[3]

Carceral habitus structured the visual register of the 85-acre site. Local officials spoke of the land’s natural carceral contours, noting that rolling hills constituted “natural sound barriers” and “buffers between institutions,” as if the space was primordially destined for its proposed use. The bucolic nature of the landscape—no doubt in part what enabled the title of ‘campus’—would perform the work of incarceration. Operating at the level of the body and structuring the ways in which people saw space, carceral habitus suggests that problems of incarceration are perhaps more intractable and sedimented than previously understood.

And yet, there were moments where such heavily structured dispositions were subject to destabilization. In a previous post, I wrote of some activists’ initial interventions into the dominant discourse of expansion. In addition, once the proposal for the justice campus faltered under the weight of its price tag, conversations began between sustainability and anti-jail activists to re-map the 85 acres and reclaim carceral space.

In the following excerpt of an email exchange among activists, a prominent practitioner of permaculture, an ecological design practice for sustainable living, offered a preliminary analysis of the possibilities at the site:

The aim is to design the 85 acres to meet many of the community’s needs…includ[ing] the training and deployment of new urban garden farmers; increasing the number and scale of community garden plots; [creating] food processing and distribution hubs; more space for year-round agriculture; space for business incubation [and] year-round farmers market with roofed sales shelters, cold storage and root cellars; orchards, aquaculture, vineyards, mycoculture, seedbank and arboretum…The design could add more resilience to our local food economics, train more farmer / growers, help to reskill our local culture and create jobs, manage runoff and catchment of millions of gallons of water high in the landscape.

Thus, inscribed onto the site was not only the political economic history of industrialization and outsourcing; not only the varying iterations of (neo)liberal carcerality that political leaders envisioned and that may one day rise; but also a resistant imagining of community food security, sustainability, and even green job growth. This counter-visual articulation is more than an alternative vision of land use; rather, it connotes an epistemological and ideological challenge to the power of the carceral state to structure our gazes back to it. It suggests that one of the ways to contest the unquestioned nature of carceral logics and institutions is to envision and build alternative physical landscapes that intervene in and reclaim what it means to be safe, healthy, empowered, and free.

Judah Schept is Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Judah can be reached at judah.schept@eku.edu.

[1] I prefer “carceral” to “incarceration” or “imprisonment” for two important reasons. First, the concept can speak to the strategies and linkages that extend from prisons and jails into other spheres of social control. Local officials often framed two of the constitutive institutions of the justice campus—a work release facility and a juvenile treatment center—as explicitly distinct from the third: a proposed jail. Carceral is a term broad enough to encompass these institutions and yet specific in its ability to critique their common punitive strategies and justifying logics. Second, the term allows for consideration of the larger continuum that extends such logics outside of formal social control. Indeed, the defeat of the justice campus proposal brought with it newfound efforts to expand a youth shelter into a quasi-juvenile facility, to create a truancy court alongside other existing “problem-solving courts,” to expand techno-correctional “alternatives,” and to substitute video conferencing for in-person visitation at the current jail as part of a larger renovation. Carcerality provides an analytical terrain on which to locate these expansive and intrusive initiatives alongside the justice campus and, more broadly, the politics of incarceration.

[2] On visuality as the work of the state to structure and justify its presence, and counter-visuality as the radical project of demanding a “right to look,” see Mirzhoeff, N. (2011) The Right to Look, Critical Inquiry, 37(3): 473-496.

[3] See for example Schept, J. (2013) ‘A Lockdown Facility…with the Feel of a Small, Private College’: Liberal Politics, Jail Expansion, and the Carceral Habitus, Theoretical Criminology, 17 (1): 71-88

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