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Critical Trialogue on the Carceral State

Critical Trialogue on the Carceral State

Marie Gottschalk

Today, high school and college students across the country are taking courses on mass incarceration. Numerous church and community groups have been reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). Public figures spanning the political spectrum from Grover Norquist to Eric Holder to Rachel Maddow now identify mass incarceration as a leading public issue. So does Sesame Street. In 2013, the popular children’s show introduced the first Muppet who has a parent in prison.

The general public has been slowly waking up to the idea that the United States is the world’s warden, incarcerating more people in absolute and proportional numbers than any other country. Meanwhile, scholars and activists have started to popularize a new concept: the carceral state, or what I like to call “the prison beyond the prison.”

Embedded in an ostensibly democratic state, the carceral state operates an extensive and unprecedented system of surveillance and punishment through a set of institutions, including police departments, prosecutors’ offices, corrections departments, and the courts, that are increasingly unaccountable to the wider polity. The carceral state metes out an enormous and growing array of penal and nonpenal sanctions. It surveils and controls wide swaths of people, many of whom have never been charged or convicted of a crime. The brunt of the carceral state falls hardest on the most dispossessed groups, including the poor, people of color, the mentally ill, and immigrants. But in levying more punishments and controls on these groups, the carceral state has begun to deform the wider polity and society in significant ways, as Naomi Murakawa, Amy Lerman, and Vesla Weaver show.

Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control. By Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 312p. $85.00 cloth, $27.50 paper.  The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. By Naomi Murakawa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 280p. $99.00 cloth, $24.95 paper. doi:10.1017/S153759271500136X

Critical Trialogue on the Carceral State, by Marie Gottschalk, Perspectives on Politics / Volume 13 / Issue 03 / September 2015, pp 798-801