Angola Red Hat Cell Block
The Red Hat Cell Block at Angola

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 primary education and health care (Hallett et al. 2017). The late-modern crisis we face is acute and transcends the traditional policy boundaries of the criminal justice system. It involves violations of basic human rights, expanding and caste-like economic inequality, systematic political disenfranchisement, and racial and gender discrimination. Just as the ethnic minorities of the Warsaw Ghetto were scapegoated for purposes of maintaining political hegemony in the mid-twentieth century, today’s criminal justice system produces exclusion through intense cultural shaming as well as physical detention. Destructive criminal justice practices are built upon a selective reading of history and criminological research, and they tout a dysfunctional and incrementalist program for change that is both reifying and iatrogenic. Informed citizens must resist and confront this hegemony by highlighting injustices and promoting alternative practices and structures. When viewed holistically, at-risk (read: culturally risky) populations are further marginalized by the very organizations, complexes, and structures deigned to manage them. To quote prisons scholars Gilligan and Lee (2006), we need to get ”beyond the prison paradigm” to an approach that prioritizes forward progress as the baseline precondition for continued funding and political legitimacy. 

Read more about our current crisis in American prisons and what can be done, featured in my Special Issue of the journal Social JusticeVol. 45-1: Emancipatory Justice: Confronting the Carceral State: