Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Association of Black Anthropologists
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Inequality
Secondary Theme: Citizenship
Since the 1980s, incarceration has become such an endemic feature of the American social and physical landscape—and increasingly common in other nations as well—that scholars refer to this period as the age of Mass Incarceration. Prisons, the cellular structures designed to cage bodies, are now a common feature in state geographies, and incarceration, the caging of humans within those cells, has come to be a chronic feature in the lives of poor and racially marginalized communities. Indeed, prisons have become such a pervasive feature of contemporary sociality that we might say carcerality has been thoroughly fused into the cellular structure of the nation and of each of us within it.
But did mass incarceration actually begin in the 1980s? And does the recent decline in the U.S. prison population hint at an imminent post-mass incarceration era? In what ways have we internalized carcerality so completely that we no longer need prisons to reproduce their logic? Anthropologists who study mass incarceration point to “communities of knowledge” where people’s intimate daily entanglement with incarceration yields a nuanced theorization that is seldom heard in professional circles charged with studying this phenomena. Our panel digs into this critical knowledge base, and highlights some the important counter-visions it offers. Building on the insight that class-based and racialized social formations engender differential experiences, this panel studies everyday manifestations of the carceral state and counter-narratives to deeply-inscribed cellular carcerality. Our papers explore the “spectrum of state-meted punishment” (Polanco 2015: 201) and focus on those communities most affected by uneven carceral expansion, attending to the experiences of those directly targeted by institutions of the carceral state, as well as their mutual support networks.
The panel situates American mass incarceration within a broader transnational carceral milieu, attending to the myriad ways that state-meted punishment becomes a key organizing framework for ‘everyday forms of state formation’ (Joseph and Nugent 1994), and the (counter-) expertise of targeted communities. That is, beyond documenting how heavily penalized communities are impacted by the carceral state, we lay out how practical understandings of racially, economically, and politically marginalized groups constitute everyday manifestations of the carceral state—often in fleeting ways that do not leave an official trace.
Our papers tackle questions including: What forms of subjugation and repression make up the (invisible) spectrum of punishment? Through what means do the ideological underpinnings of carcerality become credible? How do the daily practices and ideas of communities of knowledge reflect, reinforce, or challenge cellular carcerality? And, how might our anthropological engagements with the knowledges mass incarceration has produced inoculate social bodies against carceral infiltration?