Prison Re-Form: The Continuation of the Carceral State

Guest post by Judah Schept

There has been recent and welcome attention to the carceral state in major media outlets like the New York Times and from unlikelier sources, like conservative political commentators. Indeed, the Times’ May 24th editorial focused on the bipartisan support for prison reform as evidence for its call to “end mass incarceration now:”

The insanity of the situation is plain to people across the political spectrum, from Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who agree on the urgent need for change. The research is in, and it is uncontestable. The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.”

While the Times’ critique is direct and pointed, some of the most outspoken public critics of mass incarceration in recent years have been politicians on the right, from Grover Norquist to Rand Paul to even Rick Perry and, of course, Newt Gingrich. It would be politically shrewd to remain skeptical of these individuals and their analyses given their various roles in creating the modern day carceral state, dismantling the welfare state, justifying and carrying out executions, and openness to undoing federal civil rights legislation. But there is no mistaking that there has been a marked shift in rhetoric and some accompanying legislative changes.

Some commentators have seen these developments as indicative of a definite shift toward reform and perhaps even as the harbinger of the end of the era of mass incarceration. I hope they are correct. But following historians like David Rothman and social theorists like Michel Foucault, we should remember that, historically, American prison reform efforts “may well have done less to upgrade dismal conditions than they did to create nightmares of their own” (Rothman 2002, p. 9). Indeed, while we often use the word “reform” to suggest progressive, if incremental, change, the word also can mean “restructuring” or, more obviously, “re-formation.” I want to turn toward a brief discussion of two related phenomena that may caution against celebrating any imminent demise of the carceral state; rather, they suggest its persistence.

First, despite prison closings in some states, there is evidence of continued prison growth in others. In eastern Kentucky, where I conduct research on this issue, prison boosters have harnessed the legitimate fears and demands of Appalachian residents for stable and sustainable economic development and sold a narrative of prison growth. With the coal industry in decline for close to half a century, the continued mechanization of mining and the concurrent hemorrhaging of mining jobs, politicians have sited prisons through a successful narrative marketing them as jobs programs. Sixteen prisons line the mountains of central Appalachia, including eight in eastern Kentucky; two federal facilities have been built just since 2000 and a third is currently undergoing the Environmental Impact Study process that often precedes construction. Indeed, several prisons in the region have been built literally on top of former coalmines, their spatial coupling suggesting their economic continuity despite the prisons’ dubious (and at times actually sinking) foundations.

In a development that is as disturbing as it is unsurprising, at least one eastern Kentucky county appears to be restructuring its educational curricula around the prison economy, investing in a law and criminal justice training center at the county vocational school. An area newspaper quotes the Assistant Superintendent for the county as noting that the new program, which includes a mock courtroom and a firing range, is necessary because: “2,559 criminal justice-related positions now exist within a 40- mile radius, and that more positions are expected to be created with the opening of [the new] federal prison.” Despite a growing body of academic literature that raises serious questions about whether prisons actually bring the economic development that their boosters promise (see two of the articles here and here), prison growth in pockets of rural America remains a “common sense” approach to communities reeling from neoliberal economic restructuring. Even as Kentucky prides itself on current justice reinvestment strategies and legislation like House Bill 463 (see here, for example), prison growth in Appalachia belies the legal and sentencing reforms designed to reduce prison populations.

Second, there have been several recent cases nationally of communities proposing new jail growth through appeals to alleviate overcrowding and, at times, through distinctive discourses that seem to reject the punitive politics we have come to associate with the rise of mass incarceration. By deploying the “common sense” narrative that jail overcrowding or general population growth requires increased carceral capacity, counties deliver a facile linear logic of indefinite expansion that promptly ignores all of the ways in which jails can, and should, be downsized dramatically and immediately. A report from the Justice Policy Institute notes alarming statistical evidence that jails have increasingly targeted the homeless, those experiencing mental illness, and those with low level drug possession. For example, the report notes that 25% of jail prisoners nationally are incarcerated for public order offenses, which increasingly include sleeping in public, public intoxication, and panhandling (so-called “quality of life offenses”). Another 25% of jail prisoners are there for drugs, close to half of who are in for simple possession. Sixty percent of jail prisoners nationally have a diagnosed mental illness; 62% nationally are jailed without a conviction.

Indeed, several recent stories in both mainstream (the LA Times and NPR) and alternative (Truth-Out) press outlets call attention to the return of the debtor’s prison. Moreover, by proposing “mental health jails,” “justice campuses,” and other “new breeds” of correctional facilities that centralize programming, some communities attempt to suture social services, mental health treatment and other social welfare programs to new and enlarged carceral infrastructures. While this change in discourse and shift in attitude may support the contention of some that the “punishment imperative” has lost its salience (Clear and Frost 2014), jail growth cloaked in a benevolent rhetorical façade may simply herald a new, and newly insidious, phase of the carceral state.

So, how should we understand the growing bipartisan rhetoric about sentencing reform, particularly in the context of continued carceral growth? What does it mean when communities argue for new jail space through appeals to therapeutic justice and rehabilitation? Even as we might welcome the change in rhetoric and the changing common sense that it might indicate, we must closely monitor—and struggle over—the framing of the issues. Prisons and jails should not be jobs programs; we should be organizing to close facilities, decarcerate populations, and demand just employment agendas for depressed rural economies. Similarly, to the extent that prisons and jails exist, they most certainly should have robust mental health, education, and treatment options, but we must resist any attachment of campaigns for programming to campaigns for expansion. In short, shifting carceral geographies and discourses may be remodeling—and re-forming—the carceral state itself. We would do well to assess the possibilities for building coalitions while being steadfast in our commitment to abolition of the prison industrial complex and the structural conditions that make it possible.


Clear, T.R. and N. Frost (2014). The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure ofMass Incarceration in America. New York: New York University Press.

Rothman, D. (2002). Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and its Alternatives in Progressive America. New York: Walter de Gruyter, Inc.

Judah Schept is an Assistant Professor in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. His research examines the political economies, geographies, and cultural politics of the prison industrial complex. His work can be found in journals such as Theoretical Criminology, Radical Criminology and Social Justice and in public forums such as the Reclaiming Justice Network and Uprooting Criminology. His book is forthcoming in 2015 from New York University Press.

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