The Size and Scope of the Carceral State

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june coverKelly Lytle Hernández, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Heather Ann Thompson are the contributing editors for the June 2015 Journal of American History special issue “Historians and the Carceral State.”

In our introduction to the special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State,” we assert that in order for us to fully understand our nation’s system of punishment and containment we must first reconceptualize the so-called “criminal justice system” as having a far broader reach than we have heretofore assumed.

As explored by the essays in this volume, the carceral state includes not only law enforcement, courts, and prisons but also private security, the Department of Homeland Security, especially U.S. immigration control efforts, the U.S. Armed Services, including the National Guard, and the contractors and subcontractors providing prison, police, border, and surveillance technologies, infrastructure, and services. Several of the essays also demonstrate how the carceral state penetrates the logics and operations of social, health, welfare, and educational services.

Such a vast apparatus of punishment and control clearly has a marked impact not only on institutions and communities but also on the economy. Even speaking just of the criminal justice system as more traditionally understood, Robert Perkinson notes in Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (Picador, 2010), that “Combining law enforcement, courts, and prisons, the U.S. criminal justice system consumes $212 billion a year and employs 2.4 million people, more than Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined, the nation’s two largest private employers” (p. 2). But, as this issue stresses, the carceral state is much larger and broader than typically defined by the U.S. criminal justice system. As the Prison Policy Initiative pointed out in its 2014 report, “Paying the Price of Incarceration,” traditional accounting of the costs of American incarceration do “not include the huge and unquantifiable social price of overcriminalization, which falls on the shoulders of families, communities, and future generations.”

In order to underscore this point that the politics and practices of punishment have consequences for the U.S. economy, in our introduction to the special issue we stated that “[c]riminal justice is now the largest employment sector in the United States” (p. 20). Some readers have asked for clarification, citing official employment data as defined by the Bureau of Justice (BJS), and noting that this claim is incorrect. While we agree in the narrow, technical sense of how BJS counts government employment in the criminal justice sector, our goal in redefining “criminal justice” as the “carceral state” is to embrace the expansiveness of the public safety, surveillance, and security infrastructure of the United States. Its size and scope is the very thing for which we seek to provoke scholarly debate and policy interest. In historiographical and in contemporary data-collecting and policy-making terms, scholars have only just begun to map the full dimensions of the financial resources and human capital dedicated to the policing and punitive projects of the carceral state detailed in this special issue.

Therefore, as broadly explored in the special issue, the carceral state is woven through American society and across the U.S. economy, reaching far beyond the formal criminal justice system. Indeed, the carceral state booms along the blurred line between policing and militarism, is embedded within social welfare and educational institutions, saturates media and cultural productions, and functions as an expanding realm of both lawful and unlawful economies.

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