Carceral state

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Carceral state describes "institutions, structures, ideologies, and practices that engage in punitive “solutions”, especially as a means of responding to crime, poverty, migration, and those living with health issues and addiction; a complex web of social institutions that includes the prison industrial complex, medical industrial complex, surveillance culture, and border patrol — all of which perpetuate harm through criminalization and institutionalization." - Ruby Tapia, adapted by Michelle Xie [1]

Carcerality extends beyond the formal incarceration itself (prisons, detention centers, and carceral programs of probation and parole). It includes the ways we shape and organize society and culture through policies and logic of control, surveillance and criminalization. The carceral state has both produced and reinforced massive inequalities along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other identity categories. [2]

The carceral state includes all aspects of life in which people are subject to surveillance and the threat of punitive policies under the premise of safety. 

Examples of the Carceral State

Racial discrimination 
  • Richard Nixon, former president of the United States, declared a war on drugs. This was later revealed to be an elaborate tactic to arrest leaders of groups that opposed Nixon’s campaign, those groups being black people and the anti-war left. [3] Using media outlets, the state made its population believe that crime and drugs were the biggest threat to society, and that the people threatening their safety were the left and black people.
  • Today, there remains a higher deployment of police and thus mass incarceration in poor, mostly black and brown communities while wealthier white communities are left alone. [4]
  • In Canada, police are encouraged to perform stop-and-search control for any reasonable suspicions. The stop-and-search tends to unfairly target black people. In other words, the police are able to perpetuate racial injustice with tools like the stop-and-search method. [5]

Surveillance of immigrants

  • Historically, immigration-related crimes and deportation policies have targeted racial minorities, as the government uses race to define who is deportable and who is an immigration criminal. 
  • For example, francophone students in Quebec from African countries have refusal rates of up to 80%. [6]
  • In the US, immigration control is the leading cause of imprisonment, as things like the expiration of a visa are considered felonies. [7]

Conditioned to call the police

  • Carcerality is ingrained in our way of living. Do you need to call the police if your neighbours music is too loud? Or can you knock on their door and ask that they turn it down? (Example from PG Watkins from No New Jails Detroit).
  • There are also often limited alternatives to police made available by the state other than police when safety is at risk. 
Carceral states and climate injustice
  • Places with high prison population rates are also places with high carbon emissions. Countries that have not put significant efforts into climate attenuation have generally not put that effort into climate mitigation either. This means that high polluters have not properly adapted their jails and prisons to the extreme temperatures made more frequent with global warming. [8]  
  • Incarcerated populations are especially sensitive to high temperatures due old age, and physical and mental health issues. Jails may not offer air conditioning. All of these factors are causing heat-related deaths in prisons to rise. [9]

A special thanks to Camila Fradette for their support compiling content for this page.

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  3. Baume, D. (2016). Legalize It All. Harper’s magazine.
  4. Prison Policy Initiative U.S. (2010). Incarceration rates by race and ethnicity..
  5. Meng, Y. (2014) Racially biased policing and neighborhood characteristics: A Case Study in Toronto, Canada.  Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography.
  7. Hester, T. (2015). Deportability and the Carceral State, Journal of American History, Volume 102, Issue 1, Pages 141–151,
  8. Golembeski, C., Dong, K. & Irfan, A. (2021). Carceral and Climate Crises and Health Inequities: A Call for Greater Transparency, Accountability, and Human Rights Protections. World Medical and Health Policy. 13. 10.1002/wmh3.382.