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  • The Perils and Privileges of Vulnerability: Intersectionality, Relationality, and the Injustices of the U.S. Prison Nation
  • Erinn Gilson

The social injustices associated with mass incarceration and the carceral state have found ample critical theoretical and activist expression in recent years. Further, many critics have sought to expose the depths of these injustices through intersectional analysis inclusive of race, gender, and socioeconomic class and other dimensions of social identity and position (Crenshaw 2012; Richie 2012; Durazo, Bierria, and Kim 2011–12). My aim is to bring the concept of vulnerability to bear on these analyses. Vulnerability is a crucial concept given its normative salience: it points us to wrongs done but also to the basis for justice. Any adequate consideration of vulnerability, however, demands attentiveness to how complex social identities and positions mediate experiences of vulnerability.1 If we are concerned with the way state power produces and exacerbates harmful vulnerability in institutions such as prisons, jails, detention centers, courtrooms, and public spaces under police surveillance, then we must reckon with how the workings of the carceral state presumes (and produces) discrete identities. An intersectional framework allows both this consideration and an analysis of how the subject positions marked out by such institutions reinforce inequality and generate precarity. Yet, vulnerability makes possible an analysis in excess of identity categories: an experience of vulnerability cannot be reduced to a location in a grid of intersecting identity categories. To be located in a disadvantaged social position is perhaps a necessary but insufficient [End Page 43] condition for unjust exacerbation of one’s vulnerability; put otherwise, one’s social position is never insurance that one’s life and living conditions will or will not be rendered precarious. In this way, vulnerability extends beyond intersectionality, suggesting an experience rather than a social position. The two concepts overlap fruitfully but are not coterminous.2

The aim of this essay is to assess the extent to which the concept of vulnerability may be of use in understanding and responding to the injustices of the carceral state and prison society. Given this aim and the range of vulnerabilities at issue, I adopt a broad understanding of mass incarceration as referring “not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison[,]” effectively creating an underclass (Alexander 2012, 13). Beth Richie’s term “prison nation” captures even better the wide scope of such techniques of social control, which include punitive responses to “norm violations,” “institutional regulations designed to intimidate people without power into conforming with dominant cultural expectations,” culturally imperialist legislation, and conservative “ideological schemes” that pathologize those who do not adhere to them (2012, 3). As scholars like Richie and Jonathan Simon emphasize, the ethos of a prison nation is developed by inciting fear, identifying scapegoats, and “reclassify[ing] people as enemies of a stable society (such as prisoners, activists, hip-hop artists)” (Richie 2012, 3; cf. Simon 2007b). Thus, as I explicate, the material and discursive techniques that constitute a prison nation and its most dominant practice, mass incarceration, presuppose a certain image of vulnerability, namely one that can be mobilized in the service of inciting fear.3

In the first two sections, I explore how vulnerability is both a privilege and a peril. It is deployed politically in highly variable ways by being ascribed unevenly to people who are situated differently in light of their race, gender, sexuality, and other socially salient identity determinants, alternately imperiling or privileging them. Central to this inequitable distribution of vulnerability is the sense that it is a quasi-natural state, which thus functions to privilege some while the denial of which can imperil others. This view of vulnerability depends upon a dualist framework that opposes vulnerability and invulnerability as mutually incompatible, and involves an idealized image of the “vulnerable victim.” This particular image of vulnerability makes possible the politics of fear that Richie and Simon have substantively linked to the conservative, violent mechanisms of a prison nation. Thus, broadening how we understand vulnerability is necessary for a variety of reasons: to undercut the dualist vulnerability/invulnerability dichotomy that mobilizes...


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pp. 43-59
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