- Critical Prison Studies:Review of a Field
The burgeoning field of critical prison studies has come into its own. The books reviewed here show the dazzling breadth of the field, drawn from every discipline and standing resolute at points in between. Like other objects of analysis neglected by the disciplines that courageous critics have had the grace to embrace, prison and its discursive and material fields have called forth not only their critics but also in many cases the methods required to apprehend them. Interdisciplinarity is the child of such necessity. American studies and its kinfields have understood this for some time; critical prison studies is one of the more recent examples of the fertility of such crossings. [End Page 123]
What is growing at this juncture is an abolitionist corpus busy eviscerating the common sense that supports the prison and its world. Scholars collaborating on the unruly project that is critical prison studies have established a handful of weighty counterfacts. They have proved that the tremendous growth of US prison populations since the 1970s reflects not thuggish bad behavior but politicians' decisions and economic conditions in geographic context. They have collaborated with incarcerated thinkers—in itself an intervention into what counts as theory and knowledge—to analyze the conditions and ramifications of so much confinement, revealing the intensity of state violence and racism in criminal justice in the "land of the free." They have detailed the long and careful crafting, in the social sciences and via statistics, of the idea of Black people as intrinsically criminal. These are the respective interventions of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Dylan Rodríguez, and Khalil Muhammad, authors of three influential works that appeared (in 2005, 2007, and 2010) just prior to the books reviewed here. Gilmore, in particular, is a giant in the field, at the head of any list and cited in probably every critical prison studies book or paper. Behind her, behind us all, stands the great lion Stuart Hall, whose magnificent coauthored Policing the Crisis denounced the moral panics generated around petty crime in Britain in the 1970s as cynically produced and politically expedient. Hall's scholarly corpus explored the process through which communications media produce hegemonic ideas ("common sense"), particularly around race and crime; his cultural studies methods and left-leaning politics laid a path that CPS (critical prison studies) scholars today eagerly follow.
Though these insights have not yet rippled out to liberal politicians or reform-minded social scientists, not to mention conservatives, there is a rough consensus around them among critical prison studies scholar-activists. The generation of authors represented by the books in this review gnaws at more recently cut raw edges, targeting monumental assumptions that still desperately need to fall.
The CPS genealogy and the keen sight it permits is highlighted in the first book under review, which explicitly places itself, and deserves to be placed, in Hall's legacy. In homage and debt to Policing the Crisis from its very title, Jordan Camp's Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State follows Hall's compass in refuting the panics generated to contain dissent through criminalization, in the materialist analysis of...