Carceral Capitalism

Reviewed by Emma K. Russell, Lecturer in Crime, Justice and Legal Studies, La Trobe University, Australia

Wang, J (2018) Carceral Capitalism, MIT Press.

Impressive in scope, Carceral Capitalism presents a searing critique of the vampiric nature of racial capitalist accumulation that feeds off—and nourishes—the carceral infrastructure of the United States. Surveying a range of carceral relations, technologies, and spaces, Wang argues that the ‘carceral techniques of the state are shaped by—and work in tandem with—the imperatives of global capitalism’ (p. 69). The book provides a compelling account of the debt economy in the US, its embeddedness in a racially stratified society, and its profoundly carceral qualities.

From the ‘racialization of risk’ via predictive policing to the multifarious borders of carceral space, Carceral Capitalism deftly explores many of the key themes of carceral geography. Across various sites, Wang interrogates how carceral boundaries are being altered, blurred, redrawn, and expanded as US political and economic conditions shift in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Amidst state budget cuts that threaten to restrain mass incarceration, technological advancements promise increased efficiencies for the carceral state. Wang links together an impressive range of examples of new and evolving industries that rely upon, reinforce, and reproduce carceral-spatial logics: private reentry programs, probation services, and parole; algorithmic policing software programs; digital prison ‘visits’; and other forms of surveillance and monitoring suggest that official moves to ‘decarcerate’ can also open up new markets and means of carceral control. As Wang warns,

It is possible that as technologies of control are perfected, carcerality will bleed into society. In this case the distinction between the inside and outside of prison will become blurrier. It is even possible to imagine a future where the prison as a physical structure is superseded by total surveillance without physical confinement. (pp. 39-40)

In Carceral Capitalism, Wang tracks how ‘predatory lending and parasitic governance’, both of which emerged as temporary fixes to the ‘crises generated by finance capital’, function as ‘the two main modalities of contemporary racial capitalism’ (p. 69). Notably for carceral geographers, both of these modalities have a spatial character. For instance, predatory lending practices in the US are particularly pronounced in impoverished urban areas, where ‘rent-to-own scams, payday loans, commercial bail bonds, and other practices’ prevent ‘mostly poor black Americans from accumulating wealth’ (pp. 70-71). While these ‘bad faith’ loans are typically issued by banks (in the case of subprime mortgages) and other private lenders, parasitic governance is exercised by state agents at a local level. It is epitomised by “fine farming”, or the excessive use of fines and fees to generate municipal revenue. In Carceral Capitalism, Wang takes Ferguson, Missouri, as a prime example of a ‘carceral municipality… where there was an average of three arrest warrants per household’ (p. 191). In these extractive and over-policed spaces, indebtedness and ‘fugitivity’ become an ‘existential condition forced on the people who reside there’ (p. 191). As Wang explains,

What we see happening in Ferguson and other cities is not the creation of livable spaces, but the creation of living hells… When municipalities develop a parasitic relationship to residents, they make it impossible for residents to actually feel at home in the space where they live, walk, work, love, and chill. In this sense, policing is not about crime control or public safety, but about the regulation of people’s lives—their movements and modes of being in the world… their surroundings become hostile and alienating. (p. 191)

In many ways Carceral Capitalism builds upon the seminal analysis developed by Ruth Wilson Gilmore in Golden Gulag. Challenging the idea that technological advancements and the mobility of global capital will free us from the toils of labour, Wang contends that they are instead contributing to ‘the creation of surplus populations that are housed—and generate value—in prison or are folded into the economy as debtors’ (p. 65).

Inside prisons, lucrative new technologies are also transforming the conditions of confinement, including the capacity of imprisoned people to connect with the ‘outside’ world. For instance, Wang recounts her family’s experience of using a prisoner video chat system similar to Skype and a pre-paid email service to connect with her incarcerated brother. In some ways, these new platforms nourish more everyday forms of contact and conversation, but also raise a broader concern that digital communications will replace contact visits and embodied connection. Aside from the well-known benefits of visitation for imprisoned people, Wang points out that a consequent reduction in ‘outsiders’ entering carceral spaces would only reinforce the notion of prisons as elsewhere and further disconnect us from the moral urgency of abolishing prisons.

A prison abolitionist imagination politically and analytically drives Carceral Capitalism. In response to the prison’s thorough naturalization at this historical juncture and the related charge that abolitionists are decidedly ‘utopian’, Wang asks us to consider how the prison might be ‘unthought’ using precisely ‘a mode of thinking that does not capitulate to the realism of the present’ (p. 298). The final chapter of the book is therefore an experiment in poetry and imaginative conversations on death, dreams, and struggle against racial capitalist carcerality. Wang weaves together the ‘specters’ of Attica, Wounded Knee, Ferguson, Harpers Ferry, and Haiti to locate the psychological damage of cages for both the jailer and the jailed, and the possibility for gestures of resistance to find ‘the phenomenological experience of freedom’ (p. 298).

By pairing provocative essays with personal narrative and poetry, Carceral Capitalism makes for a particularly compelling and thought-provoking read. Throughout the book, Wang demonstrates her personal connection to the carceral society that she studies, providing a moving account of her family’s struggles with her brother’s sentence to ‘life without parole’ as a youth in Florida, and the reverberating impacts his incarceration has on her life and her family. Wang maps out the intimate costs of familial incarceration for the reader. The financial, temporal, and psychological taxes are palpable in the repeated cross-country trips to visit her brother and attend court hearings. The cycle of hope, anger, and despair that Wang narrates is an important reflection of the carceral state’s capacity to affect the lives of not only those it physically cages, but those who care for them.

Ultimately, Carceral Capitalism provides many compelling—and disturbing—examples of the ways in which carceral control is increasingly embedded into contemporary modes and spaces of governance under capitalism.