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In the United States today, incarceration is more than just a mode of criminal punishment. It is a distinct cultural practice with its own aesthetic and technique, a practice that has emerged in recent decades as a catch-all mechanism for managing social ills. In this essay, I argue that this emergent carceral system has become self-generating—that American-style incarceration, through the conditions it inflicts, produces the very conduct society claims to abhor and thereby guarantees a steady supply of offenders whose incarceration the public will continue to demand. I argue, moreover, that this reproductive process works to create a class of permanently marginalized and degraded noncitizens—disproportionately poor people of color—who are marked out by the fact of their incarceration for perpetual social exclusion and ongoing social control. This essay serves as the Foreword to a symposium in the Harvard Law & Policy Review addressing the costs of mass incarceration.

Publication Citation

3 Harvard Law & Policy Review 237 (2009)