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It has become customary to begin conversations about the state of punishment in the United States with a rehearsal of shocking statistics, in the unstated hope that the sheer weight of data will force a policy change. And at this point, it would hopefully be unnecessary to remind readers that the United States has the highest recorded incarceration rate in the world. The statistics, nevertheless, remain shocking—if not surprising. As scholars have recognized for more than a decade, the U.S. penal system is one of “mass incarceration,” not simply because of its high rate of imprisonment, but also because of the concentration of its effects on communities of color. Recent reports indicate that rates of imprisonment for Black and Latina/omen and women are twice to over six times as high as those of whites. Indigenous people are also incarcerated in dramatically disproportionate numbers, and women of color are the fastest growing group of people who find themselves behind bars. Moreover, these statistics do not capture the veritable explosion in the incarceration of migrants held in “immigration detention centers” throughout the United States, especially in the past two decades. Despite the alarming nature of these numbers, such statistics don’t fully represent the scale of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration and its attendant realities of racist, sexual, and gender-normalizing violence structure the contemporary era; the prison fundamentally shapes our political landscape, economy, ways of knowing, practices, and selves. We work, teach, and think in what Joy James has called a “penal democracy.” Our democratic relations to each other are mediated (if not outright defined) by a network of carceral institutions and practices predicated on inequality, the restriction of freedom, and the control of marginalized populations administered by the force of the state (or its private agents). In much the same way that for persons living in a slave society, political, economic, and social life were structured by the practice of chattel slavery, our lives are structured politically, economically, and socially with respect to prisons. How do we—and how should we—engage in critical theory about mass incarceration under such terms? How should we continue the work of intellectuals and philosophers who have placed the prison, punishment, and the voices of those imprisoned at the center rather than the periphery of their work? How do specific realities of mass incarceration determine our philosophical and political practice? This special project is one attempt at that work. The four essays gathered here by Perry Zurn, Sarah Tyson, Robert Nichols, and Keramet Reiter directly engage the material reality of massincarceration through theoretical and philosophical analyses of prisons as contemporary sites of the functioning of power. It is our working assumption that the prison—whether theorized as a location, space, object, practice, or form—is anything but a self-explanatory phenomenon. Rather, the prison requires critical theoretical and philosophical interpretation to make sense of it. Moreover, we assume that existing theoretical and philosophical frameworks are impoverished if they are not brought to bear on the material realities of the prison and mass incarceration. This special project works between and across the assumed boundaries of theory and practice, hopefully expanding our knowledge of both prisons and philosophy and America’s Prison Nation transforming our practices with a force that the statistics alone have so far failed to produce.

Recommended Citation

Cisneros, Natalie, and Andrew Dilts. “Political Theory and Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration: Introduction to Part I.” Radical Philosophy Review 17, no. 2 (2014): 395–402.