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MH discusses children in the US prison system, the racial biases evident in incarceration patterns and the idea of a world without prisons.

Erica C. Meiners, For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) 255 pp.

The fact that the United States currently has the world’s largest prison population might not come as a surprise for some. But what is usually left out of mainstream media narratives is the racialized core of incarceration and surveillance, the fact that people of color, especially black adults, are far more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. This is also why Erica C. Meiners’ For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State singles out “targeted criminalization” instead of “mass incarceration”. As further revealed by current attempts at prison reform and alternatives to imprisonment in the United States, getting prisons closed has little to do with ethical reasons and the acknowledgement that prison only continue the harm already done. Instead, prisons are closed for financial reasons, such as public savings, while cheaper ways of confining people are developed and used to the same ends.

Arguing that the child is a malleable construction instrumentalized to incarcerate even more people of color or prevent white ones from being imprisoned, Meiners focuses on the innocence of this highly charged category. True to the ongoing afterlife of chattel slavery, being innocent gets racialized as well – childlike was the term used both by slave owners and abolitionists to justify owning black people by white masters who were portrayed as the ultimate providers of the reason and knowledge that black people were supposedly lacking. The instrumentalization of innocence is particularly at play both in the case of the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) and the movements trying to fight such racialized patterns of contact with the criminal justice system in the United States. However, without analyzing punishment in its wider political context, such social movements, including the prison abolition one, might eventually legitimize and even advance policing and incarceration, only under new disguises:

The metaphor of the school to prison pipeline erases the historic and ongoing criminalization of many communities, suggests that the solution is more education or better discipline policies, and overwhelmingly misses the intertwined centrality of capitalism, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, ableism, and white supremacy to the work of public education.  

But, as Meiners and many other scholars argue, the abolition of slavery has not put an end to white supremacy. Whiteness continues to be an identity whose construction and prescription relies heavily on the performance of compassion and innocence in order to cultivate its power. Therefore, only white, able-bodied, heterosexualized children are constructed as innocent and sentient (read: fully human) as opposed to children of color who might very well be prevented from getting the privileges afforded only to the former. Once the construction of childhood relies on the legal concept of diminished capacity, the access to additional resources might be widened but it will also come at the price of having certain rights restricted or even denied (access to marriage, vote, etc). Having a body that the state deems as worthy of its protection does not necessarily come with extra benefits. While the public school system in the United States has long been proven to be a tool for repressing Black freedom in the aftermath of chattel slavery, the link between it and the carceral state it’s only getting stronger as black youth still provides the most bodies for school suspension, detention and imprisonment, even if the incriminated act is a mere disobedience in the class – in most cases, it only takes an act perceived as disrespectful or defiant to trigger school suspension or worse.

miha.jpgAs long as the child/juvenile continues to be constructed as innocent by virtue of her diminished capacity thus deserving the access to rehabilitation, adults are implicitly conveyed as capable of reason and therefore culpable and deserving full punishment. By negotiating one’s degree of vulnerability when attempting to criminalize an act/behavior and negating the possibility of agency in the child’s case, a link between age and consent becomes settled. As Joseph J. Fischel outlines in Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent (2016), this link is particularly at play when it comes to limiting the child’s own sexual freedom while also blurring the lines of actual sexual harm. The binary racialized kid/queer kid underlines the reality that not all children represent a future worth defending by the state, also implying that not all children can access childhood in the first place. Privileging children as worthy innocents fuels the criminalization of blackness and enables more surveillance and policing of black bodies and their movements, the fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police being just one of the latest examples. It is precisely this racialization of innocence that is masked and reproduced even by present anti-STTP campaigns or immigrant rights movements that emphasize the innocence (read: not criminal) and young age of undocumented people as primary reasons for fighting against their deportation instead of fighting on behalf of all the people whose lives are affected by brutal immigration policies.

Ideas and affective regimes about difference are instrumental to the construction and expansion of a U.S. carceral state. The unique needs of women and transgender people are circulated to keep prisons open and to expand jails. Discipline, safety, and even learning ability are invoked to shutter, privatize, or racially restructure public schools in communities of color. Often marshaling the very frameworks and analyses produced by communities seeking justice and better lives, these reforms expand systems of punishment and control while masking practices of capture. 

Drawing on her own experience with restorative justice practices in the public school system and pointing out that criminalization is never neutral as it produces meaning that affects those who are already most marginalized, Meiners pinpoints that such policies are not enough as they offer a peace without justice, a peace that does not confront the real causes including the systemic inequalities and disinvestment in nonwhite communities and the hyper-racialized school and community policing in order to expand and maintain white affluence.  Instead, she advances the practices of transformative justice, a more radical approach that seeks to address the roots of violence, including the racialized one, while fighting injustice as well. Such transformative practices also work to ensure that the individual does not get pathologized as the ultimate purveyor of harm in a state that is wrongly perceived as being a neutral entity.

The last sections of the book expose how the precious figure of the innocent child influences other aspects of the carceral state power and its prison industrial complex, including the life of people released from prisons and condemned to “civil death” and the sex offenders registers focused on the stranger danger in a not so subtle attempt to cover the inconvenient truth revealed by the available research: “Friends, acquaintances, and family members are responsible for more than 90 percent of all sexual abuse of children”. New exclusionary regimes and apparatuses are spawn to regulate especially nonwhite people’s bodies and lives as the imagined/potential harm that could be done to children has come to define public safety and require more policing and additional resources, resources that are ultimately taken from the very communities (of color, trans and gender nonconforming, HIV positive) that have historically been heavily policed and marginalized. With its extensive research and searing insights into what kinds of harm matter and to whose bodies exactly, For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State is a fierce book about race and power, one badly needed if a world without prisons is to be imagined and eventually built.


MH is a staff writer for Anomaly with work featured in Full Stop, 3:AM, and elsewhere.

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