Book Review: «Carceral Capitalism» by Jackie Wang

Clocking in at just 232 3 x 5 inch pages, Jackie Wang’s treatise on the United States’ prison apparatus is vastly more thorough and detailed than works three times its length. Wang, who began the project as far too many Americans do—by losing a loved one to a predatory “justice” system—lays out a tireless case for the abolition of prisons in America, and provides some of the most cogent and comprehensive analysis for our current “post-capitalist,” post-2008 position. [1]

Wang expertly lays out and then proceeds through a strip-search of the lurching, 1033-fueled machine that turns human suffering into a healthy profit. The scope of her project is nothing less than the [systemic] conditions, policies, agencies, and cultural attitudes themselves that have allowed the United States to build the largest prison complex in the universe. [2] With more than two million people behind bars at any time—and 80 thousand in solitary confinement, which the UN classes as a form of torture—the obsession with putting people in cages outstrips even the world’s far more populous nations of India and China.

But Wang is rightfully not concerned merely with detailing the statistics and advocating for a “lower number.” These are people’s lives, after all. Rather, she is interested in what social, political, and economic milieu such statistics could be made possible. For all the threads the first half of the book pursue, Wang never loses the cloth, and the intersectionality of race, economic power, history, and political grandstanding are all equally valent. After all, ‘illegal’ behavior is largely created, not punished—crime has a structural component, and deciding what is illegal (such as laws against interracial relationships) have a moral, political, and economic component. The law, as a creation of human intention, is never culturally neutral or free of prejudice.

In the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. government, via the Treasury Department and the partly independent body of the Federal Reserve enacted the TARP program, a massive program of “quantitative easing” whereby they handed out anywhere from an estimated $6 to $18 trillion ($18,000,000,000,000!) dollars to U.S. banks and “troubled” private industries. The Federal Reserve held an average of four trillion dollars a day in 2018.[3] This was a policy move that, at its base, assumed that these banks and the CEOs paid astronomically to drive them were worth saving, were deserving of being saved.

Contrast that to the millions of homes that were foreclosed on in the crisis. Or even the recent revelations that thousands of families were “accidentally” (and illegally) foreclosed on or denied a loan by Wells Fargo in their most recent asset-cooking scheme. What makes these homes, and their owners (the people, not the banks) less worthy than the banks of a bailout? The trillions pumped into JPMorgan Chase, Fannie Mae, and others could easily have refinanced homeowners. At a deeper level, credit is an expression of power: whether the debtor is worthy of being extended a loan, with risk adjusted based on creditworthiness.

Put such a notion of an all-encompassing, quantitative and easily expressed value of an individuals’ worthiness into a racist and colonialist system such as the United States and you can almost predict who is going to be driven towards sub-prime, predatory loans: the working classes, people of color, and others who are already marginalized. After all, one of the requirements for “marginalized” status is to be constructed as a sub-prime member of otherwise respectable (read: white male capitalist) society.
Wang’s book may then be placed in conversation with other recent works on racial capitalism, such as Michelle Alexander’s «The New Jim Crow», or Even Ta-Nehisi Coates’ «Between The World And Me», Carol Anderson «White Rage». I am tempted as well to consider such racist apologetics as Jay Vance’s «Hillbilly Elegy» or «White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America» by Joan C. Williams.

The issue of “the working class” being coded as “the white working class” is an issue for another essay. Needless to say, if “working class” really meant anyone not in a cushy, benefit-giving office job, whites are far from being representative of that group, both historically and at present.

Some of the most enraging moments of Wang’s books comes when we zoom in to individual cases of gross injustice—an account of a southern county where, having defunded their public works (and police), the county levies financial punishments on those arrested for petty crimes.

We encounter people charged $80 per day to wear an ankle bracelet for minor (repeat) shoplifting. That is, someone who stole a few dollars worth of goods is being forced to pay out to a private contractor for their own court-ordered monitoring. It is an extreme example, but not because it is uncommon.

Her own brother, it is revealed, was sentenced to JLWOP (juvenile life without parole) for getting in a fight at the age of seventeen. The US is the only nation on record that has the option for children to be sentenced to life in prison—let alone life without parole. Such a sentence is, sadly, not hugely uncommon, with around a hundred sentenced annually. [4]

It is a situation so ludicrously anti-human, so cruel, and so blatantly awful that I am not even sure what to make of it. Some states have since made JLWOP illegal, and in 2012 the US Supreme court ruled that states could not require children convicted of murder be given LWOP sentences…which is something like saying it is now illegal to beat someone up on the fifth Tuesday after a full moon. Like yes, it does prevent some abuse…but what it prevents is so egregious an abuse that it’s not really a step forward to make it illegal.

The US Carceral project extends well beyond the walls of prisons—whether they are Private, Public, or ICE administered—to the everyday public spaces that we all move through, both physical and electronic. Total surveillance is a “natural” outgrowth of a the carceral state—how can we make sure everyone behaves if we cannot see what they are always doing? And, surely, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to worry about. “Trust us,” say the powerful, with the implication that you have a choice in the matter.
Although lauded as a “humane” solution to a bursting prison population—and recently suggested as an alternative to the Trump Administration’s concentration camps for holding asylum-applicants—total surveillance is not a prison ‘without walls,’ but rather a prison of one’s own mind. If you are never imprisoned, but never free, then what are you? The easiest analogy to make is a very old one in the US, and one that the Right considers very not-PC: property. [5]

If you are never free, but always monitored, controlled, and sold, you are property.

The US is a nation built on genocide, in perpetuity—where the discourse surrounding injustice is often deaf and blind.

Which is exactly what human lives are being turned into through the prison system. For example, prisoners in NY State recently won the right to earn more than $2/hour making state license plates. But the prisoners themselves have no say over the matter. Their lives are publicly supported, but the profit they generate through their enslaved labor is privatized. They are captive labor, and many may well be working of debt they owe to the municipalities in which they were charged.

But the towns, counties, and states do not want to wait around for prisoners to pay off this debt—it would be fiscally irresponsible! So they sell bonds on this, or pass management to a collections agency that, of course, charges a fee, and that company manages the debt. The prisoner’s future is mortgaged, exchanged and profited from.

It is an ecosystem of vampiric practices reminiscent of the CDOs from the pre-2008 financial crash; student loans administered by corporations such as Navient; or medical debt that is spun off to agencies specializing in “asset reclamation.”

The distinction between these financializations and those of a homebuyer’s loan being sold of by the issuing bank lie in the legal relations that exist between the borrower and creditor. In the case of a homeowner, bankruptcy is an option, the loan can be defaulted on (although the house will be seized by the creditor). In the case of student loans, for example, there is no way to discharge them. The individual’s future is literally locked to the will of the creditor, who will get their money no matter what. The only ways to discharge student loans are to (1) pay them off or, (2) die. It is a similar case with debt levied for “criminal” charges.

Wang also documents cases where individuals, unable to pay a court fee, are slapped with more fines due to their inability to pay. As James Baldwin said, “[…] how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” Lacking $200 for a simple fine may end up costing $800 over time. See: predatory lending, pay-day loans, sub-prime mortgages, ‘the pink tax,’ or any other way in which the US system nickle-and-dimes those on the bottom to subsidize the powerful.

Wang’s analysis is far better than anything I could hope to accomplish here, and is an urgent and deeply human read for anyone–which should be everyone–concerned about the failings of the US prison system, and the development of a far deeper and more pervasive carceral capitalism (and state) that is in the making.

[1]: The middle class is being eviscerated, job protections eliminated wholesale, and most personal bankruptcies are due to medical debt. Aside from the financiers and consultants—of which there are plenty—no field has enjoyed sustained job or wage growth. Our grandparents worked for $4 an hour in 1970 is $27.04 today (According to! By 1980, that had already fallen to $13.15 (in today’s dollars) as Reaganomics took hold.
[2]: For a detailed breakdown of US prison populations. Also worth looking into are the Federal Bureau of Prisons
[3]: “Quarterly Report on Federal Reserve Balance Developments: March 2019” US Federal Reserve Bank. PDF.
[5]: I hate the term ‘PC,’ but I also think that using the term correctly—calling white nationalists what they are, saying the US is a racist country because it is—can help in ‘reclaiming’ it from the Right that abuses both the term and the idea. That is, using ‘non-PC’ as a sort of speaking truth to power—with a firm understanding that to be powerful, one must not be merely morally assured, but have actual material wealth and historical dominance.