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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Raze the Bar[s]: “Gender Responsive” Prison Reform, Criminalizing Race, and Abolishing the Carceral State

  • Author(s): Duley, Kolleen
  • Advisor(s): Williams, Juliet A
  • et al.
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Research and reform strategies aimed at fighting for justice in women’s prisons brought much-needed attention to the neglected role of gender in relation to mass incarceration. However, my research on California “gender-responsive” prison policies and my organizing with incarcerated survivors of violence resulted in striking conclusions. Although gender-based violence and discrimination are pervasive in US prisons, particular gender-identity reforms seeking legal redress within liberal rights-based rubrics, fail to adequately address the problems articulated by people in women’s prisons. Paradoxically, good-intentioned advocates exacerbate suffering by proposing dangerous policies (e.g. sterilization) and because the state appropriates demands for gender reforms in ways that expand repressive prison apparatuses and lead to racialized and gendered carceral violence against both imprisoned people and the communities they leave behind.

This project tracks the study of gender and criminality and women’s prison reform and critiques problematic mobilizations of gender and/or the plight of women prisoners. I identify commonalties shared by less-successful strategies, posit explanations for what the strategies neglect, and suggest alternatives to advocate for all prisoners. This search reflects my extended grappling with one primary question—following the lead of prisoners—what type of research and reform strategies address the deleterious conditions of confinement inside US prisons and jails, without expanding the reach of the carceral state further into communities targeted for debilitation?

I assess gender-identity based reforms in women’s prisons by emphasizing the interconnectedness of gender oppression and racializing assemblages in relation to carceral violence and state power. For example, I place the state’s criminalization of abused women’s resistance to violence in relation to the global processes that fuel prison expansion. Similarly, I examine how the prison, as an institutional site of disciplinary power and a mechanism of racialized population management, relies upon gendered violence (and resistance to it) as a primary means to maintain marginalized communities in a state of debilitation. I anchor counter-narratives in theorizing by prisoners, abolitionists/activists, critical prison, race, and theory scholars and feminists in gender studies, black studies, humanities, and law. I call upon “traditions of the oppressed” to ground punishment technologies in relation to (and extensions of) histories of the transatlantic slave trade/racial slavery, settler colonialism, and indigenous genocide. The purpose of my project is to unravel the logics that legitimize the place of prison in society, to “build communities, not prisons,” and ultimately, to challenge any notion that prisons make us safe or that people should be locked in cages period.

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This item is under embargo until June 1, 2020.