Bipartisan Reforms Often Expand Prisons and Police. We Need Abolition Instead.

As the concept of “mass incarceration” entered the U.S. mainstream over the last decade or so, diverse networks of advocates, funders and politicians have criticized the country’s overwhelming reliance on police and prisons as a response to a vast array of social problems. A critical consensus that mass incarceration is bad has given rise to a criminal justice reform coalition that is almost as bipartisan as the push for expanding police and prisons has been in previous decades.

Yet, as Kay Whitlock and Nancy A. Heitzeg argue in their new book Carceral Con: The Deceptive Terrain of Criminal Justice Reform (UC Press, 2021), this reform coalition has actually extended the carceral apparatus of surveillance, policing, incarceration and punitive social control. Carceral Con examines several domains where money and politics blunt meaningful transformation: policing, pretrial reform, sentencing and diversion efforts, and incarceration and reentry. Instead of backing the bipartisan reform agenda, Whitlock and Heitzeg advocate abolitionist alternatives.

This interview, conducted via email with both authors, illuminates why they wrote the book and how we can best move forward — beyond reform and toward abolition.

Dan Berger: You both are longtime activists and analysts of the carceral state. Why write a book critical of reform efforts?

Kay Whitlock and Nancy A. Heitzeg: We wrote this book to help people question and look beyond public relations talking points in order to understand how and why most reforms do the opposite of what most people hope. In fact, most reform agendas expand rather than shrink systems of policing, surveillance and carceral control.

Many want to believe that reforms will reduce police violence, end mass incarceration and eradicate the inequality that pervades the criminal legal system. But when you look at collective impacts, reforms don’t do any of those things.

Almost any reform can be made to sound great. But policing, prosecution, and carceral policies arise and evolve within a larger social, economic, political, and ecological context, which is racial capitalism. We analyze reforms and their impacts within that context and the structural raced, classed, gendered and ableist violence and inequality racial capitalism requires. That’s key to understanding who gets criminalized and who doesn’t. It’s key to understanding how the criminal legal system itself both distills and reinforces mass hardship, violence, and, in Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s trenchant phrase, “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”

We often hear that “partisan gridlock” prevents meaningful transformation. Instead, your book argues that bipartisanship does. How so?

The so-called “bipartisan reform consensus,” is a series of brokered agreements by elite public and private interests that appear to be responsive to growing public opposition to police violence, mass incarceration and the harms they produce. In reality, these reforms often do end runs around protests and uprisings that challenge the structural violence and inequality of the system. They serve to legitimize rather than challenge racial capitalism, endlessly funneling more resources into policing and punishment along the way.

Carceral Con encourages readers to interrogate the very purpose of the criminal legal system within this context of racial capitalism. If, as abolitionists contend, the system is functioning as it is designed to, then “reform” will almost always find ways to reinforce the norm.

Even the title of your book takes a strong position against this bipartisan reform partnerships and coalitions. Who is being conned and what makes criminal justice reform such a “deceptive terrain”?

The heart of the con is this: Bipartisan reform agendas often co-opt the ideas and language of abolitionist and progressive struggles for racial, gender, disability and environmental justice, harnessing them to approaches that deliver more carceral expansion under the guise of what James Kilgore calls “carceral humanism.” Some people do benefit from some reforms, including sentencing changes. But even sentencing reforms sometimes reclassify certain offenses more harshly. And overall impacts don’t reduce structural inequality.

The con is present in the multiple layers of implied promises that emphasize managerial and procedural reforms. Anyone who believes that these reforms help to create more racial and economic justice is being conned. And the con is present in suggesting to people that getting rid of private prisons or ending the war on some drugs or modifying procedures for addressing so-called “non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual” offenses will lessen structural inequality and create more justice.

Expansion comes in the form of carceral databases; more surveillance-and-monitoring technologies; new (still punishing) “alternatives to incarceration” and “specialty courts”; new prison architectures and unit designs said to be “more responsive” to the needs of transgender people, women, people with cognitive disabilities; and more. And almost always, more funding for policing and punishment.

What the public wants to believe it’s getting is not what’s being delivered through billionaire-driven funding schemes that hide more than they reveal.

Your book describes the reform coalition as a form of “neoliberal world-making,” pursuing an agenda largely set by “billionaires, corporate donors, major foundations, large nonprofit organizations, prestigious university research institutes, and some newly minted reform organizations.” What key goals or strategies are embedded in this agenda?

We’ll note four broad approaches that are usually embedded in bipartisan consensus reforms, though they aren’t openly stated as standard features:

  • shifting more and more influence and decision-making into the hands of private, unaccountable interests — especially through funding schemes and the proliferation of public/private partnerships;
  • emphasizing the case for austerity agendas through repetitive claims of “budget crisis” and the need to “save taxpayer dollars”; ignoring, dismissing or seeking to discredit discussion of the need for radically different fiscal and social priorities, including higher taxes on the wealthy and other means for redistribution of social and economic power;
  • expanding criminal databases and use of surveillance and monitoring technologies under the rubric of creating a more just, humane and efficient system;
  • creating, funding and institutionalizing new reform organizations that are wholly beholden to the brokered interests we refer to as Reform, Inc. but masquerade as grassroots activism.

Not every reform partner across the political spectrum would publicly embrace these as goals or strategies. But they run like powerful currents through bipartisan reform agendas and their implementation.

How does the bipartisan reform coalition benefit — politically and economically — from this approach?

Big Money seeks to buy relative social and economic stability across administrations and parties. Politically, there’s a benefit to maintaining the racial and economic status quo, to offering bogus “solutions” to the enormous human and environmental crisis of the criminal legal system so that nothing significantly changes.

An enormous amount of public and private money is in play to be allocated within and among reform circles. This includes everything from contracts for research and services to investment opportunities to grants for creating new carceral designs, technologies and infrastructure. This is in addition to the huge fixed costs of the criminal legal system, estimated by Prison Policy Initiative as at least $182 billion in 2017.

Reform money from major donors, donor-advised funds, foundations, and local, state, county, and federal governments end up supporting a lot of law enforcement and reform industry employment and vested self-interest. Law enforcement officials tend to dominate many of the various bipartisan reform councils set up to drive or give cover to state, county and local reforms. Bipartisan reform campaigns never seriously challenge their influence, even when they work tirelessly to try to weaken or even derail certain reforms, as with money bail and pretrial reform.

We also describe the emergence and institutionalization of a reform industry that wields unprecedented influence in creating and expanding systems of surveillance that always are utilized for such repressive purposes as criminalizing political dissent and protest.

How do abolitionists and others to the left of the bipartisan agenda fit into the story?

In a number of ways, especially by challenging the public relations promotions through political education around reform issues and producing some amazing resources for community groups. There’s generally an emphasis on working independently and placing reform within a larger social and economic context. For decades, abolitionists have been working to create new models of community accountability and transformative justice. From time to time, some groups may get involved in reform coalitions, at least for a time, believing they can help leverage more liberatory kinds of change, but, as we show in our book, such efforts can easily backfire. It’s tricky territory, because despite implied promises, bipartisan reform agendas are never going to support transformational structural change.

For abolitionists, there are real distinctions between “non-reformist” reforms that can help relieve hardship and suffering without expanding systems of policing and punishment and reforms that support such expansion. One example of a non-reformist reform is closing down jails and prisons without renovating, replacing or repurposing them. Another might be advocating for the mass use of compassionate release procedures without requiring an eventual return to prison or the punitive electronic monitoring of those released due to age, infirmity, or other serious conditions.

You wrote this book under the Trump administration. How do you see these issues playing out under the Biden administration and beyond?

We knew the book had to be — and is — relevant, no matter who won. Trump didn’t give a damn about reform, but other influential right-wing politicians and philanthropists do. And so does President Joe Biden.

Whether in the U.S. Senate or the White House, Joe Biden has always actively championed intensified policing, surveillance and repressive conditions of confinement. Today, he supports hiring tens of thousands more police, sending more financial resources into policing, making it more difficult for incarcerated people to receive, for free, original letters and photographs from home, and more. In some sense, his reform cred rests on the inaccurate image of Vice President Kamala Harris as a champion of progressive criminal justice reform.

The reform agenda survives through a disingenuous recycling of performative appeals to improvements of prisons and policing, and proposed solutions that expand rather than shrink the carceral state. We hope our book helps people look beyond the public relations talking points and political image-making factories to consider more deeply the relation of carceral expansion to strengthening systems of structural violence and inequality.

You write “Sometimes, as readers will see, it is better to withhold support, better to regroup and redefine the fight, than to embrace proposals that will make things worse.” What can abolitionists and others critical of the bipartisan reform agenda do to “regroup and redefine”?

We should start by recognizing the volatile political and economic environment we’re in. It’s always a really bad idea to expand police forces and systems of surveillance. Today, with fascist ideas and campaigns taking hold, it’s dangerously foolish to do so.

For starters, we suggest more energetic effort to build the strong community relationships we will need to get through the tsunamis of economic and environmental catastrophe that are upon us. Who in your community is doing abolitionist work? Where are the resources? How can you tap into abolitionist work, or ongoing work leaning in that direction? What mutual aid networks and cultural avenues exist to support these efforts?

How are reforms being paid for and implemented in your city, county or state? Who gets to decide? Do a power analysis. Work to accumulate useful information and incorporate it into independent organizing toward structural change.

Intentional efforts to build anti-carceral, abolitionist relationships across movements for social, economic, environmental and cultural justice are essential. The points of connection already exist, ranging from criminalization of communities of color, poverty and protest to the enormous environmental devastation that carceral economies demand to the dire need to shift social and fiscal priorities away from carceral and military expansion to human and ecological needs. Now we need to make those connections active and ongoing, in strategic ways, with bold programs and proposals that address structural harms. And keep at it. Backlash comes, but we can stand in the storms and come through them stronger.

Give up any remaining illusion that building new jail, prisons and “special units” can be a steppingstone toward a more just society. Actively oppose all such efforts while relentlessly asserting new priorities and approaches.

Don’t mistake good intentions or the good public reputations of some major reform partners for guarantees that the collective, long-term impacts of reformist reforms build a more racially and economically just society at the intersections of gender, disability and ecologies.

Finally: We need to be international in our vision and praxis, linking struggles

here in the United States to those around the world. There is so much to learn from one another in terms of insight, analysis and organizing strategies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.