The United States’ panel scheme has seen substantial growth, as shown by the building of jails and a rise in the number of inmates. The issue of racial imprisonment is brought up by Michel Foucault and Michele. The two researchers believe that mass imprisonment has had an effect on society as a whole, but people of color seem to be more impacted and they make up the majority of people in American prisons. Michel Foucault’s philosophy is focused on the user experience of the body to punish prisoners and instill obedience in them. However, Foucault views prison as a panoptical system that uses disciplinary measures to isolate the evil minds with the majority of prisoners being black people (Foucault 3). Michele Alexander focuses on race-related issues by mainly focusing on African-American men in America. She notes the prison system is highly racial and discriminates against the people of color. In the New Jim Crow, she depicts how the present imprisonment is a new form of slavery that is propagated by the racially based panel system (Alexander 10-12). While both Alexander and Foucault agree that American prisons have some degree of racism due to a high proportion of colored people, Alexander argues that it is as a result of racial discrimination (ideology racism) while Foucault claims that it is due to institutionalized discrimination (state racism).
Mass incarceration has contributed to certain undesirable effects such as the alienation of populations, normalization of prisons, criminalized underclass, and disenfranchisement. Alexander and Foucault agree that American prisons have a high proportion of colored people thereby depicting some degree of racism. According to the two scholars, prison is an important institution that brings order into the society by isolating the evil minds. The fact that there are a large number of blacks in prison cannot be disputed. Racism is regarded to be the belief that certain races are inferior in several aspects like culture, intellectual capacity, and biology. Racist practices are highly evident in arrests, convictions, and sentencing. The criminal system plays the role of dealing with those who cannot fit into the society, and have to be subjected to punishment. Individuals associated with criminality must be eliminated since they are a threat to the population. Letting die is justified by the State based on the idea of defending the society from criminal threats. Mass incarceration is a process that normalizes and protects the rest of the population. It eliminates criminals with the aim of protecting the rest of the population (Lynda 562-564).
Despite the shared views that Foucault and Michelle Alexander have on mass incarceration, both give different explanations for the existence of this moral problem. Alexander posits that it is as a result of ideological racism while Foucault claims it is an issue of state racism. The first feature is that the United States has the largest size of the prison population in the world. Foucault believes that this is due to high crime rate and is targeted at individual criminals and not particular race while Alexander postulates that this is due to the high levels of imprisonment that tends to lean towards a particular race. The second aspect is that it tends to focus on systematic incarceration of whole groups of populations instead of individual offenders (Lynch 564). The massive rate of incarceration tends to target black and Hispanic males than any other racial group in America. Alexander asserts that mass incarceration is not a policy but the resultant effect of decisions and policies concerning issues like the war on drugs, mandatory sentencing, and tough measures on crime and so on.
Furthermore, Foucault and Alexander directly mass incarceration to human psychology. According to Alexander, American prisons have emerged to be a racist system. Foucault, on the other hand, asserts that State racism is a form of auto-referential racism that targets the self while hetero-referential racism follows a logic dominion and negates the value of others. Auto-referential racism is crucial in affirming the superior value of the self. It is based on the logic of exclusion and results in stratification of the social order based on racialization. Alexander explains mass incarceration based on the concept of hetero-referential racism. She considers mass incarceration to be a modern-day slavery since the system is entrenched highly on racism. The prison system preserves the structures of racism in America and creates complicated forms of racism in the society (Alexander 20). Foucault postulates that state racism focuses on developing a population through the exclusion and isolation of the abnormal (criminals). Mass incarceration is a practice by the state that is based on malice, disgust, and fear. It relies on the irrational concept that parts of a population are a biological threat to the society (Foucault 19).
Thus, ideological racism has contributed to wholesale criminalization in America. Racist practices are highly evident in arrests, convictions, and sentencing (Alexander 22). Mass incarceration can be seen as a bio-political whose aim is to protect the race that is considered to be racially superior in the society. State of racism protects the normal moral individual from the criminal sub-race. The criminal system plays the role of making life and letting die. People associated with criminality must be eliminated since they are a threat to the population (Foucault 20). The elimination takes various forms such as massive and inhumane imprisonment, unfair policing and sentencing practices, and harsh laws. Letting die is justified by the State based on the idea of defending the society from criminal threats (Alexander 25). State racism asserts that mass incarceration is a process that normalizes and protects the rest of the population. It operates based on the mantra of eliminating criminals, or the rest of the population will be eliminated. According to the concept of ideological racism, mass incarceration targets the marginalized and individuals who are feared and misunderstood in the society. These groups of people must undergo social death for the normal population to live peacefully (Lynch 564-565).
Besides, mass incarceration is a moral problem that will remain as long as the sole solution is elimination. Despite the fact that ideological racism plays the crucial role of describing some of the practices in the criminal justice system, it does not brings the picture of mass incarceration as a system whose aim is to eliminate perceived criminality (Alexander 19). The application of Foucault’s conception of race and racism is crucial in gaining a comprehensive understanding of mass incarceration (Foucault 24). State racism is considered to be morally problematic since it focuses on solving a problem through elimination instead of using other productive methods of punishment that are appealing the offenders’ sense of humanity. It views the moral failures of criminals as a permanent and inheritable inferiority. Criminals are seen as individuals lacking the rational ability for choosing moral aims. Criminals are considered unable to change through other alternatives such as community engagement and have to be eliminated from the society through imprisonment (Lynch 566). It is immoral to view offenders as a means to an end. It is important for the state to find a productive way of dealing with criminals instead of focusing on the use of elimination as a sole objective.
Michelle Alexander’s Jim Crow analogy addresses mass incarceration based on ideological racism while Foucault assertion based on state racism. Framing mass incarceration based on the concept of state racism is beneficial since it makes up for the weakness of the ideological racism. Applying the view of ideological racism in illuminating the problem of mass incarceration omits the attitudes of black towards crime and punishment while the concept of state racism includes it. Unlike ideological racism that mainly focuses on drug laws and ignores other crimes, state racism considers all types of crimes. State racism factors in socio-economic element while ideological racism ignores it. State racism acknowledges the fact that other racial groups are affected by mass incarceration. According to the concept of state racism, mass incarceration aims at eliminating all criminals irrespective of race, gender, class, locality, the level of education, and type of crime committed.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 1st ed., New York, N.Y., New Press, 2012.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline And Punish. 1st ed., New York, Vintage, 2012.
Lynch, Gerard E. “Ending Mass Incarceration: Some Observations And Responses To Professor Tonry”. Criminology & Public Policy, vol 13, no. 4, 2014, pp. 561-566. Wiley-Blackwell, doi:10.1111/1745-9133.12105.