The Poet and the Jailer: Cracking the US Prison System

Steven Zultanski on Jackie Wang for frieze

For frieze, Steven Zultanski reviews Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, forthcoming from Semiotext(e).

Neither a straightforward scholarly book nor a squarely literary experiment, Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, forthcoming from Semiotext(e) in February, confronts mass incarceration in the US by delving into the processes that feed into and maintain the prison system: anti-black racism, predatory lending, algorithmic policing, privatized prisons, credit scams, data analytics and histories of exclusion. Its argument is trenchant, but it’s also beautifully written; it slides between topics with conceptual agility and stylistic flair, tying histories together without conflating them. In this way, Wang is able to build a complex portrait of systemic violence while avoiding overwhelming paranoia. The result is a book that moves between bleak but clear-eyed analyses and, occasionally, surprising moments of hope.

Today, Wang argues, supposedly ‘race-neutral’ technologies (credit scoring, data mining, law enforcement software) justify and continue long-standing racist policies, providing them with a veneer of scientific legitimacy. Moreover, such faux-objective, technocratic practices are a means of rationalizing expropriation: states, cities and municipalities attempt to solve their budgetary dilemmas by extracting money from residents – in the form of fines – and building their local economies around policing and jails (while the budgets for infrastructure and services are cut). Along with an ideology that holds up the computational as disinterested and unbiased, these policies are buffered by dominant discourses that frame poverty and incarceration as matters of personal responsibility. The burden of recurrent capitalist crises is thus recast in moral and rational terms and shifted onto the shoulders of the poor:

‘Having a bad credit score is seen as a moral failing rather than merely an index of structural inequality … I hold that risk is a new colour-blind racism, for it enshrines already-existing social and economic inequalities under the guise of equality of opportunity … Furthermore, risk scoring is a practice that fractures the population into the categories of deserving and undeserving.’

While this analysis goes a long way toward examining the social logics that uphold mass incarceration, Wang takes the argument further; she continually spins her inquiry in new directions. Through parallel discussions of credit scores, which don’t simply record one’s economic history, but supposedly anticipate one’s future behaviour, and algorithmic policing, which forecasts future crimes based on the location of past crimes, resulting in the increased policing of certain areas, Carceral Capitalism forefronts how technocracy is not merely analytical, but predictive: criminality and poverty are self-fulfilling prophecies of capitalist rationality.


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