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Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration

Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration

Geoffrey Adelsberg
Lisa Guenther
Scott Zeman
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration
    Book Description:

    Mass incarceration is one of the most pressing ethical and political issues of our time. In this volume, philosophers join activists and those incarcerated on death row to grapple with contemporary U.S. punishment practices and draw out critiques around questions of power, identity, justice, and ethical responsibility. This work takes shape against a backdrop of disturbing trends: The United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world. A disproportionate number of these prisoners are people of color, and, today, a black man has a greater chance of going to prison than to college. The United States is the only Western democracy to retain the death penalty, even after decades of scholarship, statistics, and even legal decisions have depicted a deeply flawed system structured by racism and class oppression. Motivated by a conviction that mass incarceration and state execution are among the most important ethical and political problems of our time, the contributors to this volume come together from a diverse range of backgrounds to analyze, critique, and envision alternatives to the injustices of the U.S. prison system, with recourse to deconstruction, phenomenology, critical race theory, feminism, queer theory, and disability studies. They engage with the hyper-incarceration of people of color, the incomplete abolition of slavery, the exploitation of prisoners as workers and as "raw material" for the prison industrial complex, the intensive confinement of prisoners in supermax units, and the complexities of capital punishment in an age of abolition. The resulting collection contributes to a growing intellectual and political resistance to the apparent inevitability of incarceration and state execution as responses to crime and to social inequalities. It addresses both philosophers and activists who seek intellectual resources to contest the injustices of punishment in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-6533-6
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

    (pp. vii-x)
    Joy James

    Pre- and postmortems attending U.S. society are intricately woven into histories of legal discourse and political hubris that oversee executions and penalties administered by the state. Official language seeks to shape our memories of what is right by law. The counterdiscourse prepares our minds for what is just.

    On behalf of the United States and its society, an elite sector of the United States is allowed to kill and torture with impunity—while expecting gratitude for the safety it “ensures.” A quick survey reveals death sentences meted out by state courts, federal courts, and military courts, and internationally by military...

  2. Introduction: Death and Other Penalties
    (pp. 1-10)
    Geoffrey Adelsberg, Lisa Guenther and Scott Zeman

    The United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world. A disproportionate number of these prisoners are people of color; today, a black man has a greater chance of going to prison than to college.¹ We are the only Western democracy to retain the death penalty, even though scholarship, statistics, and even legal decisions suggest that the system is deeply flawed and structured by racism and class oppression.² Sociologist Loïc Wacquant calls the United States “the first genuine prison society in history”; legal scholar Michelle Alexander calls mass incarceration a new, “colorblind” form of...

  3. Legacies of Slavery

    • Excavating the Sedimentations of Slavery: The Unfinished Project of American Abolition
      (pp. 13-42)
      Brady Heiner

      Mass incarceration is arguably the most pressing and protracted social crisis of postindustrial America. The imprisoned population in the United States has exploded from 200,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people in the first decade of the twenty-first century, including 95,000 youths under the age of eighteen. To accommodate this colossal movement toward confinement, close to one thousand prisons have been built throughout the United States since 1973. “Short of major wars,” writes criminologist Elliot Currie, “mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time.”¹ U.S. criminal justice policy and imprisonment practices...

    • From Commodity Fetishism to Prison Fetishism: Slavery, Convict-leasing, and the Ideological Productions of Incarceration
      (pp. 43-59)
      James A. Manos

      Over the past thirty years, the United States has undergone a prison boom. Since 1980, incarceration has increased from a little fewer than 500,000 inmates to more than 2 million.¹ If we extend these statistics to those on probation or parole, this number jumps to over 7 million. This means, as a recent Pew Center report indicates, one in every thirty-four adults is monitored and controlled by the legal apparatus in the United States.² One might expect this drastic increase in incarceration to be the result of a simultaneous increase in the rate of criminal activity. However, the crime rate...

    • Maroon Philosophy: An Interview with Russell “Maroon” Shoatz
      (pp. 60-74)
      Russell “Maroon” Shoatz and Lisa Guenther

      Russell “Maroon” Shoatz is an activist, a political theorist, a father, and a political prisoner. He was held in solitary confinement for twenty-one consecutive years at State Correctional Institution Greene in Pennsylvania. He was first locked up in 1972—just a year after I was born. In the 1960s Shoatz became active in black radical politics. He was a founding member of the Black Unity Council in Philadelphia, which later merged with the Black Panther Party. And like so many black radical activists in the era of police repression and FBI surveillance—an era that has not, in any obvious...

  4. Death Penalties

    • In Reality—From the Row
      (pp. 77-82)
      Derrick Quintero

      Spiraling down the silent corridors of the halls of injustice scream the tormented souls of those lost to the caring eyes of society. Once loved, twice forgotten are the multitude. Where are the families and friends who knew these people? Lost in a world that finds no compassion, no love, and where friendships are draped with proverbial strings. The heart hardens, and the light of the eyes become ruby red from examining the back trails of each and every day for enemies with scathing tongues and honed scraps of steel and plexiglas. Today’s prison regimes fail because they are not...

    • U.S. Racism and Derrida’s Theologico-Political Sovereignty
      (pp. 83-94)
      Geoffrey Adelsberg

      The connection between theology and the death penalty is central to Derrida’s study of capital punishment. As Michael Naas, a participant in the Derrida Seminar Translation Project, states: “In the two years he devotes to the death penalty … Derrida seems to want to show how the concepts, rhetoric, symbolism, images, and imaginary of the death penalty are all determined andmarkedby a Christian or Judeo-Christian theologico-political heritage.”¹ This chapter aims first to provide a working definition of this relation among religion, politics, and the death penalty. Second, I will offer an interpretation of Derrida’s methodology, asking: Why does...

    • Making Death a Penalty: Or, Making “Good” Death a “Good” Penalty
      (pp. 95-105)
      Kelly Oliver

      Currently, the United States is the only country in the so-called developed Western world that continues to execute prisoners.¹ Since 2008, in order to avoid construing the death penalty as “cruel and unusual” punishment, which would violate the Eighth Amendment, the Supreme Court has upheld the use of a tripartite lethal injection protocol as more “humane” than other methods of execution: the first drug renders the condemned unconscious, the second paralyzes his muscles, and the third kills him by stopping his heart. InBaze v. Rees(2008), the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol and ruled that there is...

    • Death Penalty “Abolition” in Neoliberal Times: The SAFE California Act and the Nexus of Savings and Security
      (pp. 106-129)
      Andrew Dilts

      On November 6, 2012, the state of California was poised to become the eighteenth state in the United States to abolish the death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (commonly referred to as LWOP). The Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act (The SAFE California Act) appeared on the statewide ballot as Proposition 34 and would have overturned a previous 1978 ballot initiative that restored the death penalty in California following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling inGregg v. Georgia.³ When the votes were counted, Prop. 34 lost by a...

    • On the Inviolability of Human Life
      (pp. 130-138)
      Julia Kristeva

      October 10, 2012: Tenth World Day for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. Mobilization, ignorance, hostility, incomprehension, solemnity, and gravity suspend the time of global crisis, the time of hyperconnected acceleration and diverse threats of destruction. And we are called to contemplate, invited to meditate and to question: what does a project for the universal abolition of the death penalty mean?

      I am neither a jurist nor a specialist on abolitionism. I’ve never been to an execution, nor has anyone close to me ever been a victim of murder, sexual abuse, torture, or degrading violence. I won’t read you the...

  5. Rethinking Power and Responsibility

    • Punishment, Desert, and Equality: A Levinasian Analysis
      (pp. 141-157)
      Benjamin S. Yost

      The last forty years have witnessed a spectacular increase in the number of incarcerated Americans. In 1970 the U.S. penal population stood at 330,000; it now stands at over 2.4 million. This is a 700 percent increase, measured against a population increase of 150 percent. Our current level of incarceration is far out of line with almost every other country in the world. The United States imprisons 743 out of every 100,000 citizens, while Germany imprisons 85 per 100,000. The United States’ closest competitor is Russia (607 per 100,000), followed by Cuba (487) and Ukraine (360).¹ This dubious achievement is...

    • Prisons and Palliative Politics
      (pp. 158-173)
      Ami Harbin

      This chapter examines a common occurrence in North America: prisoners dying of illness in prison. With prison populations in the United States and Canada growing, and with rising numbers of older prisoners, prisons have needed to consider how to address the needs of those facing terminal illness and death in prison. In recent years, the number of prisons that have instituted formal hospice care has grown substantially, in many cases with prisoners providing end-of-life care to their peers. These hospice programs have garnered substantial attention, in documentaries,¹ photographic collections,² and in many writings from prisoners, activists, and bioethicists.³ In this...

    • Sovereignty, Community, and the Incarceration of Immigrants
      (pp. 174-192)
      Matt S. Whitt

      Readers of this volume probably know that the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation on record. Approximately 2.2 million people are confined in U.S. jails and prisons, and another 4.8 million are under correctional supervision in the form of probation or parole.¹ It is perhaps less well known that noncitizens make up the fastest-growing segment of this population.² Since the mid-1990s, and especially since 2001, the United States has increasingly used its massive network of jails and prisons to confine noncitizens, many of whom have not been convicted of a criminal violation and never will...

    • Without the Right to Exist: Mass Incarceration and National Security
      (pp. 193-209)
      Andrea Smith

      The never-ending war on terror has prompted many scholars to argue that Arab and Muslim peoples are now positioned as Black peoples within the growing security state. Consequently, many critical race scholars, such as Adrien Wing, have argued that it is important to go beyond the “black-white” binary to examine how other peoples of color are treated “like Black people.”¹ Other scholars have argued that this call to go “beyond a black-white binary” erases the specificity of anti-Blackness as well as the complicity of other people of color in anti-Blackness.² I have argued elsewhere that this move tends to presuppose...

    • Prison Abolition and a Culture of Sexual Difference
      (pp. 210-224)
      Sarah Tyson

      Violence against women is a public issue because of feminist movements. This huge cultural shift is certainly worthy of celebration. Making sexual assault, domestic violence, and family violence public issues is not, of course, the primary goal of feminists—ending them is. But it would be counterproductive impatience to fault feminists for not having yet eradicated these widespread problems—entangled as they are with the main structures of social life, including family, law, rights, and gender. So it makes sense that we should applaud feminism’s outing of violence against women, even as we work to eliminate it more fully. There...

  6. Isolation and Resistance

    • Statement on Solitary Confinement
      (pp. 227-229)
      Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman

      In June 2012 Illinois Senator Dick Durbin chaired a hearing on solitary confinement in the federal prison system. Survivors of solitary confinement, legal representatives of presently confined persons, and officials from U.S. prisons testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Abdur’Rahman sent this testimony to the Committee.

      I am Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman, formerly known as James L. Jones. I am an American citizen and though I am a student of Islam, I am not of the non-spiritual un-Islamic renegade sects. That you needed to know, so that you will not assume and...

    • The Violence of the Supermax: Toward a Phenomenological Aesthetics of Prison Space
      (pp. 230-249)
      Adrian Switzer

      As Peter Scharff Smith explains in his study “The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prison Inmates,” a “primary rationale for supermax prisons has been to lower the level of violence in prison systems.”¹ The supermax prison is characterized, Smith continues, by “solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day in a barren environment, under constant hightech surveillance.”² More generally, maximum-security incarceration, which first came to prominence in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, involves the isolation of prisoners in separate cells, limitation of access to communal areas and activities, and the regular and systematic use of solitary confinement....

    • Prison and the Subject of Resistance: A Levinasian Inquiry
      (pp. 250-265)
      Shokoufeh Sakhi

      Death, imprisonment, and physical and psychological torture are among the responses of state power to its others. These others are categorized and identified according to the self-definition of the state but also in relation to what they represent or signify. Regardless of the state and the nature of its prisoners, as Foucault shows in hisDiscipline and Punish, prisons not only exact retribution but also act as subjugating institutions with the intention of reconstructing subjects. In this sense, prisons function as totalizing systems.¹ Important variants notwithstanding, these prisons (like their states), turn out to have much in common. For what...

    • Critical Theory, Queer Resistance, and the Ends of Capture
      (pp. 266-296)
      Liat Ben-Moshe, Che Gossett, Nick Mitchell and Eric A. Stanley

      One of the most notable accomplishments of queer studies has been in showing how various regimes of normativity are interconnected and mutually constitutive—how reproductive futurity and heteronormativity are articulated in relation to racialization, (dis)ability, and other socially structuring and institutionally enforced axes of difference—in such a way that much work done under the rubric of queer studies today takes for granted that queerness can be defined as against (and as other to) normativity writ large. Perhaps as a consequence of such success, the relationship between queerness and antinormativity can become vaguely tautological—what is queer is antinormative; what...