Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Jailbreak of Disability

Originally published at Rampant magazine

The abolitionist movement stands to gain key lessons from mass deinstitutionalization, argues Liat Ben-Moshe's latest book.

Decarcerating Disability book cover
Decarcerating Disability book cover

Decarcerating Disability

Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition

By Liat Ben-Moshe

Published by The University of Minnesota Press

A growing number activists have become familiar with the vast and interlocking histories of oppression that are constitutive of present US society—indigenous dispossession, racialized slavery, exploitative capitalism, imperialist plunder. Less often understood or theorized is the phenomenon of mass disablement as an artifice of social oppression.

In fact, a critical analysis thereof is pivotal to making sense of myriad other oppressive American histories, including: eugenics and the enforcement of biosocial hierarchies; the pseudoscience of race inferiorities and intelligence quotients; segregationist and eliminationist regimes of carcerality and sterilization; hyper-exploitative cults of productivity, wealth accumulation, and universal competition; and the constant reproduction of variable layers of the human species rendered into a permanent underclass of paupers, peripherals, and euphemistic “surplus” or “superfluous” populations.1

Theorizing the Disability-Carceral Relationship

One important area that has recently seen inroads in theorizing across various forms of oppression, including that of disability, is the prison abolition movement. Having as their goal the complete elimination, or transcendence, of all existing structures of carceral violence, coercion, and subjugation, prison abolitionists have made recourse to a number of emancipatory frames of analysis—from settler colonialism to racial capitalism to hetero-patriarchy. Paying homage to the ancestral liberation movement against American slavery, from which it draws both literal and figurative analogies, modern abolitionism focuses primarily on the state apparatuses of the prisons and the police: how these latter institutions dialectically emerge from and reproduce existing systems of oppression. Among the names associated with this movement we might include Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Beth Richie, Erica Meiners, Dean Spade, and Mariame Kaba. Many of these figures adhere to a feminist of color or queer feminist of color critical framework, which is also often anticapitalist or socialist.

Of those explicitly theorizing the disability-carceral relationship, Marta Russell and Jean Stewart were among the first. Their article “Disablement, Prison, and Historical Segregation,” originally published in Monthly Review magazine in 2001 (and reproduced in the book I edited, Capitalism and Disability, published by Haymarket Books in 2019), is seminal as an historical materialist analysis. The authors trace the emergence of the “disabled” classification in line with the development of industrial capitalism, how those whose bodies and minds were deemed less profitably productive from the standpoint of competitive wage-labor were effectively marginalized. “American capitalism,” write Russell and Stewart, “in its failure to incorporate disabled people into its social fabric, instead shunts them into prisons and other institutions.”2

Others have engaged in illuminating analyses focused on the connection between Special Education and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline or “school-prison nexus,” such as Subini Annamma along with Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear.3 Presently, however, the scholar doing the most expansive work on the relationship between disability and incarceration is Liat Ben-Moshe. Ben-Moshe has produced two books on the subject within the past ten years: Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (2014), and Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition (2020).4

Disability Incarcerated is an edited collection that surveys the various iterations and sites of historical carcerality vis-à-vis disabled people: asylums, mental hospitals, state institutions, migrant detention centers, prisons, nursing homes, segregated schools and workshops. It is an accessible overview and exploration of the pertinent topics, histories, and theories. Decarcerating Disability, in contrast, is singularly authored by Ben-Moshe; it is an interesting attempt at utilizing the experience of disability incarceration and decarceration—in the form of the lesser-known deinstitutionalization movement of the later twentieth century—in order to impart lessons and considerations of relevance to the present-day abolition movement.

Others have written extensively on the history and political economy of deinstitutionalization as such.5 Ben-Moshe’s Decarcerating Disability is unique in its explicit positioning within the framework of prison studies and the abolitionist movement; it is, in fact, a polemical intervention into living debates. As Ben-Moshe writes in the introduction:
To those who claim that prison abolition and massive decarceration are utopian and could never happen, this book shows that they’ve happened already, although in a different arena, in the form of mass closures of residential institutions and psychiatric hospitals and the deinstitutionalization of those who resided in them.

Understanding how to activate this knowledge can lead to more nuanced actions toward and understandings about reducing reliance on prisons and other carceral enclosures as holders for people who are deemed by society to be dangerous, abnormal, or disturbed.6

Carceral Histories of Disability: AN ABOLITIONIST ANALYSIS

Originally published at Spectre Journal

In 2013, investigative reporting revealed that nearly 150 women incarcerated in the California prison system had been sterilized between 2006 to 2010. The gynecological prison official who oversaw the procedures – and was paid nearly $150,000 by the state per sterilization – defended the payments and the procedures, stating, “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money, compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.” It is certainly outrageous that interned women were coerced into undergoing sterilization – oftentimes at the precise moment when they were “under sedation and strapped to an operating table.” But such practices are neither rare within the long scope of U.S. history, nor are they even technically prohibited by law in all circumstances.1


Given the disproportionate rates at which people of color and disabled people are over-represented within the U.S. prison population, the above abuses were essentially a case of modern eugenics being carried out against precisely those populations that have been historically targeted – disabled people, people of color, and women in poverty. What this demonstrates is the insidious ways in which the matrix of institutional confinement, disability oppression, and eliminationist social policy has remained a persistent feature of modern capitalist society, even as it has undergone mutations, adaptations, and reconfigurations over past decades and centuries.

Insofar as the ruthlessly competitive accumulation of capital via exploited labor has been the constant guiding imperative of historical capitalism, disabled people have ever represented a troublesome source of non- (or even counter-) profitability to the ruling class. The labor power that disabled people possess – the basic unit of commodity value under capitalism – is deemed an invalid, defective, or otherwise undesirable resource vis-à-vis the productive economy.2As the U.S. federal government defines it, to be disabled is to be “unable to engage in substantial gainful activity”;3 in other words, to be unable to competitively acquire a paying job within the prevailing conditions of capitalist wage-labor.3

In this way, disabled people have historically been cast into that sub-class of people under capitalism who rely on state welfare payments, are marginal to the formal process of capital accumulation, and are considered ‘disposable’ from the standpoint of political economy. In truth, and conceptualized broadly, disabled people occupy a class position that spans the proletariat: the active working class, the reserve army of labor, and the so-called lumpenproletariat.4 Under any conception, however, disabled people under capitalism are, by definition, so many ‘damaged goods’; commodities systematically devalued as a result of inherited or acquired ‘deficits’ in their functioning as components of capital accumulation. Thus, to the capitalist ruling class, disabled people represent an economic ‘problem’ necessitating a political ‘solution.’

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and reaching its peak maturation in the early-to-mid twentieth century, the prevailing ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of disability was the erection of a system of mass institutionalization, sterilization, and social elimination, which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled and other marginalized and oppressed peoples in the U.S. This system was codified and executed at the state level, and rendered licit at the federal level.5 Then, as now, a central pillar of the overarching regime of control, separation, and social exclusion of the disabled and other marginalized populations was the carceral institution. This is a complex of controlling and controlled spaces ranging from asylums, hospital wards, state facilities, nursing homes, penal colonies, poorhouses, halfway homes, jails, and prisons. The form has changed over the years, but the function – control, separation, and social exclusion – has remained. At its peak, in the mid-1950s, there were an estimated 550,000 people confined to the nation’s mental asylums and hospitals.6 Today, the number of people with mental illnesses and disabilities confined to the nation’s prisons and jails is estimated to be close to 1.25 million.7

The red thread connecting the erstwhile system of incarceration in institutional asylums and that of the prison system today, is more than abstractly analogous. Both represent forms of segregation, subjugation, and constraint as coercive mechanisms of social policy. Behind the paper-thin pretense of being ‘rehabilitative’, both structures eschew the latter in favor of the social removal and warehousing of putatively deviant, degenerate, or maladjusted populations. Involuntary confinement and loss of autonomy are equally characteristic of the institution and the prison. Through the mid-twentieth century, the majority of people in state mental hospitals were forcibly committed by lunacy commissions, medical professionals, state welfare agencies, or the judiciary.8

Moreover, whether committed on a voluntary or involuntary basis, institutionalized residents had no control over when they would be discharged, what treatments they would receive, or the nature of their living conditions (this remains the case for those committed to psychiatric wards and institutions to this day). In similar fashion to the way that durations of prison sentences are determined by Parole Board bureaucracies, release from the institution was contingent upon the subjective determination of bureaucrats (which determination was likewise influenced by a resident-inmate’s exhibit of “good institutional behavior”).9 In sum, the high degree of continuity between these various carceral systems suggests a shared function across wide-ranging forms.