Carceral Con: The Deceptive Terrain of Criminal Justice Reform

Regular price $ 22.95

by Kay Whitlock and Nancy Heizing

University of California Press

09/21/2021, paperback

SKU: 9780520343474


A critical examination of how contemporary criminal justice reforms expand rather than shrink structurally violent systems of policing, surveillance, and carceral control in the United States.

Public opposition to the structural racist, gendered, and economic violence that fuels the criminal legal system is reaching a critical mass. Ignited by popular uprisings, protests, and campaigns against state violence, demands for transformational change have escalated. In response, a now deeply entrenched so-called bipartisan industry has staked its claim to the reform terrain. Representing itself as a sensible bridge across bitterly polarized political divides and party lines, the bipartisan reform industry has sought to control the nature and scope of local, state, and federal reforms. Along the way, it creates an expanding web of neoliberal public-private partnerships, with the promotion and implementation of efforts managed by billionaires, public officials, policy factories, foundations, universities, and mega nonprofit organizations. Yet many bipartisan reforms constitute deceptive sleights of hand that not only fail to produce justice but actively reproduce structural racial and economic inequality. 

Carceral Con pulls the veil away from the reform public relations machine, providing a riveting overview of the repressive US carceral state and a critical examination of the reform terrain, quagmires, and choices that face us. This book vividly illustrates how contemporary bipartisan reform agendas leave the structural apparatus of mass incarceration intact while widening the net of carceral control and surveillance. Readers are also provided with information and insights useful for examining the likely impacts of reforms today and in the future. What can we learn from reforms of the past? What strategies hold most promise for dismantling structural inequalities, corporate control, and state violence? What approaches will reduce reliance on carceral control and also bring about community safety? Utilizing an abolitionist lens, Carceral Con makes the compelling case for liberatory approaches to envisioning and creating a just society.


"The criminal justice system isn't in crisis, it is a crisis. Heitzeg and Whitlock show us in detail that reformism fails to resolve this crisis. Why? Because the purpose of most reformism is to stifle protest rather than to unmake conditions that provoke protest against police violence, prison and jail, detention, criminalization, and organized abandonment. Time after time, measures touted by municipal, county, state, and federal lawmakers 'fix' the system by making it bigger and harder. Carceral Con is a must-read for all who want to understand how we got to where we are. The book can help move organizing energy away from cosmetic enhancements and toward structural change." -- Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

"This is an important intervention in bringing prison and police abolition together in a way that provides both theoretical underpinnings and practical advice for organizers." -- Alex S. Vitale, author of The End of Policing

"As bipartisan reform agendas have helped authorize criminalization as a solution to social problems, Carceral Con will surely be a go-to resource. This is an indispensable book for scholars, activists, and the general public." -- Jordan T. Camp, author of Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State

"The only thing worse than partisan gridlock is bipartisan support for the wrong thing. Kay Whitlock and Nancy A. Heitzeg pull back the curtain on the many ways foundations, politicians, and private actors have used the mandate of prison reform to extend punitive social control. Carceral Con is the book we have been waiting for: a necessary, sobering must-read for anyone who cares about how carceral power works--and how to end it." -- Dan Berger, author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era

"Whitlock and Heitzeg brilliantly expose the devastating myths that bolster bipartisan reform. With candor, precision, and clarity, Carceral Con dares to interrupt the dominant narratives that attempt to appease us--and points the way toward a bold, generous, liberatory future. This book not only shows us how structural violence undergirds the criminal legal system; it provides us with an expansive depiction of that violence, which includes environmental racism, merciless individualism, and the organized abandonment of communities of color, among many other harmful forces. Whitlock and Heitzeg build on an indestructible case against the push to 'fine-tune injustice' with reforms that simply perpetuate a death-dealing status quo. Carceral Con is a transformative, timely, and necessary read." -- Maya Schenwar, coauthor of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

About the Authors:

Kay Whitlock is a writer/activist focusing on structural violence and inequality. She is coauthor of Queer(In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States and Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics.

Nancy A. Heitzeg is Professor of Sociology at St. Catherine University whose work centers on race, class, gender, and social control with particular attention to the prison-industrial complex. She is author of The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline, and Racialized Double-Standards.