Rejecting future prisons

Judah Schept gives an American abolitionist repsonse to ‘Future Prisons’.

Policy Exchange’s recent report, Future Prisons: A radical plan to reform the prison estate, proposes a neoliberal reorganization of prison facilities through a consolidation of both capital and the state’s captive population. Future Prisons recommends a closure of more than 30 existing and outdated institutions and the creation of 10-12 massive ‘Hub prisons’ designed to hold between 2,500 and 3,000 prisoners each.  As the authors state, the driving logic and imperative behind such dramatic restructuring is a reduction in cost per prisoner: “the right question for policymakers is not how to arbitrarily reduce the number of people going to prison, but rather, how to reduce the cost per place” (5). The closing of more than 30 institutions is tempting to endorse. Such closures could enable the kind of radical departure from imprisonment that many reformers and abolitionists would support. But Future Prisons aims to transcarcerate as opposed to decarcerate, moving prisoners from older facilities to hyper-technological new ones. This proposal is neither radical nor reformist in its vision of the future. It is, in fact, a reactionary vantage predicated on the neoliberal penal present.

My response to this report comes in part out of recent research projects in the United States. In one, I examined significant carceral growth in an outwardly progressive small city. The city was adamant about building a vast ‘justice campus’ on 85 acres that would house several adult and youth facilities, all predicated on principles of rehabilitation and education. As I have argued elsewhere,[1] despite these noble intentions, the city’s reliance on imprisonment revealed the cultural and ideological work that carceral logics and practices perform in structuring their own reproduction in and through people and communities that purport to reject them. In its belief that the justice campus could be a ‘hub’ of social services alongside incarceration, the community collapsed its genuine interest in social welfare into its growing carceral apparatus.  In a second and current project, I am examining the growth of prisons and prison economies in Appalachia, paying particular attention to the history embedded in the landscape that indexes the relationship between the coal and prison industries. In several respects, these projects disrupt some of the central proposals contained in Future Prisons.

The Policy Exchange report nods to more humane considerations such as improved prison conditions, increased access to social services, and the proximity of new prisons to prisoners’ home communities. But this is rhetorical window dressing for an institutional vision predicated on technocratic concerns and offering technocratic ‘solutions.’ Moreover, the report’s proposal that the prison be a central organizing mechanism through which communities can come together and use services aligns with what several scholars have observed of the carceral state: its increasing encroachment into lives, its consumption of the welfare state, and its centralization as a mechanism through which the state governs.[2]

Future Prisons attempts to market the restructuring of the estate as a benefit to the communities in which the Hub prisons would be built. Indeed, the report proposes repurposing brownfield sites—those derelict spaces abandoned by industry—to locate the prisons. According to the report, the prisons would then provide the communities with the jobs and financial security lost through deindustrialization. Such a plan further cements the rise of the carceral state as a geographical ‘solution’ to complex social problems deeply structured by neoliberalism and exacerbated by more recent measures of austerity.[3] Further, the report suggests that locating new prisons on the brownfield sites will generate local economic development in the communities around them.  This concept of prison economies, and its attendant and justifying predictions, belie a growing body of scholarship in the United States that suggests that not only do prisons not generate growth, but also they may in fact impede it.[4]

Animating Future Prisons is an insistent dual logic that behemoth prisons work to manage, treat, and incapacitate prisoners and that they can be architecturally and culturally structured around rehabilitative and educational goals that reduce warehousing while connecting the prison to the community. While some of these may be noble goals, the proposal must be understood as further attempts by a neoliberal state obsessed with security to ‘securitize’ aspects of sociality and bring within the penal sphere those areas traditionally administered by the welfare state. It is not that prisons and prisoners shouldn’t have education, treatment, and community connections. To the extent that we have prisons, they most certainly should operate around these principles. But building massive new institutions of social exclusion and social death on the premise that they will somehow enact these otherwise laudable goals must be opposed. Moreover, as I have argued previously, imagining and building a future without prisons best serves our needs for community safety and economic viability.

Judah Schept is Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Judah can be reached at

[1] See also Schept, J (2013) ‘A lockdown facility…with the feel of a small, private college’: Liberal politics, jail expansion, and the carceral habitus,’ Theoretical Criminology 17(1): 71-88

[2] See for example: Harcourt B (2010) Neoliberal penality: A brief genealogy. Theoretical Criminology 14(1): 74–92; Simon J (2007) Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. New York: Oxford University Press; Wacquant L (2010) Crafting the neoliberal state: Workfare, prisonfare, and social insecurity. Sociological Forum 25(2): 197–220

[3] See for example Bonds, A (2012) Building Prisons, Building Poverty: Prison Sitings, Dispossession, and Mass Incarceration, in Loyd, JM, Mitchelson, M, and Burridge, A (eds.) Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis. Athens: University of Georgia Press; Gilmore RW (2007) Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press

[4] See for example Hooks et al. (2004) The Prison Industry: Carceral Expansion and Employment in U.S. Counties, 1969–1994, Social Science Quarterly 85(1): 37-57; Huling T (2002) Building a Prison Economy in Rural America, in Mauer M and Chensey-Lind (eds); King RS, Mauer M, and Huling T (2003) Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison in Rural America. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project

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1 Response to Rejecting future prisons

  1. Vic Kappeler says:

    Dr. Schept nails it.

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