“If I cannot bend the higher powers, I must stir up the lower depths:” Mass Incarceration & Psychoanalysis

By Beth Kita

In his germinal work on prisons, Discipline and Punish, Foucault observed that since

[t]he proclamation of the failure of the prison has always been accompanied by its maintenance…one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison; what is the use of these different phenomena that are continually being criticized; the maintenance of delinquency, the encouragement of recidivism, the transformation of the occasional offender into a habitual delinquent, the organization of a closed milieu of delinquency (Foucault, 1977, p. 272).

Around the same time that Foucault was putting forth that question – in response to his research on prisons in the 19th and early 20th centuries – a new carceral age was dawning: one that we’ve come to refer to as “mass incarceration.”

For most of the 20th century, the average incarceration rate in the US was about 100 people out of every 100, 000 which was similar to other Western countries. Criminologists concluded that it was the rate of incarceration that the populace would tolerate; it seemed to be a homeostatic one (Cole, 2011). Yet, during the 1970s through the early aughts incarceration rates soared. We now imprison over 700 out of every 100,000 citizens.

The Sentincing Project

The burden of this meteoric rise in incarceration rates has been overwhelmingly borne by African American men, Latino men, and poor people (and the people who love them), while the overall fiscal impact has impacted all of us. One researcher found that NYC spends $1 million annually to incarcerate people from one single block in Brooklyn (Cador, Swartz & Gordon, 2003). Equally far reaching is the way in which incarceration has become a normative event for large numbers of people. In Chicago, being born into three particular zip codes gives one a 90% chance of going to prison during the course of one’s lifetime. Millions of children in the United States have lost parents to incarceration and contend with the disenfranchised grief that such experience creates (Arditti, 2005). The cradle to prison pipeline is well documented (Children’s Defense Fund, 2007). This is the other 1%.

Prevalence of Imprisonment

Explanations abound. One of the most compelling was put forth by criminologist David Garland. He noted that this trend took hold in the wake of massive sociocultural changes that gave way to higher crime rates that, in turn, left the public panicked and socially (and psychologically) disorganized. Garland (2001) states:

The major transformations that swept society in the second half of the twentieth century were at once economic, social, cultural and political. To the extent that these can be disentangled, they can be summarized under the following headings: 1) the dynamic of capitalist production and market exchange and the corresponding advances in technology, transport and communications; (ii) the restricting of the family and the household; (iii) changes in the social ecology of cities and suburbs; (iv) the rise of the electronic mass media; and (v) the democratization of social and cultural life (p. 77-78).

Augmenting that list, or perhaps supplanting it entirely, is the civil rights movement that threatened white supremacy.

Amid these changes materialized a set of policies and practices that purported to guarantee personal security through the expansion of the criminal justice system: various measures such as three strikes laws, truth in sentencing policies, mandatory sentencing, zero tolerance policing, and the war on drugs were all framed as the means by which Americans would be safe. Personal safety and security became entitlements that citizens could – and should – expect their government to provide them. Indicative of a massive societal-level disavowal, threats to security were located within individuals, not social conditions. As Ronald Reagan (1984) once said:

Here in the richest nation in the world, where more crime is committed than in any other nation, we are told that the answer to this problem is to reduce our poverty. This isn’t the answer…. Government’s function is to protect society from the criminal, not the other way around (p. 252).

Who deserved to feel safe and secure was defined in relationship to who did not deserve to feel safe and secure. The ways in which crime and safety became normative features of the public imagination required the construction of a criminal. Sociologist Loic Wacquant (2009) states that during this time

…[p]unitive policies were the object of an unprecedented political consensus and enjoyed broad public support cutting across class lines, boosted by the tenacious blurring of crime, poverty, and immigration in the media as well as by the constant confusion between insecurity and the ‘feeling of insecurity.’ This confusion is tailor-made to channel toward the (dark-skinned) figure of the street delinquent the diffuse anxiety caused by a string of interrelated social changes (p. 3).

Incarceration was no longer expected to accomplish anything for the offender, but rather for the public. As a result, classes of people who are at risk–people who are poor, of color, addicted, etc.– became targeted as sources of risk to be preemptively and unequivocally incapacitated via incarceration. From this reversal cascaded a flood of justice system policies and practices, all of which functioned to locate social (in)security in individual bodies – bodies that could be arrested, arraigned and incapacitated. That these are often Black men is also not coincidental. As Michelle Alexander argues in “The New Jim Crow”, incarceration extends the institution of slavery. It serves an “extrapenological function” (Wacquant, 2001).

Since the Unites States now incarcerates 2.3 million people, it is more important than ever to take Foucault’s question seriously: what is gained by the failure of mass incarceration? Despite good evidence that “getting tough on crime” would mean reducing inequality, preventing trauma, addressing poverty, treating addiction, supporting mental health, and providing adequate holding environments for people, our society has instead responded to the problems of crime and criminalized behaviors with incarceration. Prisons are criminogenic, requiring psychological adaptations that are at odds with thriving in a prosocial, nontraumatic world; the 70% national recidivism rate is a testament to this (Durose, Cooper & Snyder, 2014). Our continued – and now massive – reliance on them is thus even more confounding.

PrisonersSo what then might be gained by this failure? What might be gained by mass incarceration itself? Psychoanalytic theory offers some beginning answers to these questions.

I began working in prison and parole 15 years ago, in this age of mass incarceration. A psychoanalytic perspective helped me to understand that prisons were traumatic reenactments, further enacting what really needed to be reflected upon. It helped me to locate the problem of crime not only in the criminal but also in the culture that created him. It has helped me to think about how, as Robert Young states, “…certain public values and structures got into the unconscious before they got projected and rationalised as the public interest” (1994, p. 136).

Of many, one construct that has been particularly useful to me is projective identification. As Ogden (1982) articulates, projective identification is an intrapsychic and an interpersonal process:

The first step must be understood in terms of wishes to rid oneself of a part of the self (including one’s internal objects)… In the second phase, the projector exerts pressure on the recipient to experience himself and behave in a way congruent with the unconscious projected fantasy… In [the third step], the recipient experiences himself in part as he is pictured in the projective fantasy (p. 14-16).

I think about the way our society responds to people who become disabled: despite it being possible that any one of us could get hit by a car or fall off a ladder, we give disabled people a measly $900 a month on which to live – as if anyone can live on $900/month. Doing so not only communicates the contempt we feel for people who cannot work, but also creates a situation in which people have to find other means (usually via the underground economy) by which to live. Yet, we behave as if somehow, people should be able to make something out of nothing. And when they don’t, we punish them.

Or, our treatment of people living in poverty: As much as we want to believe that we live in an equitable society where everyone has a fair chance at staking their claim to a safe and secure middle class life, we continually block the pathways to doing so for entire groups of people. We fail to pay people living wages, ensure that youth attend carceral schools, willfully ignore the effects of community violence, and undermine the good enough conditions that adults need to create good enough families. We create cultures of law enforcement that treat Black people as the source of danger, instead of the targets of it.

From this perspective, it is hard not to see the punitive social and political policies that have given rise to mass incarceration as being part of a social-level projective identification process. So why is it that we are “nudging” certain groups of people to enact the very behaviors that we seem to despise the most? How is it that we have, as Garland points out, come to live in a culture whereby we’ve adopted normative behaviors that show how much we fear crime, spend countless dollars trying to stop it, yet continually manage to throw gasoline on the proverbial fire, and sustain the conditions that create the problems we purport to want to solve? Why is the route to “safety” the creation and maintenance of a “criminal underclass” instead of the reform and rehabilitation of the social determinants that produce them? Valier (2000) states:

For Freud, the collective obsession with punishing the criminal is a mechanism for disposing of guilt. It is, however, a precarious one. [As Rose (1993) states] ‘the guilt of the criminal establishes the innocence of the society but, like all oppositions, it risks a potential identification between its terms’ (p. 53) (p. 388).

To that I would add that the dependency, perpetration, and shame of the criminal also establish the innocence of the society. Neoliberal pressures can make it difficult to bear our own dependency, let alone that of others (Layton, 2009). Our shared histories as perpetrators of slavery can make it feel impossible to fully explore the meaning of “perpetration” found in others. Disowned aspects of the self are projected onto others who are then forced into identifying with them via oppressive sociostructural conditions (Altman, 2010). One does not have to dispute that individuals are responsible for their criminal/criminalized acts to be able to accept that they are contextualized: Unless we subscribe to eugenics and assume that crime and violence are inherent to these groups, we are left with an indisputable link between social conditions and incarceration. Prisons are repositories for criminals who are, in turn, repositories for our disowned projections.

As psychoanalytic thinkers, we understand why we might want to disown parts of the self. More importantly, we understand how doing so leaves us impoverished. When faced with projective identification processes, we get curious. Conversely, prisons function as non-thinking, only-enacting institutions. They keep people in their “places”, uphold splits, and coerce groups of people to unrelentingly identify with sets of projections that generally lead to more criminality. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is about reflecting, replacing traumatic reenactment with trauma-transformation. It doesn’t ask us to choose between being part of the social-level projective identification system or not. Instead, it recognizes that we are always reenacting, and the best we can hope for is to always be transforming, too.

As clinicians, thinkers and citizens, there is much that we can do, and the time is now. More attention than ever is being paid to the effects of punitive policing and incapacitation strategies for controlling crime. Black lives matter. In 2009, the incarceration rate did not increase – for the first time in 40 years (Cole, 2011). Data has begun to trickle in that show that crime rates do not increase when prison rates decrease (Chettiar, 2015). Last year, the ACLU received a $50 million foundation grant to reduce incarceration rates by fifty-percent over the next 5 years. Hilary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Koch brothers have all called for an end to mass incarceration. President Obama visited a federal prison this summer and was the first sitting president to do so. Time Magazine recently declared criminal justice reform to be “Washington’s bipartisan cause” (Altman, 2015). Our reparative tendencies have perhaps been activated by four decades of being ruled by our punitive ones. The pendulum has swung and there is now a crucial opportunity: do we truly reform – transform – or simply reenact?

If we really want to “turn the corner of mass incarceration” (Cole, 2011), we have to address the determinants of it on both micro and macro levels.

In closing, a call to action:

If you have political power, please use it. Have conversations. Push the issues. Challenge your friends and relatives about complacency about the criminal justice system. Challenge your colleagues who resist seeing the complicity of all of us in a phenomenon that disproportionately impacts some of us. Listen to American playwright Lorraine Hansberry and “stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” Vote. Change sentencing laws.
Accept the connection between millions of black people enslaved, and millions immured in prison. Work through your own racism. Challenge others on theirs. Be curious about millions of white people as slave owners, and millions of white people who are creating mass incarceration. Don’t retreat into a state of overwhelm, or assume that someone else is figuring this out. We all constructed it, we all have to dismantle it.

See an “at risk”/”of risk” patient or client in your practice if you have one. See their families, their friends, and help them to bear their experiences. Help them heal.

Use your psychoanalytic sensibility to invite others to come into meaningful contact with these issues and move beyond the splits that characterize the thinking around prisons and prisoners – good/bad, innocent/guilty, free/immured, deserving/not deserving. Make any and all of this thinkable (an act of resistance when it comes to these social defense systems).

We can add to this conversation. Now is the time. We can use the theory we have to understand violence, how outside gets inside (and back outside again), how we all create the conditions that give rise to this phenomenon. We can work on both sides of the projective identification equation (and I would argue that we must), and address the projectors – not just those forced into identifications with their projections.

Just don’t look away. 2.3 million people and their families (and counting) need us to bear this. Stir up the lower depths. (But don’t forget to bend the higher powers, too.)

[1] Freud opened The Interpretation of Dreams with this quote from Virgil’s Aeneid.



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