Participating in Carceral Systems (OPINION)

Jul 8, 2020
5:06 PM

(AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

By Norma A. Herrera

Versión en español aquí.

We see the Trump administration implementing incredibly violent, inhumane actions against immigrants and we understand by way of popular culture that our country jails and imprisons more individuals than any people ever in the history of humanity. We know those actions originate from a white supremacist, xenophobic ideology. Aides to President Nixon explained to us explicitly that anti-Blackness drove the war on drugs. President Trump explains to us explicitly that his hatred for immigrants of color informs his immigration policies.

A racist ideology drives the policies of the sociopolitical white power structure. That makes sense to us and we can understand it. But often the people on the front lines, the street level bureaucrats who put these policies into action are people of color. Particularly here in the Rio Grande Valley, the local cop who jails individuals who steal to survive or feed a drug addiction, is a Mexican of color. The Border Patrol agent who stands at the international bridge and prevents Central Americans from seeking asylum is more often than not a Mexican of color. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent who daily visits our county jail to pick up undocumented folks and imprison them in a detention center is almost surely a Mexican of color.

In our visits with local police chiefs to ask that they limit collaboration with ICE and Border Patrol, almost all of them confess to us that they are not anti-immigrant and in fact come from a family of immigrants. I recall various police chiefs telling us their grandparents came from Mexico and they are proud of their immigrant lineage. And yet every day they take actions or look the other way on actions taken by others that result in hyper incarceration, immigrant detention and deportation, and family separation.

How do we make sense of this? How is it that —if mass incarceration and the criminalization of immigration were driven by the sociopolitical white power structure— how are those systems maintained by communities of color like ours in the Rio Grande Valley?

We can focus on something that abolitionist and activist Morgan Bassichis said, and that is that the very systems we are working to dismantle live inside of us. We can extend that concept to carceral systems—they live inside of us, and we participate in them even when we do not manifest them in an intentional way. We internalize and embody carceral ideologies.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. Something that I think is very common, especially in these parts of the country. My family is from Mexico, and I was born in Mexico. When I was three years old, my parents came to the Valley. We were undocumented, and I always knew it and felt it. I knew that I had to hide my legal status. I think because I was young and had not experienced much else, I began to feel shame and I felt wrong for being “illegal”—a word that communicated something bad and criminal. When my dad was arrested and detained after a raid at his workplace, I asked myself if maybe he had done something wrong to deserve it. We went without income for months and even more I asked myself if we were guilty. How could they have treated us so badly if not because we had done something bad to deserve it? It saddens me to confess this now, but eventually I came to blame my parents for bringing us here. I grew resentment toward them and at one point I came to believe they had done something criminal and that their arrest, detention, and deportation was something logical and reasonable. I had internalized the carceral ideology that says it is necessary to control immigration through law enforcement agencies, prisons for immigrants, and forced separations.

Carceral frameworks live inside of us. They aren’t discrete systems outside ourselves that we can dismantle without critically examining how they shape our ideas, strategies, and visions.

What this tells me is that to truly dismantle carceral frameworks that rely on the police and criminal laws for safety, punishment, and immigration control, we have to look inward just as much as we look outward. When we look outward only we pretend like these systems exist outside of ourselves and can be dismantled as discrete entities that aren’t enmeshed in our culture, our practices, and our beliefs. In order to get involved in the work of decriminalizing immigration, I first had to examine my deepest beliefs.

I’ll give you another example: something that happens when someone commits harm or an act of interpersonal violence. What we see is that often community accountability tends to entail public shaming and exile. When the exiled can no longer return to community, cannot find employment, and has no options that allow them to be responsible for their actions but that don’t entail punishment and banishment, then that person has been subjected to something that looks a lot like carceral justice. When the person that was harmed is told what justice should look like for them without taking their own needs and wishes into account, that bears a resemblance to carceral justice. And when our community practices don’t allow the two of them a space to continue existing together in whatever form they find most healing, that, again, recreates carceral justice.

The author, professor, and feminist bell hooks teaches us that both men and women and people who do not conform to a gender can participate in sexism because it is a a system —a way of thinking and behaving as well as an institutionalized framework— and not a gender-based identity. It’s the same idea: it doesn’t take a jailer to be carceral. We all internalize, embody, and manifest carceralism to some extent or another.

We can think of it as a spectrum of manifestation and participation in carceral systems. The cops or Border Patrol agents who jail or detain people day after day have absolute participation; it is their ideology and their paid profession. But the rest of us do participate and manifest to lesser, but still significant and measurable, degrees.

This leads us to a definition of abolitionism based on bell hooks’ definition of feminism. Abolitionism is thus the movement to end —identify and dismantle— carceral frameworks and systems in ourselves —our thought and action— and our environments, cultures, and institutions.

So, if we are not looking inward and self-assessing, then we are not doing abolitionist work. If our community practices recreate the same punitive and harmful practices inherent to the criminal justice system, then we are not doing abolitionist work. And if we are not looking at the individuals who participate in carceral systems as human beings who uphold and manifest carcelism but are not carcelism itself, then we are not doing abolitionist work.

None of this is intended to offend or discourage. On the contrary, if we truly understand that oppressive and harmful systems live inside of us, then it is so much easier to see the humanity in anyone behaving in oppressive and harmful ways and realize that they, too, are acting under the influence of something that permeates them and everything in our world. Because as the abolitionist Mariame Kaba says with respect to sexual violence, this is not a story of individual monsters. We have to think about it in a more complex way if we are really going to end the use of prisons. We must recognize our own complicity in carceral systems even when we are not participating in them in an intentional way.

Because as Mariame Kaba says, when you are always in the position of seeing everything as outside yourself, you are always in the role of organizer or activist and perhaps not participant. If these systems did not live inside of us, they would be much easier to dismantle, and recognizing that can give us some understanding of the reach of carceral systems and the ways in which we can work to abolish them.


Norma A. Herrera is a community organizer in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas resisting against the criminalization of immigrant and Latinx communities and the militarization of the Texas-Mexico border.