Prisons and the Expropriation of the Body


Art by BlueBerryMouseYumi  on Deviant Art

By Duncan Riley



To arrest someone is an act of violence. To handcuff them, to force them to undergo invasive searches, and to lock them in a jail is to fundamentally compromise their bodily autonomy and personal liberty, to rip from them their humanity in order to transform them into the property of the State. That this is violence cannot be disputed, the real question is whether or not it is justified. The powerful in our society assert that it is, while our common humanity passionately asserts the contrary, revolting against the quotidian violence of the State in the name of a dignity inherent within all of us.

When the police handcuff someone, they take from them their bodily autonomy. The individual is thus made to understand that their body is no longer their own, that the police now control it and that for as long as they remain in custody it belongs to the State. The searches and other invasive practices the arrested person is subjected to further reinforce this message in the individual’s mind, gradually separating the body from the person’s sense of self.[1] Thus to arrest someone is to expropriate them from their body, erecting a wall of alienation between the self and the body.

An arrest also serves to alienate the individual from the rest of society. To be arrested in a public space, in front of neighbors, coworkers, and passersby publicly humiliates the individual, causing significant social and emotional pain, while simultaneously separating them from society. The public spectacle of the arrest communicates to the observers that the individual is a “criminal” and (unless the observer has a personal relationship with the arrestee) this becomes the observer’s only understanding of the individual, they are a “criminal” and nothing more. As such, it is the very act of the arrest itself that justifies it in the eyes of society and transforms the individual into a “criminal,” not the crime they are supposed to have committed, the circumstances of which the observers and the society at large are ignorant of.

In analyzing this process of expropriation and social exclusion we must not forget the human cost. The violent seizure of an individual’s body, the complete negation of their personal liberty and autonomy, is an assault on the very basis of our humanity. In seizing the individual’s body the State seeks to rob them of their agency and transform them into an object, forcing them to subordinate their own well-being to the demands of the State. Human beings, of course, are not mere objects, and every fiber of their humanity revolts against this classification, against the transformation of their body into an instrument of their own oppression. Thus, like any act of violence perpetrated by the powerful, the expropriation of the body inflicts significant emotional harm and trauma upon the individual, and further leaves them with a sense of powerlessness. Equally, the social alienation which accompanies this violent act of expropriation compounds its traumatic effects. The branding of an individual as a “criminal” confers a significant social stigma upon them, which, when combined with fines and other penalties imposed by the courts, can make obtaining the necessities of life, like work, housing, and food, very difficult. Further, the social dimension of the expropriation also facilitates the spread of trauma, as friends and relatives who witness the arrest of a loved one begin to share in their pain. As such, the expropriation of the body through arrest seeks not only to deny human dignity but also to foment human misery.

The trauma and misery that prisons and jails create are deep indeed, for when human beings become objects in the eyes of the State, any form of mistreatment, even the most violent and brutal, can be justified. A woman can be forced to give birth alone in her cell, prisoners can be denied adequate medical care and left to die from preventable illnesses, and guards and police officers can abuse prisoners without ever facing serious consequences.[2] That prisons and jails turn people into objects puts the lie to the claim that they exist to protect society or to rehabilitate prisoners, for objects can only be used, not transformed or healed. When humanity is denied the only result can be inhumanity, and the abuse and injustice that come with it.

The pain and injustice the State inflicts is not, however, born simply out of cruelty. Rather, they serve specific ends meant to benefit those the State serves, the capitalist class which holds economic and political power in society. When, through arrest and incarceration, a person has their body expropriated from them by the State, the State can then demand from them their labor, while subjecting them to conditions far worse than the rest of society suffers. In prisons, jails, and workhouses across the country prisoners are forced to provide labor for municipalities (by cleaning streets for example), while also working in the manufacturing and agricultural industries, generating significant profits for both the State and private capitalists while receiving a pittance for pay. Thus, the State’s appropriation of the body is motivated by profit and inherently results in the hyper exploitation of labor.

Further, the alienation between the individual and the society that the criminal justice system promotes operates in parallel to the economic exploitation caused by expropriation, hiding and justifying it. The label “criminal” places the individual outside the confines of respectable society, ensuring that the media and public at large pay little attention to the injustices and exploitation that those labeled “criminals” suffer. And, when prisoners or the public do protest against the conditions of the incarcerated, the argument that “these people are criminals,” becomes the State’s favorite rhetorical stick with which to beat back the opposition. On top of this, the label “criminal” is often extended to the point that it transcends the individual and begins to encompass entire races, classes, genders, and religious groups, justifying discriminatory police and sentencing practices which serve to provide yet more bodies and labor for the State and Capital to exploit. Injustice, in bourgeois society, is very profitable indeed.

Words, however, have become cheap. Justice, in the parlance of the State, refers to injustice, to rehabilitate means to exploit, and to preserve social tranquility means to preserve the privileges of the oppressors against the reclamations of the oppressed. It is no surprise then that such an economic and political order finds itself in almost continuous crisis, torn apart by a greed and cruelty that smothers humanity. The great problem of our day, thus, is how to preserve our humanity, keeping the flame of dignity burning so that it might one day illuminate the whole earth. In the context of the prison system this effort must begin with the prisoners themselves, every act of protest, whether individual or collective, reasserting their humanity and shattering the sense of powerlessness which the State has sought to impose on them. But, as the clamor of protest rises, the voices of prisoners will join with those of workers, peasants, and students, and the oppressed, in realizing they are not alone, will become aware of their collective power. And then the flame will become a torch leading us onward, and through a social struggle waged by all and for all, liberty and humanity will triumph.



[1] These practices can be especially harmful and abusive towards women, as “approximately half of all incarcerated women in the US have suffered past physical or sexual abuse.” See Victoria Law, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 6.

[2] Allyson Chiu, “’Nobody Cared’: A Woman Gave Birth Alone in a Jail Cell after Her Cries for Help Were Ignored, Lawsuit Says,” (The Washington Post. WP Company, August 30, 2019).

Natasha Lennard, “In Secretive Hearing, NYPD Cops Who Raped Brooklyn Teen Get No Jail Time,” (The Intercept, August 30, 2019).

For more examples of the horrific treatment that incarcerated people are subject to, particularly women, see the previously cited book Resistance Behind Bars by Victoria Law.

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