Decarceration’s Inside Partners

October 1, 2022

This Article examines a hidden phenomenon in criminal punishment. People in prison, during their incarceration, have made important—and sometimes extraordinary—strides toward reducing prison populations. In fact, stakeholders in many corners, from policy makers to researchers to abolitionists, have harnessed legal and conceptual strategies generated inside the walls to pursue decarceral strategies outside the walls. Despite this outside use of inside moves, legal scholarship has directed little attention to theorizing the potential of looking to people on the inside as partners in the long-term project of meaningfully reducing prison populations, or “decarceration.”

Building on the change-making agency and revolutionary ideation inside the walls, this Article points the way to an alternative approach to decarceration: thinking alongside people banished from the polity. Criminal law scholars routinely recount their stories, but rarely do we consider people held in prison to be thought leaders, let alone equal partners, in progressing toward a decarceral future. Despite conducting extensive research on prisons and those held inside them, legal scholars know—and wonder—tremendously little about the decarceral work, decarceral ideas, and “think tanks” that surge behind bars. The absence of our curiosity reflects and reproduces the ideological work of carceral punishment.

This Article demonstrates that an alternative vision of decarceration that resists this ideological work opens up more promising paths to create the legal and social change that our current moment demands. It calls on legal scholars and all those committed to large-scale decarceration to find ways to discover, ignite, and emancipate more decarceral visions on the inside. And it argues that, unless we make this challenging shift, we suppress innovative, effective, and more conceivable possibilities to radically transform our carceral state.

October 2022

No. 1