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The Carceral Logic of the Family Policing System (


By Emma Peyton Williams, upEND Contributor, November 17, 2021

“The way that requirements are heaped onto parents is consistent with the current punitive model for social services, in which everything comes down to personal responsibility. Instead of addressing parents’ lack of resources, for example, it’s assumed that the problem lies with some ‘pathology’ of the parent. Parents who are sucked into the child welfare system are almost always mandated to attend classes, even when the problem that led to their involvement was entirely driven by poverty. It is useful to consider how this relates to both psychiatric diagnoses – which can lead to punitively mandated treatment – and criminal charges, which can lead to incarceration. Instead of providing actual support, each of these systems enacts new forms of control and calls them support.”

– Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law in Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

By including the family policing system in their book Prison by Any Other Name, Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law link the punitive nature of the prison system to “the current punitive model for social services.” The similarities that Schenwar and Law note, such as each system’s focus on coercing compliance as opposed to changing material realities and the disproportionate impact of each system on people of color, particularly Black people, evidence the systems’ similarities. But these systems do not merely do similar things – they are different manifestations of the same idea. Both the family policing system and the criminal punishment system are carceral logic incarnate.

At its simplest, carceral logic is the system of thinking that makes punitive systems possible. Built on the fear that there are a “terrible few” who have the pathology to cause harm to others, carceral logic draws absolutes: these “terrible few” are inherently and unwaveringly “dangerous,” all others are “innocents,” and the innocents must be protected from the dangerous. Carceral logic has responded to the presumed inevitability of danger in the same way – to keep “the innocent” safe, an authority must intervene and forcibly prevent the “terrible few” from enacting harm. Instead of thinking critically about what it means to co-create safety, carceral logic tells us that the only way we can be safe is by entrusting the state to punish those who have caused (or who are presumed to have the pathology to cause) harm. As a result, we see the proliferation of systems of surveillance, regulation, and punishment, a trend that anti-carceral feminist scholars Beth Richie and Kayla Martensen call “carceral expansion.” Richie and Martensen point to the link between the criminal punishment system and social services as evidence that social workers must be part of the movement to resist carceral expansion. This resistance starts with understanding the role that the family policing system plays within the broader carceral state.

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