Disability studies looks at disability as an identity and culture and not as a deficit to be corrected.
“Prison abolition and decarceration have happened already, in the form of massive closures of disability residential institutions and psychiatric hospitals.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Liat Ben-Moshe. Ben-Moshe is Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her book is Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Liat Ben-Moshe: We are seeing an unprecedented interest in abolition and defunding of policing right now and an outrage against racist state violence. I hope the book can add to the discussion by anchoring race-ability and racial criminal pathologization as ways of understanding the roots and current manifestations of this state violence. By connecting the work of prison abolitionists to disability studies and disability activism, we can begin understanding the ways in which criminalizing entails the construction of both race (especially blackness) and disability (especially mental difference) as dangerous. The framework of racial criminal pathologization that I offer in the book is about understanding policing, incarceration, and its alternatives as disability issues.
The book centers an analysis of decarceration in two movements – prison abolition and deinstitutionalization (anti-psychiatry and institutions for people with intellectual disability labels). To those who claim that prison abolition and decarceration could never happen, I point to the fact that it happened already, in the form of massive closures of disability residential institutions and psychiatric hospitals.
“Policing, incarceration, and its alternatives are disability issues.”
What this clarifies for the current moment in addition is that incarceration and carcerality does not just happen in prisons/jails or detention centers but also in psych hospitals, nursing homes and group homes. This cannot be clearer now in the moment of COVID, where in many states over 50% of COVID deaths happen in congregate facilities (including prisons and nursing homes). Even though the book focuses on the 1960s, 1970s and leading up to the 2000 (much prior to COVID and the current manifestation of anti-racist uprisings), it shows that we need to understand how to abolish carcerality in a more expansive ways, otherwise the alternatives or ways we seek to rid of carceral spaces and logics will just repeat themselves in other locales.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The book does two main things: it provides a critical genealogy of deinstitutionalization and/as abolition (and in it, connects the closure of psych facilities to the history and movements to close residential facilities for those with intellectual/developmental disability labels, what were called ‘institutions for the mentally retarded’ or ‘feebleminded’). Second, the book brings a disability perspective (what I call crip/mad of color critique) to decarceration, abolition and imprisonment.
I therefore want people to understand that deinstitutionalization was a lot of things (including an unfulfilled promise) but it was also a liberation movement and an abolitionary one at that. A lot of people fought for it. Advocates (including those institutionalized, psychiatrized, their loved ones, renegade professionals and more) pushed not for the reform of institutions and psych facilities but for their closure. They called for, and still do, for a new way of dealing with difference, for ending segregation, abolishing disability-based confinement, and for community integration in all aspects of life.
“Deinstitutionalization was a lot of things.”
I then use the concept of Dis Inc. to critically assess disability rights’ approach to inclusion of disability. Under current formations of racial capitalism, the incorporation of disability is twofold but equally problematic—through capitalist accumulation (incarceration of disabled people for profit, in jails, nursing homes, group homes) and through erasure of the transgressive aspects of race-ability in order to be included. Throughout the book, I show how this inclusion (that only works under respectability politics) operated in NIMBY resistance to housing integration; in fights against the closure of disability residential institutions; and through the arena of litigation, which emphasizes rights to inclusion into an oppressive status quo.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I want readers to understand that disability and mental health difference are not deficits and they are not only medical diagnoses. For people who are politicized as disabled, mad or neurodiverse – these categories are forms of identity and culture. There are histories, movements and cultural production attached to these categories. There is ableism, sanism and their connection to other interlocking systems of oppression, but these histories are also imbued with the resiliency and resistance of disabled/mad/neurodiverse people. (Ableism is oppression based on disability or impairment (real or perceived) and sanism is oppression of people with mental health difference and the mandate to be sane.) This history and culture is something we have to learn, even as disabled people, and sanism/ableism and pathologizing these categories is something we all need to un-learn.
For example, recent proposals to replace police with social workers, or send people to psychiatric treatment instead of jail are forms of what I call carceral ableism/sanism. One of the things that people are pushing for, especially right now, is new jail facilities that will be more responsive to mental health needs. And this is not abolitionary or liberating, because this will add to the oppression of people with disabilities who have been fighting against the violence of psychiatrization, of surveillance and so on.
In addition, I hope that disability rights movements understand how pathologization is deeply connected to racialization, criminalization and white supremacy. I hope that this unlearning leads to more intersectional analysis and struggles for liberation.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
As an abolitionist, I’m indebted to black feminist abolitionist thought, especially by the mentorship of Angela Davis, Beth Richie and Mariame Kaba and other luminaries such as Erica Meiners, Viviane Saleh-Hanna and Ruthie Gilmore.
I was also influenced by the work of Cathy Cohen, Dean Spade and Roderick Ferguson, especially the framework of queer of color critique.
The field that inspired my work and my-self more than anything had been disability studies, which looks at disability as an identity and culture and not as a deficit to be corrected. It shows that disability is a framework, an analysis, not an additive thing but a lens from which to live and analyze the world around us. As a disabled person, it was very powerful to learn this, and my teachers are too numerous to mention here but are the core of all my work.
Lastly, the book is indebted to movement knowledge: especially those who we don’t often acknowledge as intellectuals. Deinstitutionalization was fought for by many people, amongst them those psychiatrized/mad/neuroqueer (who we often call crazy), anti-psychiatry activists, and disability activists including self-advocates (people with intellectual disability labels who advocate for their rights, including the right to live in the community and close down institutional settings).
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
First, I show that the narrative of deinstitutionalization as failure is dangerous and hides its radical potential, and this potential is ripe for activation. Deinstitutionalization was certainly not a panacea, but it was also a liberation movement. Not even a generation ago, we had these huge asylums and residential institutions for people with intellectual disabilities or psychiatric disabilities, thousands of people were incarcerated within one single facility, many for decades. And now in most states, they're gone. This has happened in the U.S., not in a different country, and it gives us hope that abolition is possible, it is necessary and it’s in fact not unrealistic, but the only viable way forward. Through deinstitutionalization and other examples, the book shows that carceral abolition is not just a dream for the future (although it is that too) but a relearning and activation of the past in the present.
“Deinstitutionalization was certainly not a panacea, but it was also a liberation movement.”
Second, I show in the book that a key characteristic of abolition is rejecting absolutism, foreclosing certainty, and demanding prescriptions and professional expertise: tell us what must be done, knowing what will lead to the best results, repeating this framework in all cases, and needing to wait until we are certain about what will lead to a non-carceral future. These ‘demands’ were not followed in deinstitutionalization and historical decarceration cases.
Abolitionists work on a case-by-case basis in their campaigns, research and calls for action. We are often in a position of not knowing what to do. This seeming chasm between pragmatism and vision for the future of a non-carceral society are not necessarily binary opposites but could be generative tension. As such, abolition goes beyond protesting the current circumstances, to creating new conditions of possibility by collectively contesting the status quo.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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