For the Children?: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State
reviewed by Angelica Camacho - June 08, 2017
Title: For the Children?: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State
Author(s): Erica R. Meiners
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
ISBN: 0816692769, Pages: 280, Year: 2016
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For The Children? addresses some of the most pressing debates and movements regarding the criminal justice system, schools, and children. Erica R. Meiners pushes the reader to confront and engage with the social justice strategies that have been launched and consented to in the name of protecting children. Through her own experience as a teacher/facilitator and participant in anti-prison organizing in Chicago, Meiners theorizes and offers critiques about prison reform arguments, school-to-prison pipeline preventative strategies, safeguarding childrens innocence, low-performing schools, anti-bullying policies for LGBTQ students, sex offender registries, and restorative justice. A primary objective of the text is to problematize the category of the child and its racist heteropatriarchal history. Meiners insists this is a vital step in the dismantling of the prison industrial complex and creating safer communities. Her analysis exposes how the state rhetorically mobilizes the child to advance a carceral regime and garner support for more policing, surveillance, and criminalization in communities of color. Meiners questions, who is eligible for the benefits of childhood? and provides numerous examples of Black children who have been criminalized for engaging in sexual practices deemed non-normative for minors by western conceptions of civility. Further, as the carceral state promises the protection and safety of children, punitive measures mask systemic, physical, and sexual violence against victims. If anything, Meiners argues that these seemingly protective systems have made children and communities of color more vulnerable to violence.
Meiners is quite explicit that the book is meant to influence a specific type of praxis toward building a world without prisons and transformative models for education. She asserts that childhood is shaped by Enlightenment ideals that marked white children as non-self-determined beings, incapable of making rational decisions and giving consent. In this way, there was a presumed innocence for white children, although Black and indigenous communities were infantilized during conquest.
A major intention within the text is to rupture the commonsense relationships that have formed around incarceration, public safety, and child protection. Meiners insists that public affective attachments require more than structural policy shifts, and necessitate a conversation about how the carceral state is dependent of and reproduces white supremacist heteropatriarchal hierarchies. For this, there must be a heterogendered and racialized understanding of the construction of innocence within campaigns to protect children. In America, the demarcation of childhood and adulthood has been heavily shaped by a criminal justice system that continuously attempts to hide racial inequalities while also marking incarcerated people as childlike, or in need of supervision. Moreover, the boundaries of adult and child have constrained peoples behavior and mobility, as they explain, Not being an adult renders a person not fully free, not a full citizen, and subject to a host of regulations and additional forms of surveillance and policing (p. 33).
Meiners dutifully reminds the reader of the racial project that underpins the juvenile justice system. Black and other non-white poor communities were considered pathological and deviant for their failure to abide by strict heteropatriarchal family frameworks and sexual practices amongst girls. Throughout Chapter One, Meiners critiques the use of brain development research in the struggle to combat life sentencing for youth. She argues that framing juvenile justice around race-neutral neurological development research disregards the social conditions produced by the historical intersections of racism, heterosexuality, colonialism, poverty, and incarceration, reproducing scientific racism. These arguments narrate racially targeted incarceration as an individual issue of mental deficiency versus a production of structural forces and the biopolitical social construction of childhood development. Further, maturity is presented as biological, and inversely adults, can and should be culpable and fully punished (p. 48).
Meiners intervenes in our understanding of the child as a neutral category to expose its racialized and heterogendered formation. Often the need to protect some children is mobilized to extend carceral logics into schools for children of color. Chapter Two explores how constructions of childhood and youth are circulated to strengthen racialized and gendered regimes of criminalization that do not create safety, such as the white gay student that needs to be protected from bullies or the black/brown students harmed by the school-to-prison pipeline. Meiners argues that while anti-bullying legislation assumes the problem can be solved by removing a few bad kids from school, these laws often focus on punishing individuals (predominantly students of color) and fail to excavate the structural power that institutionalizes heteronormativity. Further, when the school-to-prison pipeline is framed as a crisis for black boys that results in a loss of manhood, it not only reproduces patriarchal notions of family and freedom, but also ignores how sexual and gender violence shape school punishment to push girls out of school.
Meiners reflects on the extension of the carceral regime through policy formations and campaigns that are framed around invocations of fund schools, not jails, or educate, not incarcerate. Through a focus on the massive school closures in Chicago, Meiners argues that commonsense claims for closure, like low test scores or bad teachers, ignore root causes that are largely structural and induced by poverty. Moreover, such rhetoric fails to recognize that school closures are driven by efforts to dismantle unions, privatize education, and gentrify neighborhoods. Meiners also asserts that abolition democracy is about building new institutions and relations, and offers a reminder that recognition and difference are often absorbed by the state to help expand the prison industrial complex. Additionally, transgender issues have been acknowledged to help expand jails and develop new enclosures.
Chapter Four discusses the limits faced by the adoption of restorative justice practices in Chicago schools. The implementation of restorative justice came to prevent the entrance of young people into a cycle of incarceration, but the definition of what or who is the problem in schools continues to create an ongoing tension. While punishment is no longer the goal in restorative justice, Meiners asks if the harm caused can really be healed and restored, or if we should instead attempt to enact social transformation. Meiners promotes transformative justice methods that acknowledge how structural and systemic violence shapes the everyday lives and choices of children. In a highly valuable section, Meiners navigates the terrain of state-sanctioned policy pertaining to sexual abuse against children, and offers new strategies that vehemently take a stand against sexual violence while simultaneously acknowledging how sex offender registries and moral panic around stranger danger neither address nor stop sexual violence. Meiners argues:
The public panic about sex offenders that grew in the 1990s cannot be seen in isolation from the explosion in construction of control units during the same decade. Registries and community notification laws are a central component of a larger carceral state that is also privatizing and reconfiguring public domains and impacting communities of color. The anxieties propagated by sex offenders also, as noted, enhance the policing of sexually marginalized people, increase the number of charges and convictions, and lengthen prison terms (p. 169).
Policing strategies in the name of child protection have been more about waging war against sex work and queer sexualities, and augment the precarity of both adults and children.
Meiners bravely forefronts a critique of the sensitive topic of sexual abuse and violence by astutely pointing out that current carceral-dependent strategies to protect children are deceptive, as most acts of sexual violence occur by trusted parties who themselves are often victims of sexual abuse. Further, this work acknowledges how the state also enacts harm, and state and structural violence are deeply connected to the interpersonal violence that manifests in our lives. Meiners notes that economic divestment is a form of state violence, as are hyperpolicing and racial profiling, underfunding schools, or supporting institutions that reward misogyny and heteronormativity (p. 136). Specifically, incarceration as a preventative strategy leads to the disenfranchisement of large numbers of Black and brown people, creates roadblocks for employment and education, and leaves formerly incarcerated people vulnerable to labor exploitation.
For The Children? offers counter-perspectives to numerous debates such as youth sentencing, child development, and interpersonal violence that are central to both the field of education and spaces of organizing. It is an intellectually rigorous text that challenges heavily embedded common senses and is a must-read for scholars and activists alike. The arguments within the text are invaluable to our thinking through the interconnectedness of various struggles, but most importantly, our very own affective attachments to protect the racialized and heterogendered construction of the child.