A Term Tied To Prison Breaks Out

July 2, 2016

A Term Tied To Prison Breaks Out
Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2016

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in Utah v. Strieff, a case about unreasonable searches and seizures. Justice Clarence Thomas issued the majority opinion in the case, limiting the scope of the “exclusionary rule,” which excludes evidence from consideration if it is tainted by the violation of a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.

But it was Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion that attracted the most attention—and sent a lot of people to their dictionaries.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion “implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.” Her use of “carceral,” meaning “relating to prison,” raised a lot of eyebrows.Merriam-Webster reported that the opinion led to a spike in look-ups for the word in their online dictionary. And no wonder: “carceral” has been exceedingly rare for the past few hundred years—until contemporary social and legal theorists revived it.

Even if you have never seen the word before, you might be able to glean its meaning if you know your classical roots. “Carcer” means “prison” in Latin and is the root of the much more common word “incarcerate,” meaning “to confine in prison.”

The earliest known example of “carceral” is from 1570, in a book by the English writer John Foxe. In his “Acts and Monuments,” a history of Protestant suffering under the Catholic Church, he tells of a priest named William Tailor who was imprisoned during the reign of Henry VI but was “released from his carceral endurance” after declaring his penitence.

For more than three centuries, “carceral” was seldom used in English, but that changed in 1975 when the influential French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucaultpublished “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.” In the book, Foucault analyzes “the carceral system” (or le système carcéral in the original French). He also advanced the concept of the “carceral archipelago” that transfers the social control and surveillance technology of the prison system to society at large.

Followers of Foucault soon began writing about “the carceral state,” particularly as it relates to the perils of the American penal system.

One high-profile advocate of the term is the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who used it last year in his National Book Award-winning meditation on race in America, “Between the World and Me.” “The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will,” he observed.

Indeed, Justice Sotomayor cited Mr. Coates in her Utah v. Strieff dissent. With all of this new attention, “carceral” has broken free from the shackles of the dictionary and entered mainstream usage.

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