In an episode of Netflix's popular series about women in prison, Orange Is the New Black, a group of "at-risk" teenagers is brought into the prison in an effort to prevent them from continuing on a path that presumably leads to incarceration.1 One of these teenagers is a girl using a wheelchair, who informs an inmate sent to "scare her straight" that she engaged in illegal activity because nobody believed that she could commit a crime. She says, "They told me I couldn't rob a liquor store, but I showed them," suggesting that her behaviors were a reaction to the assumption that wheelchair users do not need to be policed because of their "dis-ability." The belief that people with disabilities are not subject—or even more especially prone—to the oversight of governing bodies is interesting given what we have learned from Michel Foucault, whose corpus has revealed how fear of the non-normative body has caused it to be subjected to the surveillance of systems of power. While Foucault stops short of providing a disability studies critique, his writings certainly have paved the way for the bridging of critical prison studies and critical disability studies. The intersections between these two fields of study and critical race studies are brought to bear on North American incarcerative practices in Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada, a collection of fourteen essays edited by Liat Ben-Moshe, Chris Chapman, and Allison C. Carey.

Previously, we have seen these branches of study joined most notably in Shelley Lynn Tremain's 2005 edited collection entitled Foucault and the Government of Disability, the first work to extensively recruit Foucault for disability studies, and Susan M. Schweik's The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (2009), the seminal study of the criminalization of disability in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America.2 But nowhere have we seen incarcerative practices analyzed in such a dynamic way as to expose the relationship between the policing of disability and the disabling processes of the prison-industrial complex. Furthermore, not until this volume have we seen the "post-institutionalization" era pressed so furiously as to expose the ways in which the regime of power-knowledge undergirding carceral systems persists even following the abolition of those structures.

The essays in Disability Incarcerated demonstrate that racialized and disabled bodies are now, and historically have been, policed in various and complex ways, causing a disproportionate number of people with disabilities to be confined in carceral spaces, whether in institutions or in prisons. The collection compellingly argues for a deeper examination of the interlocking oppressions that have caused othered bodies—specifically, disabled, working-class, minority, immigrant, terrorist, and displaced bodies—to be watched, controlled, and contained by the prison-industrial complex (PIC), which is defined in the introductory essay as "a complex web interweaving private business and government interests in the growing industry of incarceration and prison development" (Chapman, Carey, Ben-Moshe 12-13). As Angela Y. Davis originated this concept, it is fitting that she opens the volume—and she does so with a personal and powerful call to reconsider incarceration practices through the lens of disability studies. Davis's forward and Robert McRuer's epilogue frame the collection, which is divided into two sections—one that traces the historical links between disability and incarceration and one that analyzes current incarcerative practices while looking forward to a world with "transformative" rather than "restorative" justice (Ben-Moshe 260). The essays, though rich in their diversity, form a coherent, engaging narrative that shows how "neoliberal dispossession continues to generate new forms of control, containment, and complicity" (McRuer 277). Every essay, whether exploring Canada's Indian residential schools (see in particular Chapman), the use of psychotropic drugs to chemically restrain and "constrain" imprisoned or institutionalized persons (see Erick Fabris and Katie Aubrecht), or the labeling of Muslim terrorists as "mad" (see Shaista Patel's article), expands the notion of incarceration so that the prison is no longer understood to be merely a physical space but also a social practice—or bigger, a social structure.

The most riveting argument in the volume—and one that every essay addresses in some way—is that neoliberalism benefits from othering bodies and funneling them into the prison-industrial complex but that this system of power can be seen to bolster more than just physical institutions. Indeed, the discrimination against marked bodies seems all the more sinister because so much subtler when it has shifted from institutional to discursive practices. Many of the essays highlight how the abolition of carceral spaces like asylums has not been accompanied by the empowerment of institutional survivors and those who were born after the decline these institutions. This narrative culminates in Liat Ben-Moshe's "Alternatives to (Disability) Incarceration," in which she asserts that activists need to focus not on reforming and/or removing institutional structures but on transforming the structure of society (260). Ben-Moshe, Chapman, and Carey's volume is sure to rattle those who have grown complacent in their satisfaction with efforts at community-integration and the non-institutional alternatives offered to people with disabilities.

In my opinion, the standout chapters include Chapman's "Five Centuries' Material Reforms and Ethical Reformulations of Social Elimination," Philip M. Ferguson's "Creating the Back Ward: The Triumph of Custodialism and the Uses of Therapeutic Failure in Nineteenth-Century Idiot Asylums," and Jihan Abbas and Jijian Voronka's "Remembering Institutional Erasures: The Meaning of Histories of Disability Incarceration in Ontario." Chapman's essay is particularly notable for its attention to the eras before the prison-industrial complex emerged in its modern capitalist form. His is the only piece to reach back into the Middle Ages to show how political rationalities have shifted over time to accommodate and justify different practices of exclusion, though as he smartly suggests, "Political rationalities today selectively glean from the various options available from the last five centuries—each period's ethical narration potentially available to justify our ongoing violence" (40). It makes sense that the volume would attend so little to a preindustrial world, given that it focuses on the links between disability and incarceration in the United States and Canada and that it is particularly interested in the systems of oppression advanced by late capitalism. Perhaps it will be the work of future studies to continue to trace the roots of modern incarcerative practices and political rationalities that justified these systems of segregation back to the preindustrial world and to globalize the study of "Disability, Incarcerated," as McRruer has already begun to do in his epilogue with his critical reading of the Pistorius trial. Ferguson's article serves as a powerful follow-up to Chapman's essay, as he expands the notion of "therapeutic failure" addressed by Chapman to show how it functions "both as a diagnostic category and a location of service," thereby "mak[ing] today's back wards so resistant to change" (58). And Abbas and Voronka's chapter intelligently reads the landscape of Ontario to suggest how the repurposing of institutional spaces attempts to erase the sites' history of disability incarceration and to obscure current discriminatory practices toward people with disabilities.

Especially valuable is the attention given to the need for a self-authored response to the prison-industrial complex by those whom it has oppressed. Michael Rembis shows us in "The New Asylums: Madness and Mass Incarceration in the Neoliberal Era" that we need to attend more to mad voices. In "It Can't Be Fixed Because It's Not Broken: Racism and Disability in the Prison Industrial Complex," Syrus Ware, Joan Ruzsa, and Giselle Dias recommend using stories of prisoners as data to study the experiences of racialization and disability in prison. Finally, Mark Friedman and Ruth-Marie Beckwith join Liat Ben-Moshe, who recommends "empowering communities … to define and deal with issues that arise within them" (258) and who shows us how other countries have succeeded in doing so, in promoting self-advocacy as a means to end systems of oppression.

In a powerful way, Disability Incarcerated embraces "intersectionality" to expose how "disability, situated alongside other key lines of stratification … is central to understanding the complex, varied, and interlocking ways in which incarceration occurs and is made out to be normal, natural, politically necessary, and beneficial" (Carey, Ben-Moshe, and Chapman x). However, although the editors claim in the introduction to show how disability and gender are interlocking oppressions in the carceral system, the essays they include are frighteningly silent on the fate of women in either asylums or prisons. The only essayist who attends in any sustained way to gender oppression is Rembis, who explains that "women inmates had higher rates of 'mental health problems' than men" and who analyzes the institutionalization of "delinquent" girls (146). When discussing schizophrenia, Patel notes that before the 1950s, it was a diagnosis primarily given to housewives (204). This moment begs for a critical examination of gender and carceral spaces—perhaps even a reconsideration of the domestic space in relation to structures of power like the prison-industrial complex—and yet no more is said about it. The absence of gender in the volume is surprising given Davis's forward, in which she describes her own experience of gender discrimination in prison and then says, "I was entirely unaware of the structural conflation of deviant and disabled women" (viii). The volume is more focused on the intersections between race, nationality, and disability in carceral systems. To be sure, these are important interlocking oppressions to explore; however, it would have been nice to see more attention given to the incarceration and/or institutionalization of women and to the structures of power that continue to discriminate against women with disabilities. Specifically, I could have envisioned a piece on the governance of reproductive rights in institutional and non-institutional settings making an important contribution to the volume.

Additionally, I noted an emphasis on the experiences of those within carceral systems who have psychological, intellectual, and/or developmental disabilities, with little attention given to other forms of disability. The exception is Ware, Ruzsa, and Dias's essay, in which they show how prison "is both detrimental for people with disabilities and responsible for creating new experiences of disabilities" (164). As McRuer rightly suggests in his epilogue, this collection follows the "mad turn" in disability studies (277). I agree with McRuer that this move "is reinvigorating the field of disability studies and changing or radicalizing the questions we might ask in it" (277-78). However, by focusing almost exclusively on these forms of difference, the experiences of those with other forms of disability in prisons and similar systems of oppression are left unheard. Understandably, any edited collection is limited in how many pieces it can contain, an awareness to which the editors themselves attest in a footnote to their preface (xiv). Disability Incarcerated offers readers a powerful critique of neoliberalism and its exploitation of non-normative bodies, and it certainly has primed the path for future work that bridges critical prison studies and critical disability studies. Perhaps the next study will use the powerful theoretical framework offered by the editors of the volume to consider the policing of gendered, sexualized, and disabled bodies.


  1. "Bora Bora Bora." Orange Is the New Black. Netflix. Writ. Jenji Kohan, Nick Jones, and Piper Kerman. Dir. Andrew McCarthy. 11 July 2013. Television.
    Return to Text
  2. See Shelley Lynn's Foucault and the Government of Disability (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2005) and Susan M. Schweik's The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York: New York UP, 2009).
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2015 Jennifer Anne Janechek

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)