Amidst the abundance of scholarship focusing on incarceration and the carceral state, absent is a deep, informed, and sustained engagement of how disability and madness (as a lived experience and lens through which we can understand a given phenomenon) figure in. Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition uses a crip/mad of color critique to carefully navigate historical inconsistencies and taken-for-granted ideas. In this book, Liat Ben-Moshe, Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, focuses on the ways state-funded institutions, state-enforced values, and public policies position disabled/mad people – particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, queer, and/or poor– to be available for and subjected to State violence and capture. Additionally, Ben-Moshe repeatedly returns to the disabling and maddening conditions of contemporary imprisonment in order to demonstrate what deinstitutionalization (as a social and historical phenomenon and a logic/mindset) can offer prison abolition efforts.
Emerging from the University of Minnesota press, Decarcerating Disability is already being considered a canonical text by scholars engaged in Disability Studies, Critical Prison Studies, Justice Studies, and 20th Century US History. Following Disability Incarcerated, the widely read and highly cited 2013 anthology she edited alongside Allison Carey and Chris Chapman, Ben-Moshe uses each of the 349 pages of her first monograph to demonstrate the salience that ableism and sanism play in processes of, for example, racialization, to expose the ways that scientific, medical, and psychiatric "expertise" continue to play over determining roles in our carceral society and advance an abolitionist politic that is acutely informed by deinstitutionalization and disabled peoples' activism.
Following the work of many Black and queer feminist abolitionists, this book offers a methodological intervention that allows Ben-Moshe to push beyond the limited/ing (albeit important) goal of closing carceral facilities and insists instead on the radical goal of abolishing the ideologies and institutions that make incarceration and institutionalization possible. Aligned with abolition feminists of color like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Beth Richie, and queer feminist abolitionists like Erica Meiners and Dean Spade, Ben-Moshe relies on academic scholarship, activist efforts, and the lived experiences of people who have been most affected by ableism and sanism – systems of oppression that are always racialized, classed, gendered, and in the service of furthering a settler colonial project – making every piece of this book is in the service of laying a foundation for thinking differently and more carefully about violence, safety, choice, danger, difference, and justice. Tracing alternate, maroon genealogies enables Ben-Moshe to ask different kinds of questions about the relationship(s) between carceral locales legitimated by "care" (e.g. nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, and so-called group homes) and those legitimated by "punishment" (e.g. jails and prisons). Understanding these relationships is crucial because deinstitutionalization and decarceration have a lot to offer each other in terms of working toward a radical, non-carceral, and non-segregationist society. Each chapter of Decarcerating Disability serves as a fantastic example of the knowledges, perspectives, and genealogies that are made possible when disability and madness are the lenses through which a queer of color critique is engaged.
In the chapter "Why Prisons Are Not 'The New Asylums,'" Ben-Moshe reviews and revises the taken-for-granted historical narrative of the "new asylum" thesis, a misinformed and misleading idea that has been taken up by many scholars and activists concerned with mass incarceration. This narrative [falsely] assumes that the deinstitutionalization efforts of the mid-20th C led to formerly institutionalized people experiencing homelessness. Since the experience of being unhoused is disabling, maddening, and criminalized, these same people were disproportionately swept up by the criminal in/justice system and eventually became imprisoned in jails and prisons. Using a crip/mad of color critique to review and revise this narrative not only exposes key historical inaccuracies, this methodology also gives rise to questions regarding the demographic makeups of these different carceral locales as well as the logics that justified them (i.e. "for their safety" in psychiatric/residential facilities vs. "for our safety" in punitive facilities). Aligned with the abolitionist spirit of this book, this chapter resists expanding the state's capacity for violence or capture (e.g. trying to increase a prison's budget for mental health services).
Of the many path-making contributions of this book, Ben-Moshe's conceptualization of the term "race-ability" is particularly useful for those who are engaged with Disability Studies as a scholarly field, committed to disability justice as a framework for liberation, and/or find abolition to be a useful epistemology that enables a specific ethical position. Race-ability, as Ben-Moshe explains, refers to "the ways race and disability, and racism, sanism, and ableism as intersecting oppressions, are mutually constitutive and cannot be separated, in their genealogy (eugenics, for example), current iterations of resistance (in the form of disability justice, for example), or oppression (incarceration and police killing, for example)" (p. 5).
This book is a must read for those who are interested in learning more about how carceral logics apply to the places of confinement that disabled people (especially those with psychiatric disabilities and intellectual/developmental disabilities) are often subjected to, for those who are intrigued by what a crip/mad of color critique does to/for/with a feminist abolitionist of color politic, and for those who simply want to a robust example of what the future of Disability Studies can be. While courses in Criminology, Disability Studies, Sociology, U.S. History, Women and Gender Studies would be an easy and excellent fit for Decarcerating Disability, students studying Law, Social Work, and Psychology would also benefit immensely from the adoption of any/all of its chapters. Although written in an academic context and published by a university press, this book is rooted deeply in activist efforts and political struggles, making it a valuable resource to scholars and activists alike.