By Zac Johnson, Class of ’22

Liat Ben-Moshe’s book Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition adds layer upon layer to what we have previously understood about mass incarceration and disability in the United States. A book which she describes as written in community, Ben-Moshe has sought to unpack the intertwining processes of ableism, deinstitutionalization and mass incarceration.

Ben-Moshe is cognizant of space and its relationship to power. She begins her talk at Duke by recognizing the land she sits on in Chicago, the Native people who previously lived there and no longer do. She soon asks us to consider how institutions other than jails and prisons can serve as carceral spaces, pointing to nursing homes and institutions for those labeled as intellectually, developmentally, or psychiatrically disabled. The connection, she points out, can be clearly seen in the mid 20th century when mass incarceration is at a major peak, if including those institutionalized for their ability status.

Although some persisted for decades, the success of the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1950s brought many mental institutions to their end. Thanks to major lawsuits catalyzed by institutionalized people, as well as federal programs and policies, the population of mental institutions has dropped dramatically over the past several decades. Yet, as many people know, mass incarceration took a far more aggressive turn in the ensuing decades, partly contributed to by the influx of deinstitutionalized people into local communities. But why?

Ben-Moshe uses a crip/mad and critical race critique of incarceration to paint the picture. Manifesting most clearly within the eugenics movement, American racism has routinely cast non-white people as differently abled, both physically and mentally. Ben-Moshe points out that disability has been pathologized and criminalized, resulting in the targeting of those with disabilities and societal deviants by the criminal justice system. But that’s not all: incarceration actively disables/maddens people with its toxic conditions, closed wards and poor air quality, and lack of medical equipment or affirming health care. The result is that a grave portion of those in the American prison institutions are classified as having a disability of some kind.

So, what lessons can we learn from the deinstitutionalization movement and the ensuing mass incarceration innately tied to conceptions of ability? A hashtag punctuates a slide: #FreeThemAll.

Ben-Moshe uses the correlation between deinstitutionalization and mass incarceration as evidence of the need for an abolitionist framework. Reformist efforts just have not worked. Psychopharmaceuticals, which many people saw as the end of mental institutionalization, were truly designed and harnessed as a tool to make those viewed as disabled complacent within institutions. Conversely, replacing police officers with social workers, when social workers are very much enmeshed in a system of incarceration, places many people of color in close proximity to family separation and imprisonment. Thus, there is no sliding scale of abolition – no incrementalism – that will end mass incarceration and we have no choice but to begin decarceration with those that are most seriously institutionalized in whatever form.

Liat Ben-Moshe’s book encapsulates many of these ideas and is praised by renowned scholars on Disability Justice and Carceral Studies. The famed Angela Y. Davis writes, “Decarcerating Disability is a groundbreaking feminist study of the affinities, interrelations, and contradictions between prison abolition and psychiatric deinstitutionalization. Emphasizing the need for a more expansive field of critical carceral studies, Liat Ben-Moshe compellingly demonstrates the important lessons we can discover through serious engagements with radical disability movements. Scholars and activists alike should read this book without delay!” You can purchase Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition here.