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Deconfiguring the Security State

“We need to articulate digital abolition as the solution.”


The term e-carceration has gained some popularity as a descriptor for various surveillance technologies, including electronic monitoring, that have proliferated as alternative forms of incarceration. In March, James Kilgore, the author of the recent book Understanding E-Carceration, and Malkia Devich-Cyril, a longtime activist and Black liberation thought leader who originated the term, took part in a public conversation about the growth of this practice in recent years. A version of their remarks during this community event, which was co-sponsored by Media Justice and FirstFollowers, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

James Kilgore: It’s great to have this conversation with Malkia. They are the originator of this idea of e-carceration, and they have been kind enough to let me borrow it and play with it and do whatever I’ve done with it. So I wanted to go back to the roots here. Malkia, first of all, to welcome you, but also to ask you, let’s have this conversation we never really had: How did you come up with this idea? What do you think it means? Where do you think it’s gone? Where do you think it’s going, etcetera? I think it’s obviously struck a chord with me. I’m sure it struck a chord with a lot of other people. So we’d really like to hear from the creator.

Malkia Devich-Cyril: It’s one thing to come up with a term. It’s another thing to flesh it out, to make it real, to popularize it to people all over the world. And I feel like you’ve really done that. And so I’d like to think about the idea that we’ve co-created this concept together alongside other folks in our movement. We at Media Justice initially focused on issues of media access. And as the world digitized, we moved into focusing more and more on digital rights and power. And because we were always focused on issues concerning people of color, the criminal legal system has always been an area of focus for us — whether it was the criminalization in media or the emerging uses of various technologies to incarcerate, to punish, and to police. As we worked on the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, we were immersed in thinking about those technologies and how those technologies were exacerbating carceral violence.

And so e-carceration, or electronic incarceration, really spoke volumes to me about punishment in the 21st century, and about the invisible nature of this kind of coercive power. This neoliberal approach to policing and punishment not only further privatized existing state functions, placing them in a free market with profit-driven motives, but also really created isolation for those being monitored. Defining e-carceration wasn’t simply about articulating a new trend; it was an attempt to also articulate this new relationship that technology companies were having with the state; this way that incarceration was helping states become indebted to corporations and corporate power. So there was a political relationship — a relationship of power where the state remains the site of coercive power. But together with this kind of escalation of technology, it’s resulted in an acceleration of other predatory practices. And so that’s how, and why, I came up with the term.

Read an excerpt from ‘Understanding E-Carceration’

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James Kilgore

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James: One of the things I like about this term is that it doesn’t neutralize things. There’s often a tendency in this realm of mass incarceration to find terms that neutralize things or even make them look good. The obvious example that myself and Emmett Sanders and others always talk about is this term ankle bracelet. That term bracelet makes it look like it’s decorative, like it’s jewelry. I have a problem even with the term mass supervision, because supervision is a neutral term, and we don’t need neutral terms for this technology that’s designed to control and punish — that’s specifically designed to target what I call the criminalized sector of the working class, which is disproportionately Black, brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+.

Malkia: As I think about the relationship between e-carceration and abolition, it’s critical to acknowledge that e-carceration basically makes technology an agent of an opaque power that’s driven by debt. It represents, in my mind, a kind of slow, invisible violence that operates right alongside the visible, brutal violence of the state and of the system — this carceral crisis that we’ve been in for decades, for generations. The introduction of technology makes the carceral crisis viral. I think it hides the machinations of systems of policing and punishment in these black box algorithms which ultimately carry no legal requirements around transparency, with no obvious mechanisms for public intervention. These tools are framed as humane, but it’s the very mundane nature of these tools that are actually so incredibly brutal.

I think about this in terms of the history of colonialism. I think about how, in colonialism, the colonial state has always faced difficulty in extending its power over large geographic areas. For example, Britain trying to extend its power over Africa or over this place that became the United States. It’s always easier to commodify, engage brutality, and enact power when something is closer to you. To control disparate entities, large groups of people, the technologies of the day must be used to extend power — this is the history of neocolonialism.

To me, e-carceration is a form of techno-colonialism where it’s now engaging these technologies of policing and punishment, allowing them to operate or forcing them to operate as a form of digital neocolonialism that kind of places our enslavement in our hands — without our hands having any power, making us both master and enslaved. Abolitionist politics are an attempt to redefine that relationship — an attempt to redefine the colonial relationship. To decolonize, if you will — not just to decarcerate, but to decolonize. Abolitionist politics are an attempt to reconceive how we think about security. And colonialism is, at its heart, a configuration of a security state. Abolition, at its heart, is the deconfiguration of a security state. And digital technologies now mediate the security state. In order for us to be true abolitionists in the 21st century, we have to be digital abolitionists.

Colonialism is, at its heart, a configuration of a security state. Abolition, at its heart, is the deconfiguration of a security state. And digital technologies now mediate the security state. In order for us to be true abolitionists in the 21st century, we have to be digital abolitionists.

Malkia Devich-cyril

We’re still in the lineage of folks who fought to abolish slavery. And we understand that the 21st century is now seeing that system that continued through the 19th century, through the 20th century, rendered invisible — rendered invisible, digitized, and expanded into our communities, into our schools, into our homes, and ultimately into our bodies. And it’s the re-enslavement, in my opinion, of the same people that were enslaved before. And slavery always extended itself to touch white folk, white working class. It always extended itself to touch the Indigenous population — always extended itself to define who the immigrant is or who the citizen is and who is not. And so abolition in this age requires that we understand the role that technology is playing in all of that. Just like we had to articulate e-carceration to define the problem in these new relations of power, we have to articulate digital abolition as the solution. We have to name that and give that language.

James: I like this idea of digital colonialism and describing it as slow violence as well. I lived in southern Africa for 18 years and did a lot of research on the history of colonialism, the history of liberation movements — working class movements in southern Africa — and worked closely with them. As I was writing this book, I began to say, Wait a second. We had companies like the British East India Company driving a colonization process, companies creating a colonial state. And we are still having to live inside that corporate colonial state. Now we have companies creating a digital state. They control the technology, they set the rules. We’re using Zoom right here. We’re using Google, Microsoft, all the big tech companies that are driving this, that are collecting all this data on the cloud. That’s our lived experience. It reminds me of trying to live under a colonial state — where you’re sitting there and you are living and you’re doing things that may work for you and may benefit you. But at the end of the day, you’re living in a structure and under a set of rules that are created by the colonizers. And as I look back on the history of liberation struggles, I also realized that it took a long time for national liberation movements to figure out, How can we end colonialism? I mean, they tried going to the Queen, they tried getting down on their knees and praying to Jesus. None of that really delivered. I think we’re really in the early stages of figuring out how we challenge this system of e-carceration. We need to have a vision, just in the same way that all people who are fighting a liberation struggle need to have a vision of freedom.

I think we’re really in the early stages of figuring out how we challenge this system of e-carceration. We need to have a vision, just in the same way that all people who are fighting a liberation struggle need to have a vision of freedom.

james kilgore

But that vision of freedom only really emerges as you push forward and struggle and learn the complexity of what it is you’re actually pushing against. So I think that framing is just really important. And it’s not one that people think of when they look at this simple little black plastic strap around somebody’s ankle. But my point of writing about electronic monitoring and then growing outward from that is to show how that electronic monitoring device is connected to that digital world. The minute that those ankle monitors got GPS-tracking capacity, they became surveillance devices

Malkia: That’s right. And the ankle monitor, the shackle is one of the most visible articulations of that relationship. The surveillance technologies aren’t visible. The license plate readers, the biometric scans, all the stuff in the Internet that tracks everywhere you go in there, the predictive policing technologies — all of it is invisible. You could be a person of privilege who lives without ever seeing any of that, even if you’re engaging with it on a daily basis. But the shackle is visible. And so it becomes, I think, a really iconic way of talking about and articulating this broader colonial relationship in the digital age. And for people of color — and I’ll speak for Black folk — our history involves contestation with the state. Our experience of state violence is so visceral and so long and so integral to our experience of being in this country. But what that misses is our understanding of the privatization piece of this and our ability to contest these private companies. They shield themselves from contestation. They often hide themselves inside of government, so they’ve become hard to see.

So this whole thing — the reason that a colonial relationship is the apt description for the relationship of power is because it is like the transatlantic slave trade, when private companies indebted the state to them. But the way we think about slavery is in relationship to the growth of the American state. We have to place the role of the private corporation in this country where it belongs, which is at the top of the colonial structure. You know what I’m saying?

Image: Conny Schneider/Unsplash