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Inquest: Year One

Some reflections on our first anniversary, and the road ahead.


When we launched Inquest one year ago today, the three of us penned a short essay sharing our reasons for creating this new publication. One thing we didn’t explain, though, was our name. An inquest is a communal inquiry. It’s an effort by a group of people, coming together from different perspectives, to try to understand why and how something harmful happened in their community. We chose the name in hopes of creating something similar here: a communal platform dedicated to exposing the causes and consequences of mass incarceration — an injustice so deep-rooted and pervasive that it will only ever be dismantled by collective efforts.

Looking back on the past year, we think our name captures well the hard work and the hard thinking of all the many people who have joined this decarceral brainstorm. Together, these authors and readers have built a place where we can collectively imagine a different world. A world where the words public safety mean exactly that — and don’t mean more police, more prisons, or more punishment. A society where people are truly free and have a chance to thrive. 

As we wrote one year ago today, we created Inquest because we felt we needed it. Coming to our work from different backgrounds, we craved a common forum where people dedicated to the hard work of decarceration could find fellow travelers from different arenas — where we could learn from each other, challenge each other with new ideas, and inspire each other with shared successes. We hoped, in short, to spark conversations around making a shared vision of the future into a reality. And we hoped to break down the barriers and silos that often separate so many people who share that overarching goal.

From the start, we organized Inquest’s content into six big-picture categories, or topics. Each one was meant to collect pieces shining a light on different and often overlapping aspects of the carceral state. Here’s a sampling, by no means exhaustive, of what we’ve published in the past year in each of these sections:

Our Foundations section aims to explore the roots of mass incarceration. Here, we published an essay from Ruth Wilson Gilmore critiquing “innocence” as a benchmark for assessing what’s wrong with our penal system. We published Ben Levin’s argument that the harms of the carceral state are in truth an unexceptional example of the harms inflicted by the modern state itself. Marking the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising, Project Nia republished with us a collection of the demands for basic decency and freedom at the center of the uprising — demands that continue to be made today by people languishing in our nation’s jails and prisons. 

In our Culture & Politics section, we featured contributions that show how our electoral, political, and mass media systems intersect with and often contribute to mass incarceration. One essay, by Anna Gunderson, showed that carceral Democrats often drive penal system expansion when their reelection depends on it. Another one, excerpted from the Colin Kaepernick collection Abolition for the People, examined how copaganda infiltrates our popular culture and influences how the public thinks about policing. And yet another one delved into the carceral feminism that gave us the Violence Against Women Act, a law that to this day fuels more violence and criminalization. More optimistically, this section is also home to one of our very first narrative essays, in which Joel Castón shares what drove him to become the first incarcerated candidate in Washington, D.C. to seek public office, and win, from behind bars.

Our Law & Policy section is home to essays digging into the statutes, court cases, and policies sustaining mass incarceration. Here, our readers found deep dives into carceral policy choices made by leaders at the Justice Department and in federal immigration enforcement. Our contributors analyzed and criticized policymakers’ approaches to so-called drug-induced mortalities, as well as the federal government’s anti-science stance on fentanyl analogues. And in an inspiring victory, advocates urging DOJ to amend COVID-era rules on letting people serve their sentences at home saw the arguments that they advanced at Inquest win the day and change federal policy. They then returned to this forum tell the department what truly compassionate release must entail. 

One of our busier sections collects essays that make plain how carceralism is entrenched in a vast range of our Institutions & Practices. Our country’s drive to punish is in the crime lab, in the burden of child-support debt, in the counseling room, and in the court-ordered financial obligations Black women are made to shoulder. It’s in the so-called child welfare system, in social work, in gang databases, and in the monstrous treatment of people convicted of sex offenses. It is in our sentencing laws, forcing even progressive judges to reckon with their complicity in the harm they have caused. It’s in our sprawling immigration detention apparatus, in the food people in prison eat, and in correctional healthcare. And it’s in the vast web of surveillance that is growing every day

Our Decarceral Pathways turn from diagnosis to interventions. Here, we highlight the organizing, advocacy, and scholarship that aim to diminish or dismantle the harms of the carceral state. We’ve heard from organizers and advocates who came together to end cash bail in Illinois, to defeat pro-police measures in Austin, to advance decarceral legislation in Virginia, and to elect a reform sheriff in New Orleans. We’ve also heard from a public defender who believes transparency about his work is a modest step toward ending public defense as we know it; from impacted family members seeking police accountability in Cleveland; and from an organizer advocating against so-called mental-health jails. And decarceral academic work has put the spotlight on forensics, algorithmic justice, the cost-benefit harms of incarceration, mothers in prison, the charging practices of prosecutors, alternatives to policing, and the connection between Medicaid and the criminal legal system.

Finally, in our Futures section, we’ve published features, reflections, and other work imagining, or pointing toward, a future where carceralism is a thing of the past. In that world, a broad coalition can band together to defeat the construction of a new prison in Kentucky. Or incarcerated people, organizers, and local residents might attempt to find common ground about what to do once a decades-old prison, and source of livelihood for many, leaves town. Or public health workers and researchers committed to truly advancing public health — including through the abolition of carceral institutions — might see their vision adopted by even more groups in more fields.  

All of the above amounts to more than 110 essays from more than 130 authors across disciplines, practices, and walks of life — from people on the inside to those on the outside and in the trenches, communities, the academy, in courtrooms, and in elected office. We’re profoundly grateful to everyone who has joined us and for what we’ve been able to accomplish together.

Yet the reality, as we enter our second year, is that we’ve barely scratched the surface. As the overruling of Roe v. Wade, the backlash against progressive prosecutors and policies, and the reactionary push for more policing have made catastrophically clear, we’re confronting a turn toward the growth of mass criminalization and incarceration. So on the occasion of our first anniversary, we’re not celebrating. Instead, we’re recognizing, with humility and clarity of purpose, that there remains so much more to be done. As Dan Berger wrote recently, “Mass incarceration is not a singular thing but a social relationship,” residing “wherever budgets are set or policies enacted” and that “need[s] to be exorcised from every level of governance.”

And so this shared communal effort — to understand and to learn, so that we may act — continues forward. In the year to come, you can expect us to continue publishing thoughtful analysis and commentary on the pervasive carceralism that touches and harms every corner of American society. We look forward to continuing in this work with and alongside you — as ever, grateful that you’re here to share your insights, that we may learn from and with each other.

Image: Ryunosuke Kikuno/Unsplash