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Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

Saving the Children: Carceral Constructions of Futurity

“Acting on behalf of the child, the prison establishes itself as both a necessary evil and a transcendent force for good.”

What kind of future do our children deserve?

As Erica Meiners discusses in her book, For the Children?: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State, appeals to children—and the innocence of childhood more specifically—undergird movements across the political spectrum that work to impact the American prison system. Even as goals of enacting widespread prison reform and ending mass incarceration increasingly gain bipartisan support, discourses invoking concerns over “our children’s” futures emphasize the necessity of investing in and reproducing carceral structures (which, Meiners argues, include “schools, families, and juvenile justice systems” [6]). Notably, these anxieties over children’s futurities animate reformist movements as well as measures to maintain or expand carceral institutions. The idea that (“our”) children constitute a category uniquely deserving of protection, and that this protection may be realized through interventions in US policy, remains largely unchallenged by political actors on the left and right. 

Meiners’ work does not veer into the realm of the theological, but the categories she engages readily lend themselves to political-theological analysis; they are, in fact, intimately steeped in it. At the heart of debates over what it means to “save the children” through (or from) carceral intervention lay a tangle of theological-juridical concepts, including innocence, justice, deservedness, sin, and salvation. As Rachelle Green and Joshua Dubler indicate, the prison has long operated as a site of theological meaning-making; while this is arguably most evident in historical analyses identifying Christian influences on the creation of the modern penitentiary, contemporary conversations regarding the confessional practice of plea bargains, carceral logics of conversion, and the eschatology of abolition also convincingly characterize the American prison as a political-theological project. Perhaps the figure of the child, too, merits closer consideration as a fundamental element of carceral political theologies.

Chris Jenks refers to childhood as “innocence enshrined” – a kind of paradigmatic victimhood, standing in perfect contrast to adult criminality (119). However, as Jenks goes on to note, the categorical boundaries around “childhood” are fundamentally unstable and always under negotiation (128). This is particularly evident in myriad situations where Black youth are targeted as threats to be managed or annihilated (characterized in the media and the courtroom as delinquents, predators, or even, as in the case of Michael Brown’s murder, “demons” – the embodied antithesis of an angelic childlike innocence). The line separating childhood from adulthood is similarly troubled by young people who commit crimes or subvert social norms, although it is worth noting here, too, the disproportionate rate at which Black, Brown, and Indigenous children are judged by authorities to be guilty of criminal or dangerously subversive behavior. Racism, in addition to biases relating to criminal record, class, ability, and gender and sexual identity, exerts a powerful influence over how and when specific groups are assigned to or altogether expelled from the classification of “child.”

Thus, while childhood is frequently treated as a relatively static category in political endeavors that promise to “save the children” from corruptive worldly forces, this essay instead engages the ambiguity and malleability of childhood as a discursive construct. In particular, it attends to the ways in which children are not only invoked as innocents to be saved, but as saviors themselves, redeeming the deficient institutions and politics of the present by promising to create a more perfect future. The ideas of precarity and formation feature significantly in this duality as political-theological concepts crucial to the perpetuation and justification of carceral systems.

There are many places one could turn to observe these concepts at work. For instance, efforts to establish systems of “child development-community policing”; scripture-based debates over the deservedness of DREAMers; and legislation criminalizing impoverished mothers all exemplify how professed concerns over children’s vulnerable precarity and “right” formation undergird various forms of commitment to the carceral state. However, anxieties regarding precarity and formation are perhaps even more pronounced within the prison itself, particularly in programming initiatives designed to cultivate proper forms of relationship between incarcerated parents and their children.

Over the last three decades, myriad “inside out” parenting programs have developed in cooperation with Departments of Correction across the US. Working toward the goal of interrupting the cradle-to-prison pipeline, many of these initiatives appeal to the intellectual, emotional, and material needs of children and parents while expressing the vision of building stronger families and communities.

No two programs are exactly alike. Some facilitate visitation opportunities, while others prioritize adult-only classroom sessions; still others employ virtual reality as a tool to engage children and parents without permitting physical interaction between them. Despite their differences, many of the programs emphasize their overall project as one of mutual redemption: As parents redeem their bloodline by turning away from the sins of their past and investing in their children’s futures, children redeem their families by using their futures wisely, making “good choices” to counteract their parents’ mistakes.

To borrow Lauren Berlant’s formulation, this focus on individual responsibility and family structure within carceral systems feeds into national discourses that forego political action and analysis for pseudo-apolitical moral concern (185-186). Personal (but still universally recognizable) experiences regarding the ups and downs of familial relationships take precedence in prison parenting programs, while the dominating structures conditioning these relationships remain in the background. With political contexts eclipsed by more intimate concerns, the carceral state steps in as benevolent intercessor between parent and child, asserting itself as primary protector of the child’s future. However well-intentioned or helpful these programs may be for some participants, they present a trenchant example of the entanglement of the political and familial spheres, assuming a slippery correlation (or perhaps a synonymity) between “bad citizenship” and “bad parenthood” – while demanding that the children save society from both.

Within this schema, the precarity of childhood—its susceptibility to nefarious influences, especially through bad or uninformed parenting—becomes a critical site of carceral intervention. “Inside out” parenting programs aim to protect children from the prison, but they also rely on the prison to provide the antidote to childhood’s dangerous precarity: right formation. The prison, then, is redeemed through these programs, as well; by facilitating the personal transformation of incarcerated parents and instilling a sense of accountability in their children, it displaces its own culpability in perpetuating systemic violence onto the individual (or, in a move reminiscent of Daniel Moynihan’s infamous 1965 report, the family). The development of expert-approved parenting skills in prison promises to “break the cycle” of incarceration, presenting the ironic proposition that the prison itself, along with its collateral programming, is a benign and even necessary apparatus in the work of decarceration. Acting on behalf of the child, the prison establishes itself as both a necessary evil and a transcendent force for good.

By offering educational opportunities for incarcerated caregivers to expand their knowledge of parenting practices and connect with their children, prisons can claim a family-focused and future-oriented institutional identity; what remains obscured, however, are the ways in which this future is designed to reproduce the same carceral logics that enable family separation.

At the periphery of these discourses lurks the threat of “wrong” formation – the fear that if we don’t save the children, they won’t redeem us in return. What happens when the precarity of childhood remains undisciplined and unbuffered from corruption? What kind of hope remains when the “cruel optimism” of a reformed and redeemed futurity falls away?

In some ways, these questions point back to the supposed unassailability of carceral systems; prisons warehouse victims of wrong formation, seizing their futures in exchange for “protecting” those of the innocent. It is, perhaps, a testament to the plasticity of childhood as a construct that so many incarcerated people report being treated like children while in prison, infantilized by disciplinary practices geared toward their proper formation. As Rachel Ellis suggests in her recent ethnographic study of religious life in a women’s prison, it is often within programs addressing parenthood and gender identity where these infantilizing themes appear most acutely (for instance, in workshops and sermons designed to educate women on normative expressions of motherhood and femininity considered appropriate within a carceral setting). In these contexts, an imposed childhood becomes part of an adult punishment, and distinctions between discipline and care, protection and retribution become blurred. Presented as childlike in their supposed inability to act as responsible moral agents, the incarcerated are subjected to a corrective re-formation, with the state providing a pathway toward their (or their children’s) redemption.  

However, while the prison works to absorb and domesticate the undisciplined former children (or non-children) of the penal state, too much remains in excess of these rigid processes of formation to be fully encompassed by carceral structures. The instability of “childhood” as a category troubles the static punitive logics underwriting efforts to “save the children”; it also challenges linear conceptions of progress promising a universally optimistic futurity. Additionally, the specter of precarity, so closely tied to the figure of the child in carceral discourses, invites more intentional reflection on how different kinds of vulnerability manifest across political relationships, particularly in penal settings, among children as well as adults.

The notion of redemption is complicated by this excess, too. As a wide range of writers and activists—including Catholic theologians, prison abolitionists, and Indigenous studies scholars—have argued, the precarity and violence perpetuated by carceral logics demands redress that extends beyond individual responsibility or even institutional reform. Working toward an abolitionist eschatological horizon, unbound to liberal policy aims and projections of national futurity, carries the potential to disrupt the cyclical project of redeeming the status quo.

What kind of future do our children deserve? While ostensibly forward-looking, this question often functions to keep systems in place, resting on fixed but unnamed assumptions of who “our children” are and what forms of futurity are most readily accessible to them within the confines of a carceral reality. As Vincent Lloyd writes, appealing to the figure of the child and its accompanying notions of futurity often serves to “tether” hope to this-worldly ends, beholden to the logics of dominating structures that claim a false immutability. Collective imaginations of justice are obstructed by the tendency to envision the future only in terms of “what we deem achievable for our offspring” (276). This raises the question of whether invoking the figure of the child can ever instigate anything beyond a mild reformist impetus. 

Although appeals to childhood have historically upheld and buttressed carceral logics, perhaps rethinking the child and what the child represents can, in the words of José Muñoz, cultivate a queer “desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough” (96).

If not, perhaps the category of childhood is itself irredeemable.

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