What’s happening in Baltimore? Incarceration

Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley just announced the building of a new juvenile detention center specifically for youth charged as adults. It will cost a hefty $100 million dollars … at least. All this is supposed to ensure the safety of Baltimore and its youth.

Revisiting Maurizio Lazzarato’s recent argument that debt is the neoliberal condition, let’s think about the penal debt imposed here on women and men. But not just any women and men. In Baltimore’s Detention Center, eight out of ten women and nine out of ten men are black (Jail Daily Extract, division of Pretrial and Detention Services).

Baltimore’s Detention Center is part of the surge of incarceration that has taken place in the United States within the past thirty years. As sociologist Loic Wacquant has noted, in “the stingy social state and the gargantuan penal state,” three determinants make people more likely to be incarcerated: class, race and place. That’s how the state cares for the poor, for minority men and women.

Baltimore is one of the few cities in the United States that lost financial control of its detention center. In 1991, following a budget crisis, the city relinquished management of its detention center to the State, at the behest of then Governor Donald Schaeffer. The State’s agenda included the construction of Central Booking, opened in 1995. For many in Baltimore, Central Booking became the place to stay. Previously, one stayed in one of nine district police stations, which were more integrated into neighborhood communities. But neighborhood and community facilities were insufficiently “tough on crime,” and so they had to go.

In the logic of creating a penal debt, targeted populations have to be put into a position where they owe their freedom to the authorities. In Baltimore, the police have intensified their activity, thanks to the war on drugs, the war on the poor, the various wars on women, including the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act and the welfare reform of 1996.

Central Booking was hailed  as a model of “efficiency”. That efficiency meant the increasingly robotic incarceration of the increasingly impoverished populations of Baltimore, where 63% of the population is African American.  As a result of intensified and broadened police activity, 90% of people incarcerated in Baltimore City are awaiting trial compared to 63% nationally (Division of Pretrial Detention and Services Daily Population Report, January 4, 2010). 89% of the incarcerated are African Americans. Once in the system, your penal credit score drops. And that, in Baltimore, is called efficiency.

With 12 million “bodies being processed” every year by Central Booking institutions across the country, one wonders why the State is so invested in this form of manipulation of bodies. In the current ownership society, the penal credit score is now clearly attached to faster rates of prison recidivism, thanks to programs that keep track of the lives of former prisoners. For instance, Johns Hopkins (both the university and the hospital) demands a background check, criminal and financial, for any applicant to any job, including that of volunteer. This system of background checks has become so routine that its threatening panoptic dimension has been into “keeping Hopkins safe”. “Tough on crime” morphs into “safe” at work.

What is happening in Baltimore? Debt through incarceration. The impoverished youth of Baltimore is going to incur more penal debt through a project that invests scarce social welfare money into a prison that will have to be filled … with the impoverished youth of Baltimore. The circle is closed … efficiently.


(Photo Credit: Baltimore Sun)


About Brigitte Marti

Brigitte Marti is an organizer researcher who has worked on reproductive rights and women's health initiatives in France and in the European Union and on women prisoners' issues in the United States. She is a member of Women Included, a new transnational feminist collective, that is part of the Women 7, a coalition that advocates for the inclusion of women's rights in the G7.