Captivity, Flight, and Collapse

From the Series: Captivity

Photo by neONBRAND.

At the risk of inverting common sense critiques of the prison expansionism afoot across the Americas, I want to pose the question of what flight from captivity—or even the collapse of entire prisons—might imply for ethnographic theory. But first, a much-needed caveat. By studying collapse I do not imply the actual destruction of punitive architecture. Rather, the term serves to highlight deep-seated ontological challenges to the rationality of contemporary state penality, challenges that compel multiple authorities and publics to question their knee-jerk, taken-for-granted reliance on the productivity of punitive enclosure.

Captivity is an age-old theme, the transcendence of which is typically the very stuff of sacred text-making—whether scriptural, revolutionary, or constitutional. Decolonization theory, for example, assumes that escape from capture (understood here as enclosure and dispossession) should be the vital problem space of ongoing critical inquiry. Works of decolonial ethnography often trouble state-organized or state-reinforcing systems of thought. To wit, indigenous societies against the state (Clastres 1989) and the slave’s pursuit of marronage (Price 1996) are likely just as old as the archaeological assemblages of state-organized polity itself (Smith 2015). These are ways of being that Neil Roberts (2015), in a recent book, considers more than capable of subverting the Western philosophical antinomies that would pit freedom as the stark opposite of captivity. For Roberts, lived spatial practices of flight or of coming together in association beyond the law comprise a vast domain of agency that sidesteps, rather than confronts systems of domination, managing to escape or maintain distance from the state machinery’s monitoring and infrastructural control. Could the study of flight or collapse become a leitmotif for future kinds of prison ethnography, too?

Worldwide, the state form’s metastasis of punitive architecture and carcerality distracts from the common sense that attempted flight is inevitable, and that all prisons eventually fail. Prison ethnographers, I think, ought to situate themselves in whichever milieu(s) might help them to analyze flight and collapse, as well as carceral reproduction. Prison expansion appears to be back on the agenda in the United States (again), and many other countries or regions which turn democratically to authoritarian forms of rule have openly embraced punitive populism as never before.

Yet the prison will be too expensive to maintain; will not be able to physically contain the populations being thrown into custody; will be superfluous to the new dawns of leniency or restorative justice; will be technologically outmoded or architecturally repurposed; or will even be physically destroyed, from within or without—as often happens during periods of warfare, or whenever the traumatic forms of production housed in the complex become psychically untenable for state hegemony.

The signs of flight or collapse are everywhere immanent—ironically, nowhere more prevalent or visible than in the prison’s actual material assemblage. The rise of the control prison and the growth of lockdown-style security housing units have historical roots in the twentieth-century white settler state’s undermining of ethnic anticarceral organizing. By the 1970s, African American inmates’ mobilizations for prisoners’ rights had successfully encouraged new modes of internal protest or revolt against the racial calculus of punitive enclosure (Berger 2014). Security housing units were by and large implemented in order to house the real or potential figureheads of such movements, although nearly forty years into the architectural era of the control prison, such individuals are more likely to be thought of as depoliticized and delusional or more fearfully branded as gang leaders.

Symptoms of this era of repurposing the carceral pervade today’s federal and state prison systems, as well as their moments of breakdown. The 2015 escape of two white prisoners from a maximum-security facility in northern upstate New York, for instance, moved the state’s inspector general to commission what amounts to an in-depth, quasi-ethnographic report holistically cataloging institutional blind spots and routine breakdowns in the correctional order that penal authorities now endeavor to shore up. Symptomatically, the whiteness of both prisoners and their internal collaborators—who were able to facilitate what seemed architecturally impossible—came under no scrutiny whatsoever. More broadly, one might say that flight, rather than captivity per se, is the problem space of greatest interest to the state—but it is also undoubtedly the least ethnographically accessible.

In Latin American prison ethnographies, the study of internal black markets and practices of mutual aid (between prisoners, between prisoner and family members, or between prisoner and staff) highlight intransigent associations of internal–external flight from everyday surveillance, which penal states by virtue of their authority cannot acknowledge. Instead, prison officials turn a blind eye to such practices and quietly grant extraordinary privileges to cooperative, powerful inmate trustees in order to enlist them in the project of pacifying overcrowded, underfunded, and topsy-turvy Drug War facilities—a process my colleague Sacha Darke (2017, 4) and I call the “informal dynamics of survival.” Flight or collapse takes place in nearly every corner of prison worlds, and though staff and prisoners alike may seek to deny its representation, the effective traces of flight and collapse can be analyzed, too.

Adopting an ethnographic stance toward punitive enclosure, one must appreciate that all prisons exist in a tense state of impending collapse (an omnipresent pluripotentiality to which prison authorities often point in their justifications for dehumanizing carceral practices), and then analyze the dialectics of flight. In doing so, we can meditate on the immanence of emerging prison worlds, and perhaps, more hopefully, on a future when state carcerality becomes a thing of the past.


Berger, Dan. 2014. Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Clastres, Pierre. 1989. Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. Translated by Robert Hurley and Abe Stein. New York: Zone Books. Originally published in 1974.

Darke, Sacha, and Chris Garces. 2017. “Surviving in the New Mass Carceral Zone.” Prison Service Journal, no. 229: 2–9.

Price, Richard, ed. 1996. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. 3rd edition. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Roberts, Neil. 2015. Freedom as Marronage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Adam T. 2015. The Political Machine: Assembling Sovereignty in the Bronze Age Caucasus. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.