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Alterity 101: Hyper-Incarceration

How can anyone not want to get rid, and by means without appeal, of someone who is fundamentally a “criminal”, essentially a “danger”, and naturally a “monster”. The safety of all of us is at stake.

- Foucault, The Proper Use of Criminals


Alterity 101 is a set of articles that strive to understand the phenomenon of alterity from a socio-anthropological perspective. The subsequent six articles will embark on a definition of Alterity and its power dynamics; it will also enable the reader to understand how alterity takes form under societal institutions by using the example of prisons. In a world that is disoriented towards the Other, we must ask ourselves which representations have been ingrained in the population and if these representations originate from dominant mechanisms.

2. Alterity 101: The Power of Alterity

3. Alterity 101: The Alarmist Discourse

4. Alterity 101: Social Institutions as a Solution for Separating the Other from Society

5. Alterity 101: Hyper-Incarceration

6. Alterity 101: The Development of a Status: Becoming a Prisoner


Some fragments of the population seem to have readier access to prison than others, as such, the correspondence between crime-punishment is not straightforward (Beckett and Wester 2001). Instead, the increase in prison populations should be viewed from a societal perspective (Daems, 2008). Having understood the alterity process and how it permits easier incarceration of the ones seen as the Others of society, it is now necessary to understand how these Others are represented in the carceral population numbers. The data shows that the population of prisons is mainly made of individuals belonging to low societal classes and racial minorities, and that these individuals have not achieved a long scholar career (Looman et al., 2015).

The prison system, which is a penal mode per se, has been affected by an enormous penal change in the last four decades: a drastic increase in prison population. In contrast to what was predicted by academics, the prison population has augmented disproportionately since the 1970s-1980s and is overall higher than in the early 2000s (Blankenship et al., 2018). In the United States of America, which is the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, the penal population which was thought to decline has on the contrary taken a steep path and counts now 2.3 million incarcerated people (Prison Policy Initiative, 2018). The USA is not alone in this penal change as other countries show the same ‘trend’: in New Zealand, for instance, the day-to-day incarcerated population augmented from circa 2,700 in the eighties to circa 7,300 in 2004 (Daems, 2008). The same can be said for Wales and England, which in 2010 attained an unprecedented incarcerated population of 85,182, meaning that there was an increase of 15% compared to the former year (DeKeseredy and Dragiewicz, 2012). These three examples show that the increase in prison population can be considered global because each of the examples above displays the situation of a different continent.

Figure 1: Mass incarceration, by Sally Deng

That said, the rise in prison population does not stop at a mere augment of the number of people imprisoned. In fact, if we concentrate on the two sides of the Atlantic (in the United States and in Europe), a pattern is observable. The patterns of the two continents are not quite the same but the trend is similar. On the one side, in the United States, the population behind bars is mainly composed of African Americans and Latinos, with three percent of the first group being incarcerated in 2011 (Price, 2015). The magnitude of the numbers for African Americans is such that Alexander (2010) argues that a reproduction of a racial caste system is in place, and she, therefore, condemns the American prison system for perpetuating the second-class citizens' positions (Alexander, 2010). Those prisons seem to generate a disappearance of African Americans and change thereof the social, political and economic landscape of the United States (Rhodes, 2001). On the other side, in Europe, the incarcerated population is formed disproportionately by post-colonial immigrants and by individuals pertaining to the lowest social classes (Daems, 2008; Wacquant, 2014); here too the social order is viewed as disturbed by these post-colonial immigrants and prison seems as if it was serving to rearrange them.

If we focus on the European continent, we can see a carceral population that follows certain patterns: France has for instance a carceral population that is principally masculine, composed mainly of low-income individuals and of people with a short scholar careers (Chantraine, 2003) - more than one-fourth left school before completing sixteen years, and the remaining did not continue their education after having finished high school (Chantraine, 2003). Belgium prisons’ populations follow similar characteristics. Additionally, Belgium’s prisons have a foreigner proportion of 38%, although foreigners represent only the 8.9% of the overall population (Wacquant, 2014). Clear features of prison populations in Western Europe and in the United States are observable, and, even if data is an imperfect indicator, it still marks a selectivity in the prison populations of those countries. This selectivity must be acknowledged in parallel to the steep increase of individuals being incarcerated. Wacquant (2014), recognizing these two factors, chooses to change the common term of ‘mass-incarceration’ to ‘hyper-incarceration’, hence noting the existence of certain segments of the population being more represented in the penal institutions than others.

Figure 2: Mass Incarceration, by Angela Hsieh

Incarcerated individuals, therefore, originate, for the majority of them, from certain backgrounds and social groups, i.e. the ones which make an individual a delinquent. Most incarcerated individuals in the USA come from the American ghettos, or in France, from the French banlieues (Daems, 2008). These locations are fragments of society that have a socio-economical capital that is not considered as being part of the hegemony. As stated in the previous 101 articles, the development of alterity through social institutions is reinforcing the social discourses in place. A democratic fiction is in force as it articulates freedom and equality in a social world, which is neither free nor equal. This fiction can be seen in its clarity as we observe the selection modalities of incarcerated individuals and the real treatment of infractions by the penal state (Chantraine, 2003). For instance, police tend to condemn more easily individuals that present a feeble social insertion, and these individuals will have more probability of receiving a prison punishment (Chantraine, 2003). The sentence is not an automatic correspondence of the crime committed, but it also corresponds to a series of human biased choices that take place at different levels of the penal administration (Lancelevée, 2019). As a consequence, the transit from the free world to the enclosed world of prison will be easier for the ones who are considered marginals.

Figure 3: Mass Incarceration, by Bruno Mallart

A social phenomenon such as social inequality and poverty regulation need therefore to be incorporated into the understanding of the legal system and its application (Cunha, 2014). Hyper-incarceration has not been caused by the increase in crime, but by the implementation of societal discourses. It is only via an analysis of these discourses that it is possible to understand how specific categories of individuals are linked to the penal system (Chantraine, 2003). There is an actual development of alterity that occurs through the prison system: being Othered in society means being more prone to incarceration; there is a continuum. The data of Western European prison populations show a high number of post-colonial immigrants behind bars simultaneously with a low number of incarcerated individuals who have had long scholar careers. The broader and global numbers of prison populations confirm the major accessibility to prison for the ones considered as marginals. The development of alterity through the prison system is validated by the Occident prison population and, as such, the alterity which is already present in society is developed by the prison system.


Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Ohio State, USA: The New Press

Beckett, K. & Western, B. (2001). Governing Social Marginality Welfare, Incarceration, and the transformation of state policy. Punishment & Society, 3, 1, 43-59

Blankenship, K. M., et. al.. (2018). Mass incarceration, race inequality, and health: Expanding concepts and assessing impacts on well-being. Social Science & Medicine, 215, 45-52. Doi:

Chantraine, G. (2003). Par delà les murs: Expériences et trajectoires carcérales en maison d’arrêt. Paris, FR : Presses Universitaires de France

Cunha, M. (2014). The Ethnography of Prisons and Penal Confinement. Annual Review of Anthropology, 43, 217-233

Daems, T. (2008). Making Sense of Penal Change. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

DeKeseredy, W. S. & Dragiewicz M. (2012). Routledge Handbook of Critical Criminology. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Lancelevée, C. & Scheer, D. (2019). La prison. Réalités et paradoxes. Clermont-Ferrand, FR: Presses Universitaire Blaise Pascal

Looman, M. D. & Carl, J. D. (2015). A Country Called Prison. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Prison Policy Initiative. (2018). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018 [Press release]. Retrieved from

Rhodes, L. A. (2001). Toward an Anthropology of Prisons. Annual Review Anthropology, 30, 65-83

Wacquant, L. (2014). Marginality, ethnicity and penality in the neo-liberal city: an analytic cartography, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37:10, 1687-1711. Doi:10.1080/01419870.2014.931991

Images references

Figure 1: Deng, Sally. Mass incarceration. The crime report.


Author Photo

Altea Vaccaro

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