The Impact of the Carceral State on Citizenship and Sense of the State

Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 21 Aug 2009

See all articles by Vesla Weaver

Vesla Weaver

Yale University - Department of Political Science

Date Written: 2009


Contact with the criminal justice system is greater today than at any time in our history. While only three percent of the population is under correctional supervision, those who will experience the carceral state at some point in their lives is much higher at fifteen percent of the population, making veterans of prison more numerous than veterans of military duty at eight percent of the population in 2006. However, we know little about the impact of the carceral state on citizens' experience of government.

This paper explores the consequences of the transformation in the use of punishment and surveillance for citizenship, arguing that punitive developments have had an important feedback effect for politics. Specifically, I argue that encounters with criminal justice institutions can be derivative of later perceptions of government and political engagement. Interactions with criminal justice are a type of political socialization, in which the lessons that are imprinted are antagonistic to democratic participation.

To test this argument, I analyze three surveys that measure both disciplinary encounters and political perceptions, conducting the first systematic exploration of how criminal justice involvement shapes the citizenship, political capital, and political voice of current and former offenders. I find that custodial involvement carries with it a substantial civic penalty that is not explained by criminality or socioeconomic differences. Moreover, the depressing effects on political engagement were not confined to persons undergoing incarceration but to more routine disciplinary actions like being stopped and questioned by the police.

The findings provide important insights into how citizens learn about politics and what they learn, how policy shapes citizens experience of government, and ultimately what the growth in the carceral state portends for American politics, given the impact it plays in shaping citizens’ political learning and participation. Given that the carceral state has become important and routine site of interaction between government and citizens, the institutions of criminal justice have emerged as an important place in defining citizen participation and understandings, with potentially dire consequences for democratic ideals.

Keywords: policy feedback, crime policy, political behavior, citizenship, carceral state, political learning

Suggested Citation

Weaver, Vesla, The Impact of the Carceral State on Citizenship and Sense of the State (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Vesla Weaver (Contact Author)

Yale University - Department of Political Science ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States


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