Carceral Intent

53 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2022 Last revised: 1 Mar 2023

See all articles by Danielle C. Jefferis

Danielle C. Jefferis

University of Nebraska at Lincoln - College of Law

Date Written: 2022


For decades, scholars across disciplines have examined the stark injustice of American carceralism. Among that body of work are analyses of the various intent requirements embedded in the constitutional doctrine that governs the state’s power to incarcerate. These intent requirements include the “deliberate indifference” standard of the Eighth Amendment, which regulates prison conditions, and the “punitive intent” standard of due process jurisprudence, which regulates the scope of confinement. This Article coins the term “carceral intent” to refer collectively to those legal intent requirements and examines critically the role of carceral intent in shaping and maintaining the deep-rooted structural racism and sweeping harms of America’s system of confinement.

This Article begins by tracing the origins of American carceralism, focusing on the modern prison’s relationship to white supremacy and the post-Emancipation period in U.S. history. The Article then turns to the constitutional doctrine of incarceration, synthesizing and categorizing the law of carceral intent. Then, drawing upon critical race scholarship that examines anti-discrimination doctrine and the concept of “white innocence,” the Article compares the law’s reliance on carceral intent with the law’s reliance on discriminatory intent in equal protection jurisprudence. Critical race theorists have long critiqued the intent-focused anti-discrimination doctrine as incapable of remedying structural racism and inequities. The same can be said of the doctrine of incarceration. The law’s preoccupation with an alleged wrongdoer’s “bad intent” in challenges to the scope and conditions of incarceration makes it ill-suited to remedying the U.S. prison system’s profoundly unjust and harmful features. A curative approach, this Article asserts, is one in which the law focuses on carceral effect rather than carceral intent, as others have argued in the context of equal protection.

Keywords: prisons, punishment, Eighth Amendment, civil rights, critical race theory, criminal law, constitutional law, cruel and unusual, due process, intent, race

Suggested Citation

Jefferis, Danielle C., Carceral Intent (2022). 27 Mich. J. of Race & L. 323 (2022), Available at SSRN: or

Danielle C. Jefferis (Contact Author)

University of Nebraska at Lincoln - College of Law ( email )

103 McCollum Hall
P.O. Box 830902
Lincoln, NE 68583-0902
United States

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