Vulnerabilising criminalised subjects. On the Entanglements of Care and Punishment

Friederike Faust, Agata Chełstowska, Agata Dziuban, Justyna Struzik

Researching criminalisation and the punitive turn, we are familiar with the scholarly work on the construction of particular social groups or behaviours as risks to social order and security. The politics of criminalisation, crime control and policing necessitate rely upon and maintain figurations of dangerousness, monstrosity and threat. However, during discussion we had among our research team, we noticed that the subjects we encounter in our new research sites seem to be more complex, revealing dimensions of vulnerability and victimisation, although criminalised and sometimes even convicted. They seem to resist a categorisation as either threatening or vulnerable, as either innocent or guilty, as either perpetrator or victim. These subjects – transgressing one-dimensional and simplistic categorisations – have aroused our interest. Within regimes of crime control, policing and punishment they are not only governed through coercion, prosecution and confinement, but also through care and protection. Figures such as the female offender-as-victim that emerged within feminist criminology and entered into prison policy and practice seem to blur the lines between care and punishment, innocence and guilt, and victim and threat.

As anthropologists and sociologists studying contemporary politics of criminalisation we are concerned with the social lives of criminal law and crime control policies. As outlined by the anthropology of policy (Shore/Wright 1997), policies and laws work on people, they produce, and react to, figures of crime. To analytically engage with subject construction or figurations, we find Michel Foucault’s distinction between the subject of the offender and the delinquent particularly helpful that he introduces in his famous study on discipline and punishment (1977). The offender, according to Foucault, is constituted through the isolated act of rule violations. Thus, he is the subject known and constituted by criminal law. The delinquent, however, is called into being within the processes of punishment and judicial procedures. Subjected to police, judges, attorneys, prison administration and so on, the delinquent is not only constituted through the act of rule violation.

Following the criminal justice rationality of correction and just sentencing, the delinquent is constituted through their biography, personality and social conditions. It`s within the subjection of the delinquent, where according to Foucault, psychiatric and judicial discourses meet and merge. It is here, where psychiatric knowledge confuses the judicial attribution of responsibility. In our research we engage with different subjects constructed as “delinquent”: with women who undergo abortion, with sex workers, with people who use drugs and with female prisoners.  

To illuminate subject constructions at the intersection of criminalisation and vulnerabilisation, a  gender theoretical perspective is particularly promising. Foucault writes that the intertwining of the judicial and psychiatric discourses allowed for the figure of the dangerous individual to emerge. And several other scholars have pointed to the construction of criminals as monsters or risks. The subjects we are concerned with are, however, not so dangerous, and not so monstrous. Instead, engaging with certain gendered and infantilised notions of victimhood, vulnerability and innocence allows us to craft out the nuances, complexities and contradictions within what is considered dangerous to the normative and moral social order. Therefore, a gender perspective promises to interrogate, and to add nuances to theorisations of criminalisation and punishment.

Carceral-care, as defined by Ghazah Abbasi (Abbasi 2020) is a situation whereby “disciplinary tactics intertwine state repression with state care”. Carceral-care programs:

  • „are designed to promote material and psychological well-being of carceral populations”
  • are characterized by a “paradoxical nature”
  • „are neither purely coercive nor purely consensual, but contain elements of both coercion and consent, care and incarceration”
  • individualize a problem, obscuring the systemic root of suffering

Other social sciences scholars have theorized about systems which provide both care and criminalisation as “jailcare” (Sufrin 2017), “carceral protection” (Musto 2019) “penal welfare system” (Gruber, Cohen, und Mogulescu 2016). The concept of carceral care helps us understand the complexities of criminalisation policies. The motivation for these policies contain both concerns about the danger of the criminalised activity (e.g. drug use, sex work) and concerns for the criminalised subjects (e.g. people who use drugs, sex workers). This concern, however, does not increase the groups’ agency, as they are being infatilised, victimised, portrayed as unable to make fully responsible decisions.

This blog post is a summary of the introduction to the workshop “Vulnerabilising criminalised subjects: Entanglements of Gender and Crime“ facilitated by Friederike Faust and Agata Chełstowska. The Workshop was held on Friday, June 11th 2021 via Zoom platform, as a part of CrimScapes’ first Thematic Seminar. During the workshop four project researchers presented insights from their research on sex-work (dr Agata Dziuban), drug use (dr Justyna Struzik), abortion (dr Agata Chełstowska) and women’s prisons (dr Friedrike Faust).

Abbasi, Ghazah. 2020. „Discipline and Commoditize: How U-Visas Exploit the Pain of Gender-Based Violence“. Feminist Criminology 15 (4): 1–28.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House.

Gruber, Aya, Amy J. Cohen, und Kate Mogulescu. 2016. „Penal welfare and the new human trafficking intervention courts“. Florida Law Review 68 (5): 1333–1402.

Musto, Jennifer. 2019. „Transing Critical Criminology: A Critical Unsettling and Transformative Anti-Carceral Feminist Reframing“. Critical Criminology, Nr. 27: 37–54.

Shore, Chris/Wright, Susan. 1997. Anthropology of policy: critical perspectives on governance and power. New York; London: Routledge.

Sufrin, Carolyn. 2017. Jailcare: Finidng the safety net for women behind bars. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.