Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Marjorie L. DeVault

Second Advisor

Steven J. Taylor


Abolition, Activism, Deinstitutionalization, Developmental disability, Mental health, Prison

Subject Categories



"Genealogies of resistance to incarceration: Abolition politics within de-institutionalization and anti- prison activism in the U.S." looks at two main sites in which abolition of "total institutions" is enacted. The first site is activism around penal and prison abolition. The second site is deinstitutionalization- the move to close down institutions for people labeled "mentally retarded" (or intellectual/developmental disabilities) and "mental illness" (or psychiatric disabilities). My goals in this study are twofold and interrelated. First, I investigate abolition or closure of institutions as a radical form of activism and sketch the costs and benefits of engaging in abolition as an activist tactic. I highlight the limits of reform efforts, but also the way they are used strategically to improve the lives of those who are incarcerated. My second aim is to demonstrate the interwoven relations between multiple sites of incarceration and the resistance to them.

I begin by sketching an alternative historiography of prisons and institutions in an attempt to paint some of the perils of these systems that were present from their inception. These landscapes of incarceration are also mapped out in both historical and ideological ways. The phenomenon of psychiatric and developmental disabilities centers closing and then turning into prisons will be highlighted as a parable of the cyclical nature of social control. I also connect prisons and mental institutions by demonstrating the ways in which such institutions shifted from being rehabilitating to custodial; were (and are) embedded in notions of danger; were created for economic gain; and were influenced by increased medicalization, as well as racist and eugenic impetuses that mark them to this day.

One of the contributions of my research is in the utilization of Michel Foucault's work not only theoretically, but also methodologically. Genealogies interrogate truth claiming, notions of (scientific) progress, and the discovery of one universal truth, and provide means to extrapolate buried histories of ideas and actions that have been discarded and discredited. As part of this genealogical excavation, I critically investigate instances of possibility, both in deinstitutionalization as a tactic, a dream and its unfulfilled promises and in relation to current prison abolition work and the vision of non-punitive society. During and in the aftermath of the move out of institutions, many critiques were laid out by policy makers, academics, and organizations that cater to people with disabilities. In the popular imagination these staunch criticisms have led to a backlash toward what can be characterized as "the failure of deinstitutionalization." Part of this genealogy is devoted to investigating the chasm between activists' perception of the process of institutional closure and that of their critics.

As part of such excavation, I also offer an analysis of the ways in which disability, mental illness and prisoners have been constructed in the social sciences (what Foucault characterizes as erudite knowledge), as well as the ways in which these characterizations are resisted, enacted or performed by prison abolition and de-institutionalization activists. I particularly highlight the critiques of the social world offered by those engaging in deinstitutionalization and prison abolition (about disability/mental illness/mental retardation, concepts of home and community, dependence, crime and punishment, social control, social justice etc.). Genealogy also encompasses the excavation of subjugated knowledges, in the Foucauldian sense as both buried histories -the story of the enactment of prisons and institutions told by the activists who wish to abolish them; and disqualified knowledge- disability studies, anti psychiatry scholarship and critical prison studies as forms of knowledge that are deemed non-scientific and illegitimate.

Lastly, this work maps the various ways one fights against total institutions and target the instances in which abolition is seen as a useful strategy. In sum, I trace the costs and benefits of utilizing abolition as a strategy of resistance to incarceration, for the activists, for perceptions of them and their work in the public discourse and for their prospective goals. This research also attends to the various ways in which abolitionary practices are combined with others (such as reform efforts) and the social or political constraints that moved movements and activists from one strategy to the other in the winding road towards a non-carceral society.


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