Liat Ben-Moshe
Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition
University of Minnesota Press, 2020
366 pages

Reviewed by Brie Winnega

Any scholar invested in disability justice will find potential for critical engagement in Liat Ben-Moshe’s Decarcerating Disability. The book is rooted in an interrogation of the histories and possibilities of abolition in three main carceral locales: prisons, psychiatric institutions, and institutions for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (whom she refers to as I/DD). Ben-Moshe encourages the reader to think of deinstitutionalization not only as a process but as “a social movement, an ideology opposing carceral logics, a mind-set.” As such, the book argues that the project of abolition is “not about facility closure: it is about abolishing a society that could have prisons.” The objectives and contributions of this book are multiple and complex, making for an impressive project spanning the range of an introduction, seven chapters, and epilogue. This book demands much of its reader. Belying quick reading, Ben-Moshe’s book delivers on the ambitious goals she charts in the introduction. One such aim is to begin correcting a current lack of interface between Disability Studies and prison abolition, between disability/madness and analyses of incarceration. Ben-Moshe manages these through an approach defined in her own words as queer, crip, and feminist of color.

Differences among terms such as deinstitutionalization, decarceration, and abolition are not immediately clear upon one’s first encounter with Decarcerating Disability. However, Chapter Three helps parse the language by defining and interpreting the ideologies informing the movement toward abolition. The first part of the chapter emphasizes the value of what Ben-Moshe calls “intersectional fugitive/maroon abolitionist knowledges,” originating from “those for whom abolition for the future is already rooted in survival of the now.” Furthermore, the second part of this chapter describes abolition as a’(dis)epistemology,’ a phrase denoting the necessity to abandon “the idea of knowing and needing to know” that Ben-Moshe argues helps maintain carceral logics. In brief, by examining critiques of abolition and re-theorizing its supposed pitfalls as its strengths, Ben-Moshe develops a compelling case for the value of abolition over reform.

Among the multiple goals stated in the introduction is that of constructing a genealogy of deinstitutionalization, a purpose undertaken primarily in Chapters One and Two, each of which draws from methodologies proposed by Michel Foucault. Chapter One examines the debate about what led to deinstitutionalization in mental health and I/DD, promising to complicate its origin story. Notably, too, this chapter parses the distinction between the discourses of danger and of infantilization—two distinct narratives that informed the outcome of deinstitutionalization in the arenas of mental health and I/DD, respectively. Subsequently, Chapter Two seeks to plot the trajectory between attempts to reform disability-related carceral enclosures and demands to abolish them. This chapter interrogates the approaches of two abolitionists in a case study framework. More importantly, it does an admirable job of centering the activism (and self-advocacy) of people directly impacted by institutionalization. Perhaps one of the most compelling elements of this chapter (and of the book more broadly) is the way it asks and proposes several responses to the question: What does inclusion into mainstream society cost disabled people? By grappling with this question in several places, Ben-Moshe asks the reader to practice “(dis)epistemology,” troubling what most readers might assume as the obvious alternative to exclusion. She asserts via a crip/mad of color analysis that “incorporation within settler ethnocentric norms is not the solution but the problem.”

Although not chronologically connected in the book itself, I read Chapter Seven as a continuation of (or, perhaps, an addendum to) the genealogical exigencies of Chapters One and Two. It serves as an investigation into the role of litigation in deinstitutionalization and considers its utility as a strategy of abolition. Ben-Moshe discusses several examples of landmark cases and analyzes their consequences, ending with a critique of using disability as a strategy in prison litigation. The key impulse of this chapter is to show that abolition will only be successful by building coalitions among different types of incarcerated populations. Without such coalition-building, results of historical court cases have been “reformist at best” and, at worst, have contributed to “more effective ways to ensure […] confinement.”

The arguments made in Chapters Four through Six are poised to address common misconceptions about and modes of resistance to deinstitutionalization. By dispelling the myth that deinstitutionalization led to a rise in homelessness and incarceration, Ben-Moshe uses the bulk of Chapter Four to interrogate what she calls the ‘new asylums thesis’—the idea that jails have taken the place of psychiatric institutions. She posits that the new asylums thesis pathologizes what should instead be considered a political and socioeconomic issue. Here, Ben-Moshe argues, deinstitutionalization becomes an easy scapegoat for key problems (namely, the growth of prisons and the shrinking of affordable housing) that result from neoliberal policies. This chapter is an ideal primer for Chapters Five and Six, which use Sara Ahmed’s theory of affective economies to describe and analyze logics of resistance to deinstitutionalization. Chapter Five deals largely in an explanation of forms of resistance referred to as NIMBY (not in my backyard) and argues that desegregation of disabled people “followed, paralleled, and intersected with racial desegregation.” It is worth mentioning that Ben-Moshe does the important work not only of avoiding the common analogy between race and disability but also articulating how and why the two movements toward racial and disability justice are fundamentally intersectional, particularly within the arenas of abolition, housing, and social services described in this chapter.

Meanwhile, Chapter Six demonstrates that resistance to institutional closures is often tied with discourses of rights/choice, care/labor, and innocence/safety. Ben-Moshe articulates the different affective responses to the closure of I/DD and psychiatric institutions compared with the closure of prisons, asking the reader to consider how certain languages and ideologies—for example, the language of caring—infantilize and reproduce tropes of disabled people as children. This chapter attends to a feminist analysis of the labor performed in each type of setting and the necessity of such an analysis to creating alternatives to incarceration. While Ben-Moshe usually avoids prescribing solutions to ongoing issues (a choice she touches upon in the book’s Epilogue), Chapter Six gives the reader a rare—and, I would argue, invaluable—glimpse of the possible alternatives to labor unions resisting institutional closure: advocating for better work opportunities in community homes, higher salaries for in-home care attendants, and so forth.

The Epilogue to Decarcerating Disability offers an effective concluding gesture by tying key deliverables from each of its seven chapters into an analysis of the current status of abolition in the US. In this finale to an intense and extensive study of incarceration and abolitionist movements, Ben-Moshe asks the reader to consider whether we have progressed since the deinstitutionalization impulse of the 1960s and ‘70s. Are group homes and community living arrangements better alternatives to large institutions or merely new forms of subjugation? Are alternatives to incarceration such as psychiatric drugs and house arrest, indeed, alternatives, or do they merely amplify state surveillance? The epilogue thus offers readers the chance to recognize what ground remains to be covered and invites us to invest in a world where incarceration is no longer an option. In Ben-Moshe’s view, such a world is beyond recognition to us now—and indeed will remain beyond recognition until such a time when we are brave enough to pursue it.