† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
The Mugshot and the Money
by nancy a heitzeg
There it was – the explosion/exposure of the cultural morass of our collective criminalizing presumptions, assumptions, exploitations, objectifications, commodifications – conjured by the gaze of one Jeremy Meeks*. One picture literally unleashing 10 trillion revelatory words.
Meeks is now an international media sensation, because of his face not his case. His model good looks have made him the object of both desire and derision, the subject now of newscasts “wagging the finger of shame”, sensationalistic headlines and labels such as “hottie thug”, photo shop memes, castigation over his prior criminal history and his (maybe past?) gang affiliations, and gave rise to a troubling Twitter hashtag. #FelonCrushFriday moved beyond Meeks to include the mugshots of nameless others (mostly women of color), every known misconception about the criminal injustice system/”criminals”/”gang members”, the “white gaze”, colorism, rampant misogyny and homophobia, ridicule, scorn, calls for prison rape and impossibly harsh punishments.
In a word – Dehumanization. As Mariame Kaba notes in No, Mugshots Do Not “Humanize” Anyone…:
The mugshot then is a tool used by the state to flatten individuals and turn them into rationalized, bureaucratized ‘things.’ This process is so successful that many observers never consider the pain and suffering (too often) etched on the faces of those being photographed. These images of the accused (usually never convicted) are made public for all to consume as they like. Indeed in the age of the internet, police departments regularly post mugshots on social media. Look at this ‘thing,’ the gatekeepers of the state tell us. And millions of people oblige.
Because we live in the midst of the profit-driven, privatizing epicenter of the now globalizing prison industrial complex, there is another word too. Capitalize. It is no longer enough to dehumanize – to leave stigmatized, banished, branded, marked in a degraded status as “criminal”. Dehumanization is the prerequisite of commodification, and yes that abounded too. Immediately internet entrepreneurs were creating T-shirts and phone cases, while high end coat-tail riders like the Warhol Museum and Orange is the New Black (see The Reign of Whitey Is Never Over by Yasmin Nair) were using the hash tag to pimp art exhibits and television shows.
— Orange Is the New… (@OITNB) June 20, 2014
Par for the course. Profit — that is the often under-estimated essence of the prison industrial complex. We are aware of the pic as a source of cheap labor, private/public supply and construction contracts, job creation, continued media profits from exaggerated crime reporting and crime/punishment as entertainment and of the newly emerging “markets” in privatized community corrections. Even this is the tip of the iceberg as we start to include the immense reliance on privatized background check companies and on-line repositories of criminal records. We are still uncovering the manifold ways – both actualized and imagined — in which there is money to be made.
On Mugshots and More.