Tracing the Theo-Logics of Criminalization

We are excited to continue our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Andrew Krinks explores the the secularized theo-logics that make possible the contemporary hyper-criminalization and incarceration of poor and non-white communities in the U.S.!


Tracing the Theo-Logics of Criminalization

by Andrew Krinks

From the Atlantic Monthly’s March 1, 1982 cover story by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson entitled, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” This article served as a foundational theoretical contribution to what would become the institutionalization of a new wave of the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, and non-whiteness in the 80s, 90s, and today.

From the Atlantic Monthly’s March 1, 1982 cover story by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson entitled, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” which served as a foundational theoretical contribution to what would become the institutionalization of a new wave of the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, and non-whiteness in the 80s, 90s, and today.

My project is catalyzed by the fact that the United States of America incarcerates poor communities and communities of color at rates wildly disproportionate to those of white and non-poor communities. From my perspective, incarceration is an inherently destructive solution to the harm that communities experience. Indeed, as my project seeks to demonstrate, while incarceration is purported to be a means of properly dealing with harm, it most often functions instead as a perpetrator of further harm in that it controls, contains, and disappears whole communities that are already the inheritors of centuries of dispossession and displacement.

The question that drives my project, then, is: What logics undergird the operation of systems of criminal justice in the U.S. that make the hyper-incarceration of non-white and poor communities not only possible but so deeply entrenched? With other scholars and activists whose work seeks to chip away at the prison-industrial complex, I deny the racist and classist position that reconciles the disproportionalities of American incarceration by concluding that black and poor communities must simply be predisposed to “criminal” behavior. Rather, I take the position that the racial and class-based disproportionalities of incarceration in the U.S. are indeed the result of a racism and classism that manifests in the form of a phenomenon known as “criminalization.”

The term “criminalization” here designates those processes whereby non-normative or marginal populations are constructed in the popular imagination as inherently prone to criminal behavior, which in turn justifies the disproportionate application of the law through policing and legislation, which, in turn, filters a disproportionate number of non-white and poor persons into the criminal justice system, thereby controlling, containing, and disappearing populations deemed a risk or threat to the good order of society. It is a vicious cycle, and one whose inner dynamics my project seeks to uncover.

But my project is not simply an exercise in sociological analysis or political theory, though such work is necessary and has bolstered my own in indispensible ways. Rather, my project seeks to follow the trail of the “theological” in the hyper-criminalization and incarceration of poor and black communities. Put another way, my project explores the ways in which the criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color and poor people in the U.S. constitutes a phenomenon whose rational structure and undergirding logics may be said to be, in significant part, theological.

It is often the assumption of historians of penal institutions that, unlike early American experiments with incarceration, contemporary prisons have become thoroughly secularized such that the function of prisons may no longer be described as bearing any religious or theological character. My project seeks to problematize this account by drawing out the secularized theo-logics that continue to undergird policing and prisons today.

In brief, my theological analysis investigates carceral theological anthropologies and soteriologies (doctrines of the human and salvation) that undergird the hyper criminalization and incarceration of black and poor communities. I argue that moral virtuousness and normative personhood are articulated in and through the category and inhabitation of whiteness, as a transcendent, god-like subject position and mode of being spatialized in the form of property, such that blackness, which is marked by what I call “original criminality,” is always already trespassing in a nation that is essentially and constitutively white space. Likewise, by tracing the lineage of contemporary broken windows policing to earlier vagrancy laws, I demonstrate how the contemporary sin of poverty is bound up with the immorality of refusing participation in the capitalist economy, or in literally transgressing the boundaries of property upon which one’s presence can only ever be a contamination and blockage of the moral flow of capital.

Through theological and genealogical analysis of archival material, policy manuals guiding broken windows policing, property law, interviews on experiences of criminalization and incarceration, and popular rhetoric on race, poverty, and criminality, my project seeks to make legible the logics that undergird the contemporary hyper-criminalization and incarceration of black and poor communities as secularized theo-logics, all in order that new, liberative theological modalities might enter in to contribute to the dismantling of the racist, classist machinery of the prison-industrial complex.


Andrew Krinks is a doctoral student in Religion at Vanderbilt University

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