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On Carcerality, Counterextremism, Counterterrorism and Criminology

This article was written by Aaron Winter
This article was published on

This piece is based on my intervention at the British Independent Studies Association (BISA) Colonial, Postcolonial and Decolonial (CPD) event ‘Refusing Carcerality - A Public Roundtable’ at King’s College London on 14 June 2023. It was a great event and opportunity to hear other interventions, reflect on issues, and bring together some issues and ideas I have had working in Criminology and on counterextremism, counterterrorism and the far right in relation to important discussions about carcerality and abolition. 

Carcerality always extends beyond what are typically seen as carceral institutions, policies and punishments, particularly in the context of abolitionist theory and activism and our understanding of the carceral state and society. I would like to return it to the prison and penal system for a moment though to discuss how differences and alternatives to the carceral are constructed, used and played off one another in the context of counterextremism, counterterrorism and Criminology in ways that can distract from and ultimately serve an unequal and unjust system. This is particularly important if our opposition to the carceral is also about opposing this system, focusing on systemic inequalities and injustices (related to but expanding beyond ‘crime’) and envisioning more radical and truly emancipatory alternatives.   

Right-wing rallying cries of more police, more laws and harsher sentences, as well as accusations that academic theories provide or amount to no more than excuses, are familiar to many (as are system-supportive reformist liberal variations). Yet, with counterextremism and counterterrorism, in addition to the more laws and law enforcement or security, we have also seen a great deal of attention paid to alternatives to incarceration, as well as demand for more academic research and theories. Yet, far from this being a positive and progressive move, it is represented by highly problematic ‘problem solving’ and even ‘pre-crime’ securitisation, deradicalisation, disengagement and wider P/CVE (Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism) responses, such as Prevent in the UK and the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism in the US. In fact, far from a solution to the problem, prison is often seen as a site of potential radicalisation, as well as a source of potential research subjects and interviewees. 

While carceral approaches in criminal justice and Criminology are part of a wider menu or repertoire of responses and ‘solutions’, in counterextremism and counterterrorism, and specifically P/CVE, as well as ‘hate’, these alternative approaches identified are not only dominant, but often the very terms of doing business for policy, funding and research impact. They are often positioned in comparison and opposition to worse and more illiberal state responses such as greater securitisation and incarceration. Criticism of these is often met by such comparisons and questions such as ‘but what would you do?’ and ‘do you want more extremism and terrorism?!’ (or ‘hate’ when extremism is used as a proxy for racism). In fact, many of us have been called armchair critics (or ‘quarterbacks’ in the US and Canada) and dismissed because we are not on the ground - or in Whitehall and the White House - fighting the good fight as part of the frontline and solution to extremism and terrorism, including far right versions, next to which systemic racist inequality and injustice are invisibilised. It can be even worse when, in addition to criticising such approaches, you are calling for the defunding or abolition of criminal justice and security institutions and agencies, as well that system and logic they represent and enforce.  

That is not to say that carceral approaches are unconnected and not utilised, and not just as a straw argument or in sentencing for an actual attack or other crimes committed, but at and across borders. That is the detention and deportation used against those deemed foreign nationals or with conditional and contingent status due to their or parental citizenship or country of birth, type of visa, or those who can be linked to ‘foreign’ movements, or other racist policies that overlap with and can feed anti-immigrant politics and narratives. This not only makes a distinction between domestic and foreign actors, but extremism and terrorism, in how they are approached (at least distinct for the former and collapsed for the latter for whom the burden of what constitutes a threat and crime is lighter). This also attests to the ways in which racism, Islamophobia and colonial history feed into carcerality and wider criminal justice, as well as counterextremism and counterterrorism. We see this acutely in the case of Shamima Begum having her British citizenship revoked and rendering her stateless. It is worth noting that until recently, in the US there was no federal criminal offence of domestic terrorism, whereas there was for international terrorism, which itself represents and reinforces a racial and xenophobic logic. This is particularly significant as terrorism has been the most highly prioritised, politicised and demonised act or ‘crime’, tied to Muslims and racialised narratives about national identity and security, and ‘domestic’ refers to primarily to white and right-wing.    

In recent years and in response to far-right attacks, from Charleston in 2015 to the 6 January attack on the Capitol, we have seen calls for the labelling of far right perpetrators as ‘terrorists’ and increased security and criminal justice responses. We see this not just from liberals or counterextremism, counterterrorism and P/CVE experts, organisations and agencies, but also from anti-racists and critics of counterextremism and counterterrorism policies and practices. This is done to highlight or attempt to address the racist double standard evident in the application of the label and policies, as well as their implications for Muslims – as well as combat the racism and fascism we oppose. While I support the intentions, they are misguided because: 1. There is a long history of exceptionalising and displacing racism from the system onto right-wing extremists; and 2. It is always going to legitimise and expand the security state, and criminal justice system, offset criticism and not actually address racism, particularly when such agencies and this system are implicated in it and institutionally racist. In terms of the last point, this makes entrusting it to deal with racist movements and racism even more problematic and likely to serve as a displacement.  

In the case of Prevent in the UK, even though we are seeing a rise in far right referrals in the last few years, it is often framed as addressing the imbalance and creating equality and/or constructed as part of a colour and ideology blind equivalence between different or ‘all types’ of ‘extremists’ at best (as well as a predictable backlash). The construction of equivalence occurs even when the targets of the policy, Muslims and white racists, have radically different positions of power and representation, including notably in the face of such state agencies and polices. We also see this in the US with the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism which came out following the 6 January attack. Despite identifying racially or ethnically motivated and anti-government violent extremists as the most lethal threats, it also states ‘It is critical that we condemn and confront domestic terrorism regardless of the particular ideology that motivates individuals to violence’, including ‘anarchists’. This construction of equivalence and shifting of this focus occurs in a racist system, in the context of the mainstreaming and emboldening of the far right, and through state agencies that had largely targeted Muslims since 9/11, and Antifa, as well as other ‘anarchists’, Black Lives Matter (BLM) and so-called Black Identity Extremists (BIE) under Trump and up to that point. This is in addition to the long history of the state targeting Black anti-racist activists and the left. These are communities and movements that do not have the same level of power, political representation and state support (including in law enforcement and security agencies) as the far right and those more broadly that may share its identity, ideology and/or interests.   

Counterextremism, counterterrorism and P/CVE approaches that assess and respond to vulnerability or risk to radicalisation (which may be the only time and place they seem care about identifying and addressing inequalities) and has securitised and harmed Muslims, is perfectly tailored for the current context in which the far right is on the rise. This is partly because it addresses criticism but also because of the prevalence and power of the Trump and Brexit era ‘left behind’ narrative, which treats white working class inequality not as an example of wider systemic or intersecting inequalities, but as a risk factor in far right radicalisation, and this constituency as not only targets for far right recruitment, but also potential voters that need to be represented in order to prevent such the far right from growing, including by appropriating, legitimizing and mainstreaming racist far-right ideas. There is a thin line between democratic representation or mainstream politics and securitisation in this case. One that seems only to apply to white people and the right. Although the democratic representation aspect applies to those who are white and on the right across class and irrespective of vulnerability, whereas with Muslims labelled as potentially extremist, there is not democratic representation in any sense (particularly when the campaign is Islamophobic, anti-immigrant and speaking to racists and potential far right recruits), only securitization and that applies the board. In fact, in the 2021 Independent Review of Prevent, led by William Shawcross, the argument was made that not only is the far right threat overestimated and focus disproportionate, but there would be difficulty differentiating between mainstream and extreme (saying the quiet part loud), and distracts from the more urgent focus on Islamist extremism and terrorism. The latter of which is both revealing and contradicts previous denials of Islamophobia and a double standard. Although the fact that Shawcross was previously Director of the Henry Jackson Society, and both have a well-established record of Islamophobia, says it all. 

Returning to the question of prison, it does come into it in another way that is also linked to politics and racism, as well as economics. That is in the form of the private prison industry which accompanied the anti-immigrant border politics in the US from the 2000s on and the building and running of deportation centres in the UK in the context of the Hostile Environment in the 2010s and 2020s, and which will likely see an increase in the context of the 2023 Illegal Migration Bill. With these, people and areas (including the so-called ‘left behind’ ones), are given both racism and job opportunities, and the right and capitalist interests are given a political distraction and economic growth. 

On the topic of jobs, and specifically prison ones, I can’t help but reflect on the employability agenda in Criminology, where the criminal justice system (public or private) is seen as the main potential employer. In my experience, I have seen students who reject the police as institutionally racist (often based on direct or indirect experience), identify prison and probation jobs, where they could work with offenders inside the system, as opposed to criminalise them at first contact, as a more progressive or acceptable alternatives. While it may seem so, and it is important work, particularly were rehabilitation can replace deterrence, incapacitation and retribution as intentions and outcomes, it is still the same problem, process and system that is being engaged with and legitimised. Nowhere is this ‘system’ more perfectly and problematically encapsulated than by the way that terrorism and extremism researchers can look at the prison as a legitimate punishment in some cases, a site of radicalisation, research interviewees and evidence, as well as deradicalisation theory and practice. 

It is for these reasons that when we talk of abolishing and refusing prison or policing, we need to not only look at where they fit in the wider system, and what other institutions prop them up and legitimise them, but also understand the internal economy of false alternatives that allows for the displacement and relativizing of aspects or approaches in the service of managing criticism and maintaining the status quo and system as a whole. This is similar to the way that, in Reactionary Democracy, Aurelien Mondon and I argue liberalism and centrism are not an alternative to the illiberal far right and fascism when it comes to addressing racism, white supremacy and capitalism, particularly when what is on offer is merely a moderate liberal form of these and no critique, serious challenge or real alternative. I hope that this also goes some way to helping the conversation and strategising how, as anti-racists, we address racist movements not only without utilising racist policies and practices or distracting from systemic and mainstream racism, but abolishing all of these, as well as refusing carcerality. 


Aaron Winter is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology (Race and Anti-Racism) at Lancaster University.  His research is on the far right with a focus on racism, mainstreaming and violence, and on race, counterextremism and counterterrorism. You can find Aaron's full bio here.