Carceral feminism is a critical term for types of feminism that advocate for enhancing and increasing prison sentences that deal with feminist and gender issues. It is the belief that harsher and longer prison sentences will help work towards solving these issues. The phrase "carceral feminism" was coined by feminist sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein in her 2007 article, "The Sexual Politics of the 'New Abolitionism'". Examining the contemporary anti-trafficking movement in the United States, Bernstein introduced the term to describe a type of feminist activism which casts all forms of sexual labor as sex-trafficking. She sees this as a retrograde step, suggesting it erodes the rights of women in the sex industry, and takes the focus off other important feminist issues, and expands the neoliberal agenda.
Bernstein argued that feminist support for anti-trafficking laws that equate prostitution with sex-trafficking have undercut the efforts of sex workers themselves in previous decades to organize for their rights, instead bolstering their criminalization. Evangelical Christians share this commitment to law-and-order in Bernstein's account, and later, Bernstein attributed their alliance to the broader political and economic shift in the US from a redistributive welfare state towards a "carceral" one that fosters criminalization and incarceration. She argued that for both feminists and evangelical Christians, politics of gender and sexuality have shifted attention from the family (i.e. issues of battering and abortion, respectively) outward to the public sphere (i.e. sex-trafficking) and in this shift, have intertwined the anti-trafficking movement with neoliberal politics. In her article, "Carceral Politics as Gender Justice?". Bernstein expanded on this analysis, using the case of the anti-trafficking movement to demonstrate how feminism has more generally become a vehicle of punitive politics in the US and abroad.
Feminist scholars have described the trajectory of feminist activism in other spheres similarly. In their studies of the feminist campaigns around the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault, for example, sociologist Beth Richie and political theorist Kristin Bumiller traced the development of the feminist anti-violence movement in the US from its original focus on social transformation to its nearly ubiquitous reliance on law and law-enforcement today. A similar trend has been described outside of the US context—for example, Miriam Ticktin argued that anti-immigrant sentiments in feminist campaigns against sexual violence in France have served border control and other forms of policing. Some examples of this are with Alex Press in the mentions of his Vox article about the #metoo link that brought forth a movement about the incarceration of domestic violence victims. He argues that they should go against this type of feminism due to the reasoning of more women that are possibly in harm. Virginia Law discusses the critique of her view for carceral feminism that the term could also bring more harm for women such as it did with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Anna Terwiel raises the awareness of needing additional change for carceral feminism such as, by bringing in more programs that require them to find ways on changing the perpetrator's behavior. Assuming that there should be consequences for the actions committed in these certain situations. Feminists are pushing for change that will impact the domestic violence community and not just from the individualistic standpoint.
Activists have also challenged this mode of feminism. Feminists involved in the prison abolition movement, especially, have been critical of feminist alliances with prisons and policing. The national activist organization Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, for example, formed in 2000 with the conviction that the criminal justice system does not support but rather causes further harm for women, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color experiencing interpersonal violence. Since its introduction in 2007, the term "carceral feminism" has been used widely by activists to make such critiques and has made its way into discussions and debates in media forums such as Twitter and Vox.
According to the ACLU "79% of women in federal and state prisons reported physical abuse and over 60% reported past sexual abuse", and furthermore, "As many as 90% of the women in prison today for killing men had previously been battered by those men". This means that many of the women who are in prison are victims of sexual violence who may have committed the crimes that they were indicted for as a result of the sexual violence they experienced. The anti-carceral feminist movement pushes towards solving this issue and fighting the criminalization and incarceration of women who are victims of sexual and domestic violence.
An initiative created to help illuminate and help these injustices is the Survived and Punished Organization which began in 2015. This organization acknowledges that many of these women, transgender women, and non-gender conforming people have experienced sexual and/or domestic violence. In a lot of cases, this history of sexual violence could give reason to their crime. The organization also explains how, once in prison, many of these people are subjected to more sexual violence or harassment by the guards or other individuals. The organization seeks to help women who as a result of the sexual violence they were experiencing, the crime they committed was potentially an act of self-defense. There are also circumstances where women are coerced into being an accomplice. Overall, this organization seeks to rectify a system which they believe wrongfully targets minority groups, people of color, and women.
ACLU explains that "The average prison sentence of men who kill their female partners is 2 to 6 years. Women who kill their partners are sentenced on average to 15 years, even though most women who kill their partners do so to protect themselves from violence initiated by their partners". This means that women are being more harshly prosecuted for the same crime when, in a lot of cases, that crime was a response to their partners’ violence. Based on this statistic, it can be seen that there is some inequity in sentence-length between genders. This alludes to the possibility that carceral feminism may result in the increased suffering and persecution of minority groups.
Another example of how carceral feminism may affect minority groups can be seen through examining the case of The Central Park Five. In 1989, five African American and Latin American teenagers were arrested and convicted for the brutal rape of Trisha Meili in New York's Central Park. All of them received prison sentences ranging from 6 to 13 years. However, with the progression of technology and the addition of DNA evidence, it was revealed that the sole perpetrator of the rape was Matias Reyes, meaning that the other five men were innocent. This is a case where because of the harsh criminal sentences and punishments associated with rape cases, this can lead to potentially innocent people being wrongfully persecuted. Additionally, in this case, minority groups can be, as a result, more negatively affected by the harsher punishments that carceral feminism aims to support.