The Fat Prisoners' Dilemma: Slow Violence, Intersectionality, and a Disability Rights Framework for the Future
America is having a reckoning on mass incarceration. Events such as George Floyd’s killing, COVID behind bars, and Black Lives Matter have punctured our collective consciousness. Advocates and scholars alike are pushing U.S. society to examine the costs—financial, psychic, social—of putting millions of people behind bars. Despite this investigation, some of the day-to-day difficulties of mass incarceration may escape appraisal. This Article reveals one of these problems, charts the difficulties in solving it, and offers a new way forward for thinking about mass incarceration, disability, intersectionality, and violence.
The mass-incarceration crisis exacerbates obesity at the hands of the state and fails to accommodate the consequences of the problem that it created. Incarcerated people are at risk for weight gain based on several factors. As an initial matter, various overlapping social factors such as inadequate access to nutritious food and socioeconomic deprivation increase the risks of both incarceration and obesity. Once a person is incarcerated, prisons and jails then govern two of the largest inputs to control weight gain— access to food and physical activity—and strongly influence several other elements that contribute to obesity. Not all fat people experience debilitating effects from their bodies and mass incarceration does not cause all weight gain. However, the carceral space bears some responsibility for producing negative effects for incarcerated people, and this assemblage of negative effects can include bodily changes such as weight gain.
Law has ignored the problems of fatness in prisons and jails and regularly fails to address much-needed accommodations for fat incarcerated people due to flaws in incarceration law and applications of disability law.
The dilemma of fat incarcerated people extends beyond litigation difficulties, however. It is a heuristic that illustrates the depth of the harm of mass incarceration and the need to take disability seriously—and how complicated taking disability seriously is. Attention to the social inequities that produce and maintain the population of fat people in prisons exposes a profound tension in disability scholarship and activism. Typically, disability scholarship and advocacy seek to unite a disability community of people with varying bodily impairments by focusing on stigma and stereotyping. While people’s bodies are different, all disabled people experience ableism. This Article contends that disability scholars and advocates can and should augment their focus on stigma and stereo-typing to emphasize the social inequities such as environmental poison-ing, racism, poverty, and violence that produce many debilitating impairments. This proposal is an uncomfortable proposition for disability scholarship and advocacy wary of eugenic treatment and “cures.” Reducing social inequities would reduce the population of disabled people, and advocacy to improve the environmental predecessors to impairment could be viewed as a condemnation of the state of disability itself.
However, proper attention to intersectional injustice in conjunction with respect for disabled people requires thoughtful consideration of the production of impairments. Although not all disabilities are the result of social injustice, knitting together social inequality and disability would reorient the field on those who are most marginalized, redirect it toward a greater reliance on intersectional principles, and link it to other political and legal campaigns that challenge injustice.
Fundamentally, this Article offers a new disability paradigm to think about intersectionality and slow violence. Law and politics are at a crossroads where scholars and advocates alike are searching for new frameworks to address the longstanding and troubling matters of social injustice revealed in the wake of protest and reflection. Disability scholarship can help but only if disability thought leaders are willing to reexamine and reorient their current approach and classifications. With respect to intersectionality, I argue that, in addition to examining the simultaneous, overlapping identities of multiply marginalized people, incorporating disability into intersectionality would also require investigation of how injustice produces impairment, which in turn creates people who are multiply marginalized. With respect to slow violence, carceral harms are ripe for incorporation into the pantheon of slow violence—situations where harm is accrued slowly, difficult to trace, and susceptible to being overlooked. The bodily changes of incarcerated people, such as weight gain, exemplify how this slow violence occurs. Disability is also a grammar that structures what slow violence is across domains.Belt_Fat Prisoners Dilemma