Free your imagination: Thinking beyond carceral logic in children’s media

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How much did your favorite childhood books, movies or television shows shape the person you grew up to be? For me, the answer is quite a lot. Although my worldview has changed radically since middle and even high school, the default ideologies I grew into before I began doing more research on the history of the world, philosophy and political theories were heavily influenced by the morality and stark sense of right and wrong cultivated through the fantasy series I spent the majority of my childhood immersed in.

One ideology that has challenged my previous ways of thinking is prison abolition, which is increasingly filtering into mainstream conversation. Prison abolitionists, however, always seem to be fighting an uphill battle. When one says they want a world without prisons, a world in which there are no cages and everyone (yes, everyone) is free, they are speaking of a world near impossible to imagine. It’s hard to convince others of the practicality of prison abolition because carceral logic, or approaching the creation of a just and functioning society through punitive structures, is so embedded in how we view the world.

When I started reflecting on what the ideas passed on by the stories of my childhood were, I realized even our most magical fantasies construct worlds that operate within this kind of logic. This is demonstrated in the well-beloved “Harry Potter” series. 

Although “Harry Potter” is lauded in popular discourse as a seemingly anti-racist, anti-fascist analogy, the world in which the story exists is strikingly similar to our own. While this lends the analogy its power, by setting up easy parallels between the fantasy magical society and reality, the structure of the society itself is never called into question. The bad guys are set up as individuals with fringe, outdated beliefs, and defeating them allows the wizarding world to continue on as normal. This framing helps establish a carceral state not as a fungible structure that exists within the real world, but as a universal standard without which society would fall into ruin.

This framing helps establish a carceral state not as a fungible structure that exists within the real world, but as a universal standard without which society would fall into ruin.

On the surface level, J.K. Rowling demonstrates this in the justice system of the society contained in the “Harry Potter” books. Even though the books take place in a world with magic, the legal system is nearly indistinguishable from our own in terms of its flaws. Although truth serum exists and it is possible to physically extract and view memories in this universe, there are still multiple instances of innocent people being imprisoned in the books. In the most prominent example, Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, did not even have the knowledge necessary to commit his alleged crime, a circumstance that should have been easy for him to prove within the laws of this universe. The wizarding world, however, is so convinced he is a dark wizard that his claims of innocence are ignored and he is sentenced to life in the wizard prison, Azkaban.

Azkaban is guarded by dementors, creatures that feed on human despair and quite literally drain the happiness from their human prey. In “Pottermore,” her blog about the series, Rowling explains the history of Azkaban, stating that the dementors have guarded the prison for about 300 years, with only one Minister of Magic ever questioning the practice of guarding imprisoned wizards with creatures that will eventually cause them to die of despair.

After the events of the books, the only reform to the justice system that Rowling retrospectively adds to her new and ostensibly better wizard society is the removal of the dementors from Azkaban. And not because they killed and tortured the prisoners, but because they were dark creatures that sided with Voldemort during the war of the last book in the series.

Prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore states, “prisons are a geographical solution to socio-economic problems.” With prisoners out of sight and out of mind, there’s no need to question why so many people are incarcerated in the first place. While reading Rowling’s blog post about Azkaban, I realized that it fits Gilmore’s description of prison more perfectly than even I had expected.

Rowling explains that Azkaban was created on a remote island, initially not to prevent wizards from escaping as had been implied in the books, but so that they were less noticeable to nonwizarding populations in the countrysides where prisons had previously been located. Whether or not you believe that prisons work to rehabilitate people, both in the world of Harry Potter and in the world of reality, prisons are placed outside the nexus of society so that it’s easier to forget that the people within them exist.

Rowling continues this theme of not questioning why her fictional society has the problems it does with the character development (or lack thereof) in the novels. There are many characters in which this stands out, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on three: professor Albus Dumbledore, Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange.

First, Dumbledore’s character is presented as almost beyond reproach. Even though it is revealed in the last book that he had used his position as Harry’s headmaster and parental figure to endanger Harry and groom him to eventually sacrifice himself for the greater good, he’s still the icon of the “light side.” Although more is eventually revealed about his past mistakes, he is never viewed negatively by Harry or any of the other main characters.

Second, Voldemort himself. The main villain attains a form of immortality, splitting his soul into pieces by murdering seven people, transforming even his physical body into something inhuman. Voldemort is warped inside and out by his crimes, so much so that when Harry offers him a chance to feel remorse in their final battle, it almost rings hollow: Voldemort is literally no longer a complete human anymore and possibly does not even possess enough of a soul to feel remorse. This acts as the justification for his death: Since he has gone past the point of no return to salvation, he is no longer human and, therefore, his life no longer holds human value.

The same logic applies to Bellatrix Lestrange, whose only character trait in the series is that she enjoys torturing and killing others. When she is killed by Molly Weasley, the audience is invited to cheer at her death, as the avenging mother figure slays the evil “bitch.” In the instances of both Voldemort and Bellatrix, the characters are set up as straw men for absolute evil with no chance at redemption or reform and, in the case of Bellatrix, no explanation for what could have been done to prevent her descent into evil. This setup justifies a prison like Azkaban: When villains like this exist and the other alternative is killing them, the ability to remove certain people permanently from society becomes a necessity.

This setup justifies a prison like Azkaban: When villains like this exist and the other alternative is killing them, the ability to remove certain people permanently from society becomes a necessity.

There is another very prominent (and not at all subtle) example of carceral logic in current popular children’s media, and that is the television show called, “The Flash.” I really enjoyed “The Flash” when it first came out. It was fun and lighthearted, and protagonist Barry Allen’s main character trait as The Flash consists of always trying to do the right thing.

There is one glaring example of hypocrisy, however. As a superhero, The Flash is constantly trying to keep his city safe from other powerful metahumans with superpowers, but he doesn’t know what to do with the criminals he catches. All problems with the criminal justice system aside, Barry is a crime scene investigator by day and definitely understands how due process works. Yet, instead of allowing anyone he catches, even nonviolent metas like Peek-a-Boo, a chance at a trial by jury, he locks them in solitary confinement via a secret prison located in his headquarters at STAR Labs, claiming that the goal is to “rehabilitate them.”

This could be a powerful parallel to violations of due process in the real world, in black sites and in the cases of suspected terrorists particularly. It could even be extended to the U.S. prison system itself, as well as claims that prison is a project of reformation when data and centuries of historical precedent seem to disprove the effectiveness of prisons in this area. And yet, the show never takes the chance to actually confront the morality of prison. There’s even an official Tumblr blog run by the show that started narrating stories about the secret prison from resident tech geek Cisco’s point of view, answering common fan questions like, “How do the metas in the pipeline get food?” and detailing Cisco’s weak attempts at “rehabilitation” via thoroughly uninformed therapy that goes nowhere for reasons he doesn’t understand.

Although once or twice other characters, like supervillain-turned-hero Captain Cold, level criticisms at Barry over the pipeline, these arguments don’t lead anywhere. They mostly seem to exist because it would be strange for a character who spent so much time in prison to not notice that the hero has one in his basement.

While there is potential for criticism that arises with Barry’s private prison (potential that many fans have latched onto and addressed), the show itself continues to lean on the existence of superhumans as a justification for incarcerating them. If people can’t be controlled, they must be a danger. And rather than trying to prevent them from becoming a danger, the show depends on epic fights and showdowns, thus presenting imprisonment as the only moral solution to inevitable problems of crime.

Alternatively, there is one extremely popular children’s series that I think does an excellent job of depicting a realistic abolitionist framework, and that’s Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.” From the get-go, even though the “Percy Jackson” books are targeted consistently at a younger audience (as opposed to “Harry Potter,” which begins to shift more to adults as the characters grow older), Riordan never shies away from creating three-dimensional characters who must solve their own problems, without help from the police or private prisons or anyone but the support of their own family and community.

There is magic and lots of it, but there are only a couple of situations in which magic can actually resolve problems between characters. The standout instance of this is when Percy sends Medusa’s head to his mother, Sally, allowing the latter to turn her abuser into a statue. This is presented as a one-time-use solution, a quick fix to the immediate problem of her safety, with Sally herself saying that she doesn’t intend to use it again. Magic isn’t presented as a realistic solution to problems, and in a story in which the police usually represent more of a danger than a source of help to demigods, neither is incarceration.

There are four kinds of antagonists in “Percy Jackson”: monsters, other demigods, gods and titans. Monsters, while sometimes humanized, mostly function as metaphors for obstacles or are set up as challenges for the characters, as they are millennia-old and can’t die permanently. Titans are on such a different level of power from gods or humans that they are more representative of forces of nature than anything else. It’s when we arrive at the gods and demigods who act as antagonists within the series that the plot becomes interesting.

There are several main demigod characters who act as antagonists or are seen as siding against the gods and Camp Half-Blood, and each is given their own motivations and character development alongside their choices. Luke Castellan is the main demigod antagonist who is driven by his feelings of abandonment and anger toward his godly parent, Hermes, to resurrect the titan Kronos and try to defeat the gods of Olympus. Luke, however, turns out to be the prophesied hero of the series, sacrificing himself to kill Kronos at the end of the final novel to prevent the deaths of people he cares about.

The more minor demigods who side with him are also offered chances at redemption. Ethan Nakamura is angry because his status as an unclaimed child keeps him from being offered the same level of recognition and inclusion at Camp Half-Blood that the children of Olympians enjoy. After realizing that destroying Olympus won’t bring balance but only destruction, Ethan switches sides and saves Percy’s life. He is killed in the process, telling Percy before he dies that minor gods like his mother deserve recognition and forgiveness because of how they have been mistreated.

Although both Luke and Ethan die, not all the characters who switch sides do. Chris Rodriguez, who is found abandoned in the Labyrinth in the fourth book, had been left there by Luke’s army after failing to find his way through the Labyrinth before being driven mad. Rather than abandoning him or imprisoning him, the campers take him in and he is eventually healed.

Even though the gods are immortal and considerably more powerful than any demigod, they also develop as characters. When talking to Percy, Hermes expresses regret that his distance caused Luke so much hurt and that his actions ultimately drove him to such extremes.

Possibly most importantly, the series recognizes the gods as being at fault for the demigods and minor gods turning to the destruction of the titans as a solution. As his one boon granted by Zeus to reward Percy for winning the war, the latter demands that the Olympians recognize minor gods on Olympus and at Camp Half-Blood, and that all gods claim their children so that none of them face the same abandonment Ethan did. This is a radical act. Even though he was fighting against them to protect the people he cared about, Percy also cared about Luke and the other demigods siding with the titans, and he listened to them to try to prevent other demigods from feeling the same way in the future.

Their fights happen only on an individual level, not a societal one.

There are other wars in the future of the “Percy Jackson” universe — it’s a fantasy franchise, so there has to be some conflict. But it won’t come from the same source, and the residents of Camp Half-Blood are stronger when facing these future threats because of Percy’s choice. This sets it apart from its contemporaries: Harry Potter ends the series having started a career as a dark wizard catcher, and The Flash will be fighting the same villains of the week until the eventual end of the show. Their fights happen only on an individual level, not a societal one. While Harry Potter and The Flash are depicted as paragons in the battle between good and evil, that’s a battle of absolutes they will never really win.

Being an abolitionist is viewed as a radical position for a reason. Becoming an abolitionist has been a journey for me, and it has necessitated that I reevaluate a number of my previous views. In “Harry Potter,” Rowling implies that love is the most powerful kind of magic, and I think this is very true.

Love doesn’t mean wishing away our problems or letting the people we love go through life without holding them accountable for their actions. Radical love means caring about others enough to have faith in their humanity and in the strength of community, and stepping up to do the hard work of repairing the wounds that have divided us. Safety is important and accountability is important, but neither of these things necessitates punitiveness. I don’t think either of these justifies punitiveness, either.

When people do bad things, they are still people (not noseless monsters), and that’s a hard truth to face. Restorative justice practices aren’t magical: They can’t fix every problem, and they won’t make everyone happy. But prisons don’t solve our problems at all; they just let us ignore them.

Children’s media that aims to spark kids’ imaginations should be taken as an opportunity to construct worlds that are truly radically different from our own. Maybe someday, we’ll be able to imagine that world for ourselves.

Contact Saya Abney at [email protected].