Review “Challenging Complicity” In The Imperial University

Oparah, Julia C. 2014. « Challenging Complicity: The Neoliberal university and the Prison-Industrial Complex » In Chatterjee, Piya and Maira, Sunaina (Eds.), The Imperial University. (Pp.99-121) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Julia C. Oparah, a feminist activist and a professor at the Ethnic Studies department of the Mills College (and also a member of the collective Critical Resistance), is arguing in this chapter that a symbiotic relation has arisen between the academy and the prison-industrial complex. She is calling for anti-imperialist scholars to pay greater attention to the challenges and complicities of this alliance, in order to “work toward the abolition of the academic-military-prison-industrial complex” (99).

She begins by stating 4 ways in which carceral dependency ties university to the political economy of prisons. First, When universities receives money that are linked to the prison-industrial complex, it benefits all the institution, not just the department to which it was given. Second, the role of US higher education in spreading the mass incarceration model across the globe, as a result of (cultural and material) imperialism. Then, the legitimization of state killing and violence as a rationale in front of threat, with “retributive justice” in wars, which reframes dissent as crime and prison as servicing the empire. Finally, “universities and colleges educate a global knowledge elite who will become the “prison wardens” – literally and metaphorically- of the nonuniversitied majority and produce technological advances that permit the use of incarceration on a massive scale as a solution to the social ills and unrest caused by the globalization of capital and military repression worldwide” (108). Obviously, enrollment in the academia is not a protection and if you revolt or critique, your privileges will be revoked and you will too enter the “criminal class” (let’s just think about the 4500 students, teachers and others who were arrested during the Quebec’s 2012 student strike. Their trials are just beginning now.) She adds that schools and prisons are mutually reinforcing by the culture of discipline, surveillance, and presence of army recruiters in schools that often results in a “school-to-prison” (109) or “school-to-war” pipelines for young people of color in US.

Finally, she analyses the academic-prison-industrial complex by presenting 4 functions that creates a mutually reinforcing relationship between higher education and mass incarceration. A) Universities often have investments in the prison system, hence more prisoners mean more profits for shareholders. The corporatization of the academia embeds it to the political economy – because of their relations with private services that also works in the prison systems (like Sodexho that are well-known in the Quebec’s cafeterias).  B) Universities produces an educated work-force for the prison-industrial complex. C) Prisons are often used as a source of data for universities and academic research, whereas prisoners are still very much used as objects of research and experiments rather than being the subjects of their own narratives. D) Universities are a major (re)producer of the carceral logic (by producing knowledge that legitimizes penal technologies or tries to make it more “humane”), hence academics may not be just complicit with, but are also sometimes a very constitutive part of it (even if overlooked).

If I hadn’t been sick last friday, I was to ask in class two questions that are great topic of discussions amongst scholars. First, what should be the role of the scholar? Is it enough to produce knowledge or should we acknowledge that scholars are not “outside of the world” and then that they should take action in it. But then, an action towards what? Participating in the context of our ethnographic research or actively engaging in the transnational/international/larger global political context (I don’t think this is an either/or question)? What does it mean? How do we avoid an interventionist approach putting the scholar in the “savior” spotlight to rather take the position of the “negative worker” (Schepper-Hughes 1995) in order to, as Oparah suggests it, confront the complicities of academia with systems capitalizing on the incarceration and surveillance of racialized of marginalized populations. Second, there is now a great popularity with the idea of a collaborative anthropology. Working with the people… but its methods or ethics are not thoroughly defined. With whom shall we collaborate and at what end? If we frame the research designs or our project with collaboration, where does it stop? Collaborating with our participants, with activists… but what about the FBI? Or in the context of the prison-industrial complex, what if we are already collaborating with a structure that is at the same time working to incarcerate a part of the people with whom we work? How do we challenge complicities and collaboration? Should we stay blind to this reality to keep the scholar privileges that may be helpful elsewhere, but then, what will be the ethical value of this work?

Towards a post-carceral academy and the abolitionist movement

Following this idea, Oparah is calling for a post-carceral academy and the abolition of the academic-military-prison-industrial complex. But, she says, the solution is not just the production of more radical knowledge, since after all knowledge is just another commodity. Her position, coming from an abolitionist perspective, is to challenge the materiality of the militarization and the prisonification of the academia (meaning, not just confronting ideas, but political stands, divestments, challenging some collaborations, etc.), which involves also the confrontation of the corporatization of the academia and its links with the neoliberal economy (well represented in Quebec by the political project of the “austerity measures” and budget cuts in the public services). That asks for a) a material collaboration with insurgent/activists and community organizers, b) an anti-racist democratization of higher education and c) the use of our scholar privilege for radical collective transformation.

Those are very interesting propositions, and I hope they can materialize, but it is easier to say than to do. For example, a major social strike movement against neoliberal measures and the “austerity project” is currently under organization in Quebec, but Concordia is very slow in following the movement. Especially when our student association – SAGSA – refuses to hold political general assembly or that the administration refuses to send an invitation to the anti-austerity Concordia Teach-in (2-7 February) to the department (

Ps. For those interested by Oparah’s proposition, please attend the events of the Month against Prison in Montreal (until feb. 7th) to meet other abolitionist activists:



Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The primacy of the ethical: proposition for a militant anthropology” Current Anthropology 36 (3). 409-420


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