Speaker Series: Susila Gurusami
For the last few decades, “gender responsiveness”— policies meant to help address the supposedly “unique needs and circumstances” of women under carceral supervision and control—has dominated reforms aimed at improving the experiences and outcomes of incarcerated women and is often hailed as an important feminist intervention. However, abolitionists have long identified such policies as problematic in how they essentialize gender and women’s needs while contributing to the expansion of carceral power. Yet, rather than understanding the failures to create “kinder, gentler, gender-responsive [women’s] cages” as an indicator that carceral institutions have not meaningfully implemented gender responsive policies, Susila Gurusami argues that carceral institutions have always been gender responsive institutions.
Gurusami contends that the recent turn towards what is labeled as gender responsive carceral policy obscures how carceral institutions actually respond to gender. Drawing on ethnographic data and interviews with formerly incarcerated Black women, Gurusami shows how carceral institutions respond to, construct, and govern gender through a process that she calls “reproductive warfare”: carceral institutions’ mobilization of racial-sexual power meant to deny Black women reproductive and sexual self-determination.
She documents how carceral institutions wage “reproductive warfare” in two ways: by (1) explicitly invoking gender responsive carceral policies as legitimate, therapeutic, and protective for criminalized women; and (2) blatantly violating the legal reproductive and sexual rights of incarcerated people, but referencing stated or implied commitments to gender responsive policies to dismiss such violations as accidental and/or further evidence of the need for gender responsive carceral policies. Ultimately, Gurusami argues that these findings should push us towards abolition feminism as a strategy that meaningfully responds to the gendered needs of all criminalized people.
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Susila Gurusami is an Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a sociologist of race, gender, labor, and politics, with particular interests in carceral governance and abolition.
Gurusami is also a former UC Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow and received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2017. Her work has been published in Gender & Society, Societal Problems and Punishment and Society. Recognitions for this scholarship include funding and awards from the American Sociological Association, Sociologist for Women in Society, Society for the Study of Social Problems, and the Racial Democracy, Crime, and Justice Network.
Gurusami is currently working on a book manuscript investigating how Black women navigate state surveillance, regulation, and punishment in their everyday lives after returning home from prison and jail.