The word carceral spiked sharply on June 20th, following its appearance in multiple news reports on Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in a recent court ruling.
Later, writing only for herself, Sotomayor also added that the ruling “implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”
—Matt Ford, The Atlantic (Web), 20 June, 2016
Carceral and the more common word incarcerate share an origin, as both ultimately come from the Latin word for prison, carcer. It has been in use in English for over 400 years, beginning to appear in print in the second half of the 16th century. John Foxe, in a history of the Christian Church published at that time, wrote of William Tailour that he was “released from his carceral indurance."
Although carceral is found infrequently, it has been seeing an apparent increase in use the past few years. Writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have increased the word's prominence.
The Gray Wastes—our carceral state, a sprawling netherworld of prisons and jails—are a relatively recent invention.
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration,” The Atlantic, Oct. 2015