The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, Naomi Murakawa, Oxford University Press, 2014
Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, Dan Berger, University of North Carolina Press, 2014
Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, Marie Gottschalk, Princeton University Press, 2014
A Costly American Hatred, Joe Dole, Midnight Express Books, 2015
Literature on mass incarceration comes in waves. Around the turn of the century, with the issue still largely off the radar, academics like David Garland, Christian Parenti and Marc Mauer led the way with books that aimed to put the expanding prison system into the public eye. Then came a second wave of important works, which highlighted the structural and racial dimensions of the “prison-industrial complex.” Among the most prominent of these were Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag, various books by Loic Wacquant – and, of course, the most famous of them all, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Since the publication of Alexander’s book, the critique of mass incarceration coming from progressive think tanks and many activists has developed a certain orthodoxy. This approach typically focuses intensively on the war on drugs, tends to cast the growth of prisons as a project largely driven by Republicans and places African-American men almost alone at the center of the process. This orthodoxy has helped make major inroads into the general apathy toward the subject and has made vital contributions to understanding the racial dimensions of prison expansion. At the same time, scholars and activists who have been engaged on these issues, whether they be advocates of prison reform or abolition, have begun to unpack the complexity of the process and look at the systemic nature of the process in new ways.
One result of these reflections has been the generation of a new literature that reframes current critiques. The four books from this body of work considered here constitute a distinct alternative to any temptation to define mass incarceration as simply a set of policy errors that can be reversed through legalistic changes or unholy alliances between mainstream liberals and fiscal conservatives.
Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America directly attacks our received understanding of the history of mass incarceration. She targets liberals for at least as much culpability in this punitive project as their conservative counterparts. With scrupulous attention to historical detail, Murakawa tracks the growth of the prison industrial complex from its LBJ roots in the 1960s to today.
Democrats advanced race-neutral policies that had extremely racialized outcomes.
While she chronicles the support of Democratic Congress members (including the Black Caucus) for a host of repressive legislation, her most powerful points stress the hypocrisy of liberal ideology. She argues that “racially liberal Democrats who supported the notion of ‘old’ civil rights conceived of black crime as black sickness,” and were often influenced by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other conservative researchers. She calls the resultant program a “project of pity and administrative order.” She reserves special disdain for the “I feel your pain” empathy of Bill Clinton and others who provided a humanistic justification for a law and order program. In the end, she maintains that Democrats advanced race-neutral policies that had extremely racialized outcomes.
Perhaps the best example was the federal sentencing guidelines of 1984. The guidelines, backed by both Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond, provided a race-neutral formula intended to eliminate racial bias in the judiciary. In practice, the guidelines lengthened sentences dramatically and shifted the power of discretion into the hands of prosecutors who simply charged Black people more heavily than White people. Judges implemented the guidelines, but by the time the cases reached the sentencing stage, the prosecutors had already stacked the deck against Black defendants. While at times Murakawa may overemphasize the negative role of Democrats, her material makes a powerful case for rethinking this history and for viewing bipartisan solutions to present dilemmas with extreme skepticism.
Historian Dan Berger offers us a similar, if more narrowly focused, reworking of the historical roots of mass incarceration. Rather than looking in the electoral sphere, Berger examines the enormous expanse of political activism of those in prison during the 1970s. Moving well beyond the framework of the “civil rights movement,” Berger links prisoner activism with the social movements of the era, especially Black Power. He shows how high-profile political prisoners like George Jackson, Imari Obadele and others developed a deep intellectual project inside prisons, and a culture of self-education, which enabled them to engage in political debates at the highest level.
While Berger clearly holds the spirit and principle of his subjects in great esteem, he also opens the door to some critique.
These individuals didn’t focus on legal issues for litigation purposes, but offered up their own rich analysis of the political economy of incarceration. The clearest expression of this was contained in the two books written by Jackson, Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye. Berger demonstrates how in framing their own struggles, Jackson and others connected to the liberation struggles of the time in southern Africa, Southeast Asia and the socialist project in Cuba. Berger also points out how many of these men often adopted a guerrilla warfare focused strategy. In Jackson’s case, theory turned into actions in the events of August 21, 1971, when he died in a hail of bullets fired by prison guards in an apparent escape attempt at San Quentin prison.
While Berger clearly holds the spirit and principle of his subjects in great esteem, he also opens the door to some critique of their actions, especially in terms of gender politics. In a paragraph that begs for a far richer analysis, Berger notes that George Jackson’s “masculinist appeals” revealed “his … allegiance to a conservative patriarchal notion of respectability.” For Berger, Jackson was a product of the “patriarchal culture” of his era as well as the “sex-segregated institution in which he came of age.” (p. 113)
Perhaps the most ambitious of these volumes is Marie Gottschalk’s somewhat strangely titled book, Caught. Gottschalk’s analysis offers a strong counternarrative to existing quick-fix solutions to mass incarceration. First, from both a statistical and theoretical perspective, she critiques the notion that releasing the “non-non-nons” (those with nonviolent, non-serious and non-sexual convictions) holds the key to substantive change. This view centers on the notion that the primary victims of mass incarceration are those who are relatively innocent – convicted either of low-level drug offenses or nonviolent crimes. Gottschalk points out that statistically even releasing all of the non-non-nons would leave the United States with the highest per capita incarceration rates in the industrialized world. But she also adds that such a process runs the risk of demonizing those with violent convictions, providing an avenue to increasingly harsh treatment for them as well as neglecting the reality that they are products of the same social forces as those captured for nonviolent crimes.
Gottschalk totally rejects using recidivism as the barometer of criminal legal success.
Gottschalk also strongly attacks what she labels the “three-R solution” – recidivism, reentry and justice reinvestment. She argues that this package relies on creating “DIY social policies that stress individual solutions and personal responsibilities” (p. 79) while downgrading the requisite role of the state in welfare provision. Gottschalk totally rejects using recidivism as the barometer of criminal legal success. She points out that recidivism depends at least as much on policing and criminal legal practice as it does on behavior or broader social change.
She also highlights the shortcomings of justice reinvestment. She points out that while the initial idea was to redirect savings from decarceration into community-based development initiatives, in fact, justice reinvestment funding from the federal government has largely been captured by law enforcement essentially serving to “reallocate resources within the criminal justice system” (p.100) rather than contribute to change in the broader community.
A final point of attack for Caught is relying on “evidence-based” practice. In Gottschalk’s view, this represents an extremely conservative approach, noting that change in the criminal legal system requires inspiration, not just data. As she puts it, “appeals to science are incapable of articulating a ‘public idea’ around which reform can be mobilized.” (p. 261)
Surprisingly, Gottschalk rejects attacking the roots of the problem – economic inequality and lack of social welfare provision – as a solution to mass incarceration. She argues that this will take decades and instead presses for sentencing reform, reducing barriers for people with felony convictions and investing in communities. However, her rejection of structural changes seems to contradict her notion that decarceration cannot be achieved without spending considerable resources on building communities. Achieving that reallocation is far more than a mere policy shift, but itself amounts to a major structural reform and shift of paradigm.
The final work considered here is Joe Dole’s A Costly American Hatred. Unlike the others here, Dole’s work is not remarkable for breaking theoretical new ground. Much of what he writes about, apart from his very useful information about criminal justice in the state of Illinois where he is currently 15 years into a life term, has appeared elsewhere. But the spirit and breadth of his work astound.
During my own years of incarceration, I found the prospect of writing nonfiction daunting. I could not conceive of writing without access to the internet and/or a massive library. Somehow, Dole, based for much of his sentence in one of the worst hellholes in the US prison system, the now shuddered supermax in Tamms, Illinois, has managed to produce a work with a sharp and broad narrative supported by hundreds of references. When I picked up this book, I expected an autobiography. I even feared a diatribe without much supporting evidence. But Dole’s command of the subject matter and the range of his sources are awe-inspiring. He embarks on a journey similar in breadth to that of Gottschalk, tackling the war on drugs, the school-to-prison pipeline, the rise of debtor’s prisons and many more of the essential elements of the prison industrial complex.
In a highly readable style, peppered with lots of stunning data, Dole has created a wonderful primer on mass incarceration, which has the added feature of the voice of someone who is still living the nightmare of the system. Indeed, his chilling tales of his “neighbors'” habits of “cutting” (one even went so far as to cut off a testicle) lend an authenticity that reminds us that the voices of people inside the prison system play a crucial role in building a social movement against mass incarceration. Moreover, Dole spent several years soliciting support for the publication of this work from inside prison, a testament to his determination to make an intellectual contribution to our understanding of mass incarceration.
The four books covered here clearly don’t represent the entire menu of new writings. But they offer us much needed fresh perspectives on the framing of mass incarceration put forward by mainstream politicians and formulaic activists heavily invested in relief for “nonviolent offenders” and the gospel of re-entry. Those who prioritize change that gets at the economic, racial and gender underpinnings of mass incarceration would do well to spend time studying Murakawa, Berger, Gottschalk and Dole. They remind us that we still have much to learn about the political economy of mass incarceration as well as the building of a social movement that poses both opposition and alternatives.
Hopefully other scholars will follow the example of these authors and take on the challenges of unpacking the big issues and shedding fresh light on current understandings. A further hope is that future authors will add a more serious gender lens to intersect with the rich analysis of race and class that these four books offer.
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