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Understanding Mass Incarceration and Bringing It Down: An Interview With James Kilgore

The author explains who is affected by the US imprisoning 2.3 million people.

Part of the Series

A strong case can be made that mass incarceration is the defining human rights crisis in the United States today. With this in mind, James Kilgore (who spent six years in prison himself) has written a book that provides a comprehensive overview of the US incarceration apparatus from probation to prisons. Understanding Mass Incarceration also addresses often omitted issues such as the growing imprisonment of women, Latinos, trans people and immigrants. Get your copy of this crucial book by clicking here to make a donation to Truthout!

With 2.3 million people locked behind bars, the United States, which has 5 percent of the world’s total population, holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population. These numbers – and their accompanying drain on government resources – have thrust mass incarceration into national conversations.

But what do we mean when we talk about mass incarceration? Who does it affect and how? What else do we need to know? “It’s a tragedy of the first order, but mass incarceration is not just about the number of people behind bars – there are lots of dots to connect,” says researcher, writer and educator James Kilgore.

“In any political struggle, the rich and powerful will try to demean those who they oppress by giving them degrading labels.”

In Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, Kilgore does just that. In clear, easy-to-understand language, he connects those dots, laying out the structure, goals and impact of the criminal legal system. He traces the rise of mass incarceration, examining the social and political landscape as well as key policies, such as the war on drugs, three-strikes sentencing and “broken windows policing,” bricks that have built a system that now locks up 2.3 million people. In short, mass incarceration is one of the country’s key strategies to address crime while failing to address poverty, inequality, unemployment, racial conflict, citizenship, sexuality and gender. At the same time, it has created opportunities for both profit and political power.

But Kilgore doesn’t merely state the problems. He also examines ways in which everyday people – both inside and outside of jails and prisons – have been organizing against mass incarceration. These efforts range from campaigns to stop the building (or expansion) of physical jails and prisons, to grassroots efforts to shift the collective mindset and create alternatives to imprisonment.

As political hopefuls make mass incarceration a key talking point, this book goes beyond the rhetoric and explains the issues and their proposed solutions.

Victoria Law: Why did you decide to write Understanding Mass Incarceration?

James Kilgore: I wanted to provide a broad survey of the issue in an accessible style. There are lots of other wonderful works out there, but most focus on one aspect or make one argument. The few broad-brush volumes tend to be written in a dense academic style. I hoped to reach people who aren’t necessarily academics, but still want to understand the complexity of the issues. The struggle is not just for the experts. It also is for those who have been directly impacted by the locking up of millions, and those non-experts who are interested.

You yourself spent time in prison. How did that experience affect your thoughts and analyses around incarceration and punishment? Why did you choose not to mention that experience in your book?

Having lived inside the brutality of that system, I will never be the same. I was surrounded by thousands of young men, disproportionately African American and Latino, whose lives were ruined by essentially being punished because they were poor. For me, the prison industrial complex is not an idea, but the reality of those who I lived with for six and a half years: my friend Miguel doing double life for something he did when he was 16; another friend with a sentence of 555 years for money laundering, simply because he wouldn’t inform on a big-time drug dealer. I came out determined to fight to change what I saw, to make other people understand why mass incarceration is the biggest domestic policy debacle of the last half-century – a spirit of vengeance and hatred institutionalized and gone mad.

“The harms wrought by mass incarceration require much more than individuals accepting responsibility for their actions and making amends.”

Despite the brutality of the system, people do resist. I wasn’t behind bars during a period of great struggle. There were no strikes or stoppages, but on a daily basis, people found their ways. In the worst of circumstances, we fought to keep our relationships, to stay healthy, to grow intellectually, to think about how the world might be a better place. I don’t want to romanticize being incarcerated, but life is much richer than just sitting in a cell all day feeling sorry for yourself. All that experience informs so much of the book and drove me to study the topic, to put my own experience into a bigger picture. I decided not to write about my personal story because my history is long, complicated and controversial. I wanted the attention to go to the issues and other people who have been directly impacted, not to my own personal past. I have told much of my story between the lines in my three novels, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, Freedom Never Rests and Prudence Couldn’t Swim. Those will do as my autobiography for now.

At the beginning of your book, you include a note about language and word choice. Why are words important?

In any political struggle, the rich and powerful will try to demean those who they oppress by giving them degrading labels. The great social movements of the past half-century – the Black liberation struggle, the Native American struggle, the women’s liberation and LGBTQ struggles – have all had to fight for terminology that dignifies their constituency. If the struggle against mass incarceration is the great civil rights struggle of our time, those leading the fight can’t be labeled “felons,” “criminals,” “hardcore convicts” and the like. For people with felony convictions and prison backgrounds, fighting for language is part of fighting for our rights.

James Kilgore. (Photo: Terri and Lonnie Barnes)James Kilgore. (Photo: Terri and Lonnie Barnes) You devote an entire chapter to jails. Why are jails important to our understanding of mass incarceration?

Jails are the local face of mass incarceration. Each year, the nation’s jails record nearly 12 million admissions. They are the first stop for most people on the journey through the world of imprisonment. They are also important sites of struggle for people who aren’t located in big cities or capitals where they have access to battles over prison building and legislation. In many cities and counties, my own included, local activists have used opposition to jail building as a catalyst to spark a rethink of the entire criminal legal system. A jail building project is the biggest capital expense in many counties and municipalities. We need to redirect that money to more useful purposes.

You outline the costs of keeping people in prison – where the money comes from and where it goes. Can you give us the nutshell version?

Keeping people in prison is expensive. The costs vary from state to state – maybe as low as around $20,000 a year to about $60,000, or even more for people with serious medical issues. For $60,000, you can go to Harvard for a year. That’s outrageous, especially since virtually all of that money comes from tax dollars – federal and state income taxes and local property taxes are the major sources. It goes into feeding all those who stand at the trough of corrections budgets. Basically, the money goes into three different buckets.

“Can we really expect billionaires to liberate the incarcerated? To lead a new war against poverty?”

First, there is the cost of building prisons and jails. Building a single high-security prison can cost up to $200 million. Second, there’s the non-wage operating costs. This means paying contractors and vendors who supply goods or perform specific services – health care, phone service, food. It’s a 21st century gold rush for private companies. The third bucket for expenditure is salaries and wages for people who work for local, state and federal corrections departments. Almost a million people work in corrections. About half of them are guards. While we want everyone who works to earn decent wages and have benefits, we should be exploring ways to cut that workforce and retrain them for something that is socially constructive.

At the moment, corrections bureaucrats and those who work inside prisons depend on the continuation of mass incarceration for their livelihood. They are sharing in the financial benefits of locking up more poor people of color. And since so many of our prisons are in rural towns with mostly white populations, this is further deepening the racial tensions. It’s a monster, really, that puts money in the wrong pockets, for the wrong reasons and entrenches all the wrong attitudes – racism, gender oppression, blaming the poor for their poverty.

How is re-entry a new profit frontier for private corporations such as CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) and GEO Group?

Popular sentiments are moving in opposition to mass incarceration. If these companies are to maintain their profits, they have to diversify, to hedge their bets. Re-entry offers profiteers the opportunity to take people out of prison or jail but still keep them under some type of carceral control. In Illinois, for example, the new ultra-conservative governor, Bruce Rauner, has promised to lower the state prison population by 25 percent in 10 years. If this happens, where will these people go? Companies like CCA and the GEO Group are poised to make money by contracting to provide re-entry services. Aside from re-entry, the GEO Group has also bought the largest electronic monitoring company in the US, BI. This is another hedge, investing in another “line of products,” which may take off if politicians like Rauner really get serious about decarceration. I have my doubts whether they really will decarcerate to any significant extent, but that is another discussion.

You describe practices of restorative justice for both cases of individual harm (such as theft) and institutional oppression (such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Can you talk about restorative justice and elaborate on what it would look like for our current system?

I’m much more of a proponent of transformative justice than restorative justice. Restorative techniques are useful in low-level conflicts, particularly at the neighborhood level. They offer ways to heal the wounds of harm. But the harms wrought by mass incarceration require much more than individuals accepting responsibility for their actions and making amends. We also need apologies and begging for forgiveness from the perpetrators of mass incarceration, those who designed it, those who made money from it. But more importantly, we need to see a massive payment of reparations to communities that have been devastated by having large numbers of their residents carted off to prison or sent across the border. Some people call this justice reinvestment. This means funding education, job creation, child care, counseling, substance abuse [counseling], mental health [care] – a whole range of services which have been destroyed by budget cuts but which are vital to reverse the negative impact of mass incarceration. We can’t just dump people in prison out onto the street and expect them and the under-resourced communities where they live to prosper. That is a setup for failure, a setup to once again blame the poor for their own shortcomings rather than a system that is set up to advance the wealthy.

More recently, a lot of attention has been going to the idea of bipartisan unity in opposition to mass incarceration, the coming together of conservatives like Rand Paul and liberals such as Cory Booker. What potential do you see in such efforts?

These changes are the result of years of mobilization by people who have been opposed to mass incarceration and criminalization. In many ways, these bipartisan approaches are an attempt to hijack the issue, to make sure that whatever change occurs won’t fundamentally alter the mentality and the free market inequalities that underpin locking up millions of people. Having said that, involvement by these high-profile people, with even Hillary Clinton now opposing a system she helped erect, can potentially produce changes in laws and lead to some decarceration. It may also lead to repackaging incarceration-promoting initiatives like mental health prisons and gender-responsive correctional facilities as the direction in which change needs to go. There are many ways to change in order to keep things the same. And to make matters worse, the Koch brothers are funding a lot of these efforts. Can we really expect billionaires to liberate the incarcerated? To lead a new war against poverty? I doubt it. So those of us who work on the ground can’t sit back and leave it to the politicians. We have to continue to build a mass social movement that attacks mass incarceration at its roots, that fights for fundamental change informed by race, class and gender analysis. Fundamental change is ultimately about undermining the punishment paradigm and the notion that we solve problems like poverty, inequality, racial conflict and gender oppression by locking up the victims.

You end on a hopeful note with a chapter devoted to organizing to end mass incarceration. What are some examples?

There are so many things happening it is hard to know where to start. Most people focus on legislative changes, but grassroots initiatives are what excite me. One of my favorites is the LA Youth Justice Coalition. They run a high school which gives students who have been involved in the criminal legal system a proper academic education that leads to a diploma. But a critical part of their curriculum involves organizing social justice campaigns. Their students are key players in the campaign to stop the building of a multibillion-dollar jail in LA County. They also mobilize their ranks in opposition to police violence in Black and Latino communities. I am hopeful that these students will be great leaders of tomorrow.

Another favorite is the national campaign to “ban the box.” In many communities, formerly incarcerated people have stepped forward to convince state and local authorities to remove the question about criminal background from job applications. We mobilized on this issue in Illinois, bringing about 30 people to the city council chambers to tell their stories of being rejected for jobs because of their felony convictions. It was a powerful moment – the first time people with a criminal background stood tall and proud in public to demand their rights. Other efforts – like the winning of reparations against police brutality in Chicago, the closing of prisons in New York and the many successful efforts to halt the spread of private prisons – have been really inspiring.

All of these are moving us toward the type of social movement we need to bring mass incarceration down. We’re not there yet. We will need a national framework with lots of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, combined with the youthful energy of Black Lives Matter and the DREAMers to make this happen. We are a lot closer than we were even two years ago, but there is still lots of work to do. As we say in southern Africa, where I spent 18 years of my life, a luta continua – the struggle continues.