The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
Fifteen years ago, mass imprisonment was largely an invisible issue in the United States. Since then, criticism of the country’s extraordinary incarceration rate has become widespread across the political spectrum. The huge prison buildup of the past four decades has few ardent defenders today. But reforms to reduce the number of people in jail and prison have been remarkably modest so far.
Meanwhile, a tenacious carceral state has sprouted in the shadows of mass imprisonment and has been extending its reach far beyond the prison gate. It includes not only the country’s vast archipelago of jails and prisons, but also the far-reaching and growing range of penal punishments and controls that lies in the never-never land between the prison gate and full citizenship. As it sunders families and communities and radically reworks conceptions of democracy, rights, and citizenship, the carceral state poses a formidable political and social challenge.
The reach of the carceral state today is truly breathtaking. It extends well beyond the estimated 2.2 million people sitting in jail or prison today in the United States.1
It encompasses the more than eight million people—or in one in twenty-three adults—who are under some form of state control, including jail, prison, probation, parole, community sanctions, drug courts, immigrant detention, and other forms of government supervision.2
It also includes the millions of people who are booked into jail each year—perhaps nearly seven million—and the estimated 7.5 percent of all adults who are felons or ex-felons.3
The carceral state directly shapes, and in some cases deforms, the lives of tens of millions of people who have never served a day in jail or prison or been arrested. An estimated eight million minors—or one in ten children—have had an incarcerated parent. Two million young children currently have a mother or father serving time in state or federal prison.4
Millions of people reside in neighborhoods and communities that have been depopulated and upended as so many of their young
men and women have been sent away to prison during what should be the prime of their lives. Hundreds of rural communities have chased after the illusion that constructing a prison or jail will jump-start their ailing economies.
The problem of the carceral state is no longer confined to the prison cell and prison yard and to poor urban communities and minority groups—if it ever was. The U.S. penal system has grown so extensive that it has begun to metastasize. It has altered how key governing institutions and public services and benefits operate—everything from elections to schools to public housing. The carceral state also has begun to distort essential demographic, political, and socioeconomic databases, leading to misleading findings about trends in vital areas such as economic growth, political participation, unemployment, poverty, and public health.
The carceral state has been radically remaking conceptions of citizenship as it creates a large and permanent group of political, economic, and social outcasts. It has been cleaving off wide swaths of people in the United States from the promise of the American Dream or “American Creed”—the faith that everyone has an inalienable right to freedom, justice, and equal opportunities to get ahead, and that everyone stands equal before the law.5
The political consequences of this are potentially explosive because the American Dream arguably has been the country’s central ideology, serving as a kind of societal glue holding otherwise disparate groups together.6
Millions have been condemned to “civil death,” denied core civil liberties and social benefits because of a criminal conviction. An estimated six million people have been disenfranchised either temporarily or permanently because of a criminal conviction. This is about 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population, or one in forty adults.7
Millions of Americans have been denied public benefits like student loans, food stamps, and public housing because of their criminal records. Likewise, owing to a prior run-in with the law, many people are ineligible to receive state licenses for a range of occupations—from hairdressing to palm reading to nursing. Many incarcerated mothers and fathers are at risk of having their parental rights severed, sometimes after they have been behind bars for as little as fifteen months.8
For those seeking to dismantle the carceral state, the key challenge is not trying to determine what specific sentencing and other reforms would slash the number of people in jail and prison. The real challenge is figuring out how to create a political environment that is more receptive to such reforms and how to make the far-reaching consequences of the carceral state into a leading political and public policy issue.9
This book analyzes why the carceral state, with its growing number of outcasts, remains so tenacious in the United States. It examines the shortcomings of the dominant penal reform strategies and lays out an alternative path to dismantling the carceral state. In doing so, I use the problem of the carceral state as a lens to examine the wider pathologies that have captured American politics today and are preventing the country from solving its most pressing problems.
The Leading Penal Reform Strategies
The ways in which elites, interest groups, the media, and social movements define and frame an issue can powerfully influence not only public opinion but also public policy. Under certain circumstances, framing an issue in a new way can release tremendous new forces that transform the public debate.10
Over the past decade or so, the growing opposition to mass incarceration has tended to gravitate toward two different poles, both of them inadequate in the face of these challenges.
One pole identifies racial disparities, racial discrimination, and institutional racism as the front lines in the challenge to the carceral state. Michelle Alexander’s characterization of mass incarceration as “the new Jim Crow” exemplifies this view.11
Alexander singles out the color-blind racism of the new Jim Crow, especially as manifested in the war on drugs, as the major driver of the carceral state. She contends that the new Jim Crow is in many ways a more challenging political foe than the in-your-face racism of the old Jim Crow.
The other pole seeks to find a winning nonpartisan path out of mass incarceration by downplaying its stark racial causes and racial consequences. The emphasis instead is on how the fiscal burden of the vast penal system is growing untenable. Here the imperative has been to find rational, cost-effective, evidence-based alternatives for some offenders, primarily drug and other nonviolent offenders, without jeopardizing public safety.
This is largely the stance of the Pew Center on the States, the Council of State Governments, and the U.S. Department of Justice. They have joined together to promote reentry programs and justice reinvestment schemes largely aimed at reducing the recidivism rates of ex-offenders. Thanks to their work, the three R’s—reentry, justice reinvestment, and recidivism—dominate discussions of penal reform in Washington, DC and in many state capitals. This approach is compatible with the growing push to alter the public conversation about all sorts of social problems by adopting a “practical tone” that avoids discussions of hot-button issues like fairness between groups or the historical legacy of racism.12
The new Jim Crow and the fiscal imperative frames have made major contributions to our understanding of the carceral state and have pried open some important political space to challenge it. In particular, the contributions of Alexander’s The New Jim Crow cannot be underestimated. No other book has been so vital in making the problem of the carceral state starkly visible to the wider public and in rallying members of disadvantaged communities and other groups to take on the project of dismantling it.
But these two frames also have some shortcomings. They have contributed to some public misperceptions about the relationship between crime and punishment and about who is being sent to prison and why. This has fostered some misguided penal reform efforts. Furthermore, these two frames are unlikely to germinate and sustain the broad political movement necessary to dramatically reduce the number of people in jail and prison or ameliorate the many ways in which the carceral state has deformed U.S. society and political institutions.
Race and the Carceral State
Race matters, and it matters profoundly in any discussion of how to dismantle the carceral state. But, as in the case of other major shifts in public policy and American political development, “the racial character of the contemporary system is more than just a legacy of our troubled past.”13
Racial and other disquieting disparities do not automatically flow from that troubled past. They are the product of politics—of how key politicians, other public figures, interest groups, the media, and social movements choose to draw from that past, reinvent that past, and discard pieces of the past as they adjust their political strategies to the political, social, and economic realities of the present. In the process, they create new institutional and political arrangements that inscribe the past in new ways onto the present. As Michelle Alexander so persuasively, eloquently, and mournfully demonstrates in The New Jim Crow
, the emergence of color-blind racism in the post–civil rights era is one such adaptation that poses a major obstacle to dismantling the carceral state. But there are others.
Building on Alexander’s work, I identify some other underlying political, economic, and social factors that spark and sustain such punitive policies not only for certain blacks, but also for certain whites, Latinos, immigrants, and members of other demographic groups. Bluntly stated, the United States would still have an incarceration crisis even if African Americans were sent to prison and jail at “only” the rate at which whites in the United States are currently locked up, as shown in figure 1.1
and elaborated in chapter 6
A century ago, the massive disenfranchisement of blacks at the dawn of the Jim Crow era through the poll tax, literacy tests, and violent intimidation overshadowed the vast and simultaneous disenfranchisement of poor whites that undermined the growth of the Populist movement in the South. Likewise, the hyper-incarceration of black men today has overshadowed the growing incarceration rates of poor whites, Latinos, immigrants, and women. Many political and policy debates over the carceral state remain mired in viewing this as primarily a black-white issue. Even “Latino civil rights and advocacy organizations have yet to fully understand the devastating effects of a discriminatory criminal justice system on Latino life,” explains one knowledgeable observer.14
The carceral state has disproportionately hurt African American men. But it also has been targeting a rising number of people from other historically disadvantaged groups. The United States, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, incarcerates almost one-third of the 625,000 women and girls confined to jails and prisons worldwide.15
In a major shift, Hispanics now constitute 35 percent of all federal prisoners, making them the largest ethnic or racial group in the federal prison system.16
This is a consequence of the escalation in immigration raids and prosecutions for immigration violations, as well as the relative drop in federal prosecutions of certain other crimes, including gun trafficking, corruption, organized crime, and white-collar crime (see figure 10.2
, p. 225). Since the 1990s, black-white disparities in incarceration have been falling. Some of this decline is
likely the result of changes in the way the U.S. Department of Justice enumerates Hispanic inmates, but some of the decline appears to be real.17
Poor whites, Hispanics, and women have been a booming growth area for the carceral state, as discussed in chapters 6
. But so far these other groups and their advocates have not been central to the growing debate over penal reform.
Figure 1.1. Incarceration Rates, Select Countries and Groups
* Excludes people of Hispanic or Latino origin
Alexander identifies ostensibly color-blind drug laws and law enforcement policies as the main culprit in mass incarceration today. But drug offenders comprise only about 20 percent of offenders in state prisons, or about the same proportion as property offenders. People whose primary offense was a violent one comprise about half of all state inmates. Even if we could release all drug offenders today, without other major changes in U.S. laws and penal policies and practices, the Uni...