A friend recently told me he had just finished The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s influential book on the racial origins of our prison system, and he wanted my opinion on what to read next.
The literature on mass incarceration is extensive, but here are a few books that had a big impact on me. Not all of them address the particular nature of prison in America the way Alexander does, but they all provided me with crucial information as well as quotes from writers who were able to put into words feelings and beliefs that I have been living with since first setting foot in a maximum security prison exactly ten years ago.
Here they are, in no particular order…
From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, by Elizabeth Hinton, Associate Professor in the Department History and the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Harvard University Press, 2016.
An exhaustive and infuriating 50-year history of the governmental policies—largely federal—that created and financed our militarized police forces, and that form the ideological basis for today’s calls to “defund the police.” Hinton writes in the Epilogue,
Out of their sense that society was becoming unraveled in the context of civil rights and antiwar protests, federal policymakers held African Americans accountable for the turmoil and instability and took the wrong policy turn, opting to deploy militarized police forces in urban neighborhoods and to build more prisons instead of seeking to resolve the problems that caused the unrest in the first place.
The end notes alone cite more books, articles, and other texts than an average person should be able to read in a lifetime.
Hinton reminds us that declaring “war” always produces casualties, and that the seemingly American penchant for force over support has led us to where we are now.
Race, Incarceration, and American Values, by Glenn C. Loury, Professor of Social Sciences at Brown University. With additional essays by Pamela S. Karlan, of Stanford; Loïc Wacquant, of Berkeley; and Tommie Shelby, of Harvard. MIT Press, 2008.
Reading more like an exploratory essay than a historical analysis along the lines of Alexander and Hinton, this relatively brief book is beautifully written, and one I come back to again and again. Rather than point the finger at external policies and practices, Loury forces us to face our own complicity in the creation of the carceral state:
[M]y principle thesis is this: we law-abiding, middle-class Americans have made decisions about social policy and incarceration, and we benefit from those decisions, and that means from a system of suffering, rooted in state violence, meted out at our request.
Loury also touches on one of my own theories about why we can’t seem to let go of mass incarceration: “We have wanted to ‘send a message’,” he writes, “and we have done so with a vengeance…We have created scapegoats, indulged our need to feel virtuous, and assuaged our fears. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is them.” I call it the Omelas Principle.
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, by James Forman Jr., Professor of Law at Yale. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017.
A four-decade look at “Black on Black” crime in Washington D.C., and the ways the Black community contributed to mass incarceration in a desperate attempt to stem the rising tide of drug addiction and crime in their impoverished neighborhoods. Forman: “These pages reveal the myriad ways in which American racism narrowed the options to black citizens and elected officials in their fight against crime.” A good resource to help counter the long-running narrative, currently being promulgated by Donal Trump, that the Black community simply wants more police, more “order,” more prisons. “African Americans wanted more law enforcement,” Forman concedes, “but they didn’t want only law enforcement.”
Nevertheless, that’s what they got. And now, in the words of James Baldwin, in his 1960 article for Esquire, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown”:
None of [the] policemen, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two’s and three’s controlling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children.
Blood In The Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Random House, 2016.
Not just a look at the racism, violence, and neglect inherent in American prisons—only the first part of the book covers the takeover itself—Blood in the Water is also about power, propaganda, and the abuse of everyone victimized by the prison system, from the people who are incarcerated to the children of corrections officers.
It’s not easy to shine a light into the dark recesses of American prisons, but Thompson was able to do so thanks to fortuitous exposure to artifacts and documents that were never meant to see the light of day, and which disappeared shortly after this book was published. According to Thompson, as soon as the “turkey shoot” by officers and state police that killed 39 people was over, DOC Commissioner Russell G. Oswald told the press, “The armed rebellion of the type we faced threatens the destruction of our free society. We cannot permit that destruction to happen.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Side note: I have a personal history with ACF, and I also had the great fortune to attend a presentation by Dr. Thompson in Batavia, NY a few years ago. Present were a number of surviving victims and their family members.
PANOPTICON; OR, THE INSPECTION-HOUSE:
CONTAINING THE IDEA OF A NEW PRINCIPLE OF CONSTRUCTION APPLICABLE TO ANY SORT OF ESTABLISHMENT, IN WHICH PERSONS OF ANY DESCRIPTION ARE TO BE KEPT UNDER INSPECTION; AND IN PARTICULAR TO PENITENTIARY-HOUSES, by Jeremy Bentham, 1787.
This nasty little volume by Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham has cast a long shadow. The titular “panopticon” is an architectural design in which a small number of “inspectors” can observe as many people as possible without they, themselves, being seen. “The scene,” Bentham writes, “though a confined, would be a very various, and therefore, perhaps, not altogether an unamusing one.”
Granted, direct observation is not possible at all times, but “[t]he object of the inspection principle..is to make [prisoners] not only suspect, but be assured, that whatever they do is known, even though that should not be the case.” In other words,
Ideal perfection…would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.
Such a psychological state—essentially a form of self-incarceration—is today one of the well-known effects of imprisonment, as shown by Craig Haney of the University of California, in a study on the psychological impact of incarceration for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
Some [prisoners] feel infantilized and that the degraded conditions under which they live serve to repeatedly remind them of their compromised social status and stigmatized social role as prisoners. A diminished sense of self-worth and personal value may result. In extreme cases of institutionalization, the symbolic meaning that can be inferred from this externally imposed substandard treatment and circumstances is internalized; that is, prisoners may come to think of themselves as “the kind of person” who deserves only the degradation and stigma to which they have been subjected while incarcerated.
Likewise, one of my own incarcerated students did a qualitative study of “remorse” in prison and found that the people he interviewed “are often preoccupied with the notion that they are fundamentally flawed, that at the core of their humanity is an animal—perhaps, there is nothing.” College instructors who teach in prisons run into this kind of self-indictment pretty quickly.
At the end of his treatise, Bentham writes, “What would you say, if by the gradual adoption and diversified application of this single principle, you should see a new scene of things spread itself over the face of civilized society?” A mere cursory inspection of the surveillance state in which we all live—not just in prisons, schools, offices, and other buildings, but even when walking down a city street—would reveal that the spread is, in fact, complete.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, by Michel Foucault. Random House, 1975.
I was introduced to Foucault’s critiques of control in graduate school and couldn’t make heads or tails out of them. However, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “God screens us evermore from premature ideas. Our eyes are holden that we cannot see things that stare us in the face, until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened; then we behold them, and the time when we saw them not is like a dream.”
My “hour” came ten years ago, and, even though Foucault was writing about the French penal system, devoid of the racist nature of the American one, his book made clear, immediate sense, and elucidated my own dark inklings about the thoughtless brutalities I had sensed from my experiences. “The penality of detention,” Foucault writes,
seems to fabricate—hence no doubt its longevity—an enclosed, separated and useful illegality. The circuit of delinquency would seem to be the sub-product of a prison which, while punishing, does not succeed in correcting, it is rather the direct effect of a penality which, in order to control illegal practices, seems to invest certain of them in a mechanism of ‘punishment-reproduction,’ of which imprisonment is one of the main parts.
Exiting a prison into American society—a society so aptly formulated by Bentham, and so aptly described by the other authors on this list—doesn’t cause the prison to be left behind; it simply expands the walls.
Once you’ve seen the face of this beast, there is no unseeing, and the time when you saw it not is like a dream.