Livin the American Dream

The goal of this course over the past three months has been to examine the motivations and intentions behind the growing phenomenon of mass incarceration that exists in this country. We have researched this question from various vantage points by referencing historical, sociological, political, economic, and philosophical data. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s study, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, integrates each of these approaches to studying the issue of prison expansion in California during the 20th Century. This study attempts to uncover why and how the state of California went about the biggest prison building project in the history of the world. Gilmore suggests that prison is a geographic solution to the political and economic crises that the state creates. Through extensive interdisciplinary research, Gilmore proves that the issue of mass incarceration is the result of inter-institutional strife of a nation that has failed to meet the needs of all its citizens.

First, Gilmore establishes the intentions of a prison system as well as possible explanations for its extensive growth over the past forty years. She references three possible explanations for the booming prison population. The first is increased public concern about crime rates and social deviance, which sparked tough on crime policies. Second is the drug epidemic and threat to public safety posed by the unrestrained use of illegal substances. The third explanation is the structural changes in employment opportunities that have forced people out of jobs and into illegal ways of making money. Historically, prisons go about solving problems such as these by deterring crime in four ways: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. The generally accepted goal for prisons today is incapacitation. The prison system solves problems caused by social deviance by isolating a target population and thus incapacitating further crime.

The state of California presents an interesting case because of its unique history and societal structure. California’s diversity in land, industry, and population has created a differentiated labor force, meaning workers separated starkly based on race, ethnicity, gender, locale, and citizenship. The inequalities that exist in California today are not conspiracies; rather, they are rooted in historically uneven development of the state in multiple arenas that began in the 1930s with Great Depression stimulus reforms and extended into the turmoil of the mid-1960s. Uneven development created excessive surpluses, which in turn stimulates crisis. California experienced surpluses in land, labor, finance capital, and sate capacity, which lead to quick-fix policies that helped some yet harmed others. Prisons are aimed at fixing these problems of instability and inequality. Prison building is not the only way to absorb these surpluses, but it did use a lot of idle land, get capital invested into a public institution, and take more than 160,000 low-wage workers off the streets. The development of the prison-industrial complex and the privatization of prisons for profit have further expanded the prison movement.

Gilmore does a very thorough job of explaining why California presents an ideal case for the explosion of prisons. She examines the case from a historical, economic, sociological, and political standpoint. However, the most powerful statement proving that the prison boom is worthy of questioning came from a philosophical viewpoint: “If the 20th century was the age of genocide on a planetary scale, then in order to avoid repeating history, we ought to come to grips with dehumanization” (243). The prison system is the ultimate example of state-sanctioned dehumanization in America today. Instead of dealing with social problems created by inequality, we choose not to deal with them by locking up those who “create” these problems. We do not see these individuals worthy of rehabilitation. This is an extremely dehumanizing practice. When did we decide that certain members of our society are not worthy of the basic protection of the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? It would also be naïve to ignore the stark racial inequalities represented in the prison population today. Those who are at the “bottom” of the socioeconomic ladder, primarily minorities, are those termed “deviant”, and thus targeted for imprisonment. In any society, social stratification will occur. Social stratification presents problems in employment, electoral politics, equal earnings, and community development. Instead of coming to terms with these problems and searching for innovative ways to solve them, the prison system slaps a band-aid on these wounds when reconstructive surgery is needed. This process can only begin when we as a nation recognize that all members of this society are capable of input in our democratic system and ultimately, worthy of basic human rights.

The stories told in Prison Writing in 20th Century America convey brutally raw human emotions that can only be experienced while one is incarcerated. The memoirs of these men and women answer the question “What is wrong with prisons in America today?” in a way that statistics, legal jargon, and political platforms can not. The writing demonstrates the brokenness of the human spirit suffered by prisoners as they die a slow and painful civil death. A prisoner is stripped of their basic human rights, including the right to interact in society through politics, the workforce, families, and the larger community. The current prison system, which is more focused on punishment than rehabilitation, does all it can to ensure that men and women become “a confused, wasted shadow” of themselves, as Iceberg Slim recalls (173). Prisoners are reduced to the equivalent of animals, worthy of being brutalized in order to ensure security. Interestingly, from this brutality often stems profound creativity. Piri Thomas, a prisoner for six years in Sing Sing and Comstock, says that “Creativity was my salvation in prison because it kept me from being a psychopath” (180). When a person is incarcerated, their mind is the only escape available to them. It is the only arena over which they have full reign. These memoirs are saturated with pain, feelings of loss, anguish, self-pity, anger, hatred, ingenuity, self-discovery, and rebirth. Above all, these writings prove the humanity of the incarcerated.

One major theme that many of these writings shared is a distrust of society. According to these prisoners, it is society, not themselves, that makes people into criminals. While constitutionally, the United States promise justice and democracy for all, prisoners such as Iceberg Slim claim this is a lie. In a selection from Soledad Brother, George Jackson states that systematically, the same people will always end up behind bars. He says, “All of those who can afford to be honest know that the real victim, the poor, uneducated, disorganized man who finds himself a convicted criminal, is simply the end result of a long chain of corruption and mismanagement that starts with people like Reagan and his political appointees in Sacramento” (158). Assata Shakur agrees, as she distrusts the rich corporations who profit off the incarceration of the poor and the politicians who promise reform but only want political gain. Many of these sentiments are racially motivated, clearly demonstrated by the epiphanies experienced by Malcom X while incarcerated: “The black man symbolized white society’s crime of keeping black men oppressed and deprived and ignorant, and unable to get decent jobs, turning them into criminals” (152). To these people, the prison system is another institution that furthers the inequality our society promotes.

Another major theme shared by these memoirs was the brutality of life in prison. In I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Paul Muni says “They’ve made an animal out of me” (182). As demonstrated by these writings, as well as the film, American Me, prisoners must become cruel, selfish hustlers in order to survive. Jerome Washington’s writings portray this “spirit of hustling” well. In Barracuda and Sheryl, Washington tells the story of an inmate who orders an inflatable doll not for himself, but to “pimp out” to the other prisoners. Prison becomes its own microcosm of society, where only the strong survive. If you do not hustle, you can count on being hustled. Often this hustling spirit comes accompanied with increased brutality and devaluing of human life. Based on these writings, it seems as if prisoners often act like violent animals because they are treated as such. This, in turn, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as men and women who are labeled deviant are constantly cycled in and out of prison for most of their lives. Only when we realize and respect the dignity of the human life of these “marked” members of our communities will we live in a society that not only rehabilitates criminals but prevents crime as well.

After being released from Tomoka Correctional Facility, AIDS patient Keith Carter revealed the deficient health care he received while incarcerated. “It’s a terrible, terrible feeling to be powerless over your own life. The judge gave me ten years. He didn’t sentence me to death”.[1] Carter’s poignant comment tells a lot about the health care available to prisoners in this country. Terry Kupers’ studies of mental health care in prisons as well as articles from Prison Nation reveal that although prisoners are the only Americans with a constitutional right to health care, ironically, the care they receive is often the most inadequate.

Terry Kupers is a leading authority on the treatment of the mentally ill in prison. Prisons and jails have become the largest mental asylums and providers of psychiatric care in the United States. The deinstitutionalization of public mental health care providers in addition to harsher laws in taking mental illness into account in regards to sentencing has put a large number of people with psychiatric illnesses behind bars. In fact, more individuals with mental illnesses are in prison than in non-correctional psychiatric facilities. The needs of mentally ill inmates are often ignored by prison guards, whose main concern is security, not the emotional and medical needs of those they are guarding. Prisoners who are mentally ill not only receive inadequate psychiatric care but also suffer on account of increasingly harsh prison conditions. The “mass warehousing” of criminals creates a hostile environment that increases the likelihood that these people will resort to violent or antisocial behaviors while in jail or upon their release. This applies to all inmates, but especially psychotic ones. Sensory deprivation, social isolation, and total idleness induce intense rage and disorientation in anyone, especially those already prone to mental breakdowns. Mentally ill prisoners have a hard time following the prison code, which says that only the tough, intimidating bullies survive. They also don’t understand the code against snitching, and are often victimized by other felons. With regards to rehabilitation, it is even more difficult for these inmates to be acclimated back into society upon their release because their mental health conditions are severely worsened while in prison. Kupers points out that this poses a danger to public safety. Based on his observations of the mentally ill in prison, Kupers calls for a more humane approach to crime and justice.

The articles from Prison Nation point out the inadequacies of other aspects of health care within prison systems in the United States. Medical care in prison is sub-par – nurses often use the same needles on patients, the ill are left unattended, there are excessively long lines to see the doctor, and inmates are often victimized by emotional and sexual abuse. The nation’s prison population now boasts the highest concentrations of hepatitis C in the country. Prisoners with HIV or AIDS are being denied proper treatment. Many prisoners are believed to be “faking”, and are denied the medical attention they need. A key factor is the low-caliber doctors found in prisons. Doctors found incompetent to practice in any other jurisdiction are sought after by prison systems. “Prisons get first-rate deals on third-rate physicians”, report Sherwood and Posey.[2]

The problem with the health care available to prisoners poses a philosophical debate. At what point in a human’s existence do we consider their life no longer worth living? Based on the current heath care system in prisons, this devaluing of life occurs after an individual has acted in a manner termed deviant based on social norms and the law. In no other jurisdiction would this deficient medical care be acceptable. The lives of these “marked” individuals do not matter to us anymore, since they have left the productive ranks of society. This attitude is in conjunction with the shift in focus from rehabilitation to punishment. What we must keep in mind is that most prisoners will be released from jail eventually. Because inmates are not receiving the medical attention they deserve while incarcerated, it will be more difficult for them to live outside of prison upon their release. Jackie Walker of the ACLU sums it up nicely with her observation: “Prisoners are going in expecting to do 10-15 years, and they’re ending up with a death sentence…They’re not getting the (medical) treatment that they deserve to receive”.[3]


[1] Anne Marie Cusac, “The Judge Gave Me Ten Years. He Didn’t Sentence Me to Death,” Prison Nation, ed. Tara Herivel and Paul Wright (New York: Routledge, 2003), 199.

[2] Mark Sherwood and Bob Posey, “FDOC Hazardous to Prisoners’ Health,” Prison Nation, ed. Tara Herivel and Paul Wright (New York: Routledge, 2003), 204.

[3] Silja J. A. Talvi, “Hepatitis C: A ‘Silent Epidemic’ Strikes U.S. Prisons,” Prison Nation, ed. Tara Herivel and Paul Wright (New York: Routledge, 2003), 186.

A primary component of the prison culture is violence, whether it is towards oneself or others. This rampant abuse manifests itself verbally, emotionally, and physically. This week’s readings from Prison Nation, Prison Masculinities and the Detroit Free Press demonstrate how violence is used in prison as a means of exhibiting power, dominance, and masculinity over the weak. These acts of violence demean victims and instill a sense of fear. Because of this fear of retaliation and general sense of brokenness, few cases of sexual assault within the prison system are ever reported. This cycle of demeaning abuse wielding power creates a taboo component of the prison system that we often neglect to acknowledge.

A quote from female prisoner Toni Bunton sums up the series from the Detroit Free Press on sexual assault in Michigan prisons: “Being a prisoner is the lowest you can be in life. Being a female prisoner is so much worse” (7). The series tells the story of an 18 year old woman, Bunton, at Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth Township, known for being wild, having few rules, and almost no physical boundaries between guards and prisoners. Bunton was repeatedly raped and sexually abused by correctional officers during her time at Scott. She was systematically, overtly degraded. Bunton “had the humanity beaten out of her” as one psychologist who examined her in jail reported. The most interesting part of Toni’s story is her initial attitude towards her abuse. Toni didn’t report anything because she feared retaliations from the other guards. “He said he would make my life miserable… I felt it was part of the punishment. I blamed myself.” Toni’s sentiments demonstrate how sexual abuse, especially within the confines of the prison system, removes any sense of power and self-worth a prisoner might possess. Only after educating herself did Toni regain the confidence to speak up about her experience and press charges against the Scott Correctional Facility. Education is one of the few ways that any sense of dignity and empowerment can be regained to victims of sexual abuse within the prison system.

An important factor towards understanding sexual abuse within this context is the overt masculine nature of the prison system. Men’s pursuit of masculinity demonstrated through their relationships with each other influence how men end up in prison in the first place, how they function on the “inside”, and what happens to them once they are released back into their communities. Rather than reduce crime, Sabo, Kupers and London claim that imprisonment in the United States perpetuates men’s violent tendencies, thus leading to more crime and violence. Prison, by its nature, is a patriarchal institution. Men increasingly dominate the system with each step up the status ladder. Prison is also a hierarchical system in which the strongest, most dominant figures exercise power over the most vulnerable. The way to survive in prison, whether you are a prisoner or a guard, is to be as “manly” as possible. Men are quick to anger and to defend their manhood. Homosexuality is feared. Ironically, rape is a way for more dominant males to feminize weaker, more vulnerable males. The message delivered is as such: “I, the dominant man, have the right and the power to use you, the loser, sexually, as if you were a woman and my slave” (115). The only way to “make it” while locked up is to be tougher than everyone else.

Sexual abuse, in any arena, is extremely degrading and dehumanizing. The fact that when it is set within the confines of the prison system, sexual abuse goes highly unnoticed, says a lot about how we view the worth of the lives of prisoners. Rape and violence in U.S. prisons is low on the radar of prison authorities and politicians because we already view prisoners as unworthy of humane treatment. We tend to forget about the worth a man or woman’s life who deliberately disobeyed the social norms enforced by the law. This dehumanization through punishment is another reason why the prison system fails to rehabilitate criminals. Only when we treat offenders as worthy of compassion and basic humane treatment will they be able to be reintroduced into society and turn away from a life of crime.

In proposing an alternative to indeterminate sentencing and parole, scholar James Q. Wilson stated: “Instead we could view the correctional system as having a very different function- to isolate and to punish…(This is) merely a recognition that society must be able to protect itself from dangerous offenders…It is also a frank admission that society really does not know how to do much else”.[1] This seemingly harsh statement sums up the critique of the American penal system that this week’s authors offer. In his book, Punishment and Inequality in America, Bruce Western argues that the current trend of mass incarceration does more to increase inequalities in our society than to deter crime. Over the past thirty years, the object of the penal system has moved away from rehabilitation and towards “incapacitation, deterrence, and punishment”.[2] In her study of prisoners on parole, Joan Petersilia makes a similar point: that parole is more about surveillance than reintroducing an ex-prisoner to society. Both authors’ arguments revolve around the theme of the system of mass incarceration as a mechanism for social control in a manner that further disadvantages the most vulnerable members of our society.

Western begins his study with a look at the history of the penal system in its most current state. By the 1970s, policies changed in the penal system. The focus moved away from reforming inmates in order to prevent crime. Because crime flourishes amid poverty and racial division, the rising economic inequality in America at this time and the failure of urban labor markets to provide good jobs for young unskilled men added to the equation of mass incarceration among minorities. Trends of mandatory prison terms, abolition of parole, and long sentences for felons on their second and third convictions indicated the beginning of the “tough on crime” era. Politicians were also beginning to wage the “war on drugs”. From a sociopolitical standpoint, Western believes that the agenda of the prison boom was not only in response to rising crime, but also race relations in the 1960s and the shrinking of the unskilled labor market in urban areas in the 1970s. Western claims that the prison boom of the 1990s only contributed a little to the decline in crime at the time. However, this gain in public safety was purchased at the cost of the economic well-being and family life of poor minority communities. Because of the prison boom of the 1990s, the prison system has become a uniquely large American system if social stratification.

Today, extreme social and economic disparities exist among the incarcerated population. The penal system has also created the marginality of this population; mainly composed of young minority males. Western explores how the social stigmatization that comes with deviancy and a prison sentence makes it hard to break the cycle of criminality. Serving time behind bars reduces a man’s wages, annual employment, and total annual earnings. Thus, incarceration leads to increased poverty. Imprisonment also has negative effects on marriage, friendships, and other familial relationships. In sum, based on the evidence Western provides, the inequalities already present in our society not only lead to the inevitable incarceration of minority populations, but mass incarceration in turn exacerbates these same inequalities.

Joan Petersilia takes a look at the failure of the current parole system in her article, “Parole and Prisoner Reentry into the United States”. The system is obviously not working as it was intended, as the majority of parolees will not complete their parole term successfully. Within 3 years of release from prison, 63 percent of ex-offenders will re-arrested for felony or serious misdemeanor offenses. The conservative trend calling for the elimination of this fatally flawed system further indicates that the penal system is more focused on controlling and incapacitating a deviant and threatening population rather than reforming individuals. Prisoners as well as those on parole experience a kind of “civil death” in which they lose many of the “inalienable” rights promised to all Americans in the Constitution, such as the right to vote and to hold public office. In order for the parole and prison systems to work, we must be more focused on treating the problems that create criminals, such as poverty, drug use, mental illness, and job scarcity rather than dismissing former prisoners as viable members of our society.


[1] Joan Petersilia, “Parole and Prisoner Reentry in the United States” (The University of Chicago Press: , Chicago) 1999, 494.

[2] Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (Russell Stage Foundation: New York) 2006, 2.


When one thinks of prison labor, images of criminals in striped jumpsuits chained together at the ankles along a Southern highway come to mind. The readings from this week, Alex Lichtenstein’s Twice the Work of Free Labor and selections from Herivel and Wright’s Prison Nation, focused on the history of prison labor and examined how the government as well as private corporations are still profiting off the work of criminals. It was surprising to find that the “prison-industrial complex” of today’s penal system is not a uniquely new concept. Lichtenstein’s work focused on the tradition of leased convict labor in the New South after the Civil War and the progression into the use chain gangs. While chain gangs are no longer used today, prison labor is still a great source of profit for the government and private industries as well as “compensation” for prisoners. The appeal of prisoners as a cheap, low-maintenance, constant labor source has remained constant throughout the last century.

In Twice the Work of Free Labor, Lichtenstein provides a study of the convict lease labor system in the South that existed before the 1920s. More specifically, the work focuses on the convict lease system in Georgia from Reconstruction until the Great Depression. As soon as the Civil War was over, the South was faced with restructuring their communities physically, politically, economically, and racially. A transition was occurring between the Old and New South. The convict lease system implemented by southern prisons is an example of an institution that bridged this gap. This system emerged after the passage of the 13th Amendment which freed slaves but permitted involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. For nearly a century in the South, punishment and rehabilitation took a back seat to exploited labor. The convicts, who were overwhelmingly African American, were “farmed out” to the highest bidder and forced to work for the remainder of their sentence or the rest of their life. They performed jobs such as building railroads, mining coal, making brick, cutting down trees, and paving roads. Punishment in the post- Civil War South was influenced by a changing society and played a key role in evolving race relations, the exploitation of labor, and the growing capitalist economy of the New South. This system was not exclusive to the South – convicts were also used as a forced labor source in the North, and state systems of penal labor often contracted prison labor out to private entrepreneurs. However, only in the South did the state give up total control of the prisoners to contractors. The physical “penitentiary” became synonymous with this form of contracted labor. Some argue that the convict lease system served as a mechanism to maintain white supremacy after emancipation. Lichtenstein points out that this system was seen as “a fiscally conservative means of coping with a new burden: the ex-slaves who were emancipated from the dominion of the slaveholder only to be subject to the authority of the state…it stood as a system of forced labor in an age of emancipation” ( p. 3). Convict lease labor bridges the gap between the Old and the New South. This is one of the key elements to understand evolving race relations in the New South. The New South’s economic development and use of regional resources made possible by convict labor also helped to maintain racial domination of whites. During the Progressive Era, the convict lease labor system was replaced by public chain gangs. Like its predecessor, chain gangs satisfied the need for a low-wage labor market in order to modernize the South and extract its natural resources. Both the convict lease labor system as well as public chain gangs developed due to the unique nature of the New South – an underdeveloped region rich in natural resources in need of a cheap labor source in order to achieve a modernized, industrial economy.

It seems ironic to think of the convict lease labor system of the New South as an archaic institution. The thought of using coerced prison labor as a means for the highest bidding private investors to profit seems reminiscent of slavery. I refer to the regard of this institution as ironically archaic because to some extent, it is still thriving today. In 1984, the private prison industry reappeared on the United States penal scene. In the sections entitled “Making a Buck Off the Prisoner’s Back” and “The Private Prison Industry”, Herivel and Wright compile writings that demonstrate the continuity of the coerced convict labor of the New South and the privatized prison industry of today. Many private corporations are profiting off of the prison industry as well as the use of prison labor. It seems reasonable to want to use prison labor; prisoners provide a cheap, reliable work force. While the private prison industry can be seen as a result of a healthy, capitalist society, we must remember that “the purpose of private prison companies is to make money for their owners”, as Paul Wright points out (p. 137). The morality of any industry that makes a profit off of the imprisonment of two million people should be called into question. After researching the convict lease labor system and chain gangs of the postbellum South, the motives and dangers of the modern-day prison-industrial complex and the use of prison labor are easier to understand. The continuity between these two systems proves that over the past century, the American penal system has been more focused on making a profit rather than rehabilitating criminals.

This week’s readings from McClennan and Gottschalk give insight into the long history of political crisis, instability, conflict, and anxiety that has contributed to today’s prison-based punitive system. Since its birth, the prison has been an official symbol of security, justice, and political power. McClennan’s writing, The Crisis of Imprisonment, focuses on the ongoing debate over the morality of the prison system. Gottschalk’s writing, The Prison and the Gallows, complements McClennan’s work nicely as it seeks to identify the political forces that have created our dependence on mass imprisonment and other retributive penal policies. Both readings provide a history of the factors contributing to the formation of the current penal system as well as the anxieties it has created among the public. McClennan and Gottschalk prove that the United States has a longstanding tradition of debate over the rights and wrongs of crime and punishment. The Crisis of Imprisonment focuses on various themes revolving around the history of the American penal system. These themes include the importance of prison labor in 18th century system, practical and formal reinvention and involuntary servitude, power dynamics within the system, and the critical role of the abolition of contracted prison labor in creating the modern prison system. These themes are subheadings to the overarching message of McClennan’s work: that the American prison system of mass incarceration is an “unfree institution” in a theoretically free society. McClennan primarily focuses on New York prisons in the 19th century as models of the changing state of the penal system. In 1821, Auburn Correctional Facility in Aubrurn, New York displayed a new cellhouse system of imprisonment.

The goal of the system was solitary confinement in order to force the spiritual labor of reflection, repentance and reform. Also, silent congregate labor within the Auburn cellblock stifled any efforts of prisoners to come together and revolt. Prisoners were isolated entirely from the “society” of fellow human beings. The idea of reformed prisons influenced by Auburn was to constrain criminals from further harming society and forcing them to reflect on their actions while providing a steady workforce. A relationship of dependency developed between jail keepers and prisoners; jailers and those private businesses became dependent on the labor and cooperativeness of those they were trying to imprison. This brings about the debate over the morality of selling prison labor for private business interests was in question, or “the prison labor problem”. Critics claimed that forcing involuntary labor for minimal wages denies certain individuals their right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

The use of contracted prison labor hurt poor, skilled workers, as it took away job opportunities. A major question arose among critics of the new prison-industrial complex: is the prison system anti-democratic?

In The Prison and the Gallows, Gottschalk argues that like the New Deal and the Great Society, the carceral prison system is a major state-building exercise, only it has not been disguised as a package of public policies. It has been building up over the past thirty years, and more is being added to it as we go along. Gottschalk seeks to identify the political forces that have created our dependence on mass imprisonment and other retributive penal policies. She also questions why the penal system has arisen without more opposition. The roots of the current penal system date back to our nation’s origin; we have a long tradition of uncovering ways to deal with crime and punishment through imprisonment. Politicians in the past thirty years have forwarded their own careers by promising “get tough on crime” policies. This writing investigates how four major interest groups – victims, women’s rights, prisoners’ rights, and opponents of the death penalty- mediated the construction of the current penal system. Gottschalk investigates how the current political national culture dictates deviancy. She sites the anti-prostitution movement during World War I, prohibition of the 1920s, life in the south under Jim Crow laws, the kidnapping scare of the 1930s, the emphasis on punishment of juvenile delinquents after World War II, McCarthyism of the 1950s, and the war on drugs of the 1980s. All of these movements discussed have contributed to the development and modification carceral system of punishment.

McClennan and Gottschalk prove that public angst about crime, violence and disorder is not a new phenomenon. The American public’s attitudes towards the capabilities of the state to handle crime have long-dictated politicians’ stance on controlling deviancy. The penal system we have not only allows the state to demonstrate the power to protect society from deviants but also to define morality. The current penal system is a complex web based on traditions of punishment, reparation, rehabilitation, anxiety, industrial profit, and debated morality. We can better understand how to deal with the issues of the current penal system if we study it within the historical context of an ongoing debate on the rights and wrongs of mass incarceration.

Matthew Countryman is a scholar whom I had never heard of before, but by the end of his lecture yesterday evening, I was very impressed with. His studies of African American history revolve around the theme proving that racism was never only a southern phenomenon. Countryman sees black power in its traditional sense as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement that carries on a legacy today. His lecture last night, “From Black Power to the First Black President” connected history to the present moment in regards to black politics. This lecture focused on President Barack Obama in relation to a new generation of black politicians who are more post-partisan and universally appealing than traditional “black power” figures. Many have suggested that President Obama signifies the end of black politics. To this, Countryman says no. His lecture connected the legacy of black power with electoral politics leading up to Obama’s election.

I would argue that Barack Obama can be viewed as one of the most charismatic figures in American presidential history. Many of his “charming” attributes lead to his election. President Obama is appealing to multiple groups of people because of his unique background. Two different narratives combine to create the “story” of Obama – the story of a black man as well as the son of an immigrant. Obama also denounced black nationalism, that is, the belief that the United States is inherently racist. This makes him different from previous “black power” nationalists and more appealing as a genuinely “American” citizen. His election can be seen as the culmination of black power’s alliance with the Democratic Party.

Historically, there has been a problem with how African Americans have seen themselves as part of the political process. They have always viewed themselves as second-class members of the electorate; as not having much influence in politics. This idea is called “plantation politics”. Malcom X’s view of black power was community control; for blacks to be running their own communities in separation from whites. After the gains of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, political control over a city was the best way to extend the power gained from this decade. Black mayors were elected in many northeastern cities, especially. While these gains should not be trivialized, the transition of blacks into poltical power in cities can be seen as an inevitable product of a demographic change. Due to the phenomenon of white flight, blacks made up the majority of the population in many cities. Malcom X once said that “the city is the black man’s land”. Blacks had to take advantage of this newly gained political power, and attempted to “create a revolution through the ballot box”, said Countryman. There are three core principles of black power that were to be carried out. The first states that racism is constitutive of American society. Secondly, the idea that change is rooted in individual rights had to be eliminated. The final platform of the black power movement was that racial unity must be the first step in this process. We can only see real progress if we have advancement for the whole community.

Once black mayors were first elected, they promised to represent the whole city, proving that racial progress is inherent to advancing the entire community. This was the fundamental point of contention between two schools of thought within the black power movement: nationalists and pluralists. Pluralists believed that in order to advance the black power agenda, politicians could not exclude whites. Race relations had to be reogranized in order to see progress. Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago, was a model for the pluralist model. He tried to appeal to whites as well as blacks (he got 12% of the white vote along with 98% of the black vote). Washington focused his interests on the city as a whole, and tried to appeal outside the black community. Washington established a standard for the “new generation” of black politicians, such as Barack Obama. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, who first ran as a typical “black power” politician, modified his campaign the second time around as a coalition campaign, advocating for the “rainbow coalition” made up of people of different races.

In wrapping up his lecture, Countryman said that Obama is different than the traditional image of a black power politician. His candidacy and presidency builds on the tradition of arguing for a new kind of politics and a message of change. His appeal as an agent of change was critical to his election. He advocates to reorganize the power of the government, which is appealing to citizens of all races. Obama’s election signals a new kind of politics that links black and white traditions for the advancement of the entire country which we will see play out over the next four years.

This week’s readings addressed the issue of prison reform. In her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis critiques the current prison system and suggests that we find “new terrains of justice” to deal with criminal offenses.[1] Richard A. Wright’s In Defense of Prisons is a good counterpoint to Davis’ argument. While Davis argues that we need to discover positive alternatives to the mass incarceration resulting from the “prison-industrial complex”, Wright argues that prisons are a necessary part of any civilized society. The two readings provide a balanced look at the aspects of incarceration as punishment that are critiqued by activists and trusted by conservatives.

Angela Davis criticizes our society’s reliance on incarceration to deal with social problems such as drug abuse, violence, and mental illness. Instead of confronting these issues, we incarcerate those who are most vulnerable to them. Prison has become the only source of punishment, and thus, Davis claims that we are “taking prison for granted”.[2] Prisons are such a huge source of spending and jobs that it is hard to imagine a world without them. Advocates of prison reform also claim that mass incarceration is so ingrained into our society that we fail to acknowledge the racist and sexist nature of the system. Racial minorities make up the majority of the incarcerated population. Davis goes as far as making a connection between prison and slavery, claiming that each is an institution intended to capitalize on the exploitation of a particular group of people. The use of prison labor, as well as the recent increase in the privatization of prisons, has put a price on the incarceration of human beings. The term “prison industrial complex” refers to the intricate web of private corporations, government, correctional facilities, and the media that capitalize on the exploitation of prisoners. The relationship between these institutions is symbiotic; they each promote the others. Davis suggests that rather than seeking a single alternative to the prison system, we must devise a more complicated framework of solutions to solve the problems that crime creates. Resources such as more supportive schools, free and universal physical and mental health care and community rehabilitation programs in conjunction with the decriminalization of many nonviolent offenses (in the drug and sex industry) would create a society in which prisons are not needed as the only form of punishment.

Richard A. Wright’s In Defense of Prisons is an excellent counterpoint to the critiques Davis has for the current prison system. While he does not claim that the current system is completely effective in solving all the problems crime creates, Wright does not see its dismantling as a better alternative. Police and prisons are an essential aspect to any civilized society. In referencing five beneficial social outcomes of imprisonment, Wright argues that the current system (moderately) achieves three of these outcomes: general deterrence, specific deterrence, and incapacitation. Instead of abolishing the system all together, Wright calls for a more rational correctional system that includes selective deterrence sentencing and incapacitation. The key to effective use of imprisonment, Wright claims, is to create a reliable risk assessment to identify chronic offenders who deserve a long-term sentence. The government, law enforcement, judicial system, health care officials, and individuals must agree upon common goals for what prisons are supposed to accomplish. In his closing line, Wright seems as though he is addressing Davis directly when he says: “we should not waste our time optimally effective social institutions, but rather we should work tirelessly to make our social institutions incrementally more rational.”[3]

While Wright’s stance on prison reform is much more reasonable than the almost socialist goals of Davis, truth can be found in both arguments. Davis does make a strong argument for the more humane treatment of prisoners. No social institution should ever capitalize on the dehumanization and exploitation of human beings, regardless of their prior decisions. Further, what does it say about our society specifically when this exploitation reflects overt racism and sexism? The fact that minority communities do not have more positive resources and job opportunities to begin with invites criminal activity into these areas. Wright’s argument is more rational, as it acknowledges that we do not live in a linear society, thus, we can not adopt a linear criminal justice system. This is an area where the two authors agree – that we must devise a more complex framework of solutions to deal with crime, rather than relying on long-term incarceration as the only source of punishment.


[1] Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press: New York) 2003, 21.

[2] Ibid., 15

[3] Richard A. Wright, In Defense of Prisons, 168.

It is somewhat ironic that while the United States boasts “liberty and justice for all”, over 2 million Americans are currently incarcerated. The number of Americans in prison and jail is six times higher than what it was thirty years ago, for the historically highest rate of 726 inmates per 100,000 people. This is also the highest incarceration rate in the world, with Russia following with 532 inmates per 100,000 people. When the American penal system was reformed in the mid-1800s, prison was seen as an “institutional response to potential order”.[1] Over the past two hundred years, our society has been committed to long-term incarceration as an institution intended to discipline. In his book, Race to Incarcerate, Marc Mauer investigates the evolution and expansion of America’s prison system over the past thirty years. This book, in conjunction with Tonry and Petersilia’s American Prisons at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, proves that the current system is not working as fairly or efficiently as it should be. Factors such as race-and class-biased policies, disproportionate length of sentences for undeserving crimes, and the lack of rehabilitation efforts contribute to this system which is failing to provide American citizens with justice for all.

In the 1960s, crime rates rose due to the rapid urbanization of the American population. An urban lifestyle presents challenges not experienced in a rural or suburban setting, resulting in higher than average crime rates in urban areas. Due to increasing crime rates, a “tough on crime” agenda was developed in Washington D.C. To some Americans, this new agenda displayed an arbitrary use of authority in race-and class-biased ways. These feelings in conjunction with the rise of the civil rights and antiwar movements helped spark the demands for a fairer justice system. A large part of the “tough on crime” agenda was the “war on drugs” of the 1980s, which had an extremely disproportionate effect on African Americans. Currently, although African Americans represent 12 percent of drug users, they make up 32 percent of arrests for drug possession. A great deal of this is due to the federal drug policy on punishment for crack versus powder cocaine use. In 2002, two US senators, Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions, proposed a bill to raise the drug quantity necessary to trigger the mandatory minimum for crack cocaine and lowering it for powder cocaine. This would have reduced the number of crack offenders (a highly African American population) receiving the mandatory sentence but increase the number of powder cocaine (mostly Caucasian) offenders. This was an attempt to address the racial implications behind the policy on crack versus powder cocaine use. The bill was not passed in Congress. Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson of the Justice Department argued that “lowering crack penalties will signal a retreat from the battle against drug abuse”.[2]

While the incarceration rate has been consistently rising, crime rates have been fluctuating over the past thirty years. This proves that there is an inconsistent relationship between crime and incarceration rates; it does not mean that incarceration has no impact on crime, but it also doesn’t mean that incarceration has a consistently positive impact on crime. Mauer, Tonry and Petersilia reveal the hidden impacts of incarceration, and explore other disciplinary measures that would provide punishment and more effectively curb crime. Courts and prisons are reactive systems that come into play after a crime is committed, and thus do not have much influence on preventing and controlling crime. We must focus on more preventive measures to keep our citizens from landing in jail in the first place. Mauer suggests practical innovations that could address the racial-bias of the federal drug policy such as more job and educational opportunities and income support for families of low socio-economic status. While these suggestions seem overtly liberal, Mauer points out that these are the tools that the middle class uses to keep problems in the community from escalating into crime. “Most of us refrain from committing crimes each day not out of fear of a prison sentence but because we have better things to do with our lives. Families, communities, careers, and a sense of hope for the future work wonders to control crime in most instances.” [3] If we focus more on these preventative measures, shorten sentences for nonviolent and drug offenses, and provide resources and support for the 600,000 individuals returning home from prison each year, more Americans will stay out of jail. These are idealistic goals, yet new measures must be taken in order to provide an equal opportunity for justice to all Americans.


[1] Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate (New York: The New Press, 2006), 4.

[2] Ibid., 90.

[3] Ibid., 211

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