Livin the American Dream

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.


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