Archive for the ‘Book Notes’ Category
This book uses the landmark case Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union to examine the strategies of prison inmates using race and radicalism to inspire the formation of an inmate labor union. It thus rekindles the debate over the triumphs and troubles associated with the use of Black Power as a platform for influencing legal policy and effecting change for inmates. While the ideology of the prison rights movement was complex, it rested on the underlying principle that the right to organize, and engage in political dissidence, was not only a First Amendment right guaranteed to free blacks, but one that should be explicitly guaranteed to captive blacks—a point too often overlooked in previous analyses. Ultimately, this seminal case study not only illuminates the history of Black Power but that of the broader prisoners’ rights movement as well.
Insofar as America is (descriptively) exceptional,* two key differences setting America apart from its peer nations are mass incarceration and popular religiosity. Assuming the U.S. is most usefully compared with Canada, Australia, and Western Europe (I acknowledge not all will share this assumption), none of these peer nations match the U.S. imprisonment rate and few come close to American levels of church membership, church-going, or public professions of faith. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, many American prisons offer a wide array of faith-based programming (even, or especially, prisons where secular education and rehabilitation programming is meager: for instance, in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, you can earn a BA from a Baptist theological seminary, but no non-Christian college courses are offered). An evangelical group, Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, is among the most prominent national organizations sending volunteers into prisons and advocating for criminal justice reform.
How does this convergence of American religiosity with American imprisonment fit with the First Amendment’s ban on state-established religion? In her book Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (Princeton UP, 2009), Buffalo law professor Winifred Sullivan uses a recent lawsuit as a case study for considering this question. From the book’s introduction: Read the rest of this entry »
Here’s a podcast with sociologist Megan Comfort on her book, Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of Prison (UChicago Press, 2007). Here’s what the book’s about:
Megan Comfort spent years getting to know women visiting men at San Quentin State Prison, observing how their romantic relationships drew them into contact with the penitentiary. Tangling with the prison’s intrusive scrutiny and rigid rules turns these women into “quasi-inmates,” eroding the boundary between home and prison and altering their sense of intimacy, love, and justice. Yet Comfort also finds that with social welfare weakened, prisons are the most powerful public institutions available to women struggling to overcome untreated social ills and sustain relationships with marginalized men. As a result, they express great ambivalence about the prison and the control it exerts over their daily lives.
Continuing what seems to be this week’s theme of LWOP here at the Prison Law Blog, here’s UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich:
Of the 2.3 million people currently behind bars in the United States, only 41,000 – a mere 1.7% – are doing LWOP. Based on these numbers, one might well regard LWOP as the anomaly, and certainly not emblematic of the system as a whole. … I argue that it is LWOP that most effectively captures the central motivating aim of the contemporary American carceral system: the permanent exclusion from the shared social space of the people marked as prisoners. This exclusionist system has no real investment in successful reentry. … If this project is to be abandoned and its destructive effects reversed, the implicit assumption that individuals who have been subject to criminal punishment have thereby forfeited their status as fellow citizens and fellow human beings must be confronted and rejected.
That’s from the abstract to Dolovich’s new paper, “Creating the Permanent Prisoner,” available on SSRN. It’s from the compilation Life without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty?, forthcoming from NYU Press.
Rutgers-Camden will host a public conference on Wednesday, June 23, “that aims to open a dialogue about the needs of children and families of the incarcerated and how the private and public sectors can better respond.” More details:
Panels will be held on policy issues surrounding the Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA); the role of educators supporting children and families; the developmental effects of trauma on children; interventions for children of incarcerated parents; and best practices for supporting child and parent relationships. Representatives from regional corrections facilities and social services agencies will also be speaking, in addition to the keynote speaker, a formerly incarcerated father who founded Frontline Dads, for fathers dealing with life before and after incarceration.
The occasion for the conference is Rutgers professor Jane Siegel’s new book, Disrupted Childhoods: Children of Women in Prison(Rutgers UP, 2011). The conference is open to the public, but it looks like there’s a $45 fee. Registration form here.
If you’re interested in the deep past of America’s carceral state, and/or American imperial history, then you may want to take a look at Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, a 2009 edited volume put together by Alfred McCoy and Francisco Scarano and published by the University of Wisconsin Press. (At the moment, I happen to be making my way through McCoy’s important — and dense — other recent book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, also out from Wisconsin in 2009.)
Colonial Crucible is a series of essays about ways in which the United States’ Pacific and Caribbean empire shaped U.S. policy both abroad and at home. In the publisher’s words,
the essays in this volume show how the challenge of ruling such far-flung territories strained the U.S. state to its limits, creating both the need and the opportunity for bold social experiments not yet possible within the United States itself. Plunging Washington’s rudimentary bureaucracy into the white heat of nationalist revolution and imperial rivalry, colonialism was a crucible of change in American statecraft. From an expansion of the federal government to the creation of agile public-private networks for more effective global governance, U.S. empire produced far-reaching innovations.
Of particular interest to readers of this blog might be Part 2, “Police, Prisons, and Law Enforcement,” which includes essays on American penal practices in colonial Puerto Rico, the prohibition of opium in the Philippines, policing in the Philippines, and, again in the Philippines, the Iwahig Penal Colony, opened in 1904 to alleviate overcrowding in Manila’s central penitentiary.
In the current issue of the Boston Review, Georgetown Law professor James Forman has some interesting thoughts on two of last year’s most significant books on mass incarceration — Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Here’s Forman on the limitations of Alexander’s account:
This account of the origins of mass incarceration reinforces the Jim Crow analogy by tracing a direct line from a profound social ill (mass imprisonment) to a well-known enemy (racist voters and politicians who pander to them). But the account is incomplete. Something else was going on in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s: violent crime shot up dramatically just before the beginning of the prison boom. Homicide rates doubled between 1965 and 1975, and robbery rates tripled.
The increase in crime helped to fuel demands for more punitive policies. In The Politics of Imprisonment, Vanessa Barker describes how black activists in Harlem fought for what would become the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. Harlem residents were outraged by rising crime rates in their neighborhoods and sought increased police presence and stiffer penalties. …
Those who call attention to the harm caused by our current criminal-justice policies must also be ruthlessly honest about the harm caused by crime. This, too, is a matter of racial justice: victims of crime—especially violent crime—are disproportionately poor, young, and black or brown. It is also a strategic imperative. Tough-on-crime advocates are not going to stop talking about violent offenders and the need to protect communities from them. If reformers shy away from the topic, their chances of building a broad movement for change will suffer.
The review is well worth reading in full. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the carceral state was already on its way to expansion even before homicide rates shot up in the late 1960s. It’s worth wondering whether black leaders responded to violence in their communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s by calling for more incarceration at least in part because that was a solution that the nation, dating back to the Johnson years, had already indicated that it would support; whereas more comprehensive social programs such as those envisioned by Johnson’s War on Poverty were already falling out of favor.
A few weeks ago, I posted the always-shocking data on the rise of mass incarceration in the United States over the past 30 years. That data, however, is just the most visible way of measuring the rise of the American carceral state. And in turn, dismantling mass incarceration will require more than simply reducing the jail and prison population—which is merely a symptom of a deeper phenomenon.
What I mean is this: Mass incarceration is not just about the number of people actually behind bars. It’s also about a cultural mindset that turns to the criminal justice system—either literally or as a model—as the first response to almost any problem or disruption, even something so minor as a schoolchild’s misbehavior. In his book Governing through Crime (Oxford, 2007), Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon argues that over the past 40 years, our society has reconceptualized virtually every social problem—extreme poverty, educational inequality, mental illness, undocumented migration, etc.—through the lens of crime, creating a culture of fear in which every citizen is defined first and foremost as a victim.
At the same time, this culture also defines certain members of our society as criminals—everywhere they go. As sociologist Victor Rios puts it, in a 2006 article,*
one of the most brutal yet unexamined collateral consequences of punitive criminal justice policies and mass imprisonment is that of the non-criminal justice institution being penetrated and influenced by the detrimental effects of the criminal justice system. Youth of color are hypercriminalized because they encounter criminalization in all the settings they navigate.
Rios found, in his interviews with black and Latino teenage boys in the San Francisco Bay Area, that many experienced their daily lives almost as if they were in jail — so pervasive has become the criminal justice system’s reach into schools, community centers, and even families. He gives the example of “Jr.”: Read the rest of this entry »
Let’s say you want to learn more about the recent history of mass incarceration in the United States, but you only have time for one book. Although there are many excellent candidates, one that I’d recommend is The Prison and the Gallows, by Marie Gottschalk (Cambridge UP, 2006). Gottschalk synthesizes a lot of scholarly literature to provide a one-volume chronicle of the explosive growth of the U.S. prison population in the past 30 years. She seeks to explain the uniquely American social and political forces that enabled this development, juxtaposing the U.S. against all the other Western nations which did not experience similar growth in the penal system. I found particularly useful Gottschalk’s chapter on why the rhetoric of “victims’ rights” gained such political force in the United States as a justification for passing harsher sentencing laws. Short answer: Our tradition of prosecutorial discretion, combined with federalism. (Longer but still oversimplified answer below.)
On top of those factors, Gottschalk argues, “Differences in the legal training, professional norms, and career paths of prosecutors, judges, and other judicial administrators are another reason why the U.S. criminal justice system has been more vulnerable to political winds whipped up by politicians and social movements” (98). I thought I’d highlight one passage in which Gottschalk compares German and American legal training: Read the rest of this entry »
Louisiana’s Angola state prison has long been among the country’s most notorious and iconic correctional institutions. Historian David Oshinsky — who knows notorious Southern prisons from his research on Mississippi’s Parchman Farm — summed up the symbolic value of Angola in a recent book review for the New York Times. (The book under review is Wilbert Rideau’s new memoir, In the Place of Justice.) The review opens:
An hour’s drive northwest from Baton Rouge sits the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the United States. On the site of a former slave plantation, it currently houses close to 5,000 inmates and covers more ground, at 18,000 acres, than the island of Manhattan. Surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River, its stunning physical isolation and distinctive antebellum feel have provided the backdrop for numerous feature films and documentaries, including “Dead Man Walking,” “Monster’s Ball” and “The Farm.” For Southerners, especially African-Americans, Angola is both a prison and a state of mind, a relic from before the civil rights era, when white supremacy was the custom and racial segregation was the law.
Since the mid-1970s, when the federal courts stepped in, many of Angola’s worst abuses have been discontinued, and violence among inmates has fallen. Today inmates have the option of enrolling in a full, four-year seminary program — even though most are serving life sentences and will never be preachers on the outside, they run “inmate churches” whose congregations add up to over half the prison population. Just this past weekend, USA Today held up Angola as a national model for its programs aimed at helping inmates become better fathers. (See Solitary Watch for a skeptical take on all this.) Yet traces of the the old Angola persist: in the three inmates who’ve spent the last 37 years in solitary confinement; in the annual spectacle of the Angola prison rodeo; and in all the other prisons and jails around the state that are crowded and mean places. Louisiana’s juvenile jails do not meet national standards (although new legislation would seek to change that); the overcrowded Caddo Parish jail has recently agreed to a federal audit; and New Orleans is tussling with the ACLU over how big the new jail it’s building ought to be.
According to the Sentencing Project, Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation — and, therefore, in the world — at 853 per 100,000 citizens. For black Louisianans, that figure is a staggering 2,452 per 100,000 (although shocking as it is, this is actually in the middle of the range for states by black incarceration rate; Wisconsin, for instance, incarcerates 4,416 per 100,000 of its black citizens). By way of comparison, the United States in total incarcerates 751 per 100,000 citizens; Russia incarcerates 627 per 100,000; China incarcerates 119 per 100,000; and most countries in Western Europe, as well as Canada and Australia, incarcerate somewhere in the range of 75 – 150 per 100,000. John McQuaid recently observed that “since Europeans first settled there 300 years ago, Louisiana has borne the brunt of catastrophic misjudgments over exploitation of the land and natural resources.” As a descendant of Europeans who settled in Louisiana, I have shared in Louisianans’ rage at the federal government’s dilatory response to Katrina and BP’s cavalier disregard for Gulf Coast wildlife and livelihoods. Catastrophic misjudgments imposed from without have not been the only source of Louisianans’ suffering.