African Americans were imprisoned at roughly four times the rate of whites in the U.S. at the dawn of the civil rights era. Today it is seven times. How can we explain this persistent—indeed, widening—disparity in rates of incarceration? Are contemporary patterns of imprisonment merely the incidental byproduct of economic restructuring, intensive policing, and stiffer sentencing guidelines? Or are they rather the latest development in a lengthy history of American racial conflict and subjugation? Does the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans even represent the continuation of chattel slavery and state-sanctioned segregation?
These questions tread fraught moral and political terrain, and they invite the construction of overdrawn parallels and facile analogies. After all, present-day African American inmates are not born into bondage in the same way slaves were, and racial hierarchy today is not legally codified in the fashion it was under slavery and Jim Crow. Nevertheless, a few scholars have recently insisted that American penal institutions play a decisive role in long-running patterns of racial formation and social control.
Probably the most prominent work in this school of thought is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which offers a sweeping indictment of the War on Drugs and its impact on African American men. Another less acclaimed but finer-grained study is that of historian Robert Perkinson, whose book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (2010) traces the history of incarceration in one of the bastions of the American South.
I intend to devote my next few contributions to the Arendt Center blog to Perkinson’s book, which offers a bracing, accessible, and generally well argued account of American criminal justice. His work, while not equating enslavement and imprisonment in any superficial manner, goes a long way toward demonstrating the deep connections between slavery and imprisonment.
In Texas’s case, these connections are rooted in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced labor as the essence of incarceration. Whereas northern penal institutions have often sought to reclaim offenders through confinement and discipline, Texas’s penal institutions have focused on putting prisoners to work for revenue-generating purposes and paid little heed to reformist ideals of rehabilitation. In the 1850s, for example, the state penitentiary at Huntsville specialized in the for-profit production of cotton and wool fabrics, and during the Civil War its inmates became the chief textile manufacturers and suppliers for the Confederate army. Up to this point, the vast majority of the state’s inmates were white, given that the state’s 1848 penal code prescribed whipping and other forms of sanguinary punishment, but not incarceration, for slaves and “free persons of color.”
With emancipation in 1865, however, Texas prison demographics shifted dramatically as increasing numbers of former slaves were sentenced to prison terms, often for minor offenses on the basis of flimsy evidence. These black convicts—and their Mexican and Native American counterparts—were rarely detained in the state’s main penitentiaries; instead, they were deployed on public works projects or agricultural plantations around the state. (American popular imagery of chain gangs and hoe squads, epitomized in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, hearkens back to the Reconstruction era in Texas and other southern states.) Impressed and largely nonwhite convict labor thereby played a key role in the construction of the state’s railroads and other infrastructure, and it contributed significantly to the lucrative production of cotton and sugar. Indeed, most of the plantations on which these prisoners labored had been worked by slaves only a few years before.
This use of involuntary labor reached its apotheosis in “convict leasing,” the term used in the later nineteenth century to describe the state’s hiring out of imprisoned workers to private contractors. These leases were initially concluded on a piecemeal basis, but in 1871 one Galveston firm, Ward, Dewey & Co., paid $325,000 to take possession of the entire Texas penal system and every state prisoner, more than half of whom were former slaves. (The proliferation of for-profit prisons in the past few decades is thus not the first time that American carceral institutions have been privatized.) Although Ward, Dewey & Co. agreed to treat “all convicts with care and humanity,” the living and working conditions they provided shocked many state supervisors and other observers. At least one of them regarded the company’s management as “a system of vilest slavery” (Perkinson, p. 93).
Yet even when the Texas government regained full control of its penal system in 1883, it did not abandon the pursuit of profit as much as bring it under state control. Among the most significant steps, Texas established its own state-run prison farms, which did not merely grow cash crops with unpaid convict labor, but carried on work traditions that bore striking resemblances to the era of convict leasing and, ultimately, plantation slavery. State-run farms remained a mainstay of the Texas penal system as late as the 1970s, and even as periodic reforms led to modest (if often short-lived) improvements in living conditions, they continued to be organized in starkly racialized terms: largely black prisoners labored involuntarily under the supervision of armed, largely white prison personnel.
Perkinson’s careful attention to the nineteenth century brings the phenomena of slavery and imprisonment into close proximity, and it demonstrates how early forms of incarceration in Texas bore the imprint of the South’s “peculiar institution.” It thereby sets the stage for the developments in the twentieth century, when Texas became one of the nation’s leaders—and models—in matters of mass incarceration. I shall take up the threads of this narrative in my next blog, which will also consider some of the implications of imprisonment for our understandings of civil liberty and democracy.
There has been much attention paid to the arguments before the Supreme Court concerning the 2010 health care law. And such attention is entirely justified, for the upcoming decision will have a decisive impact on the availability and quality of medical care for millions of Americans. But we should not forget another question that has recently come before the Court: whether it is constitutional for states to sentence juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole.
This case raises important questions not only about the purpose of criminal prosecution and incarceration, but also about our conceptions of personhood and the legal, moral, and other boundaries we construct between youth and adulthood. These issues have been on my mind a great deal these days: as part of my work with the Bard Prison Initiative, I am currently teaching a writing-oriented anthropology course entitled “Youth and Youth Politics” to two groups of incarcerated students. But they came even more pointedly to the fore as I was listening to the March 24th edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” This broadcast reported on a recent gathering that brought families of victims together with families of offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. Significantly, all those in attendance hope that the Supreme Court would declare such sentences unconstitutional.
If you have not already heard the report, I would recommend that you take a listen (and not merely read the text available on the NPR website). Aside from the power of the emotions expressed, I appreciate the way it neatly outlines and complicates the terms of debate. On the one hand, it presents the viewpoint of Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association, who sketches the potential reasons for long criminal sentences in starkly dichotomous terms. “Is it the goal [of prosecution and incarceration] to rehabilitate someone to see if they change? Or is the goal to do justice for the victims and others?” He inclines to the latter position, as is evident in the brief he filed that urged the Court not to overturn life sentences without parole.
On the other hand, the NPR report also includes the perspective of people like Mary Johnson, a mother whose son was shot and killed at a party by a sixteen-year-old boy. In the immediate aftermath, she regarded her son’s killer as an “animal”: “I wanted him charged with first-degree murder, imprisoned for the rest of his life.” But she now contends that retribution and rehabilitation cannot be easily separated from one another, and she suggests that offenders should not be defined for the entirety of their lives by the crimes they committed as young people.
This report does not offer nuanced arguments for one position or another on the constitutionality of life sentences without parole. But by providing a vivid account of how some people have sought to work through, and live with, the conundrums of “juvenile crime,” it offers a useful starting point for reflecting on our own moral intuitions.
You can listen to the excerpt here.
Adam Gopnik’s piece in the January 30th edition of The New Yorker, “The Caging of America,” offers sober and sobering commentary on our country’s predilection for mass incarceration. Gopnik passionately denounces the indifference if not callous disregard that many Americans exhibit toward prisons and prisoners, and he unsettles some of the rigid certainties that dog run-of-the-mill discussions of criminal justice. And yet my appreciation is also mixed with a degree of unease, in no small part because his rendering of the experience of incarceration strikes me as one-sided. This one-sidedness in turn has implications for how we might conduct public conversations about this vital facet of contemporary American life.
Full disclosure: I am not a prison activist or expert, and I have never been imprisoned. I instead write as an anthropologist and educator with the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers a rigorous liberal arts education to incarcerated students in five New York prisons.
This work affords me a measure of insight into the social dynamics of American incarceration, but my angle of vision is also (inevitably) limited and partial. I therefore approach this topic with considerable humility, but as shall become clear, such humility is precisely my point.
Many of us tend to think of imprisonment first and foremost in terms of physical confinement, but one of the real strengths of Gopnik’s article is his attention to the centrality of time. Indeed, the nature of American prison life gives new meaning to the “empty, homogeneous time” that Walter Benjamin diagnosed as a hallmark of modern existence. In Gopnik’s words:
“It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates…. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.”
My own experience with BPI certainly attests to this tyranny of time. Two of my students once asked if they could remove the clock from the classroom wall so that they would not have to look at it. They explained that time would pass faster this way, and making the time pass, in whatever way possible, was one of their chief concerns.
Yet even as inmates recognize the heavy weight of carceral time, many insist that they are not powerless in the face of it. As another of my students noted, inmates urge one another to take control of their situation to the extent that they are able. “You do the time,” the common injunction apparently goes. “Don’t let the time do you.” That is to say, many inmates aspire to endure and even exert a measure of autonomy, despite the regimentation, dreariness, and pain that often pervade their existence.
Gopnik says too little for my taste about this dimension of incarceration. I sympathize with his claim that “the scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life." And he is right to emphasize the anxiety, boredom and fear that so often suffuse prison life, just as he is to note the frequency of physical violence, including rape, committed by and against prisoners. But we do a disservice to inmates if we believe that they are entirely at the mercy of the institutions in which they reside—and that the time they serve is merely (to paraphrase Gopnik) “something being done to them.” Most of the inmates I know through BPI seek actively to give shape and direction to the time during and after their imprisonment. They are not defeated and destroyed by their current circumstances, but acutely reflective and articulate about them.
We would do well not merely to hold incarcerated men and women accountable for the offenses they have committed, but also to include their perspectives in necessary public deliberation over the ongoing epidemic of incarceration. They have inhabited and negotiated social worlds that many Americans cannot readily imagine, and they could contribute a great deal to debates where glib self-assurance and easy moralizing are far too common.
There is a pressing need for a more nuanced and democratic conversation about the state of American prisons, particularly when the poor and people of color bear the brunt of incarceration. But such a conversation will not happen if we disqualify current and former inmates from public discussion, either because we believe we know what prison is like and can therefore speak for them, or because we believe that they are not worthy or capable of participating.