Whom Does The Carceral State Serve? — A Historiographical Approach
Scholars have reached consensus on the racial biases behind America’s vast prison population — but the search for those responsible has proved more contentious.
The “Carceral State” is an intangible concept with concrete implications for contemporary America.
In August 2016, the historian Timothy Shenk challenged Elizabeth Hinton, the author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, to define the “carceral state”.
Admitting to its complexities, she proposed a basic definition, summarising that it comprised ‘all the formal institutions of the criminal justice system,’ particularly America’s prisons, which house more than two million inmates.
Just a year earlier, in June 2015, the Journal of American History (JAH) produced a special issue on ‘Historians and the Carceral State’.
Introducing the body of articles, the journal’s editors, Kelly Lytle Hernández, Khalil Gibran Muhammed and Heather Ann Thompson, acknowledged the striking racial, wealth and gender inequalities that present themselves in America’s prison system.
They noted that ‘when a nation chooses to police and cage many millions of people who reside within its borders, the implications for everything else that takes place in that country are vast,’ and hold influence over society in often-unexpected ways, including skewing election results and impacting suburban development, state boundaries, and government resource distribution.
Past meets present
To understand how America’s prison population grew so large — and so unequal—historians have viewed tackling the origins of its growth as an essential question.
And yet, answering it has been no easy task.
Scholarship of this topic is exceptional in two interrelated ways. Firstly, given the continued implications of the carceral state on society, it is not surprising that contributors from many scholarly fields take an interest in diagnosing the causes of incarceration, with each field employing different methods in pursuit of differing objectives.
Secondly, the myriad influences on the subject’s scholarship have made it as much a study of the present — a topic for lawyers, activists, and economists — as for historians.
Jonathan Simon suggests that:
‘Typically, a generation or two has passed before a truly significant political development, like the New Deal or the Cold War, escapes the pull of presentist hagiography (or demonology) and comes under the… professional historical gaze.’
Yet, for scholars of the carceral state, their subject is becoming a historical study while it remains a significant contemporary issue.
A political question
In this unusual historiographical context, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the strongest voices is that of a legal scholar rather than a historian.
Michelle Alexander authored The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in 2010. In it, Alexander posits that mass incarceration is a method of social control that produces a ‘racial caste system’ scarcely different from Jim Crow.
Although laws could no longer discriminate according to race following the civil rights movement — in what Alexander calls ‘the era of colorblindness’ — many were designed to target other factors that unduly affected African Americans.
Racial exclusion continued even after imprisonment finished, with many states denying one-time felons (of which a disproportionate percentage are black) certain fundamental citizens’ rights, such as voting enfranchisement.
The great value of Alexander’s work is that it transcends its historical purpose in order to propose ways of reforming the prison system whose origins she traces.
In doing so, Alexander mirrors some of the recommendations made four years previously, in 2006, by the political scientist Marie Gottschalk.
In The Prison and the Gallows, Gottschalk called for the reduction of the carceral state and implored her readers to create ‘solidarity with the expelled society.’
While the basic premise of both Alexander and Gottschalk’s work is that race was, and remains, the overriding factor in the rise and perpetuation of the carceral state, their approaches — which see the authors concentrate on national over local developments — engender two issues.
Firstly, they fail to ask who the agents of carceral state construction were. If minorities were the victims, who enacted their victimisation?
Gottschalk provides some answers, invoking the role of three social movements (for victims’, women’s and prisoners’ rights), as well as death penalty activists, in carceral expansion.
However, her nationwide analysis leads her to admit that these interest groups form ‘by no means an exhaustive list.’
Secondly, to borrow from the historian Michael J. Fortner, both studies render the complexities of individual situations ‘invisible,’ within the ‘linked fate’ of African Americans, in particular, and fail to account for intra-racial divergences.
In other words, why did some black communities suffer more than others?
Historiography has begun, particularly in the last few years, to provide responses to these questions, but not as a direct challenge to the work of scholars outside of the historical domain, such as Gottschalk and Alexander.
Remarkably, only one of the fourteen articles published in the 2015 JAH special issue situates its findings in relation to Alexander’s conclusions, and the journal’s contributors cite her seminal work just nine times, in only six of the fourteen articles.
And yet, there are challenges to be made. Alexander, for example, refutes the notion that white individuals were also victims of America’s carceral expansion, asserting that white prisoners are ‘collateral damage’ in a system that has long targeted black men, in particular, as ‘the real targets, the designated enemy.’
Alexander’s work contends that the racial imbalance of prison populations is only regulated in bad faith for, while a percentage of prisoners white, the American public remains reassured that the system is not inherently racist.
However, Alexander overlooks other interactions between white America and the carceral state that have shaped its construction.
In 2016, one of the editors of the JAH special issue, Heather Ann Thompson, published Blood In The Water, an account of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising.
Thompson’s work paints a different view of white participation in the rise of American mass incarceration, suggesting that men, in particular, were forced into the penal system through ‘economic precariousness.’
And while their destinations in that system differed — white men regularly becoming prison guards for their black counterparts — for Jen Manion also, ‘it is hard not to see both groups as losing out by the end.’
Although she does not state it explicitly, Thompson’s analysis of Attica also responds to the question of agency, casting white Americans in the role.
Prisons created employment and were disproportionately constructed in densely-white areas. The employment and income generation that prisons provided could even ensure re-election for local politicians, making prison construction a lucrative policy for public officials in white areas.
Thus, in some local instances, white desire for economic support indirectly incentivised the rise of the carceral state, a reality that came to pass outside of federal policy.
Matthew Lassiter identifies another role for white Americans in carceral construction.
Lassiter reveals the perpetuation of stereotyped images of, on the one hand, white middle-class ‘impossible criminals’, whose drug use was exonerated (notionally because they were ‘otherwise law-abiding’) and, on the other hand, the trope of the urban pusher.
Although the law racialised both groups, Lassiter sees black urbanites as the targets of criminalisation, while white suburban youth was progressively decriminalised.
Lassiter is the only JAH contributor to directly challenge Alexander. He recognises that her approach neglects the grassroots origins of the federal policies she invokes, failing to ‘account for the [parents’ federations’] considerable influence on political institutions and the responsiveness of government officials to the marijuana-driven anxieties of the suburban parents’ movement.’
For Lassiter, therefore, national prison policy responded to the demands of local suburban (often white) interest groups.
Black involvement in carceral expansion
Carceral expansion was not a one-way racial street, however, and national approaches to mass incarceration tend equally to downplay the role of black agency, particularly in the form of support for increasingly punitive modes of policing.
Alexander asserts that African Americans preferred other forms of government intervention to harsh control measures, and that they consistently showed lower support than white survey responders for tough policies.
However, the historian Donna Murch claims that African Americans did not foresee disproportionately-heavy victimisation as a consequence of increased police measures and, indeed, initially welcomed policing, perceiving it to be a smaller threat to their communities than drug abuse.
Murch contends that Los Angeles was no one-off, and ‘many black politicians and other prominent leaders supported drastic carceral policies in hopes of staunching the crack crisis facing black communities across the country.’
James Forman Jr. makes the same case for Washington, D.C. in his 2017 book Locking Up Our Own. In the capital, from the 1960s onwards, ‘many black officials advocated tough-on-crime measures in race-conscious terms’ to respond to epidemics of drug abuse and the spates of violence and precariousness that they engendered.
Forman questions how the Washington, D.C. judicial system, comprising many black decision-makers, judges, and jury members came to incarcerate ‘so many of its own,’ a story familiar across America.
Forman reinforces Alexander’s assertion that white support for tougher policing and justice has generally been higher than black endorsement, suggesting that black communities only wanted tougher policing if accompanied by other interventions.
Nonetheless, he asserts that a majority of black Americans (64 percent) advocated harsher sentences for criminals as recently as 2014.
Thus for Forman Jr., many African Americans were also agents of carceral construction, ‘a story that gets ignored or elided when we fail to appreciate the role that blacks have played in shaping criminal justice over the past forty years’.
Popular support for higher incarceration, whether in white or black communities, affected imprisonment rates in another way, too.
Mirroring Thompson’s assertion that elected officials retained their positions by providing jobs within the expanding carceral state, John Pfaff claims that district attorneys played on voter fears about crime to become steadily more hardline.
In Pfaff’s view, this tendency contributed, since the 1990s, to increasing incarceration rates, independent of trends in crime and arrests.
Race among other factors
Although Thompson’s meticulous case-study of Attica provides no direct contribution to the aetiology of the carceral state, it suggests the need to take a multi-causal approach to incarceration by noting how other factors influenced individuals’ involvement — as employees or as inmates — in the US prison system.
Her work suggests that the participation of Americans of all races in the carceral state was a product of the same working-class financial pressures.
At the opposite end of the scale, the ‘impossible criminals’ of Lassiter’s American suburbia also personified an amalgamation of social identities. Though most were white, they were also middle-class and defined by their suburban lifestyles and college education.
For Murch too, sporadic black support for harsher enforcement revealed an intra-racial division based on class. In many cases, wealth and education determined support for policing as much race. If black communities were the target of brutal policing, so too were poor neighbourhoods (although it is important to recognise that the two often overlap).
Race and wealth also intersect in the links scholars make between the rise of the War on Poverty and the growth of the incarceration rate.
Schemes designed to relieve economic hardships gave government access to, and control of, inner city areas and, as a corollary, provided a ready-made apparatus for surveillance and criminalisation.
Indeed, Elizabeth Hinton sees social welfare programmes as constituents of the carceral state. Hinton explores how the ‘soft surveillance’ techniques of welfare enterprises under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were adapted to the crime policies of Nixon and Reagan, providing a sequential overview of national policy.
One contributor to the JAH special issue, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, narrows her focus to Illinois, charting a rise in criminalisation linked to ‘welfare cheating’ — those who fraudulently attempted to supplement their state allowances.
Thus Kohler-Hausmann identifies predominantly poor, black, women as the central targets of criminalisation through welfare provision. Again, an accumulation of factors, including gender, race, and wealth, shaped their particular criminal identity.
Kohler-Hausmann’s approach shows popular support for punitive fraud prevention, recognising agency at local levels as well as in federal policy. Her study also leads her to acknowledge the often-symbiotic relationship between welfare and penal systems; the War on Poverty did not necessarily precede the War on Crime as it did for Hinton.
Whom does the carceral state serve? — towards consensus
Historians’ focus on the carceral state is still very young. However, other disciplines have been creating its history for longer, and historians are only now beginning to engage with ‘the growing ranks of social scientists, attorneys, journalists, and even politicians who recognize “mass incarceration” in the United States as one of the defining (and most troubling) features of our time’ (Alex Lichenstein).
Given the various lenses through which scholars have viewed the origins of the carceral state, it is inevitable that approaches have differed greatly. Perhaps the biggest divergence has been the privileging, particularly among legal scholars and sociologists, of a national perspective on the carceral state that focusses on federal policy within broad spatial and chronological boundaries.
For those authors, understanding how and why the carceral state expanded so rapidly provides a lesson in how best to reverse that growth, an approach that necessarily centres on federal policy — the level at which important decisions on America’s carceral future will be made.
Thus far, by contrast, the dominant trend amongst historians has been to situate these wider conclusions in specific places and periods in an effort to determine who benefitted most from, and suffered most at the hands of, carceral expansion.
Exploring the origins of the carceral state offers a new angle from which to tackle unresolved yet significant questions of American history. Hinton, for example, ‘deploys the origin story of the carceral state to reinterpret dominant assumptions about the politics of liberalism, the welfare state, and the central role of the state in postwar African American and urban histories’ (Newport).
In doing so, Hinton answers the challenge of Thompson who, in 2010, called on historians to incorporate mass incarceration into studies of how post-war America evolved, a practice that Thompson felt would illuminate ‘some of the most dramatic political, economic, and social transformations’ of the 1960s onwards.
Synthesising the conclusions that scholars have so far drawn, it appears that a combination of race, wealth, and geography, among several other factors, produced a dichotomy that posited mainly-white suburbanites as advocates of the carceral state with poor, mainly-black, inner-city residents as its main victims.
But it is important to remember that such a conclusion hides many exceptions and, beyond the scope of the present article, other reasons have contributed to expansion the carceral state — not least the desire to control other marginalised, ethnic, and religious groups.
There are also debates about the politics of carceral expansion, including the extent of bipartisan support for carceral expansion, and whether increasing incarceration had its origins in the war on drugs and the sudden spate of prison building of the 1970s, or if its foundations were laid much earlier.
Nonetheless, it is clear that a more inter-disciplinary approach to the carceral state would benefit both historians and their academic counterparts in law, politics and sociology.
For Alexander, Gottschalk and Pfaff, for example, localised studies offer a means of confirming or refuting the individual realities of policies enacted at the federal level.
And historians, too, have much to gain from the work of scholars who cast their studies forward, advancing powerful conclusions that implicate all readers in the dark history of America’s vast carceral system.
Only through collaboration can the historiography of the carceral state serve a dual purpose, furthering academic understanding of post-war America and working to resolve the social and political issues and inequalities that have evolved as a result.
As the historian Daniel Geary notes, doing so will demonstrate ‘how historians who are morally engaged yet professionally rigorous can bring the past to bear upon the issues of the present.’
Note: A bibliography of works mentioned in the above article and all others used for research and reference is available separately, here.