Guarded Hope

Lessons from the history of the prison boom

In March 1965, at the height of his popularity and power, President Johnson launched a major offensive against crime, which he called a “malignant enemy in America.” Although violent crime had declined markedly since the Great Depression, it was starting to surge under Johnson’s watch, and his conservative critics—following the lead of Barry Goldwater, who had made fighting crime a centerpiece of his failed but galvanizing presidential bid—were eager to pounce. To outflank them, LBJ ordered his attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach to chair a blue-ribbon commission to draft a national crime strategy. “I will not be satisfied,” the President warned, borrowing from Goldwater’s paternalistic playbook, “until every woman and child in this Nation can walk any street, enjoy any park . . . and live in any community at any time of the day or night without fear of being harmed.” He declared “a thorough and effective war against crime.”

From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, Johnson’s belligerent anticrime talk rings familiar, but the policy changes ultimately put forward by his expert panel in 1967 hail, seemingly, from another country. Nowhere among the Katzenbach commission’s 200-plus recommendations were the sorts of punitive fixes presently in vogue. Rather than augmenting law-enforcement powers, the panelists urged greater respect for civil liberties and a national commitment to police fairness and professionalism, complete with in-service training courses like “The civil rights movement and history of the Negro.” Instead of strengthening the hands of prosecutors, the commissioners recommended greater evidence sharing, eliminating most bail charges, and expanding legal services for low-income defendants. Instead of tougher criminal sentencing, they suggested rolling back mandatory-minimum drug penalties passed in the 1950s and shifting resources from imprisonment to probation and parole.

Although the panelists advocated more money for law enforcement and criminological research, they insisted, above all, that “the challenge of crime in a free society” could only be met by stressing prevention over punishment. “We will not have dealt effectively with crime until we have alleviated the conditions that stimulate it,” they wrote. Reflecting what would become an unfashionable belief that government intervention can alleviate social problems by means other than tax cuts or privatization, the president’s advisors asserted that the Great Society represented the best solution to crime:

[The Commission] has no doubt whatever that the most significant action that can be taken against crime is action designed to eliminate slums and ghettos, to improve education, to provide jobs, to make sure every American is given the opportunities and the freedoms that will enable him to assume his responsibilities.

Rather than building cellblocks, they called for building communities. Throwing down the gauntlet before the incipient law-and-order Right, LBJ’s best and brightest called “for a revolution in the way America thinks about crime.”

What they got was counterrevolution. By 1968, when the report was translated into law, Lyndon Johnson’s once formidable social-democratic coalition had fragmented, a casualty not only of Vietnam but of the riotous, long, hot summers at home. The domestic homicide rate was soaring, and as public anxiety mounted, resurgent Republicans and southern segregationist Democrats took control of the crime issue in Congress, drafting sweeping legislation that bore little resemblance to Johnson’s. Instead of crafting myriad federal programs, the revised bill would channel some $400 million into locally controlled “block grants” for law enforcement, a nod to states’ rights. Instead of “warring on poverty,” as the commissioners urged, the congressional package took aim at the Warren Court, eliminating restrictions on wiretapping and authorizing police to interrogate suspects without the pesky involvement of defense attorneys (Miranda v. Arizona had been decided in 1966).

Johnson’s allies disliked the bill—the New York Times decried the “vicious” legislation’s “sectional politics, facile solutions, and clearly discernable prejudices against the ignorant and the poor”—but after it motored through the House and Senate, the lame-duck president held his nose and signed. What had started out as an effort to outfox the Right—to commandeer Barry Goldwater’s divisive talking points to buttress the Left’s anti-poverty and civil rights agenda—had instead destabilized liberalism and shifted the national conversation from social services to just deserts.

Whether or not the final version of the quaintly named Safe Streets Act represented “a giant leap toward a police state,” as one contemporary feared, the law would serve as a blueprint for anticrime legislation from the late ’60s forward. Under President Nixon, who took Goldwater’s rhetoric about crime to the White House, and then under Presidents Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush the Crusader, the federal government promulgated ever harsher, more expansive, and more expensive versions of Johnson’s runaway bill. They declared and redeclared wars on drugs. They extended sentences, curtailed parole, facilitated capital punishment, hobbled judges and defense attorneys, and dispensed billions of dollars for prison construction. This was the story in Washington, but even harsher measures developed in the states—think New York’s Rockefeller drug laws or California’s three-strikes initiative—with the result that a prison nation grew up from the wreckage of the Great Society.

Even as the social safety net frayed—and then unraveled from the Reagan administration forward—America invested generously in criminal justice, especially prisons. Between 1970 and 2000, the U.S. inmate population increased sixfold. By 2008 the total surpassed 2.3 million, more than the populations of Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco combined. The United States, a republic founded on the notion of liberty, became the most incarcerated nation on earth.

But why?

Social scientists have put forward a grab bag of answers. Some depict the transformation as a reasoned response to violence, others as a panicked reaction to cable news crime coverage. Some blame postwar economic restructuring, others the populist peculiarities of American democracy. Three recent books assert comprehensive explanations—one zeroing in on the cultural causes of criminal justice severity, one surveying the political geography of the prison boom, and one assessing the country’s changing terrain of law and governance. All three greatly enrich the conversation, but none are likely to settle the argument.

***

Sasha Abramsky’s American Furies (2007) is less a causal account of what he labels “the Age of Mass Imprisonment” than a cri de coeur against it. He laments that the guiding principles of U.S. social policy—with respect to criminal justice but also education, welfare, and taxes—have shifted from equal opportunity to stratification, from social integration to retribution, and he presents a wide-ranging examination of the consequences. A peripatetic journalist and author of two previous books on crime and punishment, Abramsky takes readers on a tour of America’s carceral landscape, from law-enforcement trade shows to corrupt private prisons to sweltering outdoor jails, and he shakes his head in dismay wherever he goes.

Abramsky finds particularly disturbing the decline of prisoner treatment programs and the ascendance of their antitheses, supermaximum-security control units, which have proliferated even more rapidly than conventional cellblocks. Designed to curtail prison disorder by stripping refractory prisoners of even vestigial human agency, these special housing units now contain tens of thousands of inmates, many of them severely mentally ill, in a state of almost perfect isolation. In the harshest facilities—places like California’s Pelican Bay or Texas’s Estelle High Security—prisoners are locked into spare concrete boxes for twenty-three hours a day; they take their meals through slots and experience human touch only to be shackled. Abramsky calls these places “storehouses of the living dead.”

Lawmakers and their constituents like to imagine that only the worst of the worst are subject to hardline, high-tech justice, but a substantial majority of prison and jail inmates in the United States, more than 1.3 million, have been convicted of non-violent offenses. According to a 2003 Human Rights Watch study coauthored by Abramsky, between 200,000 and 300,000 prisoners are mentally ill, with many more in jails. Even greater numbers have been snared by the War on Drugs. In 1967 the Katzenbach commission urged more money for drug treatment and even hinted at decriminalization of marijuana. But unyielding criminalization became the rule, such that drug offenses now account for roughly two million annual arrests, some 40 percent of them for pot possession. For those charged with dealing narcotics, especially crack cocaine, Abramsky reports that mandatory prison terms now routinely exceed those meted out to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.

Juveniles, too, are going to prison in record numbers. By 2003 more than one hundred thousand children under the age of eighteen were incarcerated in the United States. Most are held in juvenile facilities or reform schools, inventions of the Progressive Era, but in recent years, prosecutors and judges have diverted thousands of them to adult prisons. As Abramsky reports, Florida led the charge, attracting national attention for sentencing a twelve year-old to life without parole (later overturned) and for routinely charging school-age delinquents, from pot smokers to shoplifters, with adult felonies.

The new approach that emerged from the 1960s signaled not just a declining tolerance for risk and disorder in an increasingly atomized society, but also a sea change in public policy presumptions. No longer would criminal-justice institutions strive, however incapably, to reclaim and reintegrate lawbreakers. Instead, tough justice in the post-civil rights era would seek to segregate offenders from free society, subject them to extended controls, and, ultimately, relegate them to a permanently subordinate class of citizenship as defined by conviction status. This time, as before, race would figure prominently. “The harsh attitudes towards kids right now in the United States is a harsh attitude to black and Latino kids,” a juvenile justice expert tells Abramsky. “Those other kids.”

Mandatory prison terms now routinely exceed those meted out to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.

Abramsky puts the blame everywhere and nowhere. He assails conservative academics like James Q. Wilson, who distorted the admittedly mixed performance of prison treatment initiatives to imply that “nothing works” in the field of criminal rehabilitation. He censures the victims’ rights movement for channeling personal anguish into calls for public vengeance, and he condemns “Bible Belt fundamentalists” who preach “eternal damnation.” He dismisses law-and-order reactionaries as “media whores” and lambastes “rant radio” for feeding Americans “a diet of vitriol that would put some paranoid schizophrenics to shame.” Finally, he resorts to metaphor, invoking Hobbes, Hitler, and, for his title, Greek mythology. Having slept through the age of rehabilitation, Abramsky submits, an American incarnation of the blood-thirsty Erinyes, or Furies, “shook themselves out of their slumbers” in the 1970s and now hover over a land “consumed by its desire for revenge.” They have built Tartarus on earth.

***

This rendition of the punitive turn as mass hysteria is precisely the view that Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a professor at the University of Southern California, aims to counter in her book Golden Gulag (2007). A political geographer with a Marxist compass, she argues that super-sized imprisonment is more rational than emotional, more structural than cultural. It represents not just a rightward jag in political discourse, she holds, but a fundamental transformation of the country’s political economy.

Gilmore grounds her study on a single, exceptionally large and dynamic state: California. The choice both complicates and strengthens her claims. It creates difficulties because California, thanks largely to its powerful guard union, has resisted prison privatization and because neither the state nor private contractors make much use of convict labor. This limits opportunities for profit, Gilmore acknowledges, thereby undermining simplistic descriptions of a “prison industrial complex” or a “new slavery.”

On the other hand, California has experienced phenomenally expensive prison growth over the past three decades. Since Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation to fix sentencing and eliminate parole in 1977, the state’s prisoner population has shot up 790 percent. Since George Deukmejian took the helm in 1983, California has built twenty-four major new prisons, making its “golden gulag” the biggest state penal system in the United States. Once famous for its public universities, California’s largest state agency is now its department of corrections, with an annual budget of $10 billion.

Most analysts, including Abramsky, who wrote an engaging 2002 book on California’s crime panic, Hard Time Blues, attribute the state’s prison boom to political factors from the Reagan revolt to the three-strikes campaign. Gilmore, on the other hand, points to three types of “surpluses” that made it possible: land, labor, and capital. Rural land once used to grow crops for agribusiness now cultivates prisons, she finds, while chronic unemployment in urban areas helps produce the bodies to fill them. Prison construction, at $280 to $350 million a pop, has also put big money to work, not only in the traditional pork-contractor circuit, but by providing investors low-risk, tax-exempt government bonds. As the military-Keynesian order faltered in the 1970s, Gilmore asserts, a “prison fix” steadied the state-capitalist machine. Prison building was not a conspiracy, she says, but it did “put certain state capacities into motion, make use of a lot of idle land, get capital invested via public debt, and take more than 160,000 low-wage workers off the streets.”

Such reasoning may smack of economic determinism, but Gilmore’s book contains a welter of nuanced, well-researched insights. By following the money, she reveals who gains (Central Valley largeholders and municipal bond brokerages, among them) and who loses (impoverished residents in both rural and urban communities) in California’s prison construction frenzy. Because so much trickery was involved in the credit-market financing, she speculates that California’s crackdown may have been less populist than its ballot initiatives suggest; in short, voters never saw the bill.

Through careful case studies of two prison zones—Los Angeles, a convict exporter, and Corcoran, an inmate importer—Gilmore also shows how large-scale imprisonment constitutes a form of forced urban-to-rural migration; how tax dollars are unfairly diverted from blighted urban cores to withering farm towns; and how prison host communities, despite the transfer, rarely receive their promised economic windfall. As a rural development scheme, Gilmore counsels, imprisonment rarely delivers. The best paid employees commute rather than relocate, and family members who trek to visit their incarcerated loved ones rarely drop enough cash to stimulate the service sector.

Overall, Gilmore’s somewhat demanding text convincingly identifies powerful interests that lined up to haul California’s tough-on-crime bandwagon. What Golden Gulag fails to explain is why the band started playing in the first place.

***

Here Jonathan Simon, a Berkeley law professor, steps into the conversation, turning it from base to superstructure. His ambitious and carefully reasoned new book, Governing through Crime (2007), the most thought-provoking of the crop, argues that what sociologists are calling “mass imprisonment” (because such a large portion of the population is now involved) signals not only a new approach to managing crime, but to managing society.

In the criminal justice arena, Simon shows how prosecutors have gained power as courts have become “judgment machines,” constrained by mandatory sentencing, and how prisons, absent the promise of rehabilitation, have proliferated as “human toxic waste dumps.” The most innovative sections of his book, however, outline how an increasingly insular, risk averse, and punitive social ethic has reshaped not only how the other half lives but how the top half does as well.

In deunionized workplaces, he finds that blue and white-collar employees alike are subject to more surveillance, more restrictions on behavior (both on and off the clock), and more legalistic discipline than in the past. He regrets that in schools music and art classes have given way to metal detectors and locker searches. Even the family, he argues, has become “a nexus of crime.” On one hand, family members are regarded as potential criminals, a partial consequence of feminist campaigns against domestic violence. On the other, well-heeled parents spend heavily to fortify their homes against external threats, purchasing intruder-alert systems, nanny cams, and, if their teens stray, home drug testing kits. As much as the 5,000 prisons that now punctuate the American landscape, gated communities and battleship SUVs symbolize the birth of a fearful nation.

Americans’ collective reactions to violent crime—especially homicide, which rocketed upward in the 1960s, leveled off in the 1980s, and fell back toward earth in the 1990s—are so pervasive, Simon contends, that crime fighting has become a paradigmatic means of governing, a dominant pathway to authority and legitimacy for policymakers. Governors and presidents, even more so after 9/11, have increasingly posed as lawmen on the campaign trail, while crime victims have become an idealized class of citizens deemed especially worthy of government intervention.

The result is not only a bloated penal system but an erosion of civil society. As war (whether against crime or terror) becomes a leading metaphor for governing, as politicians swap civil liberties for the elusive promise of security, as sanctions replace supports in the nation’s social welfare toolkit, and as fear eclipses hope as an impetus to political action, the edifice of a free society quakes, Simon argues. “Governing through crime does not, and I believe, cannot make us more secure,” he writes. Instead, it cycles hundreds of thousands of troubled young people, “a shocking percentage of them descendants of . . . slaves,” through criminogenic jails. It “is making America less democratic and more racially polarized.”

Simon maintains that “the signal event marking the end of the Great Society era” and the rise of its punitive successor was the 1968 passage of the Safe Streets Act. “Crime was driving a stake through the heart of the Democrats’ urban coalition,” and the government’s response was to refabricate the welfare state into the penal state.

There were other options. Simon muses counterfactually that political leaders could have redoubled the war on poverty or launched determined campaigns against cancer or pollution. Any of these would have been preferable arenas for government mobilization, Simon says, and he is somewhat puzzled that policymakers did not see it that way. So he maps out obstacles along the roads not taken—corporate opposition to environmentalism and constitutional impediments to a European-style social welfare state, for instance—thus suggesting that crime prevailed at least partly by default, because it “offered the least political or legal resistance to government action.” But this depiction of the Great American Crime Crackdown as mere expedience minimizes its structural supports (Gilmore’s point), as well as its political utility, especially to the New Right (witness the Willie Horton ads of 1988 or this season’s insinuations that “Barack Hussein Obama” will be soft on terrorists).

As the perennial role of fear in racially charged political campaigns suggests, Simon might have expanded on an alternative explanation that he entertains but never fully endorses: that governing through crime developed largely as a reaction against civil rights. This is the argument described by Glenn Loury in a recent Boston Review essay, and there is considerable evidence for it. As Simon points out, it was states’-rights conservatives, inspired by George Wallace, who first seized on crime as a polarizing issue in national politics; the Republican Right thereafter picked up the baton and used it as a cudgel against liberalism for almost half a century. It was in the South, moreover, in the same jurisdictions that avidly resisted integration, where prison populations first started to grow (in the late 1960s vs. the mid-1970s nationally) and where they swelled most intensely; California may manage the largest state penal system in the country in absolute terms, but states like Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas have by far the highest rates of incarceration. Southern states, too, have taken the lead in resurrecting dour penalties that allude nostalgically to Jim Crow: chain gangs, striped uniforms, for-profit prisons, and reactivated death houses.

Simon’s categorization of history into distinct policymaking regimes also lends credence to this backlash hypothesis, though it requires an alternate interpretive lens. In Simon’s schema, political leadership has periodically coalesced to support favored groups of citizens that come to stand for the nation: yeoman farmers in the early republic, freedmen after emancipation, industrial workers in the Great Depression, and finally, victims of crime. The trouble with this genealogy of government assistance, however, is that it underemphasizes a grim counter-story. In truth, the helping hand of government has always been accompanied by a closed fist—with the latter all too often out front. In the Antebellum Era, slaveholders in fact commanded greater political influence than yeoman farmers, whatever the promises of Jacksonian Democracy. After the Civil War, it was the Klansman who ultimately prevailed over the agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau—and the robber baron who ended up on top. Out of the New Deal and World War II came not just stronger labor unions but McCarthyism and Taft-Hartley.

One of the reasons this alternative history of American repression is worth remembering is that it more logically leads to our punitive present. In a Whiggish storyline built around reform, America’s late twentieth-century prison boom materializes as a shocking, self-defeating aberration. If we redirect our spotlight from the history of social welfare to the equally pronounced, if less commemorated, history of social subjugation, however, mass imprisonment suddenly appears less inexplicable. Rather, it unfolds as the latest chapter in a centuries-long struggle between the ideal of equal citizenship and the reality of unequal power. It represents a reaction against democratic efflorescence akin to so many other reactions in U.S. history, from the Alien and Sedition Acts forward.

In particular, the late twentieth-century punitive turn bears troubling resemblance to another rightward pivot in American history, one that took place almost exactly a century before: the resurrection of neo-Confederate rule from the ashes of Reconstruction. Just as convict leasing, lynching, and finally segregation developed in the turbulent wake of emancipation and the first African-American freedom movement, mass imprisonment took hold in reaction to the second. Put simply, as white conservatives surrendered on integration, they insisted on getting much tougher on crime, to which they symbolically chained a host of developments they found troubling, from civil disobedience to urban rebellions.

The consequence was unprecedented prison growth, but of a particular sort. In 1960 the U.S. prison population was 60 percent white. By 2005 it was 70 percent non-white. By most measures of racial disparity, American criminal justice is more separate and unequal today than it was when Martin Luther King proclaimed from the Lincoln Memorial: “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

This contextualization of the prison boom within the tragically conflicted saga of American race relations matters not so much because it offers a singular, definitive account of causation, but because it helps point the way forward. If racially skewed prison warehousing represents the latest incarnation of American racism, then political mobilization and social transformation on the scale of the civil rights movement may be necessary to dislodge it.

***

At the close of the Bush era, there are scattered signs that America’s prison paroxysm may have run its course. Although the country’s inmate population continues to rise (climbing 16 percent between 2000 and 2006, not counting the advent of U.S. detention abroad, from Guantánamo to Bagram), budget crises are forcing an array of politicians to reckon with what their tough-on-crime posturing has created. In New York the state assembly has been revising the Rockefeller drug laws to make them more forgiving. In Kansas, parole officers are no longer automatically reincarcerating their charges for low-level violations like failing a urine test. In Iowa lawmakers are requiring that all new sentencing laws be assessed for potentially negative racial impacts, and in Nevada politicians have started rolling back mandatory minimums. Across the country and on both sides of the aisle, increasing numbers of policymakers are starting to agree with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who told the American Bar Association in 2003 that “our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.”

Navigating these uncertain waters, Abramsky, Gilmore, and Simon all conclude with guarded hope. Although California’s penal system has become one of the nation’s most crowded and dysfunctional in recent years, Abramsky cautiously praises Governor Schwarzenegger for revisiting the concept of prison-based rehabilitation. (Not long after American Furies went to press, the governor proposed sending 22,000 inmates home early to save money.) For his part, Simon hopes that aging baby boomers and the Katrina debacle will force a redirection of government attention from crime control to health care and infrastructure, a shift he believes will reinforce rather than erode social solidarity and public trust. Gilmore closes with a glowing case study of the grassroots political action group Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, an organization with almost no resources that has formulated a far-reaching anti-racist agenda that Gilmore proffers as a template for anti-prison activists everywhere. At the same time, nonprofits like the Sentencing Project and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation have produced a blizzard of white papers proposing how carefully calibrated treatment programs, a return to judicial discretion, alternatives to incarceration, and robust reentry programs can enhance public safety while cutting costs. Bruce Western discusses some of these proposals in this issue.

Katzenbach said, "I'm old and maybe I can't learn new ideas, but I think our criminal justice system has to be rational and fair."

One of the most ambitious of these non-governmental efforts, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in American Prisons, was headed by none other than Nicholas Katzenbach, now in his eighties. Forty years had passed since he first surveyed American criminal justice on behalf of the country’s last liberal administration, when in 2005 he was asked by the Vera Institute, a mid-size think tank, to undertake a limited follow-up. What Katzenbach found appalled him. Over the decades, state and federal policymakers had indeed acted on most of his original recommendations but had invariably done the opposite. The outcome, he and his small staff concluded after a round of national hearings, was that the hard end of the criminal justice system had grown larger, meaner, and, in their view, more socially corrosive. Prison turbulence had declined since the late ’60s, but rape, crowding, infectious disease, and acute mental illness remained endemic—and on a monumental scale. Each year, some 13.5 million people cycle through the country’s adult jails and prisons, they observed. They go in “poor, undereducated, and unhealthy,” and they come out worse.

With a constricted mandate to study only prison conditions, Katzenbach’s second survey coupled strong criticisms—“We should be astonished by the size of the prisoner population, troubled by the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos, and saddened by the waste of human potential”—with sensibly modest policy recommendations: more funding for corrections staff, better health care, independent oversight, and less reliance on supermax isolation.

Yet critics of America’s criminal justice system—which now devours $204 billion a year and circumscribes 7.2 million lives, counting offenders on probation and parole—would do well to spend more time with Katzenbach’s original report than its cautious sequel. In the first study, this early advocate for civil rights within the Justice Department, who once famously faced down George Wallace at the schoolhouse door, called not only for more professional, more treatment-oriented prisons, but fewer of them. Imprisonment should be a sanction of last rather than first resort, he proposed. At the same time, he and his first commissioners advocated a more expansive understanding of crime: “The criminal justice system has great potential for dealing with individual instances of crime, but it was not designed to eliminate the conditions in which most crime breeds.” “It needs help,” they argued, in the form of better schools, better housing, better jobs, and genuinely equal citizenship.

In a phone interview, Katzenbach, whose memoir Some of It Was Fun: Working with RFK and LBJ will be published this fall, says that he still believes this Great Society approach is the best one. “I’m old and maybe I can’t learn new ideas, but I think our criminal justice system has to be rational and fair,” he told me. “Harsh punishment is satisfying, but our system has to do more than that. It ought to reflect the type of society we want to be. It ought to stand for decency.”

In 1967 Katzenbach titled his report “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society,” and he still contends in his forthcoming autobiography that “every law has to satisfy both sides of the equation”—it needs to confront lawlessness but also safeguard civil liberties and social justice. To do so, as Katzenbach proposed more than a generation ago, will require more than technocratic remedies confined to the criminal justice arena. We will need to embark upon “a revolution in the way America thinks about crime.”



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About the Author

Robert Perkinson is writing a book on the history of Texas prisons. He is Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

Other essays in this Special Issue:

Bruce Western, Reentry
Mary F. Katzenstein and Mary L. Shanley, No Further Harm