“Why Mass Incarceration Matters” by Heather Ann Thompson

Historian Heather Ann Thompson has a new paper out, Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History.  She notes that “historians have largely ignored the mass incarceration of the late twentieth century and have not yet begun to sort out its impact on the social, economic, and political evolution of the postwar period” and encourages them to take on this important part of our history.  She traces how incarceration is important for understanding many of the big projects of recent United States historical scholarship, from the “urban crisis,” to the decline of the labor, as well as the rise of conservatism and the Right.

For those who enjoy reading about this topic, the bibliography included throughout all the footnotes are alone worth the time. After noting that “one can learn a great deal about a historical moment by more closely examining the politics of crime and punishment” she points out that this is “not news to historians of the nineteenth century, many of whom came to understand the post–Civil War South far better after fleshing out its criminal justice system [2].” Thompson then mentions that it “is not that historians of the twentieth-century United States have overlooked the nation’s criminal justice system entirely [4].” And then we get this list of readings:

[2] Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South (New York, 1984); Mary Ellen Curtin, Black Prisoners and Their World, Alabama, 1865–1900 (Charlottesville, 2000); Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (New York, 1996); David M. Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York, 1997); Karin Shapiro, A New South Rebellion: The Battle against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871–1896 (Chapel Hill, 1998); Talitha L. LeFlouria, “Convict Women and Their Quest for Humanity: Examining Patterns of Race, Class, and Gender in Georgia’s Convict Lease and Chain Gang Systems, 1865–1917” (Ph.D. diss., Howard University, 2009)

[4] On the shifting ideas regarding crime and criminality in the North between 1900 and 1945, see Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, Mass., 2010); Jeffery Adler, First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875–1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 2006); Kali Gross, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880–1910 (Durham, 2006); Cheryl Hicks, Talk with You like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New
York, 1890–1935 (Chapel Hill, 2010); Rebecca M. McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776–1941 (New York, 2008); and Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History (New York, 1993). On carceral institutions after 1945, see Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill, 2010); Robert Chase, “Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Race, Reform, and Violence in Texas Prisons and the Nation, 1945–1990” (Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 2009); Norwood Henry Andrews III, “Sunbelt Justice: Politics, the Professions, and the History of Sentencing and Corrections in Texas since 1968” (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, Austin, 2007); Volker Janssen, “Convict Labor, Civic Welfare: Rehabilitation in California’s Prisons, 1941–1971” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, San Diego, 2005); Volker Janssen, “When the ‘Jungle’ Met the Forest: Public Work, Civil Defense, and Prison Camps in Postwar California,” Journal of American History, 96 (Dec. 2009), 702–26; Heather McCarty, “From Con-Boss to Gang Lord: The Transformation of Social Relations in California Prisons, 1943–1983” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2004); Staughton Lynd, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (Philadelphia, 2004); and Robert Perkinson, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (New York, 2010). For works by nonhistorians, see, for example, Mona Lynch, Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment (Stanford, 2009); Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley, 2007); Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (New York, 2000); Marie Gottshaulk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America (New York, 2006); Jonathan Simon, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (New York, 2009); Glenn C. Loury, ed., Race, Incarceration, and American Values (Cambridge, Mass., 2008); Mary Louise Frampton, Ian Haney López, and Jonathan Simon, eds., After the War on Crime: Race, Democracy, and a New Reconstruction (New York, 2008); David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (Chicago, 2002); Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America (New York, 2007); Todd Clear, Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes
Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse (New York, 2009); Loïc Wacquant, Prisons of Poverty (Minneapolis, 2009); and Vesla Weaver, “Frontlash: Race and the Development of Punitive Crime Policy,” Studies in American Political Development, 21 (Fall 2007), 230–65.

So much great stuff to read!  Where to find the time!?  And that’s just the start of the footnotes….

One other interesting thing – did the Great Society liberals start the ramp-up in police power? From the paper:

There is little question that “law and order” became the platform on which many conservative politicians sought elected office from the mid-1960s onward, but postwar liberals were some of the first to flesh out that platform and give it substance on the ground.

The Democratic party of the 1960s had its own clearly articulated anxieties about social disorder and its own discomfort with African Americans’ new determination to achieve meaningful social and economic equality by any means necessary—concerns that hardening laws and strengthening law enforcement directly addressed. By 1968 twenty-one states had received sophisticated new equipment to quiet civil disturbances, as well as new funding to train more police officers in riot control and more “correctional officers in prison, probation, and probation work” because the Johnson administration itself believed that the country needed more law and order. Indeed, thanks to the Democratic Party’s creation of the leaa the federal government was able to spend approximately $7.5 billion to beef up the nation’s law-and-order apparatus in little more than a decade. Ultimately, postwar liberals had been high-ranking generals in the nation’s new war on crime, not its unhappy conscripts.

In ways deeply ironic, however, the very law-and-order era that the Democratic party of the 1960s had actively, and even proactively, ushered in when it had created entities such as the leaa, would be the party’s undoing. Democratic politicians had failed to predict the extent to which fueling fears of crime would eventually undermine the politics of postwar liberalism in ways structural. In short, mass incarceration, the ultimate and most devastating legacy of the nation’s new war on crime, eventually weakened the liberal (and particularly the black liberal) vote in America, while simultaneously strengthening the conservative (and particularly white conservative) vote, to an extent that historians have yet to appreciate.

Edward Kennedy “was one of the strongest advocates of mandatory sentencing” in the mid-1960s.  Huh.

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4 Responses to “Why Mass Incarceration Matters” by Heather Ann Thompson

  1. Corey says:

    One could imagine that liberals thought mandatory sentencing would even the sentencing playing field, particularly with respect to unaccountable good-old-boy judges in the South. The problem isn’t the mandatory sentences, it’s the drug war.

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  3. Nathanael says:

    Uh, but in the early 1960s, the Democratic Party was still the party of racist Dixiecrats…. so they probably didn’t see suppressing the black vote as a problem.

    There’s a lot of weird contingent history going on here. Really, it all goes back to the Confederates being intent on refighting the Civil War by any means necessary, and largely winning during the Reconstruction period. Eventually we’re going to defeat the neo-Confederates for good, but frankly I sometimes wish the Union had simply killed every last Confederate officer and government official as a traitor and left their heads on pikes as a warning to those who would try to follow them; I think we would have had a lot less trouble (no KKK, no Jim Crow, so no police-state reaction against the removal of Jim Crow…)

  4. Pingback: Texas conservatives reject Harper’s crime plan « Talesfromthelou's Blog

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