Title: CAUGHT: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics

United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg

United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Author: Marie Gottschalk

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Review by Bob Lane

The United States is a world leader in many areas. Particularly as a carceral state. US “exceptionalism” is certainly true in the numbers of persons incarcerated. Russia is a distant second. Not only does it lock up so many people but it is also exceptional for its “brutal, dehumanizing practices and conditions” throughout its many jails and prisons. Although the public is mostly unaware of the situation of the carceral state, criminologists and even philosophers are beginning to notice:

How did the United States go from a country that incarcerated roughly 500,000 citizens in 1980 to one that incarcerates roughly 2.3 million today? Civil unrest and rising crime were used to focus public debate on ideals of law and order. Those ideals were then employed to justify a criminal-justice system that, given social conditions, runs counter to race-neutral, fair ideals of law and order. But absent an account of how the misapplication of these ideals was overlooked, the story is only partial.

What allowed “the misapplication of these ideals” to be overlooked, argues Jason Stanley (Yale), is “dehumanizing propaganda.” Stanley makes the case in “The War on Thugs” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

CAUGHT is an impressive accomplishment. A central theme is “how the deep penetration of neoliberalism into nearly all aspects of U.S. public policy and politics is fostering economic and political inequalities and eroding democratic institutions.” [“Neoliberalism” is a term used often. Gottschalk defines it thus, “Neoliberalism is an ideology and package of policies that deify low taxes, macroeconomic stabilization … financial and trade deregulation, privatization of public assets and services, and the retrenchment of the welfare state.] A large and densely written book (almost 300 pages and nearly another 300 pages of notes and index) its story begins with a description of the country’s extraordinary incarceration rate, proceeds to analyze how this came about by looking at the history and causes of crime, and offers some suggestions for a much needed reform. It is a scholarly work full of notes, bibliography, index and useful charts. A “well done” for the inclusion of a table of abbreviations to help one through the thicket of abbreviations and acronyms.

In the twelve chapters comprising the book we learn how the carceral state has grown over the last 75 years in the United States and how it is that “the prison industry” has become such a big player in the politics and culture of the country. We learn, in short, that crime pays; there is an immense profit from mass imprisonment for the private companies involved in the building and maintenance of the prisons. One growth area is in immigrant detention facilities which “have been a booming business for private, for-profit prison companies.” We learn some interesting and shocking numbers from the incarceration rate of 2009: (p. 209)

  • 2,300/100,000 for non-Hispanic blacks
  • 1,000/100,000 for Hispanics
  • 400/100,000 for non-Hispanic whites

We are invited to think about the purpose of incarceration. To protect the public? Yes, but clearly not all of the millions incarcerated are a danger to the public. To rehabilitate prisoners so that they can become tax-paying productive citizens? Not very successful. In fact studies show that “no skills-based, education-based, or attitude-based employment programs have succeeded in lifting a large portion of poor people out of poverty.” (p. 89) Evidence shows that instead of changing something about workers (skill, education, and attitude) we need to focus on the labor market to make more high quality jobs available. To “get tough on crime” as a way of deterring future crime? Well “recent state-of-the-art research in criminology has largely substantiated Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria’s claim from the 18th century that the certainly of punishment is a far greater deterrent to crime than the severity of the punishment.” (p. 176)

Language usage is one of the subjects to consider. The United States and several of its states are enamored, not of facts, but of catchy and truculent phrases like “War on crime”, “War on Drugs”, “War on Illegals”, and “War on Sex Crimes” and so on. War seems to be in the US DNA. And, of course, wars are costly and often poor policy. Perhaps the main evidence based policy recommendation is that what is needed is a war on emotional response policy that gives citizens the false belief that something worthwhile is being done by the policy makers. Evidence points directly to the fact that “The crime crisis is directly related to deeper structural problems in ways that the crisis of the carceral state is not.” (p. 260)

Why should we care? Because “. . . the carceral state is not only upending individual lives and certain communities but is also upending key democratic and governing institutions in the US.” (p. 257)

  • Civil death – in 2010 almost 65 million people in the USA have a criminal record leading to bans on voting, employment, and serving on juries.
  • Surveillance – post-prison controls.
  • Employment discrimination.
  • Disenfranchisement – in 2010 some 2.5% of the voting-age population were ineligible to vote.

CAUGHT is a wake-up call for evidence based action to reform a system and a public attitude that has led to the United States holding a world record for incarcerating more of its people than any other country.

Recent action in the USA.

5 thoughts on “Review

  1. Important book! I had to look up “carceral” – it was not a word I use.
    More fodder here.
    For example:

    The problem may be worst at the low end of the spectrum, in misdemeanor courts where almost everybody pleads guilty. For example, in July 2014 Wassillie Gregory was charged with “harassment” of a police officer in Bethel, Alaska. The officer wrote in his report that Gregory was “clearly intoxicated” and that “I kindly tried to assist Gregory into my cruiser for protective custody when he pulled away and clawed at me with his hand.”

    The next step in the case would normally be the last: Gregory pleaded guilty, without the benefit of a defense lawyer. But Gregory was exonerated a year later after a surveillance video surfaced showing the officer handcuffing him and then repeatedly slamming him onto the pavement.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “What does it say about [the U.S.] society that it uses its jails and prisons as the primary detention facilities for poor and black and brown people who have been racially targeted and jail them with the mentally ill and chemically dependent?” This quote was written by Bill Quigley, Associate Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.

    Liked by 1 person

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