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Prison History’s Horror and Hope

... In recent years, mass incarceration has moved to the forefront of public discourse in ways even the most committed among us could not have imagined. President Obama’s visit to a federal prison, investment by major companies like Google in criminal-justice reform, the number of calls I get per week from television producers looking for formerly incarcerated people to feature in this or that program — all are evidence of this change. But really such proof isn’t needed; it’s become axiomatic that prison reform and justice work are in vogue. We’re witnessing a profound moment. And this is clearly cause for optimism.

Or is it?

I got to thinking about that question, and about optimism in general, as I delved into two recent books that rained — stormed, really — on my parade.

First, the fastidiously researched, densely informative From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press), by Elizabeth Hinton, an assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Harvard. Starting with the vile, oft-cited statistics that landed us in this moment — the prison population has increased by 943 percent over the past half-century; blacks and Latinos are 25 percent of the population yet 59 percent of the prison population — Hinton’s book is a grand indictment of how our carceral state, the "vast and ever-expanding network of institutions responsible for maintaining social control in post-Jim Crow America," was erected "by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil-rights movement."

Like Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America(Oxford University Press, 2014), Hinton’s book amplifies, even one-ups, Michelle Alexander’s classic The New Jim Crow(New Press, 2010), arguing that the roots of our mass-incarceration mess are deeper and uglier than we think. "This long War on Crime," Hinton writes, "has today positioned law-enforcement agencies, criminal-justice institutions, and jails as the primary public programs in many low-income communities across the United States."

Guiding us through administration after administration, Hinton traces a devastating pattern: racist assumptions about black and brown "social pathologies" — what the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad has called "the criminalization of blackness" — undergirded poor policy decisions that were bolstered by bad data. Instead of addressing mass structural inequalities, government response to urban unrest has generally been simple: intensify militarized policing and build prisons.

It started with President Kennedy’s 1961 Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act, which resulted in an unprecedented level of federal involvement in the "inner city"; this was an outgrowth of already growing postwar anxieties about "juvenile delinquency" as a national issue, reflected in the fact that from 1949 to 1957, the number of young people under criminal-justice supervision more than doubled....

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education