A more complicated framework may yield more decarceration options
A More Complicated Framework May Yield More Decarceration Options
By: Lacino Hamilton
Many incarcerated people find the sudden message of mass incarceration being a really bad idea, the right message, but the dominate narrative superficial. And therefore distracts from the most immediate challenges of not only decarceration, but ultimately the abolition of prisons.
Let's be clear, for the most part, the current national conversation surrounding how to reform mass incarceration policies is about economics, not people. All this talk about America's rate of incarceration doubling from the mid 1970s into the mid 1980s, then doubling again from the mid
1980s into the mid 1990s, and then continuing to rise until the United
States out incarcerated every other country, is about $80 billion: The annual cost to keep 2.4 million men, women and children behind bars. Its not about the damage incarceration causes to individuals, families, and communities: marginalization, despair, cycles of instability.
From the very beginning mass incarceration had its opponents. Activist and groups and organizations that wrote, spoke, organized, lobbied, protested, even some spending time in jail themselves, to warn the American public about the perils of the prison system acquiring a greater presence in U.S. society. Why are politicians and the dominant media awakening to this crisis only now? Falling over one another to condemn mass incarceration all of a sudden? It appears quite disingenuous.
Absent from this awakening, and condemnation, is any acknowledgment or reference to the process through which mass incarceration developed into the primary mode of state-inflicted punishment. There are, in the words of legendary prison abolitionist Angela Davis, aspects of our history that we need to interrogate and rethink, the recognition of which may help us to adopt more complicated, critical postures toward the present and the future.
Mass incarceration is not an unfortunate aberration of the 1970s, 80s, and
90s. After the abolition of slavery , former slave states passed new legislation revising Slave Codes in order to regulate the behavior of free blacks in ways similar to those that had existed during slavery. The new
Black Codes proscribed a range of actions that were criminalized only when the person charged was black. Thus, former slaves, who had recently been extricated from a condition of hard labor for life, could be legally sentences to penal servitude.
During the post-slavery era, as Black people were integrated into the southern penal systems, prisons largely became a means of controlling black labor e.g., the convict lease system, chain gangs, and work farms. After emancipation the courtroom became an ideal place to exact racial retribution. In this sense, the work of the criminal justice system, which focused more on blacks than whites, was intimately related to the extralegal work of lynching.
Two phenomenons temporarily slowed the growth of the U.S. penal system between the years of 1910-1969: industrialism and large scale wars. As the country transitioned from a predominately rural and agrarian to an urban industrial society, assembly lines replaced the hoe and pick, and an accompanying wage based system forced out still cheap and often free labor of prisoners. Work was plentiful and people were needed to produce American products. Labor could not be locked down or locked out of the production process.
Likewise, large scale wars such as WWI and WWII, Korea and Vietnam, required a different form of labor that could not be locked down or out of the U.S. corporate structure i.e., bodies that bleed on the battlefield not sit idle on prison yards. Ironically, between the years of 1970-2000, the same two phenomenons significantly influenced mass incarceration. The change is drug laws was just one of many justifications.
As technology and automation took over the battlefields and factories, fewer people were required in military and factory uniforms, creating a surplus of labor which the prisons absorbed. That is, as weapons fired more rapidly, could travel greater distances, and became more destructive, the U.S. military could function just as effective, if not better, with reduced numbers. In industry after industry tremendous technological revolution in transportation and communication, and major political and economic development throughout the world, companies began to replace human labor with machinery. In the process an era of lean production was brought in.
Tens of thousands of blue-collar workers were added to unemployment rolls and prison count sheets.
This more nuanced understanding of the economic and social roles of the U.S. prison system in part explains why numerous studies have demonstrated that the U.S. mass incarceration era did not follow from "crime" in the neat and logical sequences offered by the discourses that insist on the justice of imprisonment, but rather incarceration is linked to the agendas of politicians, the profit drive of corporations, and media representations of crime.
It is against the backdrop of this more broad understanding of the rise of mass incarceration that we should pursue its dismantling. Thus, aside from minimizing, through various strategies, the kinds of behaviors that will bring people into contact with the police and justice systems, there is the questions of what to do about white supremacy, profit driven criminal justice policies, and how to foster insights and understandings which might relieve the need to act out frustrations in personal and self-destructive ways?
If we shift our attention from mass incarceration as a mistake of misguided policy, to the set of relationships that comprise what is commonly referred to as the prison industrial complex, it may be easier to think of ways to decarcerate, and ultimately abolish prisons. In other words, a more complicated framework may yield more options than if we simply accept the dominant narrative.
If you are working on an APWA-related project, please let us know how you plan to utilize the Archive. We hope to share information about your work with our readers and, whenever possible, with relevant APWA authors.
APWA is an open access archive. We encourage use of the writings for research, course planning, and projects engaged in examination of the criminal legal system. Reproduction of essays in their entirety infringes on author copyright without their explicit consent from the writers. Please contact us if you plan to reproduce entire essays; we will do our best to put you in contact with the authors for consent, and their compensation for any project that is profit making.