Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon recently posted about Adam Gopnik’s essay in the New Yorker about mass incarceration. Both writers commented on Robert Perkinson’s sweeping history of Texas prisons, Texas Tough. Perkinson was one of the first readers of the manuscript of The Trials of Eroy Brown. Simon is author of Governing through Crime, a study of how the criminal justice system has become a way of managing the poor.
Here is Simon:
Drawing on excellent recent books on American punitiveness, including William Stuntz,The Collapse of American Criminal Justice; Robert Perkinsons, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, and Michelle Alexanders, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Gopnik suggests American proclivity for incarceration comes from different strains in our culture. One associated with the North, is a confidence in procedures to justice (as well as an optimism about machines to make things better, the penitentiary was a machine). Another associated with the South, is a commitment to forceful racial controls through degrading means (exemplified by Texas’ tradition of plantation prisons described by Perkinson and in Michael Berryhill’s just published, The Trials of Eroy Brown). Gopnik also mentions the rise of private prisons which also puts the profit motive behind building up and maintaining mass incarceration.
Let me give you one detail from Gopnik that those of us who have been studying mass incarceration know, but which ought to be shocking to the average American who believes that freedom is the governing norm for the United States:
Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.